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The Merging of the Art and the Artist in ‘Allen v. Farrow’

The age-old debate: Should we separate admired art from disgraced artists? The HBO docuseries argues we should acknowledge just how intertwined they are.

Getty Images/HBO/Ringer illustration

It’s human nature to oversimplify. A classic example applies to the complexities of dealing with meaningful work made by monsters: the idea of “separating the art from the artist,” a crude catchphrase encompassing a nuanced process. Generally, the concept presumes we can condemn the artist while protecting the art. By keeping our moral judgments distinct from our aesthetic ones, we can preserve our enjoyment of great work and our sense of self—the ethical equivalent of having one’s cake and eating it, too.

Those who oppose this logic often find themselves arguing the reverse. Even the highest quality of work, the thinking goes, is beside the point if its maker has committed crimes like sexual assault or child abuse; we shouldn’t think about filmmakers or pop stars or comedians who mistreat others any differently than we would a plumber or an accountant or a clerk. Under this framework, any mention of the output inherently distracts from the issue at hand. In this case, we separate the artist from the art.

The four-part docuseries Allen v. Farrow, which wrapped its run on HBO this past Sunday, suggests a middle path. Filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering, who also helmed Russell Simmons exposé On the Record and The Hunting Ground, an examination of sexual assault and institutional response on college campuses, have no interest in separating Woody Allen the iconic director from Woody Allen the man, whose adopted daughter said that he sexually assaulted her when she was a child. (Allen categorically denies this, a disclaimer Allen v. Farrow includes at the end of every episode.) But rather than using the accounts against Allen to color our view of his movies, Dick and Ziering do the reverse, folding Allen’s CV as an artist into the case against him as a person.

This dialogue comes naturally to Allen v. Farrow. More than most artists who’ve come under renewed scrutiny in the wake of the #MeToo movement, Allen the public figure is indistinguishable from Allen the private citizen. Mia Farrow, Allen’s former partner and the mother of three of his children, was also his artistic collaborator; she starred in 13 of his films, the last of which was still in production when she discovered his affair with her daughter Soon-Yi Previn. (Incredibly, they finished the movie despite, and in the midst of, the ensuing blowup.) Even beyond his work with Farrow, Allen himself is the main character of his filmography. His hang-ups color every script; when Allen doesn’t choose to lead his own cast, he’s usually represented by a stand-in such as Larry David. Like Louis C.K., another disgraced performer whose work he directly inspired, Allen built a persona whose seeming authenticity prompts a deeper sense of betrayal when it’s finally disrupted.

To that end, Allen v. Farrow includes a broader panel of experts than a documentary’s typical roster of talking heads. Kirby and Ziering have the full participation of Farrow and her daughter Dylan, who says that Allen assaulted her when she was 7 years old after years of inappropriate behavior. That access leads to some of Allen v. Farrow’s most harrowing clips: home recordings Farrow made of Dylan clearly and cogently explaining what happened to her. To give the clips context, Kirby and Ziering speak to social workers, psychologists, and yet more authorities who can speak to both patterns of abuse and the flaws in the initial investigation of Dylan’s claims in the early 1990s. (An infamous Yale report that concluded in Allen’s favor is criticized for destroying its notes and conducting more potentially traumatic interviews with Dylan than necessary, among other flaws.)

But Allen v. Farrow also includes voices who can speak to Allen’s larger cultural legacy. Writer Miriam Bale, reporter P.J. Grisar, film critic Alissa Wilkinson, and author Claire Dederer all appear to shed light on what’s made Allen so beloved, and therefore so powerful. “He makes neuroses hilarious,” Bale explains over footage from the dystopian comedy Sleeper. Allen v. Farrow avoids a common trap in discussions of artists who are now considered unsavory: the temptation to carry that sentiment over to the art itself. The show never lets us forget that Allen is a legend for a reason. “It’s hard to watch it and not think, ‘This guy really knows how to make a movie,’” Wilkinson says of the masterpiece Manhattan. Too often, the impulse to pretend otherwise is a self-serving one; you don’t have to square talent with terrible actions when you retroactively remove the talent. It also implicitly reinforces the link recent reckonings have tried so hard to break. If bad people can make only bad art, then the assumption that great artists can’t be bad people goes unchallenged.

Allen v. Farrow equally avoids the opposite instinct. The cultural commentators’ praise doesn’t negate the Farrows’ accounts. Instead, they take Allen’s work seriously—and in conducting the close reading that critics consider part of their jobs, find evidence that Allen’s celebrity is more self-deprecating than even he realized. It’s almost instinctual to point to Manhattan, in which Allen’s character engages in a relationship with Tracy, a 17-year-old played by Mariel Hemingway, as a damning glimpse at what Allen considers appropriate. Allen v. Farrow is no exception, though it is slightly more nuanced. It’s not that Manhattan idealizes the Allen-Hemingway relationship; it’s that it inverts their obvious power dynamic, emphasizing Hemingway’s agency and Allen’s insecurity.

“An important move the film makes is to put the desire onto Tracy. She’s the one who wants to keep the relationship going,” Dederer says. “He uses her to make his predation OK.” Dick and Ziering add weight to this analysis by interviewing Christina Engelhardt, the real-life inspiration for Tracy, who had a relationship with Allen as a 16-year-old model. In the film, Allen’s character encourages Tracy to date boys her own age and treat him as a detour—a line of argument Allen v. Farrow also identifies in Allen’s correspondence with his now-wife Soon-Yi. It’s a way of making the object of his advances seem like an active pursuer, one presented in the context of Manhattan’s obvious beauty, pathos, and charm.

Yet Allen v. Farrow also goes the extra mile, pushing past the go-to example into a much wider snapshot. “You get the idea, watching Allen’s films, that he’s trying to get us acclimated to these kinds of relationships, this sort of power dynamic,” Wilkinson says. “In a sense, grooming us.” Dick and Ziering intersperse these observations with a montage, complementing the depth of the Manhattan sequence with the breadth of excerpts from Allen films like Crimes and Misdemeanors, Whatever Works, Mighty Aphrodite, and most hauntingly, Husbands and Wives, the aforementioned final Farrow project made amidst the Soon-Yi revelations. September, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, and Another Woman are cited later on.

Allen v. Farrow even pushes past the parts of Allen’s oeuvre that are available to the public in their final form. Journalist Richard Morgan discusses his trips to Allen’s archives, donated of Allen’s own volition to Princeton University. There, he found reams of unfinished or in-progress scripts featuring teenage girls, often specified to be as young as 16. “It got into this obsessive territory,” Morgan says. Leering descriptions by male screenwriters of female characters are now the subject of lighthearted parody. Allen v. Farrow treats them as a serious indicator of perspective and intention—not a dismissal of Allen’s work, but a sober treatment in service of a more holistic aim.

Dick and Ziering are not the only outsiders to evaluate Allen this way. Unsurprisingly, Allen v. Farrow doesn’t include any interviews with Allen; instead, they incorporate his voice in the form of the audiobook for his 2020 memoir, which he recorded himself. (The book’s publisher has accused Dick and Ziering of copyright infringement.) In his review of the memoir for Vulture, film historian Mark Harris treats Allen’s writing style as an indication of his character, as have many fans before him—except Harris’s conclusions are far less flattering. Of a repellent passage implicating Farrow in three of her children’s tragic deaths, Harris writes: “I will not comment on the accuracy … what I can comment on, because it’s sitting right there, is the prose. This is writing about coldness so coldly you can’t tell what’s giving you chills, the content or the tone.”

Allen v. Farrow similarly lets Allen gather the rope with which to hang himself. In the process, it flips the idea of separating the art from the artist on its head. Merging the two, the directors show, doesn’t mean exonerating Allen or trivializing his alleged crimes. It creates a three-dimensional portrait that’s all the more troubling for its consistency. The man who made Annie Hall is exactly the man who so traumatized the Farrows, and if you know where to look, he’s been telling us as much all along. Maybe that’s what makes documentaries like this one, and Leaving Neverland before it, such lightning rods. If we’ve seen ourselves in Woody Allen for so long, what does that say about us?

This piece originally misnamed a contributor to the docuseries Allen v. Farrow. The author is Claire Dederer, not Claire Didier.