Does Annie Hall still deserve to be great?

Still from Annie Hall. United Artists

Annie Hall has consistently been a presence in my top-10-favorite-movies list since I first saw it in the early 1980s. In high school in the mid-80s, I read Without Feathers, still one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. In the mid-90s, I enjoyed listening to the New Orleans clarinet stylings presented in Barbara Kopple’s picture Wild Man Blues.

The common thread sewn into this entertainment trifecta is Woody Allen, a writer, actor, Academy Award- and Golden Globe-winning director, and accomplished clarinetist. For nearly seven decades, Allen has been delivering stand-up comedy, wittily hosting talk programs, and directing some Hollywood’s most beloved classic motion pictures (even starring in most of them) that illustrate the complexity of human relationships and the wealth of humor and beauty burnished into his hometown of New York City.

In the early 90s, he also became the focus of a high profile scandal involving an intimate relationship with his children’s sister. Soon-Yi Previn is the adopted daughter of Mia Farrow (with whom Allen had been in a long term relationship at the time) and her second husband, composer André Previn. Also surfacing around that time was an allegation that Allen had sexually abused his and Farrow’s adopted daughter Dylan.

I was in college in the early 90s, and remember the hubbub around Allen’s relationship with Soon-Yi, who is now married to Allen, but for no thoughtful reason, I eluded Dylan’s story. I remember concluding that Hollywood folks have been, and will always be, more bohemian than us non-famous “regular” citizens, and that the whole morals conversation should be between Allen and Farrow, or Previn and Farrow. I was still a Woody Allen fan.

Woody Allen. Original photo: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images

Nearly 30 years later, post-MeToo and -Time’s Up, I’ve seen the HBO documentary film Allen v. Farrow, and through the lenses of social and cultural shifts, as well as my own fatherhood, I’m forced to revisit my cognitive dissonance—that mental gatekeeper that allows me to appreciate and enjoy Michael Jackson’s Off the Wall album, while feeling in my gut Jackson sexually abused young boys; the phenomenon that lets my annual Halloween screening of Rosemary’s Baby go uninhibited by the knowledge that its director, Roman Polanski, pled guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor (in this case, a 13-year-old girl) in 1977, and subsequently fled to Europe before his sentencing.

While I’ve been able to see past the wrongs of the artist to enjoy the art, the victims of these wrongs haven’t been afforded that luxury. While I won’t presume to know how the victims feel, never having experienced their respective hells, I can at least deduce they feel snubbed by a patron who continues to consume the art of their abusers. And let’s be fair, criminals should be punished for their crimes. If Woody Allen did this horrible thing to Dylan, (and based on some damning evidence presented in the HBO doc, I’m inclined to believe he did) I absolutely believe he should be tried, convicted, and sentenced. Roman Polanski should still do time for his decades-old crime. Many high-profile abusers evade consequences with the help of other high-profile connections, which is unfortunate, and a blaring signal the judicial garden needs to be weeded.

As regrettable as that is, the question still remains: Does great art cease being great when its creator takes a moral fall? So-called cancel culture often misses the point and derails any thoughtful discussion of the art itself. Though people involved in The Arts are not a monolithic entity, it’s fair to say there wouldn’t be much art left to enrich us if every abusive artists’ oeuvre was “cancelled.”

The late Roger Ebert described a Great Movie as one he couldn’t imagine never seeing again. I’ve subscribed to this theory in my own appreciation of cinema and in this vein the Great Movie has always been independent of the director’s demons. Though I’m not attempting to simply justify my love for art created by morally less than upstanding craftspeople, I’m pleased Allen v. Farrow made me question my values and reassess how I value art, and I hope it’s not the last time. To paraphrase Alvie Singer’s quote at the end of Annie Hall, I still need the eggs.

Categories: art, cinema

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