Successful entertainers are often awful people. If you put fame, wealth, and narcissism in a blender, the resulting brew can be toxic. Fame causes ordinary folk to worship the entertainer and to view him as a superior being to be served. Wealth provides the means and the opportunity for indulgence. And his narcissism makes it all seem natural, appropriate, deserved.
We know this. Everyone knows this and always has. It’s why, in the 1930s, MGM employed two notorious fixers, Eddie Mannix and Howard Strickling, to throw their weight (and a lot of bribe money) around Los Angeles in order to keep the peccadilloes of their studio’s talent out of the press.
Since the advent of the New York Post’s Page Six in 1977, we’ve been living in a time when the horrific foibles of celebrities are reported as readily as the fripperies of the clothes they wear. This hasn’t, in any way, derailed celebrity culture—quite the opposite. The audience for celebrity gossip has grown, and the attention to misconduct has given some stars a different but sexier kind of fame—notoriety. Celebrities are (as Us magazine puts it in a photo feature of stars buying groceries and driving cars) “just like us.” Only more so. They live on a larger scale, they do things bigger, and when they transgress, they even do that in a big, flashy, unforgettable way.
No wonder, then, that the word “idol” has come to be associated with celebrities, because what the public does with them is a modern form of idol worship. And the case of Woody Allen, who has been famous for a half-century and revered for 35 of those years, is the cautionary tale of our time on the larger social costs of cultural idolatry.
Allen finds himself at the center of a media storm these days. It is the same storm he unleashed upon himself and his family and the world more than 20 years ago, when we learned he had taken naked photographs of the adopted daughter of his longtime consort Mia Farrow—who was also the mother of his three children, two of them adopted. One of those adopted children, called Dylan, claimed then, and has restated her claim as an adult, that Allen molested her when she was 7 years old. The accusation, which surfaced in the course of bitter custody proceedings, was seriously investigated at the time. No charges were brought.
Another adopted Allen-Farrow child, Moses, says the allegation is untrue. He was 15 at the time. The third Allen-Farrow child, Ronan, who was then just a baby, says the allegation is true. Dylan’s account, published recently in a letter to the New York Times, is powerful. No one can doubt she believes it happened. But there have been too many cases of false charges of parental sexual abuse and memory of such abuse to simply take her word for it. The nanny who worked for Farrow at the time wrote a book in which she said she hadn’t “the foggiest idea” whether the molestation had occurred.
Unless Allen confesses, or Dylan recants, we will never know the truth. Neither is likely to happen. But what this nightmarish business, being played out in public, brings to mind again is this: Woody Allen slept with and took pornographic photographs of the teenage sister of his three children, the daughter of his all-but-common-law wife. His conduct was unspeakable—and when Walter Isaacson, then editor of Time, asked Allen about it, he replied, famously, “The heart wants what it wants.” He was 56 years old.
Really, what he was saying was this: I can because I can. Allen was an idol, perhaps the idol, of an entire class of his fellow New Yorkers, his fellow Jews, and his fellow skeptical liberals. There was almost nothing his admirers didn’t admire about him. They loved him because he was funny, because he wanted to produce serious art in the style of the great European filmmakers, and because he played jazz at a club every Monday night. They loved him for writing New Yorker stories, and they loved his relationship with Mia Farrow.
The year before the photos came out, Allen’s slavish biographer, Eric Lax, published a fulsome article in the New York Times Magazine about the wonders of Allen and Farrow’s coupledom, then 11 years in duration. It was “not a conventional union,” he said, pointing out that they lived in separate apartments across Central Park from one another. But, Lax wrote, in a rather striking passage, “Few married couples seem more married. They are constantly in touch with each other, and not many fathers spend as much time with their children as Allen does. He is there before they wake up in the morning, he sees them during the day and he helps put them to bed at night.”
Yes, Allen was even admired as a father. Later, when people accused him of pseudo-incest in his dalliances with Mia’s daughter Soon-Yi, his defenders would say he had barely known the girl, hadn’t spent any time with her, had had nothing to do with her. But that was not the impression Lax’s article, and other mythologizing portraits of prescandal Allen, gave off. No, the sense of this and other portraits-without-blemish was that Allen was practically perfect, a fully rounded human being with wit and gravitas, a moral sense, and deeply bourgeois values.
In retrospect, Allen’s response to the scandal was pitch perfect. He put his head down. He married Soon-Yi. He just kept working. He made movie after movie. What he had done was not exactly forgotten, but his unflagging industry eventually paid off with a reputational renaissance over the past decade. He was again becoming an idol—as was indicated by his decision to accept (though not in person) the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes in January. Big mistake, for that is what triggered the Farrow family’s wrath and has sunk his reputation yet again.
The heart wants what it wants, as Allen said. Well, Dylan Farrow has a heart too, and her heart wants Allen destroyed. Her heart’s desire will not be fulfilled. But she has done us all a favor by reminding us that idol worship is what it has ever been: a means of making excuses for evil.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.