Woody Allen isn’t trusted by every woman in the world. Yet he may have just secured the sixth Oscar for an actress from one of his films after Diane Keaton in Annie Hall, Dianne Weist for Hannah and Her Sisters, Dianne Weist again for Bullets Over Broadway, Mira Sorvino for Mighty Aphrodite, and Penelope Cruz from Vicky Cristina Barcelona. Women can trust him to get them a golden boy; they just can’t trust him with their actual children.
Too soon to talk about Cate Blanchett’s evolving Oscar chances? No, actually, it might be too late.
Unless you’ve been living under a Gibraltar-size rock, you’re aware of Dylan Farrow’s luridly detailed recent letter to the New York Times, where she put a new face on 22-year-old accusations of child abuse and general creepiness. You may also know of Woody Allen’s forceful response in the same newspaper. Perhaps your social media feeds have mentioned pedophilia, innocent until proven guilty, marrying your step-daughter, separating the art from the artist, something along these lines?
You might ask, what does any of this have to do with the wonderful and phenomenally talented Cate Blanchett? In January, she was the undisputed front-runner for this year’s Best Actress Oscar. She won every “pre” award in sight. In any other year, she’d be cruising to a win like Helen Mirren did for The Queen. Slam-dunks don’t get any slam-dunkier.
Then came Dylan Farrow’s letter. Which actually said, “What if it had been your child, Cate Blanchett?” Blanchett’s career-best performance (and that’s saying something) happens to be in Woody Allen’s 2013 film, Blue Jasmine. Now, to read the Oscar commentariat – look at the “expert” names at GoldDerby.com, then go to their thoughtful websites, then also read the comments – you’d think this was just the latest dirty pool to hit the ever-slimier Oscar campaign season.
But it isn’t. For one thing, this is unprecedented. No self-identified abuse victim has come forward for the first time against a public figure while also naming award shows as causing her pain. Dylan Farrow wrote: “Last week, Woody Allen was nominated for his latest Oscar. But this time, I refuse to fall apart. For so long, Woody Allen’s acceptance silenced me. It felt like a personal rebuke, like the awards and accolades were a way to tell me to shut up and go away.” If you’re 100% sure that Woody Allen is 0% guilty, then okay, this may be the dirtiest Oscar pool of our lives.
But that’s another thing: even Allen said he believes that Dylan Farrow believes what she’s saying. And if we take Dylan and her friend (and New York Times columnist) Nicholas Kristof at their word, the timing had nothing to do with Blanchett, but was instead, in Kristof’s words, “because the Golden Globe lifetime achievement award to Allen ignited a debate about the propriety of the award.” Call me credulous, but I believe Dylan. If her intention was to undermine Allen’s Oscar chances, she would have come forward two years ago, when Midnight in Paris was such a force of nature (and when Allen won Best Original Screenplay). Though Allen is nominated for writing Blue Jasmine, he won’t win; that screenplay award is going to either Spike Jonze for Her or David O. Russell for American Hustle.
The Best Actress race is another story. Perhaps talking Oscar in the context of child abuse seems crass, and perhaps it is. All five of the Best Actress nominees – Amy Adams, Sandra Bullock, Judi Dench, Meryl Streep, and Blanchett – are millionaires. Whether or not one of them receives an Oscar (only for Adams would it even be a first Oscar) is the quintessence of a First World Problem; Dylan Farrow’s problem isn’t. You might say, well, we don’t know, we weren’t there, let the courts decide. But this isn’t about jail; this is about an utterly optional Oscar. One problem with Oscar sites is that the Oscars are rarely made to seem trivial, but in fact they are, compared to Dylan’s story. If an Oscar voter decides not to give Blanchett a little gold statue this year, that’s hardly the same as taking food out of a poor person’s mouth. The Academy gave an acting honor to Roberto Benigni; it’s not like voters have to defend the award’s integrity. Dylan Farrow said that such an award would cause her pain. If she believes what she’s saying – as Allen admits – you’re balancing a little laurel against an abuse victim’s suffering. Despite the cynicism on the Oscar sites, the truth is that Oscar voters haven’t been asked to make such a choice before.
When I said it might be too late, I meant that Oscar voters have already received their ballots, and some of them may have voted against Cate Blanchett because they were convinced by Dylan Farrow’s letter not to add anything to the Allen ledger. (Which nominee would benefit – Adams? Dench? I’m not going down that rabbit hole here.) We might pause a moment for irony: Blue Jasmine is obviously a post-recession gloss on Tennessee Williams’ immortal A Streetcar Named Desire, which as we all know is about a woman who returns to a family house where she hopes she can trust people, only to have that trust betrayed all the way up to a shocking rape. Is that what happened to Dylan Farrow? One writer compared the media’s treatment of Dylan’s mother, Mia Farrow, to the “gaslighting” of her character in Rosemary’s Baby; basically telling her that she’s crazy. In Allen’s remake of Streetcar, his blue Jasmine (Blanchett) isn’t raped or gaslit, making her clearly the author of her own tragic crazy. One can only imagine why the writer-director might see an over-entitled, over-40 blonde New Yorker that way.
This is where Woody Allen’s response letter comes in, and his words and persona carry powers that make him a Goliath compared to Dylan’s puny David. One of my smartest friends said that if Woody is guilty, his Times letter was the best argumentative prose since Descartes. I was struck by how such a relentlessly non-public person knew exactly how to speak to the public; no word-wasting, no jokes, but a sort of colloquial, narrative-inflected prose that couldn’t possibly be more convincing. (The parenthetical coda about these being his final words no matter what felt like the final shot of The Godfather.) I seriously doubt that J.D. Salinger could have come up with that letter if you gave him a year. With it, Allen probably secured a few more years of A-list actors working for him for scale. He’s down, but he’s not out. The question is how far down? Right now, Oscar voters don’t have to decide what happened in an attic between a much-lauded director and his 7-year-old daughter. Right now, they have to decide if the best performance of the year will actually win the Oscar (and it’s not like that always happens).
By the way, there’s a certain objectionable smugness on some right-wing outlets regarding this story that I don’t think we’d see if the accused director was Michael Bay. Let’s face it, many of these “journalists” don’t really like Woody Allen-type movies anyway. It’s not like they’re rushing to Whit Stillman’s or Nicole Holofcener’s films, even just to prove a point. On the other hand, perhaps they do have a point, because none of this circus – not one iota – would be the same if the accused were recent Best Director winners Tom Hooper or Michel Hanavicius, i.e. someone we don’t know. In such a case, we’d almost certainly identify with the victim and probably be ready to throw one of his actresses under the bus. But Woody Allen is Woody Allen, and his “legendary” persona makes an incalculable difference.
Though it’s a close call, I expect Blanchett DuBois will win. Hollywood has been known to close ranks before, and for similar reasons. One could argue that any time a child cries in a film, the director has perpetuated some kind of abuse. (For this reason, I fully expect that within my lifetime, children characters in films will only be played by CG creations a la Gollum.) If you live long enough in L.A. and see a certain amount of near-rape scenes and drunk driving and general scumbaggery, you learn to elevate the work above all and shut out the rest. (Or Robert Downey Jr. wouldn’t be America’s #1 star.) Almost everyone who has worked in the industry for 20 years has worked for someone who did something monstrous. In three weeks, Daniel Day-Lewis will be handing the Best Actress Oscar to someone. Anyone want to take away his Oscar for Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln? Allen stands accused of ruining one child’s life – no more. As producer, Spielberg ruined two kids’ lives when he killed them, and another actor, on the set of The Twilight Zone. (If that seems unfair to compare with Allen, recall that these were both one-time horrors.) Neither Spielberg nor director John Landis saw the inside of a prison cell, unlike notorious statutory rapist Roman Polanski. The director of the two highest-earning films ever, James Cameron, is infamous for using actresses the way some people use teabags; rumor has it that both Kate Winslet and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio were nearly drowned in two different films of his. (Winslet cites that as the reason she won’t work for him again; Mastrantonio was apparently blacklisted for ten years.) You may have heard of Mel Gibson (not to mention a few other creeps and borderline criminals). So let’s say Cate Blanchett loses all the voters who want to express solidarity with Dylan, but still gets votes from everyone who’s worked with, or for, Allen, Spielberg, Landis, Polanski, Cameron, and Gibson. Anyone want to bet against her?
How would this be different if Dylan Farrow had followed in her parents’ footsteps and become a movie star? Instead, Oscar voters have a stark choice to make: to honor the stated wishes of a self-identified abuse victim who they don’t know, or to rally to someone they see as one of their own even though they may not have personally met her. It’s an oddly zero-sum game. Either Dylan or Cate, but not both, will find she can rely upon the kindness of strangers.