This is how the Woody Allens of the world get the last word

Allen is far from the only powerful male celebrity who can control what he's asked about—and who gets to ask

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published May 12, 2016 7:08PM (EDT)

Woody Allen, 2016 Cannes Film Festival (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)
Woody Allen, 2016 Cannes Film Festival (Eric Gaillard/Reuters)

This isn't about whether Woody Allen sexually abused his daughter Dylan Farrow when she was 7 years old. This is about why men like Woody Allen — and Peyton Manning, and R. Kelly, and Jameis Winston, and Mike Tyson, and Roman Polanski — are so rarely even asked about the sexual assaults they've been accused of.

Did Woody Allen commit the repulsive crime his daughter so publicly and decisively said he did in her 2014 New York Times op-ed? Everybody's got an opinion about it, but the fact remains that Allen is innocent in the eyes of the law. In 1993, he was denied visitation rights to Dylan, but a judge called the evidence of abuse "inconclusive." Does Allen have a right to say that he addressed the charges in in his Times rebuttal, and that he has nothing further to add? Yes, actually he does. He is not currently facing a lawsuit. He is not currently charged with a crime.

But what's been pretty incredible to watch, over the past two years, is how Allen seems to have had the last word. His films — and his new television project — have continued to attract A-list, Oscar nominated stars. He's been the subject of respectful profiles, including a cover story, just last week, in the Hollywood Reporter that nodded to "a grown-up Dylan reasserting the [abuse] claims two years ago in The New York Times" in the intro before decorously moving to questions about his feelings about superhero movies and Miley Cyrus.

So it was a surprise when his son Ronan rebutted it in the same publication this week, in a feature about "just how potent the pressure can be to take the easy way out" and "Allen's powerful publicist, who had years earlier orchestrated a robust publicity campaign to validate my father's sexual relationship with another one of my siblings" — Farrow's adopted sister and Allen's wife of nearly 20 years, Soon-Yi Previn. Farrow also questioned, understandably, how "[r]eporters on the receiving end of this kind of PR blitz have to wonder if deviating from the talking points might jeopardize their access to all the other A-list clients."

It seemed his point was more than made for him when THR was consequently banned from an event where Allen was speaking, "in retaliation," THR says, "for publishing Farrow's essay."

This is what can happen when publications and their writers assert their curiosity, when they bring up topics that the celebrities they're profiling would rather you didn't. Writing in Salon Thursday, Jack Mirkinson claimed to be "sympathetic to the pressures that journalists face when dealing with aggressive publicists who threaten to torpedo a story if certain questions are raised," but then said that "sometimes you just have to suck it up and do your job."

Yet as a colleague who writes celebrity profiles said to me this week, "It's complicated. It's not about Woody Allen or journalists. It's about publicists more than any of them." And you can't do your job if your access to your subjects is denied. For countless freelancers, deviating from the puff piece script can mean a story being shut down and not getting paid. For publications, it can mean losing a publicist's stable of stars.

And that's no doubt why you can read Jameis Winston waxing forth on what he learned in his rookie season without a coherent word of what he learned from the lawsuit his alma matter had to settle after the Heisman winner was accused of raping a former student. That's why Peyton Manning gets to end his career as a Super Bowl hero, and brush off a rare press conference question about an alleged 1996 incident of physical and verbal harassment. That's why R. Kelly can stalk off an interview when the journalist actually does mention the detailed and "stomach churning" accusations of sexual abuse against him. That's why Mike Tyson blows his top when a reporter mentions his rape conviction.

When notable men have had terrible accusations aimed at them, they'd prefer you not ask. They'd rather, like Bill Cosby told reporter Brett Zongker in 2014, those kinds of things be "scuttled." And as Allen's team has made very clear this week, the consequences if you refuse to comply to a man who maybe doesn't like to hear the word no can be swift, steep and unambiguous.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Dylan Farrow Jameis Winston Mike Tyson Peyton Manning Ronan Farrow Sexual Abuse Woody Allen