In more recent years, conversations about Woody Allen have transitioned from him being one of the greatest filmmakers of all time to someone who allegedly sexually abused his daughter, with many celebrities and studios no longer wanting to be associated with him.
The upcoming HBO documentary series Allen v. Farrow (premiering on Crave in Canada on Feb. 21) allows Dylan Farrow, the adopted daughter of Allen and Mia Farrow who claimed her father abused her at the age of seven at her mother's Connecticut home, to have a space to tell her story after largely being unheard for years.
For anyone who is less familiar, in 1992 investigations were launched following allegations of sexual assault against Allen. The filmmaker also filed for custody of Dylan and adopted son Moses Farrow, in addition to Allen and Mia Farrow’s son Ronan Farrow, now the accomplished journalist who investigated the Harvey Weinstein sexual misconduct allegations.
Allen was never charged but he was refused custody of his three children after a trial where the judge determined his behaviour with Dylan was “grossly inappropriate.” For years, Allen has maintained that the sexual assault allegations are false and that Mia Farrow was behind these claims, working to distance the children from him. He has linked her behaviour to a kind of retaliation for Allen falling in love, and ultimately marrying, Farrow’s adopted daughter with Andre Previn, Soon-Yi Previn.
Former Connecticut state prosecutor Frank Maco, who is featured in the docuseries, explains that he found probable cause to launch a criminal case against Allen but ultimately decided to not move forward due to concerns about re-traumatizing Dylan Farrow.
Directed by Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, who are behind the documentaries The Hunting Ground, about sexual assault on college campuses, and On the Record, which documents the sexual abuse claims against Russell Simmons, Allen v. Farrow begins by chronicling the relationship between Allen and Mia Farrow. It’s a seemingly quintessential love story between two high-profile New Yorkers, surrounded by their famous friends as they live in apartments on opposite ends of Central Park.
This series focuses on the emotional impact these allegations against Allen had on the Dylan, Mia and other members of the Farrow family. If you're looking to get a concrete answer on what happened, it is not that explicit, but the docuseries forces us to face the evidence around what happened at the Connecticut home in 1992.
Dylan Farrow describes Allen’s “intense affection” towards her, explaining uncomfortable moments when she would suck Allen’s thumb and he would put his head in her lap. The documentary also shows a series of videos, which are frankly difficult to watch, that show seven-year-old Dylan explaining where and how her father touched her, and how he allegedly said he would take her to Paris, during that moment.
As the film transitions to Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi Previn, it’s positioned as a kind of cloudy mirror in front of the allegations of child sexual abuse, but the impact that Allen and Previn's relationship had on the Farrow family can't be avoided.
The breakdown of trust between Mia Farrow and Allen is striking. In recordings of phone conversations between the two, Allen comes across particularly cold with Farrow, very matter of fact, sticking to his position as Farrow is clearly yearning to put an end to the chaos.
The series does spend a short time addressing Soon-Yi Previn’s allegations that Mia Farrow physically abused her children, and Moses Farrow claiming the allegations against his father are untrue. The series largely works to debunk their claims, while explaining the particularly close relationship both of them had with Allen as they grew up.
While Allen did not respond to interview requests from the filmmakers, his side of the story is presented through audio of his 2020 memoir "Apropos of Nothing," voicing over eerie scenes of Mia Farrow’s Connecticut home, and old family pictures and video. It’s like Allen is a haunting force over the family, particularly Dylan and Mia Farrow.
Is the documentary one sided? Yes, but seeing Dylan Farrow’s physical reactions, shaking and starting to panic when recalling the alleged assault, makes you feel like Allen's perspective is not something you necessarily want to hear at that moment. One thing is clear, this is Dylan’s turn to have a platform to tell her side of the story, which she was not able to as a child.
Whenever there are any misconduct allegations against celebrities, like Michael Jackson and even more recently claims around the “toxic” misconduct of Joss Whedon, questions are always raised around why and how we should believe alleged victims in these circumstances, particularly when the allegations are against powerful men.
Allen v. Farrow takes the position that Allen was grooming or prepping his audience to normalize relationships between an older man and a younger woman, particularly in films like the 1979's Manhattan, in which Allen's character has a relationship with a 17-year-old girl. It may be a less convincing argument in isolation but the pattern is certainly present in Allen's work.
There is also the case for someone who has been so ingrained in in American culture with films like Annie Hall, which has been so influential for so many women, in particular, that it becomes harder to believe he is a truly bad or dangerous person. Is it the power of their personal PR machine spinning the story? Is it their control over the most influential people in our society? There's an argument to be made that we also do not necessarily want to believe our heroes have flaws, especially particularly grotesque flaws, while we also see celebrities being attacked regularly, due to their public platform.
In Allen's case in particular, watching him receive the Cecil B. DeMille award at the Golden Globes in 2014, actors Diane Keaton and Emma Stone speaking so highly of him that night, with a particular emphasis on the roles he has created for women, makes things more difficult to understand. This is especially true when we then see stars like Timothée Chalamet, Mira Sorvino, Kate Winslet and Greta Gerwig publicly regret ever working with Allen.
In 2017, Dylan Farrow wrote an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times asking why the #MeToo movement spared her father.
"It isn’t just power that allows men accused of sexual abuse to keep their careers and their secrets. It is also our collective choice to see simple situations as complicated and obvious conclusions as a matter of 'who can say'? The system worked for Harvey Weinstein for decades. It works for Woody Allen still," her opinion piece reads.
Near the end of the documentary series, Mia Farrow says she is scared of Allen, a man who largely held the key to her career as an actor, and she is scared about his response to this docuseries. A frightening and heartbreaking reality for her.
Will this continue to be a he said, she said game? We'll just have to wait and see how it unfolds.