How the Woody Allen scandal is ending in a truly startling twist…
Not only is his new movie a hit but his marriage to Soon-Yi, 35 years his junior, has endured 21 years defying all predictions. In a rare interview, the film legend says in typical deadpan style: I got lucky
From the quiet study of his Manhattan home, Woody Allen is absorbing the news that his latest movie, Rainy Day In New York, is this week’s highest-earning movie at the – admittedly much-depleted – global box office. Does it feel like a vindication, I ask, given that some have branded him a ‘pariah’ and that the whimsical comedy has been disowned by its stars, Rebecca Hall and Timothée Chalamet, and original backer Amazon?
‘Sorry, what are you saying?’ says Allen, sounding slightly distressed down the phone line. At 84, he is pretty deaf these days and it takes him a few minutes to get used to an unfamiliar voice, but within a few seconds he gets the drift.
Woody Allen’s latest movie, Rainy Day In New York, is this week’s highest-earning movie at the – admittedly much-depleted – global box office
Allen starring in Play It Again, Sam (1972) with Diane Keaton. Allen made his name by writing characters for himself that were hapless and hilariously neurotic
Woody Allen’s work draws heavily on his hometown New York. His 48 films include Annie Hall, Manhattan and Husbands And Wives
Despite being hailed as one of cinema’s great auteurs, Allen does not think of himself as a genius. He says: ‘I think I am in a lot of ways a fairly regular guy. People have always thought of me as an intellectual, which I am not. I only read comics till the age of 18′
It’s the question that never goes away and that resurfaced with new vengeance in the wake of a TV interview given by his adoptive step-daughter Dylan Farrow, now 34, in which she repeated claims that Allen sexually molested her when she was seven.
In the context of the influential #MeToo movement against sexual abuse, her allegations convinced Amazon to pull out of a £52 million four-movie deal with Allen and publisher Hachette to drop his memoir, Apropos Of Nothing, prompting the film-maker to complain the company was treating his book ‘like nuclear poison’.
He lets out a sigh. ‘I don’t feel vindicated because that is to imply I was concerned and – I don’t wish to seem callous – but I am not. Of course I am aware I am the subject of gossip and scandal, but I cannot let it bother me. I live my life. I work. I play jazz. I watch sports. I see my friends. I don’t look up and I don’t read anything.’
He pauses and then says firmly: ‘It was a false allegation but a great tabloid drama.’
Regardless of what he says, and despite investigations by New York’s Social Services Department and Yale New Haven Hospital which exonerated him of the abuse allegations, the question continues to split opinion in Hollywood.
Actors including Scarlett Johansson, Kate Winslet, Alec Baldwin, Javier Bardem and his former partner Diane Keaton have continued to defend the director. But others, including the feminist Little Women director Greta Gerwig have publicly condemned him.
British actress Hall, like Chalamet, was happy to star in A Rainy Day In New York when it was filmed in 2017. After all, she had long admired Allen who gave her one of her first big film roles, starring in Vicky Cristina Barcelona in 2008. But she said that after the Harvey Weinstein sexual abuse scandal – which Allen’s estranged son Ronan Farrow was instrumental in exposing – and re-reading Dylan Farrow’s statements, she felt ‘conflicted and saddened’.
Allen doesn’t shy away from the controversy – after all, he has lived with it since Dylan first made her allegations in 1992. He sounds more resigned than bitter about this new outburst of recriminations.
‘Timothée told my sister [the film producer Letty Aronson] it was important for him to say what he did at the time because he was nominated for an Academy Award [for best actor in Call Me By Your Name last year] and he needed to steer clear of any association. It was a tactical thing.
‘So what can you do? Even if Dylan was to come out and say she made the whole thing up and was sorry, some people would still believe the story.
‘So I ignore it. I work. I carry on. I surround myself with people I’ve known for a long time, people who know the truth.’
Allen, whose 48 films include Annie Hall, Manhattan and Husbands And Wives – lives in his own bubble. At the centre of which is the woman who first prompted his fall from grace, his Korean-born wife, Soon-Yi.
She was the adopted daughter of Mia Farrow, who had been Allen’s partner for 12 years when their relationship became public. At the time, Soon-Yi was 21 and Allen was 56. It was also at this time that Dylan, then seven, made her abuse allegation.
Despite the controversy that surrounded the start of their relationship, he has now been with Soon-Yi for 25 years and married for 21. They have two adopted daughters, Bechet, 22, and Manzie, 20.
‘Nobody just lets you adopt kids,’ Allen points out. ‘If the authorities think there is a problem, they will not hand a child over. It is a correct process. You are investigated thoroughly each time.’
Despite the renewed controversy, his life goes on.
Allen starring in Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) with Anjelica Huston. Allen, whose 48 films include Annie Hall, Manhattan and Husbands And Wives – lives in his own bubble
Friend and actress Diane Keaton stars with Allen in the 1977 classic romantic comedy Annie Hall
Allen in Play It Again, Sam (1972) with Diane Keaton. ‘You don’t make a movie to win an award. Mozart never composed a symphony thinking about a trophy,’ Allen says
Allen in the 2014 film Fading Gigolo. ‘I have never been part of the club in Hollywood,’ he says. ‘I don’t go to parties. I don’t care about the box office or awards. Winning an Oscar for me has very little meaning beyond the practical’
He writes on a mustard-coloured typewriter, does not have a computer, mobile phone or use social media. His address can be found on Google – something he finds peculiar but not in the slightest disturbing. He continues to play clarinet with a jazz band with regular stints at New York’s Carlyle Hotel, at least before the lockdown, and he goes to baseball and basketball games in the city.
On big rollover lottery weeks, despite being worth an estimated £65 million, he buys a ticket. ‘In decades, I have never won a penny,’ he says.
‘I think I am in a lot of ways a fairly regular guy. People have always thought of me as an intellectual, which I am not. I only read comics till the age of 18.
‘But I have always worn glasses and when casting directors looked at someone like me, then they look at someone like Sylvester Stallone, I get to be put in the college professor roles and so people think I’m an intellectual. That’s the way it is.’
As a comedian, actor and film-maker, Allen was considered an eccentric genius, until the tide of opinion changed. He has won four Oscars, scoring a record 16 nominations as best screenwriter, and ten Baftas – but he always refuses to collect any award in person.
That Hollywood has turned its back on A Rainy Day In New York does not concern him, despite the fact he had to go to court with Amazon over their cancelled deal, and find a new distributor for his films.
‘I have never been part of the club in Hollywood,’ he says. ‘I don’t go to parties. I don’t care about the box office or awards. Winning an Oscar for me has very little meaning beyond the practical.
‘The first film I wrote, What’s New Pussycat?, was incredibly successful but it was a pile of junk and an embarrassment to me.
‘I still don’t feel I’ve made a great movie like Federico Fellini or Ingmar Bergman, nothing like The Seventh Seal or The Bicycle Thief.
‘I won’t stop trying because although I’ve been reasonably successful I have never satisfied myself artistically.
Although recognised for his stunning body of work, Allen does not think he has made a truly great film. ‘I won’t stop trying because although I’ve been reasonably successful I have never satisfied myself artistically’
The plot of A Rainy Day In New York starring Timothée Chalamet and Elle Fanning (above) involves a naive young girl who becomes the object of attraction for three men
‘You don’t make a movie to win an award. Mozart never composed a symphony thinking about a trophy.
‘If I get a chance and the virus abates, maybe before I die there is always the chance I will make a great film. But I haven’t done that yet.’
The plot of A Rainy Day In New York involves a naive young girl who becomes the object of attraction for three men: an ageing movie director, a middle-aged writer (played by Jude Law) and a handsome, young actor. Her actual boyfriend (Chalamet) is left waiting and falls for the sister of a former old flame.
No wonder many think Allen was playing with fire by choosing such a subject at a time of such #MeToo sensitivities.
‘I couldn’t care for a second,’ he says. ‘I write what I think is funny, a situation I want to explore. I don’t censor. I have no interest in catering to the malicious thoughts of others… There is nothing dark; this is a comedy romance’.
It is hard for Allen not to sound defensive. It is also hard to believe it when he says that the never-ending questioning, the humiliating treatment by his publishers and by people in the movie world doesn’t bother him.
When his memoir was dropped by Hachette, other writers, including Stephen King and Margaret Atwood, defended him, explaining that Allen had been cleared twice of all allegations in 1994.
The book was immediately picked up by another publisher, Arcade Publishing, who released it in March.
The book is compelling reading. It begins with an insightful but wry romp through his early life, but then the tone changes to what Mail on Sunday critic Craig Brown described as a ‘howl of pain’ as he lays bare the facts of his fall from grace in 1992.
Farrow and Allen had been a couple – albeit an unconventional one – since 1979. They didn’t live together. She lived with one of her three sons by her ex-husband, the conductor André Previn, and three daughters she and Previn had adopted including Soon-Yi.
During their 12-year relationship, she and Allen had a son together, Ronan, and adopted two children, Dylan and Moses.
Moses, now 42 and a therapist, is a vocal supporter of Allen and has spoken out many times about allegedly abusive treatment to which Farrow’s step-children were subjected at the hands of others.
In the book, Allen attempts to lay out his version of the story.
For a man whose name is synonymous with neurosis and therapy, Allen claims not to have needed help from psychiatrists for years. ‘I’ve got rid of many of my more neurotic traits, although I still won’t go through tunnels and I don’t like small spaces or elevators’
During those two separate investigations over 18 months, he took a lie detector test – something Farrow declined to do. A nanny testified that Dylan had been ‘coached’ as to what to say.
Although Allen’s relationships with Ronan and Dylan have remained toxic, he has said he would welcome them both with open arms if they chose to reunite with him.
Allen rarely shares details of his private life, but he begins now to talk about his relationship with Soon-Yi.
‘I admit, it didn’t make sense when our relationship started,’ he says. ‘On the surface we looked like an irrational match. I was much older and she was an adopted kid.
‘It looked to the outside world that it was an exploitative situation – that I would exploit her as an older predatory male, and she would exploit me for whatever I had. That was never the case.
‘In the past, I had always gone out with actresses [other exes include Stacey Nelkin with whom he had an affair while filming Annie Hall], but for whatever inexplicable reason, with Soon-Yi it worked.’
He says none of the controversies about him have ever put a strain on their relationship. ‘We didn’t let it,’ he asserts.
‘My view was always that most relationships don’t work, which is why people have affairs. But then you can marry, divorce, marry, divorce, or you can go out with 56 people and if you are lucky might find the right one, and that happened to me.’
For a man whose name is synonymous with neurosis and therapy, Allen claims not to have needed help from psychiatrists for years.
‘I have calmed down since I got married. I’ve got rid of many of my more neurotic traits, although I still won’t go through tunnels and I don’t like small spaces or elevators.’
On his relationship with Soon-Yi, Allen says: ‘In the past, I had always gone out with actresses [other exes include Stacey Nelkin with whom he had an affair while filming Annie Hall], but for whatever inexplicable reason, with Soon-Yi it worked’
I ask why he believes the marriage has worked. He thinks for a moment and then says: ‘She doesn’t really like jazz or sports, and I don’t like some of the TV shows she watches. But we agree on the big stuff – raising kids, where to live, how to act with each other.
‘We adopted two children together. Being a father was important to me. We had a lot of fun. Both the girls are in college now, one in California and one at art college in New York. Soon-Yi changed me. She gets me to go out four or five times a week. She likes the social rumble and I enjoy it, too.’
How else has she changed him? There is a pause before he answers: ‘She got me to eat artichokes.’
I ask him about lockdown and he groans. ‘I hate it. I get up. I do my exercises. I practise my clarinet and then I stare into empty space. I have a play ready and a film written but I can’t start them. The girls aren’t with us; they are in lockdown with friends at college.
‘Every day we go for a walk but it’s not enjoyable. Everything is shut and there is an atmosphere of fear on the streets. I just want to work.’
Despite that he’s found contentment.
‘I am happy in my marriage. I am happy with my family but you can never be happy on this planet. We are dumped into a bad situation. Human existence is precarious, terrifying and pointless.’
Delivered with that bleak Brooklyn twang, it is such a classic Woody Allen line that I am almost tempted to laugh.
He continues: ‘And so I carry on… What else is there to do?”’
A Rainy Day In New York will be available on premium on-demand platforms from June 5.
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