Woody Allen is writing and directing a television show for Amazon.
This is big news for both parties. Amazon, the newest player in the prestige-TV game, just nabbed two Golden Globes on Sunday for the excellent Transparent, earning itself some hardware and high-profile recognition; Jeffrey Tambor, while accepting his award, called Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos his “new best friend.” Allen is a cinema legend who could probably keep making movies every day until he dies. His willingness to switch from a big screen to a small one is a major statement about the caliber of television and its supposedly-second-tier status relative to film. The “Untitled Woody Allen Project” will be a half-hour series, available only on Prime Instant Video in the U.S., U.K. and Germany.
There is also this: Allen is an alleged child molester. We’re coming up on the one year anniversary of Dylan Farrow’s open letter in the New York Times about the abuses she claims Allen inflicted on her throughout her childhood. Nicholas Kristof gave Farrow his column space because, as he wrote in an introduction, “it’s time for the world to hear Dylan’s story in her own words.”
Farrow’s letter began:
What’s your favorite Woody Allen movie? Before you answer, you should know: when I was seven years old, Woody Allen took me by the hand and led me into a dim, closet-like attic on the second floor of our house. He told me to lay on my stomach and play with my brother’s electric train set. Then he sexually assaulted me. He talked to me while he did it, whispering that I was a good girl, that this was our secret, promising that we’d go to Paris and I’d be a star in his movies. I remember staring at that toy train, focusing on it as it traveled in its circle around the attic. To this day, I find it difficult to look at toy trains.
She went on to describe, in detail, how her health has suffered in numerous ways as a result of the trauma; how seeing Allen’s face, even on a poster, still sends her into a panic; how Allen used “his sexual relationship with my sister,” Soon-yi, Farrow’s adopted daughter who Allen ultimately married, “to cover up the abuse he inflicted on me.” She wrote plainly but passionately, expressing her disgust at the world’s willingness to consider her situation too ambiguous to understand while, for her part, being as unambiguous as possible: “Woody Allen is a living testament to the way our society fails the survivors of sexual assault and abuse.”
Dylan’s allegations against her father had been swirling around the public consciousness for decades. The accusations first came to light in 1992, during the tabloid frenzy that was Allen’s breakup with his then-girlfriend, Mia Farrow; a Vanity Fair profile of Mia Farrow began, “There was an unwritten rule in Mia Farrow’s house that Woody Allen was never supposed to be left alone with their seven-year-old adopted daughter, Dylan.” But the Times column marked the first time Dylan had written or spoken publicly about her experience. In the intervening years, a dull roar of suspicion around Woody Allen was drowned out by the widespread adoration and admiration he enjoys.
She wrote the column, in part, because of last year’s Golden Globe Awards, at which Allen was honored with the Cecil D. B DeMille award (the one bestowed upon George Clooney this year). During the show, Ronan Farrow, Dylan’s brother, tweeted his criticism of the HFPA:
Missed the Woody Allen tribute – did they put the part where a woman publicly confirmed he molested her at age 7 before or after Annie Hall?
— Ronan Farrow (@RonanFarrow) January 13, 2014
Mia Farrow sent out this missive right before Diane Keaton presented the award to Allen, who did not attend the ceremony:
Time to grab some icecream & switch over to #GIRLS
— mia farrow (@MiaFarrow) January 13, 2014
Allen was never prosecuted for these crimes. As Farrow described it in the Times, her mother elected not to pursue charges once a custody hearing denied Allen visitation rights, “despite findings of probable cause by the State of Connecticut – due to, in the words of the prosecutor, the fragility of the child victim.'”
Yet public opinion remains divided over Allen. Respected actors continue to work with him and, as this Amazon deal demonstrates, he’s still an in-demand name. Though Allen is jokingly quoted in Amazon’s press release as saying, “My guess is that Roy Price [Vice President of Amazon Studios] will regret this,” clearly the sense over at Amazon is Allen is a viable, desirable property, who will draw in talent and audiences alike.
Compare this to the swift downfall of Bill Cosby: in the wake of renewed and mounting rape allegations against the comedian, NBC killed its Cosby sitcom-in-progress, and Netflix “postponed” (but, basically, killed) Bill Cosby 77, a stand-up special originally slated to stream the day after Thanksgiving. This was what the people, overwhelmingly, wanted: in a Variety poll, 72 percent of respondents thought NBC should cut ties with Cosby.
The speed with which Cosby has gone from revered to reviled is astonishing: the Hannibal Buress stand-up set that lit the powder keg was on October 16. By the end of the year, over a dozen women had come forward to publicly accuse Cosby of drugging and sexually assaulting them, or trying to; by this weekend, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were cracking jokes in their Golden Globes monologue about how “Sleeping Beauty just thought she was getting coffee with Bill Cosby.”
Personal beliefs and legal repercussions aside, no company head in his or her right mind would announce a deal with Cosby like the one Amazon has with Allen.
What makes the public shrug off Allen’s alleged abuses but collectively shun Cosby? When is an alleged rapist not an alleged rapist but a we-can-never-know-what-happened-ist? Is there some tipping point number of victims after which we all decide, “Okay, not that many people can be lying”? And why is our default defense always on the side of the accused, and not the accuser, even though we know that rape is rampant and false allegations are incredibly rare? Why do repeated accusations of rape just bounce off some beloved figures and burn others to the ground?
Our collective vision of Bill Cosby was that of a warm father, the Jell-o pudding man. His crimes feel personal to the viewers who love him, who grew up on The Cosby Show, thinking of him as the Platonic ideal of a dad. Audiences feel betrayed on an intimate level, like they were sold a false bill of goods. And so the dismantling of Cosby’s myth, though it was many, many years in the making, was ultimately quick.
Allen’s public persona has never relied on the same mainstream appeal. He is, in the eyes of even his most ardent fans, a bit of weirdo; his self-aware awkwardness is essential to his shtick. A person could throw the whole Allen affair away as too bizarre to understand: sure, the thinking goes, Allen seems like a creep — we’re talking about a guy who married his own daughter — but maybe that whole famous family is just a little off.
The accusations against Allen come from a family member, and many believe families should be left to work things out on their own, in private. (Or, more likely, people would rather not weigh in and can use “respecting their privacy” this as a convenient excuse to not get involved.) When called upon to comment about Dylan’s Times letter, both Cate Blanchett and Alec Baldwin, stars of Blue Jasmine, expressed as much, Blanchett saying “it’s obviously been a long and painful situation for the family” and Baldwin tweeting (but then deleting) “You are mistaken if you think there is a place for me, or any outsider, in this family’s issue.” This, even though Dylan Farrow obviously wanted the exact opposite of privacy: she published her letter in the hopes the world would read it and hold Allen accountable for the abuses she describes.
Though any physical evidence against Cosby and Allen would be long gone by now, there are ways to corroborate the stories of Cosby’s accusers: confirming that he stayed in certain hotels in certain cities on certain dates, for instance. But there’s only the word of Dylan Farrow and the family members — biased by definition — who believe her; you could corroborate that Woody Allen was in his own house, but what, exactly, would that prove?
Is it easier to believe Cosby’s accusers because enough time has passed and these survivors are grown women? These are women with their lives together, women with careers and, in many cases, husbands and children; women who have grown into the kind of victims we believe, because they look to all the world like reliable narrators of their own lives. For many, Farrow’s claims are untrustworthy by their very nature; there’s the impression that children make things up, children misremember, children can be coached to say whatever you need them to say. No wonder victims of child sexual abuse often fear no one will believe them.
Is it easier to believe Cosby’s accusers because we live in a culture that assumes the worst about black men and the revelation of Cosby’s lifetime of sexual violence confirmed deep-rooted prejudices against men of color? Is it because, for black men accused of rape, being a celebrity is actually a liability?
Is it easier to believe Cosby’s accusers because Cosby’s most universally-treasured performance was a mainstream television show, not niche, highbrow films? Because we more readily accept unseemly behavior in the name of “art” — because we have made such exceptions before, for Roman Polanski and Terry Richardson and Michael Jackson and too many others to list — than we do in the name of “entertainment”?
Is it easier to believe Cosby’s accusers because there are so many of them? The sheer number of women coming forward, and the esteem with which some — particularly Beverly Johnson — are held in the public eye, require a Cosby denier to not just doubt the word of one or two people but to fabricate an elaborate conspiracy theory, to insist there was collusion among a multitude of strangers with no reason to ever contact one another or unite to destroy a widely-adored celebrity. The allegations against Cosby span not just years but decades. It is harder to believe Dylan Farrow, because she is just that: Dylan Farrow, one woman. It is, literally, he said, she said.
The formulation of public opinion isn’t a science so much as an alchemy: so many factors and biases and perceptions colliding with each other until somehow we arrive at an almost-consensus. For now, though some backlash is already brewing, Allen still rules by the will of the people. But, as Cosby discovered, that can change at any time. In a moment. With a joke.