The fact that it's Woody Allen makes this scandal worse

August 19, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

It's like something out of a Woody Allen movie -- one of the later ones: somber, depressing, full of questions about ethical behavior and full of awe at the capacity of intelligent people to completely screw up their lives. And not a joke in sight.

And that's why the revelations and accusations contained in the case of Woody Allen, Mia Farrow and her adopted Korean daughter are so saddening. It's not that reality is imitating art, it's that reality just stinks.

In the abstract, of course, it's just another sordid show biz scandal, a business as usual kind of thing involving the messy breakup of a celebrity relationship, charges of despicable sexual behavior with a whiff of hypocrisy that makes it particularly juicy.

But this time it's Woody Allen. And that makes it different.

For so many years, Woody Allen has stood proudly apart from celebrity culture. He's never been a staple of the gossip columns or cheapened his considerable oeuvre with talk show appearances or even a relocation to L.A. He's stayed true to his own star: a New York filmmaker of great seriousness, who just keeps grinding them out, one after the other.

Moreover, his partner in all this has been Mia Farrow, and it's been a wonderful collaboration, particularly in his best film of the last decade, which is also one of the best films of the past decade, "Hannah and Her Sisters."

Then again there's the Woody Allen persona. It's his highest creation and an enduring contribution to world culture: the image of urban man as a creature nearly crippled with doubts, trying desperately to do the right thing, yet fumbling and bumbling along. Take that purity of that pain and drive it through a prism of world-class comedy and you have an extraordinarily powerful concoction.

It happens to be an image rooted in a specific time and place -- New York City, the Jewish intellectual milieu -- but it was so convincing that Allen was able to universalize it so much that suburban WASPs or rural blacks could feel exactly what he felt and knew exactly what he was talking about. He spoke to the schlemiel in all men. And, lord, he was funny!

It's also true that there's precedent for what seems to have gripped Allen. He will not be the first man in his 50s to fall in love with and have a sexual relationship with a woman in her young 20s. He will not even be the first comic genius filmmaker to do so: Charlie Chaplin shocked the world more than half a century ago when he married Oona O'Neill, Eugene O'Neill's young daughter. He was in his 50s; she was in her young 20s.

And what older artist, fearing the diminishment of his powers and possibly doubting the lasting value of his work, hasn't turned toward the renewal that a young woman can represent, if not in reality, at least in fantasy. What older man?

Still, when all the excuse-making is done, one is left with a single riveting emotion: betrayal.

Say it ain't so, Woody.

But he isn't saying much.

It's not merely that Soon-Yi Previn is so much younger than he is, although in our culture such unions have always been looked upon suspiciously, as being ipso facto indecent. Rather, it's that he obviously met her in family circumstances where for years, as his mother's paramour, he must have been some beloved figure, an Uncle Woody. Somehow, in the next, he seduced one of the babies, a relationship that, sexual or not, has lasted for 10 years.

In the immortal words of Nancy Sinatra, he was a-messing where he shouldn't a-been a-messing.

But take it a step further: In choosing this young woman -- as opposed to any other young woman -- he wasn't just trying to reclaim youth; it seems a choice calculated to express almost frightening levels of hostility toward Farrow. Why not just leave -- why take the woman's daughter, too?

Finally, there's the dreadful inversion of victimization. For decades, the Allen mystique has been a mystique of pain: Society was complicated, one's biological demands were complicated, loneliness was for the birds, everything hurt. The Allen character has always borne this pain as if it purified him. He was weak and meek, but he was also inalienably good, somehow: He never exploited the powerless or indulged in the hubris of wealth and power; he never took advantage. His values were the values of a man who lived by a moral compass.

There was in this a suggestion of the myth of the Last of the Just: that it falls to certain Righteous Men to shoulder the world's burden of woe and in so doing they hold the universe suspended. When the last of them vanishes, the universe will die.

It feels as if another just man has just perished. And it hurts almost as much as it enrages.

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