Commentary: What Woody Allen's defenders are really upset about

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A photograph of Moses Farrow, Soon Yi Previn, Dylan Farrow and Woody Allen in a scene from "Allen V. Farrow." Credit: HBO
A photograph of Moses Farrow, Soon-Yi Previn, Dylan Farrow and Woody Allen from "Allen v. Farrow." (HBO)

It didn’t take much to convince Woody Allen defenders that HBO’s four-part docuseries, “Allen v. Farrow,” was a one-sided hatchet job against the revered filmmaker. The four-part investigative series hadn't yet premiered when they began tearing down its reexamination of the allegation that Allen molested Dylan Farrow, his adoptive daughter with actress Mia Farrow, when she was just 7 years old.

Angry readers wrote to The Times in response to my favorable review of the series, insisting I was part of a lynch mob: “Shame on you!” Others railed against it on Twitter as an HBO hit piece. Heated arguments ensued across Facebook. Some of the upset was understandable: Robert Weide, who directed "American Masters — Woody Allen: A Documentary," spoke out in favor of his friend, complaining in a blog post that most of the press was guilty of “swallowing the HBO series whole, seemingly thrilled that someone was finally taking Allen down.”

But the immediacy and intensity of the response by those who presumably don't know Allen personally are puzzling. His apex as a filmmaker was more than 30 years ago. The accusations detailed in "Allen v. Farrow" are nearly as old. Why are these fans so invested in defending him?

Part of the answer is simple. The world has changed since the scandal around Allen and Farrow's breakup in 1992, and even more since the 1970s and ’80s, when Allen's films often seemed to be driven by an obsession with young — and occasionally underage — women. The #MeToo movement has shifted the power dynamics of Hollywood, and changed the perceptions of the American public regarding the role of women on and off screen. But more than that, it's flipped the script on who is believed in "he said, she said" cases, making Allen and Farrow's case the perfect candidate for reconsideration under a more modern cultural lens.

That reappraisal hasn't just focused on Dylan's allegations, either. It also includes Allen's sexual relationship with, and subsequent marriage to, Farrow's daughter Soon-Yi Previn, whom she adopted with former husband Andre Previn when Soon-Yi was a child. Soon-Yi was still in grade school when Farrow began her 12-year relationship with Allen, and she was 21 when Farrow caught Allen with pornographic Polaroids of her. When Allen went public with the "affair" in 1992, shortly after Dylan first claimed he had abused her and he sued for custody of Dylan, Ronan and Moses Farrow, Allen asserted that Mia had fabricated or coached Dylan's abuse claims as payback.

Allen's defenders contend that the docuseries, from directors Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering and producer Amy Herdy, is biased because Allen and Previn are not interviewed; neither is Moses. (All three declined to be interviewed for the series, according to title cards that appear on screen. Allen has repeatedly denied Dylan's accusation.) These critics have sought to counter the production's view, which is squarely on the side of Dylan and Mia, by picking apart the evidence presented and noting that details supportive of Allen's innocence have been glossed over or omitted. The filmmakers have responded by saying Allen's account is already widely known, and that "Allen v. Farrow" seeks to show another side.

Mia Farrow with four of her children when they were young: Daisy, Fletcher, Soon-Yi and Lark Previn.
Mia Farrow with her children in an undated photo. From left, Daisy, Fletcher, Soon-Yi and Lark Previn. (HBO)

Mia and Dylan Farrow are interviewed throughout the series, as are several of Farrow’s other children, many family friends, former nannies, prosecutors, social workers and more. These, along with court documents, Farrow’s home movies, clips from Allen’s films, excerpts from the audiobook of his memoir and more, add up to a disturbing picture of a predator who’s willing to destroy everyone around him to preserve his reputation as a brilliant filmmaker.

In scrutinizing not only Dylan Farrow's sexual abuse allegations, but also the couple's bitter custody battle and the start of Allen's sexual relationship with Previn, the series constructs a powerful challenge to the narrative that emerged at the time, one shaped by Allen's own media blitz: Farrow was scorned and Allen was framed. Allen’s influence and celebrity, and Hollywood’s history of siding with talented men over female accusers, helped push his account to the forefront while Mia pleaded with him to keep the fighting out of the newspapers. And that's where the story stayed — until "Allen v. Farrow" revisited the controversy.

Whether you accept the series' argument, in which Dylan and Mia Farrow's long-dismissed accounts receive a high-profile platform, is for you to decide, based not only on the series but also on your prior knowledge and plenty of Google searches. The problem with many of Allen's advocates, having brushed off the project before seeing it, is that they clearly made up their minds long ago — before "Allen v. Farrow," before even Dylan Farrow once again raised the accusation in 2014 and 2017.

To these outspoken fans, Allen is a victim of Farrow's sour grapes, of "cancel culture," of feminism itself. But the truth underlying their emotional, often highly personal defenses of Allen is that he's become subject to the forces of change that have finally begun to challenge the old world order, when a girl's place was tantalizing Allen or other actors on screen, no matter how nerdy or neurotic those men might be, or how young the woman.

No one knows for sure what really happened in the Allen/Farrow household except the people who survived the nightmare. The rest of us base our opinions on the most compelling argument, and up until now, Allen — a beloved filmmaker in a notoriously sexist business in a patriarchal society — has had the megaphone, and the might of the industry, to present his account.

Perhaps these Allen diehards are upset because "Allen v. Farrow" finally explores the other side of the story, and they're used to a world where women were simply told to shut up.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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