HBO's wrenching "Allen v. Farrow" builds a damning case against Woody Allen's credibility & egomania

If you're still watching Woody Allen's films, this scathing four-part documentary series asks you to ponder why

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published February 21, 2021 3:30PM (EST)

Allen v. Farrow (HBO)
Allen v. Farrow (HBO)

What with all the documentary series and special reports that have taken on such fallen superstars as R. Kelly and Michael Jackson, some cinematic reckoning for Woody Allen was inevitable.

That the task fell filmmakers Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering to make HBO's "Allen v. Farrow" will surely be a relief to some and predispose others to approach everything contained within the four-part series with skepticism, perhaps even doubt.

Where you fall on this scale depends on how you would answer the first question Dylan Farrow poses in her 2014 open letter: "What's your favorite Woody Allen movie?"

How much you believe of "Allen v. Farrow" depends on your answer to that question. Dick and Ziering are aware of this, and a good portion of the series' fourth hour features critics and academics wrestling with the conundrum of whether one can separate the artist from his art, and whether one should have to once they've been made aware of said artist's odious actions.

We have known about Woody Allen's taste for women many years younger than he since 1979's "Manhattan," where he plays a 42-year-old twice-divorced comedy writer dating a 17-year-old girl. At the time of its release Allen also was twice divorced and 43, and while a man's art isn't always an imitation of his life one of the women featured in "Allen v. Farrow" alleges that Mariel Hemingway's "Manhattan" character is based on her.

The other version of that story is the one we already know, the tortured and squeamish "the heart wants what it wants" fairy tale that ends with Allen married to Soon-Yi Previn, Mia Farrow's adopted daughter. Farrow and Allen were still in a 12-year relationship when he and Previn conducted a secret affair that officially began while Previn was a freshman in college. According to witnesses who worked at Allen's apartment building and who are referenced in one episode, their sexual relationship was very much active while Soon-Yi was still in high school.

This is the part of Allen's mythology that people accept because millions of people have a favorite Woody Allen movie, or several; because he's a quirky artist, a writing and cinematic genius. His adopted daughter Dylan Farrow's 1992 sexual abuse allegations were buried and overlooked in the lurid coverage of Allen's affair with Soon-Yi, and the famed filmmaker's people successfully painted Mia Farrow as a woman scorned and a liar. (Allen consistently denies ever having abused Dylan.)

That is the case Dick and Ziering make in "Allen v. Farrow" which replays this history from Dylan's and Mia's points of view and is supported by several of Farrow's still-living children – including Fletcher Previn, Ronan Farrow, Frankie-Minh Farrow, Quincy Farrow and in audio-only clips, Daisy Previn.

Allen's side is presented via excerpts from the audiobook recording of his 2020 memoir "Apropos of Nothing." The series' filmmakers reached out to him, Soon-Yi and Moses Farrow, who eventually turned against his mother and accused her of being abusive. All of them declined to participate in the project.

Documentarians aren't obligated to be objective, and if you know Dick and Ziering's track record you can safely guess without seeing "Allen v. Farrow" that Woody Allen does not come off well here.

The filmmakers first came to national attention with their 2012 Oscar-nominated documentary "The Invisible War," a sobering account of the widespread sexual misconduct in the military and the near-total lack of recourse or support for victims. They applied the same critique of institutional failures to universities in 2015's "The Hunting Ground" and took on the music industry's propping up of rape culture in 2020's "On the Record."

None of these are facile examinations and each requires the filmmakers to piece together the victims' wrenching accounts and furiously mine documentation for whatever corroboration they can construct to make the most forceful case possible. The accused never agrees to give their side.

Mounting an attack against institutional failings is in some ways simpler than taking on a Hollywood god, especially one who cultivates an image of being awkward, nerdy and clever. We expect systems to fail us, but afford special dispensation to the artists whose work speaks to our souls.

If there is a dividing line in "Allen v. Farrow" that separates the film from being a straight bullseye and a piece that somewhat leaves wriggling room for reasonable doubt, it is one drawn in the ink of the viewer's compassion.

"Allen v. Farrow" is necessarily an intimate tragedy laid bare for all to see, one in which an abuse survivor agrees to bare her scars again and again, bringing unwarranted agony down on her mother in the process. Seen as a family quilt sewn with cherished home movies and old photos, placed next to recently filmed shots of Farrow sequestered at the family's Connecticut retreat, the series is a devastating tragedy.  

Taken as an assembly of documentation discrediting Allen, there's enough to back up Dylan's insistence that Allen sexually assaulted her when she was seven years old, including Farrow's videotaped interview of a very young Dylan explaining what happened to her in the days after the event was alleged to have taken place.  

The filmmakers polish the images' clarity in earliest episodes as the Farrows construct their portrait of family life, filtering the footage to look darker and fuzzier as Allen's shadow weighs heavier over them.

Then again, maybe that's the psychological effect of the head spinning at taking in everything that happens after Dylan's accusations go public. The recordings of phone conversations where he threatens to destroy Farrow, the step-by-step examination of all that led to the faulty Yale-New Haven Hospital report Allen made public to destroy Dylan and Mia's account, all of it chips away at Allen's credibility.

And there is valuable hindsight contributed by people like Connecticut prosecutor Frank Maco, who found enough evidence to pursue a criminal case against Allen but did not out of fear of traumatizing Dylan. So the world moved on, and Allen continues to make movies.

A few production aspects of "Allen v. Farrow" are questionable, like the lack of clarity as to when Daisy's audio interview was recorded and the context in which her comments were offered. We're left to assume that the filmmakers could only persuade her to lend her thoughts without using her image, but how do we know they made those recordings?

"Allen v. Farrow" also whisks through its examination of media complicity and the susceptibility of the gossip machine, making it easy for public relations machines around powerful men to prop up predators and bury their victims' reputations. We know this to be true based on what we know about other powerful beastly people – Harvey Weinstein, Les Moonves – and their influence they used to wield in newsrooms. But when the film insinuates that the New York mayor's office is behind the dismissal of a New York social worker's findings that Dylan's allegations were plausible, there isn't anything to back that up beyond hearsay.

But you can't deny the reality of the adult Dylan Farrow's uncontrollable shuddering at the memory of her abuse. The rage you may feel at witnessing all of this and watching a succession of female performers praise Allen for all the thoughtful parts he wrote for women, or at Diane Keaton defending Allen in a "Today" show interview with Matt Lauer (of course!), is very real.

Scene after scene showing Hollywood's elite giving Allen standing ovations and praising his genius long after Dylan's case went public in 1992 take on a nauseating tone.

I may be one of the rare cinema lovers who never liked Woody Allen. "Allen v. Farrow" crystallizes why that is by revealing the sinister egomania fueling his vision as it shapes his art and the world around him.  That makes me lucky because don't have to bargain with my conscience about the art and the artist. Given that he's preparing to direct his 51st film, which is being produced in Europe, I wonder how many people's affection for Allen will be affected by the case against him as it is presented here. 

"Allen v. Farrow" premieres Sunday, Feb. 21 at 9 p.m. on HBO.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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