Is it time to stop reviewing and awarding abusive artists?

If we did, the male-dominated entertainment and arts industries would give way to more women's voices


How come Woody Allen’s getting off so easy? Why has his name not come up more often during the conversation about guys in the entertainment industry abusing their power in sexual ways? I was asking myself this while watching his new movie, Wonder Wheel, for review purposes.

Dylan Farrow, who has accused Allen of molesting her while he was in a relationship with her mother, Mia Farrow, has asked the same question in a pointed piece published by the Los Angeles Times on December 7. Allen has denied the charge and after a probe – in which investigators never talked to Dylan – no charges were laid. Dylan still stands by her claims.

Here’s a man who was accused of molesting a seven-year-old. Later, in 1992, Allen, still in the relationship with Mia Farrow, began a sexual relationship with Farrow’s adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, whom he’d known since she was eight. They married in 1997 and are still together.

When this info was revealed 25 years ago, the tabloids ate it up and there was gossip, for sure, but the allegations and Allen’s complicated personal life did almost no damage to his artistic reputation. The Academy Awards responded by nominating Allen for best director and original screenplay for Bullets Over Broadway.  

In the current climate, Allen’s type of creep factor is destroying careers. But he keeps on making a movie a year. What gives him this Teflon quality? Is it because he’s an endearing schlub?

In an interview with NPR, Allen was open about his “paternal” connection with Soon-Yi. He later told The Hollywood Reporter he rescued her from poverty (he didn’t – Farrow and her then-husband Andre Previn did when they adopted her), gave her life skills and shaped her. He sounds sickeningly condescending at best and, at worst, like a controlling Svengali-like abuser. Allen’s schlub days are over. 

In which case, I realized, I was asking myself the wrong question. What I should be wondering is: why am I even reviewing a Woody Allen movie? Why am I giving him attention at all? Many media have developed policies around the work of other men with less than stellar reps like, say, Chris Brown. This publication tends not to review his music.

I can hear the choruses grumbling: you don’t do that to artists. But the explosion in sexual harassment claims is about all kinds of artists behaving very badly – on the job is the difference. Why make that distinction? Allen certainly doesn’t, given that his life is all over his art.

His celebrated film Manhattan (1979) was about an older man’s affair with a high-school student. Crimes And Misdemeanors (1989) was his first film about a guy getting away with a crime. In his Amazon series Crisis In Six Scenes (2016), Allen plays a novelist who gets away with a crime because he’s a celebrity. His stars, especially during his middle years, have been his lovers – Farrow, Louise Lasser, Diane Keaton.

While watching Wonder Wheel I marvelled at how women who should know better – Kate Winslet in this case – continue to work with him. As Farrow points out, Winslet has spoken out against Weinstein but has sputtered when asked about Allen.

In the film, the Allen-surrogate character (Justin Timberlake) loses interest in his older lover (Winslet) when a much younger woman (Juno Temple) comes into the picture. Were that scenario written by anyone else, it wouldn’t get noticed. But it’s hard to watch a Woody Allen pic without seeing subtext all over it.

Personal lives can get messy. I’ve been having a confusing time thinking about how transformed our world would be if we ignored the creative output of artists who treated women badly. (You could make as productive an exercise out of asking the same question, replacing women with “the hired help.”)

Picasso did more or less what he wanted, sexually speaking, often using women along the way. You can see the abuse represented in his work, the cutting up of women’s faces to create his images, the reconfiguring of their bodies.

Think seriously about Norman Mailer, who stabbed his second wife twice with a pen-knife. His fourth accused him of beating her up. In his artistic practice (read Kate Millett on this in Sexual Politics), Mailer celebrated violence against women with seeming glee.

The blind poet Milton compelled his daughter to read to him in Latin while refusing to teach her the language and the meaning of what she was reading.

The more you know about the bullying, sexist, anti-Semitic, racist and toxic behaviour of celebrated artists, the more painful it gets: Wagner, Hemingway, Polanski, Tolstoy, Hitchcock, Von Trier. When I consider dismissing their work, I see the museums, the libraries, the cinemas growing emptier by the second.

Don’t worry about it, we’re told. Artists are consistently let off the hook, so important is their creative vision. According to our warped values system, art ennobles us all, and creativity requires a certain level of self-involvement, and so artists are sometimes less than fabulous human beings.

Really? As New York Times writer Charles McGrath asked: are we actually prepared to say that art is more important than people?

We cannot change history, but we can revise our understanding of artists’ biographies. Rather than put up with their bullshit, we must call artists out on it and make them accountable.

When we’re jury members, maybe their behaviour ought to be factored into our decisions? Please don’t tell me that it’s a juror’s role to remain neutral. As it is, the likeability of an artist often influences a juror’s judgment.

Juries and grant providers are already considering what they can do to increase the visibility of diverse artists. How about reducing the visibility of abusers? Are you wanting me to add the term “alleged” before that last word? Did that matter when the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences’ board of governors expelled disgraced mogul Harvey Weinstein?

And it may be time to boycott reviewing and honouring the work of artists who have behaved badly. We sure as hell don’t have to reward artists for being shitty people. After the Academy celebrated Allen’s movie, voters showered Roman Polanski, in exile due to statutory rape charges, with Oscar love for The Pianist.

I kinda like the fact that Nate Parker paid a career price for a decades-old rape charge. He was acquitted, but his film The Birth Of A Nation sank at the box office after news of the trial resurfaced. Note that white artists tend not to pay the same price: Casey Affleck, accused of sexual harassment on set, won best actor the same year the Oscars ignored Parker’s pic. As I write this, actors, agents, directors and lots more accused of sexual harassment whose careers are in deep trouble and I have no problem with that.

If we take action, we not only make (mostly male) artists accountable, we reduce the male dominance factor – relevant in terms of monies available and awful experiences on the job – that has discouraged women from realizing their artistic visions.

Without repercussions, the abuse will never stop. The conversation – and the movement – to end abuse of all kinds may take us into uncomfortable places. But we have to go there.

susanc@nowtoronto.com | @susangcole

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