Allen's Sadness Always Underlay His Comedy

June 11, 1993|By CLARENCE PAGE

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Woody Allen's custody battle with Mia Farrow reminds me of the time a fan of Andy Warhol, who predicted that everyone would be famous for 15 minutes, decided to get her own 15 minutes of fame by shooting Andy Warhol.

Recovering from his wounds, the silver-haired artist remarked that he had learned something valuable from the experience. He used to think crazy people were just being creative, he said. Now he realized that some crazy people are really crazy.

That's how I felt after reading the scorching decision Manhattan Judge Elliot Wilk laid on Woody Allen after rejecting the filmmaker's attempt to win custody of his three children from their mother, Mia Farrow.

Usually in these bitter custody disputes, one expects the judge to be like King Solomon in attempting to balance all interests, reach a compromise, admonish both sides and give all parties some victory, however small, to claim as they walk away.

Not Judge Wilk. He scolded Mr. Allen ferociously for 33 pages, using such adjectives as ''self-absorbed, untrustworthy and insensitive'' to describe his ''serious parental inadequacies.'' He blasted Mr. Allen's ''lack of judgment and his commitment to the continuation of his divisive assault, thereby impeding the healing of the injuries that he has already caused.

''His financial contributions to the children's support, his willingness to read to them, to tell them stories, to buy them presents, and to oversee their breakfasts, do not compensate for this absence as a meaningful source of guidance and caring in their lives,'' the judge said.

As for Ms. Farrow? Her only shortcoming, the judge said, was that she stayed with Mr. Allen so long.

Whew. It was a bracing statement, even for a life-long Allen fan like me. Though I have long wondered why his Manhattan (the setting for almost all his movies) has no black people in it, I have long appreciated Woody Allen's genius.

His real life as co-parent with Ms. Farrow, with whom he did not live, seemed only a natural extension of this eccentric artist's often-zany, always intriguing creations.

But when he took up with Ms. Farrow's 21-year-old adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, in a fashion painfully reminiscent of the way Ms. Farrow at the same age ran off with Frank Sinatra, even we longtime fans began to wonder if Woody was, beneath his genius, a very sick puppy. As another son pointed out, no matter how ambiguous the morality may seem to be in this modern age, you don't marry your son's sister.

I shall continue to seek out Woody Allen's movies, I am sure. But even the old ones won't look the same. Looking back, I see a sadness beneath his comedy. His fascination with the dark, moody morbidity of Ingmar Bergman's films and the fatalism of the existential philosophers reveals a moral relativism I find disturbing now, in light of the moral ambiguities he has brought into his own parenting life, mainly it appears in the interest of one person, Woody Allen.

''Crimes and Misdemeanors,'' my personal favorite for its ingenious weaving of Mr. Allen's side-splitting, self-deprecating humor with a tragic tale of moral confusion among Manhattan's wealthy elites, probably best shows Mr. Allen's chillingly pessimistic moral view.

When his romancing of Soon-Yi broke during the Republican National Convention in Houston last year, some conservatives smirked that Mr. Allen offered a good example of liberal '60s anything-goes morality run amok. But anything-goes morality was invented neither in the '60s nor by the Left.

Besides, Mr. Allen's no liberal. He did not emerge as a result of '60s social change, but rather as a counterpoint to it. Woody Allen's world has given up on social change of the right or the left. It is populated by narcissists whose deep cynicism toward social movements and transformations results in one ultimate truth: It's a dog-eat-dog world.

His most political movie probably is ''Bananas,'' which draws comedy from the idea that revolutions bring only reruns of the same old problems.

One could just as easily argue that the Allen morality of self-indulgence, nihilistic values and anything-goes morality is more appropriate to Wall Street, the holy city of conservative money worshipers.

Good liberals, like good conservatives, have a sense of optimism, sometimes to a utopian degree, about the future and the perfectibility of humanity. They believe there are moral values worth fighting for. One of them is good parenting.

Neither fame, fortune nor even artistic genius is a guaranteed predictor that someone will make a good parent. Parenting changes your life. It is, among other things, the ultimate expression of optimism, sacrifice and humility, a time for putting someone else's needs above your own.

Who knows? Had Woody learned those qualities earlier, we might have lost some great movies, but Mia's kids might have gained a better parent. Perhaps the rest of us can learn from his mistakes.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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