Deconstructing Dylan and Woody by way of ‘Annie Hall’

There’s a scene late in Woody Allen’s “Annie Hall” where the two protagonists, Alvy and Annie, are both on their respective therapists’ couches, trying to sort out their love life. 

“How often do you sleep together?” Alvy’s therapist asks, getting to the all-important question.

 “Do you have sex often?” Annie’s shrink echoes.

“Hardly ever,” Alvy responds despondently. “Maybe three times a week.”

 “Constantly!” Annie shouts from her side of the split-screen. “I’d say three times a week.”

Imagine that: Two people experience the same thing and reach completely opposite conclusions. 

I was reminded of this scene last weekend, when the two-decade-old allegation resurfaced that Allen molested his then-7-year-old adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow. But this time, it was not a tabloid resurrecting old ghosts, but Farrow herself, who was invited to post her disturbing account of abuse on The New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s blog. 

“He talked to me while he did it,” Farrow wrote in graphic detail, “whispering that I was a good girl, that this was our secret, promising that we’d go to Paris and I’d be a star in his movies.”  

While Farrow’s claims of abuse hardly compare to the fictional couple’s relationship woes, the scene parallels the way these two parties have parted ways. No one denies Allen visited the Farrows that day. Even now, no one can know for sure — except Farrow and Allen — what went on between the young girl and her father: She says she is sure it happened; he says he is sure it didn’t. But conjectures of a public that is shocked and upset threatens to obscure the fact that we cannot — and perhaps should not — judge.

A Farrow-Allen battle is once again raging in public. Allen’s publicist, Leslee Dart, responded to the allegations, calling them “untrue and disgraceful”; his lawyer, Elkan Abramowitz, cast aspersions on Dylan’s mother, Mia Farrow, blaming her and calling her “a vengeful lover.” Barbara Walters appeared both furious and flustered on Monday’s “The View,” defensively admonishing her co-hosts for empathizing with Dylan by declaring Allen a “sensitive” and “loving, caring father.”   

When actress Cate Blanchett, who received an Oscar nomination this year for her role in Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” was asked about Farrow’s letter at the Santa Barbara Film Festival, she replied neutrally, but sensitively. “It’s obviously been a long and painful situation for the family, and I hope they find some resolution and peace,” she said. The entertainment trade called her response “a diplomatic sidestep,” while Tablet magazine editor Alana Newhouse suggested that without clear legal judgment, public opinion is “disabled” and “resistance to declaring the guilt or innocence of any of the participants … is, in fact, exactly the right moral choice.”

Still, that attitude may be giving the American legal system too much authority, as if verdicts are unfailingly and eternally true; when O.J. Simpson was found not guilty of murder, it hardly quashed debate. A legal judgment may make it easier to align with one side or the other, but doubts about the truth, not to mention the indelible stain of such allegations, could remain. 

Mindful of the uproar the newspaper and its Web site created, the New York Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, weighed in, questioning the ethics of using the influential columnist platform to publish a one-sided account. In a preface to Farrow’s letter, Kristof disclosed his friendship with Mia Farrow and her son Ronan Farrow, which led at least one reader to question whether columnists should be allowed “to advocate on behalf of personal friends.” Sullivan said The Times’ columnists “appropriately have very free rein,” but also encouraged readers to read Allen documentarian Robert B. Weide’s vociferous defense of him in “The Daily Beast.” 

America loves a scandal. The angles are endless, even prompting an additional article from The Times about the intrusion of ethics into the Oscar race. “The Academy honors achievement in film, not the personal lives of filmmakers and artists,” the Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences said in a statement to The Times. As the industry did for Roman Polanski, who long ago pled guilty to sex with a minor, the merits of art are considered separate from the personality of the artist.

Whether one is inclined to side with Allen or Farrow depends heavily upon one’s own predispositions. “It’s a Rorschach test,” Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom told me. “[An] index of our projections. Celebrities become avatars for our inner lives. So people who are sensitive to issues of abuse are ready to jump to accuse him of horrendous acts of evil. And those who feel the vulnerability of being accused without proof will hold tightly to the evidence that this is fabricated. 

“Both sides see themselves as victims, and they project the pain of their victimhood onto the circumstances.”

Hollywood itself is a projection of so many fantasies, which makes the invasion of this nightmare not just unappealing, but intolerable. Farrow wrote in her letter that Hollywood’s adoration of Allen and his work has amplified her suffering, describing his continued status as “a personal rebuke” that reinforced her silence. But while the public cannot be held responsible for her pain, it certainly can contribute to it. The court of public opinion is powerful and no one wants to feel isolated in his or her suffering. 

So what do we do now with all of this information? 

I turned to Alvy from “Annie Hall.” He divides life into two categories: “the horrible and the miserable.” 

“You’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art,” he says in the film. “Because, uh, it’s real difficult in life.”