Op-ed: When Hollywood Excuses Famous Men Who Rape...
If you were live-tweeting NBC’s broadcast of the Golden Globe Awards on Sunday, you saw it. You couldn’t miss it. Ronan Farrow, son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen and commentator at MSNBC, tweeted: "Missed the Woody Allen tribute–did they put the part where a woman publicly confirmed he molested her at age 7 before or after Annie Hall?"
Farrow’s bald indictment of his estranged father has been retweeted more than 12,000 times. The reference is to his sister, Dylan, adopted daughter of Farrow and Allen, who asserted Allen molested her. A judge found the evidence of molestation inconclusive and Allen has always denied the charge.
Dylan Farrow’s alleged molestation was revealed after Farrow discovered naked photos of another of Farrow’s children, Soon-Yi Previn, then 18, in Allen’s possession. Allen, who is 35 years Previn’s senior, had been having a sexual relationship with Previn while in the relationship with Farrow.
Farrow and Allen had been partners for 12 years at the time Farrow discovered the naked photos of her daughter. Allen had been Previn’s stepfather since she was the same age as Dylan was when she was allegedly molested by Allen.
Previn, 43 and Allen, 78, have now been married for 22 years. They have no children.
The incest story was an ugly coda on what was otherwise a glitzy, boozy, fun-filled evening. Many others have commented on the Twittersphere about Ronan Farrow’s raw declaration and the story of Allen’s past has become the news–not the Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award he was given for his dozens of films.
As Oscar-winner Susan Sarandon noted the day after the Golden Globes on Twitter: "Couldn’t watch the tribute to #WoodyAllen last night after having read this"
The plethora of comments on Ronan Farrow’s tweet and Mia Farrow’s link to the Vanity Fair story Sarandon also tweeted were in stark contrast to the effusive tribute actress Diane Keaton gave as she accepted the award for Allen who never attends award ceremonies.
Keaton focused not just on Allen’s work as a director and screenwriter, but on Allen’s relationships with women in film, explaining, "It’s kind of hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that 179 of the world’s most captivating actresses have appeared in Woody Allen’s films. And there’s a reason for this. And the reason is, they wanted to. They wanted to because Woody’s women can’t be compartmentalized. They struggle, they love, they fall apart, they dominate, they’re flawed. They are, in fact, the hallmark of Woody’s work. But what’s even more remarkable is absolutely nothing links these unforgettable characters from the fact that they came from the mind of Woody Allen."
I first wrote about Woody Allen’s problem with little girls back in 1992 for the Philadelphia Inquirer. My then-editor and I had discussed what lines had and had not been crossed, what was and was not "acceptable." We both agreed Allen’s films were brilliant (I still rank Manhattan as one of the top ten best American films), but I took a harder line on Allen and his "girl problem."
Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi was incest. Mental health professionals and social workers backed me up. When your relationship to a child is one of parent, and you have sex with that child, it’s incest.
Woody Allen isn’t the first child predator to have been feted by Hollywood. There’s a long tradition of this, going back as far as silent pictures. Charlie Chaplin, the big screen’s biggest star of the Silent Era had four wives–aged 17, 15, 25 and 18 when he married them. When the Allen scandal first broke in 1992, Chaplin’s scandalous behavior was revived.
And then, of course, there was Roman Polanski, who was arrested for the rape of Samantha Geimer. Geimer was 13, Polanski, 43 at the time he was convicted. Rather than face jail time, Polanski fled the country and has lived in lavish exile from America ever since, continuing to make films and win awards. In 2009 he was put under house arrest in Switzerland, but attempts by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to have him extradited to the U.S. were unsuccessful and in 2010 the Swiss released him from house arrest. He remains on an Intepol list, however.
When extradition was being argued, actors and directors in Hollywood spoke out in support of Polanski, including out lesbian actress, director and producer, Jodie Foster, who starred in Polanski’s 2012 film, Carnage.
Woody Allen was among 100 filmmakers and actors who signed a petition for Polanski.
In an open letter, Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein was adamant as he demanded that "every U.S. filmmaker to lobby against any move to bring Polanski back to the U.S." Weinstein argued that "whatever you think of the so-called crime, Polanski has served his time."
Well, no. He served 42 days before he was freed on bond and fled the country. That’s hardly serving one’s time. Nor was it a "so-called" crime. Rape is real. Conversely, Geimer, whose memoir The Girl was published in Sept. 2013, has lived her entire life in the shadow of her rape by Polanski.
In recent years former child stars, Allison Arngrim of Little House on the Prairie and Corey Feldman, one of the biggest child stars of the 1980s, have talked about their experiences with pedophiles in Hollywood. Feldman, who also spoke for his late friend and fellow child star Corey Haim, has said abuse of child actors is "rampant" in Hollywood, but the industry turns a blind eye to it.
As it did Sunday night when it honored Allen with one of its most prestigious awards.
What do we do when famous men, including talented geniuses like Allen and Polanski, rape?
Excuses get made, certainly. Mia Farrow has been described as a jealous, vindictive woman when she really was simply a protective mother. Ronan Farrow’s remarks have been addressed in a somewhat more tempered fashion, but still blame his mother for poisoning his perception of Allen.
Yet there is Soon-Yi Previn: evidence. While she was not a blood relation to Allen when he began his affair with her when she was a teenager, he only knew her in one capacity: as his step-daughter. He had presumably bathed and dressed her when she was a young girl. He had most certainly seen her naked as his step-daughter as she and her siblings were in the house.
Neither Previn nor Allen has ever acknowledged when the affair began, but it likely began prior to her turning 18.
As for Polanski, no argument can be made that supports his acts, despite Weinstein’s (who has children of his own), Foster’s (also a mother), Allen’s and others’ impassioned pleas for clemency.
It also doesn’t matter what Polanski’s victim might say about forgiveness or it having been a long time ago or that the media has hurt her more than Polanski did. Rape is a crime and the transcripts are clear: Geimer was raped vaginally and anally and also orally. No one gets a free pass on rape.
If the guy down the street did it instead of a famous director, we wouldn’t even be discussing it. Whoopi Goldberg would not have said of that guy what she said of Polanski on The View after Polanski’s arrest in Switzerland.
"I know it wasn’t rape-rape. It was something else but I don’t believe it was rape-rape. He went to jail and when they let him out he was like, ‘You know what, this guy’s going to give me a hundred years in jail. I’m not staying.’ So that’s why he left."
Later in the same program Goldberg continued, "We’re a different kind of society [now], we see things differently. Would I want my 14-year-old having sex with somebody? Not necessarily, no."
Except the 13-year-old Geimer didn’t have consensual sex with the 43-year-old Polanski. The transcripts are clear on this point. Polanski gave her champagne and Quaaludes, put her in a hot tub and then raped her.
Yet there were Goldberg and Foster defending the rapist while also dismissing the victim.
And therein lies the problem for so many people. Our perspective is skewed by genius and celebrity. As comedian Chris Rock famously said on Oprah about the black community’s response to Michael Jackson’s alleged pedophilia, "We love Michael so much we let the first kid slide."
And also Chaplin, Polanski and Allen.
But some, like Mia and Ronan Farrow, are not as willing to dismiss the rape of children by adult men. Mia Farrow, whose humanitarian work with UNICEF and other organizations in places like Darfur, on behalf of children, is world-renowned, was named one of the most influential people in the world by Time magazine. She has four biological children and has adopted 11, many with special needs. She is a renowned champion for children’s rights.
In the Vanity Fair article from last October, Mia Farrow speaks candidly about the crimes she alleges Allen committed against her and her children. It’s harrowing detail from a woman whose best work on screen was all done with Allen. And in that same article Dylan Farrow speaks for the first time about the sexual abuse.
On CBS’s The Talk on Jan. 13, co-host Sharon Osbourne said Farrow’s family had suffered greatly because of Allen. But only a few minutes later she went on to excuse Polanski.
In 2012, my partner took me to dinner and a film on my birthday. We went to see the film version of the Tony Award-winning play God of Carnage by French playwright Yasmina Reza. I was a fan of her work and I was excited to see the film version, Carnage, starring Jodie Foster.
I didn’t realize until the end credits that the film had been directed by Polanski.
I wrote about how disconcerted I was in Curve (Living Our Politics, Brownworth, Victoria A.//Curve, May 2012, Vol. 22, Issue 4, p28) and how much I struggled with this issue of the art versus the acts of the artist.
I’m still struggling.
How do we–especially women and survivors of rape, incest and sexual assault–contextualize the work of genius rapists? Can we? Should we? While Chaplin was making some of the greatest films the world had known or would know, he was also having sex with girls. Not women, girls. Girls he had access to solely because he was a great film star and director.
Polanski had access to Geimer because he told her mother he was going to shoot photos of her for French Vogue. He wasn’t some creepy guy down the block, he was a Holocaust concentration camp survivor and one of the most acclaimed directors in the world. But two years prior to his being charged with the rape of Geimer, Polanski had an affair with Nastassja Kinski, during the filming of Tess. She was 15.
Michael Jackson built a pedophile’s paradise on the Neverland Ranch. What child wouldn’t want to be a guest there? What parent would deprive their under-privileged child that dream? How many children did he molest?
Allen had access to Dylan and Soon-Yi because they were the children of his partner, Farrow. But in Manhattan, the then-45-year-old Allen is in love with the then-17-year-old Mariel Hemingway’s character, a high school student. That’s just the plot, of course, but he dumps the adult woman played by Keaton for the pubescent Hemingway.
As he later would Farrow for her teenage daughter.
I would like to have clear-cut answers. But I never stopped listening to Michael Jackson and I’ve taught Chaplin for two decades in my film classes. Allen’s Manhattan and Polanski’s Chinatown will forever be on my top-ten list of greatest American films and Keaton’s right–Allen does indeed present fully realized female characters, like those in Hannah and Her Sisters. Polanski’s Repulsion is, I believe, one of the best films of the 1960s and possibly his own greatest film and a deeply compelling accounting of a woman’s sexual trauma.
When I look at the filmographies of these men, I don’t see the faces of their victims, I see the genius of their work.
That unsettles me. What if my own rapist were an artist of merit and had never been prosecuted for the assault that nearly killed me? What would I think of the work then? Conversely if all these other parents are able to distance themselves from these directors’ crimes against children, why can’t I?
And then there’s this: In 2004, when Polanski sued Vanity Fair for libel in a case unrelated to the Geimer rape, his prime witness was...Mia Farrow. He won the lawsuit.
It’s not just these men, these rapists and pedophiles, either. It’s their supporters. What of those who called for Polanski’s release and those who supported Allen’s award? Do we boycott their work as well? Foster is a lesbian icon yet her best friend is the anti-Semitic Mel Gibson and she said she would work with Polanski again. Numerous women signed that petition for Polanski. Actress Debra Winger was nearly in tears as she pleaded for Polanski. And even as she decries what happened in her own family, Farrow remains in touch with Polanski.
Would we feel differently if these men had served time in prison? Would there be a sense that the victim had received justice? Or would it be just as confusing as it is now?
Some argue that the art itself is recompense to the victims. Perhaps a film like Polanski’s The Pianist tells a story so profound about human suffering during the Holocaust that it makes a difference. And no doubt an attorney could argue that Polanski’s own internment in a concentration camp was penance enough for one lifetime–mitigating circumstances.
But doesn’t this all argue again that the guy down the street who rapes a child goes to jail while wealthy artists not only go free, but reap rewards for their work while never being held accountable for actual crimes? Living in Gstaad for the decades since he raped Geimer has not been the same as a jail sentence for Polanski. And just because Chaplin and Allen married their victims doesn’t make them any less victims.
I can appreciate the brilliance of films like Manhattan or Chinatown. What I can’t do is pretend their auteurs’ crimes don’t matter. Nor should the various academies. There would be some measure of accountability in not giving Oscars and Golden Globes to such men. A small gesture toward their victims, but a statement that those victims matter, irrespective of canon or genius. The only way to make the crimes stop is to stop rewarding their perpetrators. For now that seems to be the only recourse we still have.
Victoria A. Brownworth is an award-winning journalist, editor and writer. She has won the NLGJA and the Society of Professional Journalists awards, the Lambda Literary Award and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. She is a regular contributor to The Advocate and SheWired, a blogger for Huffington Post and a contributing editor for Curve magazine and Lambda Literary Review. She won the 2012 Moonbeam Award for historical/cultural fiction for From Where We Sit: Black Writers Write Black Youth. Her novella, Ordinary Mayhem, won Honorable Mention in Best Horror 2012. Her novel, After It Happened will be published in fall 2014. @VABVOX