In 1992 I was an indie filmmaker in New York with a first feature about to be released theatrically. The poster has a review quote that was a dream for me, the highest praise possible: it compared the sensibility of my film to Woody Allen.
The breakup of Woody Allen and Mia Farrow was taking place in real time. It's hard to remember now how crazy it was: the tabloid headlines, Woody's press conferences. After investigations into charges of sexual abuse of his adopted daughter Dylan, Allen sued for custody of his son, Satchel, now known as Ronan Farrow, and the two children Moses and Dylan.
I wandered into the courtroom to see for myself. Woody and Mia had already testified so the spectator gallery had plenty of available seats.
The first thing I noticed when I walked into the courtroom was that, of all the people involved in the case, one wasn’t dressed for court. Allen’s corduroy pants were dirty and dragging on the ground. His trademark plaid shirt was rumpled.
I couldn’t figure out if this was strategy, arrogance, or some kind of mental disorder that was playing out in defiance of legal advice. Was Woody saying "fuck you" to the judge while petitioning him for custody of his children? Was he dressed as the Woody Allen character in case the Judge was a fan? Could he not be bothered to adhere to rules everyone else respects, even with his children at stake?
If you knew me you’d know that I am the farthest thing from the fashion police but for some reason it bothered me. Basically, I thought, “What an asshole.”
I was and am a huge passionate fan of Woody Allen’s work, so I’ll admit this: I was hoping to to hear that he was the guy I knew from his movies. Woody Allen had a moral voice mixed with a comic voice. It's astonishing to me that although I identified as a feminist - a radical feminist - I went along with the culture's acceptance of Manhattan, the movie in which the Woody Allen character is having an affair with a 17-year-old high school girl played by Mariel Hemingway.
I went to the trial hoping to see the Woody Allen I knew from his films, a mensch with a nuanced view of human flaws, his own and others.
As it turned out, you couldn’t sit through that trial, all or even just a few days of it, and not have your heart broken. That’s not only true for fans of his work, and if you're watching Allen v. Farrow, your heart will break all over again. Not for Woody, but for Mia, Dylan, and all the children.
Woody Allen was famously in psychoanalysis, every day of his adult life if his reputation is to be believed. In the courtroom on Lafayette Street, I watched therapist after therapist testify. On one of those days, the questioning focused on the period of time after Mia Farrow discovered the nude photographs of Soon-Yi at Woody’s apartment.
Why didn’t he visit his children for six weeks? You may have heard Mia Farrow ragefully prevented him from seeing his children.
A therapist explained: Woody was supposed to visit them at Mia’s Connecticut house but she wouldn’t let him stay in the main house; he had to stay in the guest house. (Understandable, I thought, since he was screwing her daughter.)
Woody Allen is a germophobe, the testimony continued.
The guest house shower had a drain that Woody felt was angled in such a way as to collect germs. Therefore Woody could not stay in the guest house. Therefore he did not visit his children. I’m telling the court what Woody told me, the therapist said.
After the first day of listening to this, I called my mother. “You have to come see this,” I told her. She wanted to see a Broadway show, like we usually did when my three siblings and I gathered at her house for Passover. “And then go to El Quijote.”
El Quijote was our favorite lobster restaurant. We will, I said. But the trial is in lower Manhattan and it’s free. We reminisced about our favorite film, Annie Hall, and the scene with the lobster. I suddenly found myself worrying I might ruin my mother’s appreciation of Woody Allen.
“Anyway,” she said, and started talking about my father and his betrayal of her with a younger woman. “At least your father’s girlfriend isn’t in high school. Okay, let’s see what Woody Allen has to say for himself.”
So my mother Helen, and my siblings Richard, Danny, and Julie went back to the trial with me.
We sat together on the wooden benches exchanging WTF glances as the anecdotes kept coming. None of them seemed to help Allen’s case. At one point, the judge interrupted a therapist put on the stand by Allen’s lawyer.
“Would you say Mr. Allen is evil?” he asked. “Whoa,” I thought. I didn’t see that one coming. The therapist, Woody’s witness, hesitated. The pause seemed to go on forever.
“I wouldn’t use the word ‘evil’,” she said, finally. “I don’t characterize people that way. I look at behaviors.”
She said Woody Allen’s behaviors were deeply damaging to his children but he couldn’t see it. He doesn’t understand the consequences of his behavior for children, she said.
Therapist after therapist, hired by Mia, hired by Woody, hired by the court, said essentially the same thing: Woody Allen didn’t get it. And they could not make him get it.
I started to wonder what Woody Allen talked about with all these shrinks. Kierkegaard? Pirandello? His movie reviews? How could the writer who wrote such endearing comedic characters be such a jerk? The auteur who had filmed Hannah and Her Sisters seemed nowhere in evidence.
Woody Allen as best man for his high school friend Mickey Rose.
Rose and Allen collaborated on Take the Money and Run and Bananas.
The actress Louise Lasser, Allen's second wife, at right.
I hadn’t thought about this particular Oxenberg family Passover for years, but when the HBO docuseries Allen v. Farrow started, social media exploded, not for the first time, as if the two were on trial, again, in the court of popular opinion. I found myself arguing with people claiming that Woody had been exonerated. Facts didn’t matter. It was like debating Trump voters.
For the record, Woody Allen lost not one, but three court battles, including the custody trial I attended. As Maureen Orth wrote in Vanity Fair in 2014, quoting a 33-page decision readily available online, Judge Wilk, who presided over the case, found that Mr. Allen’s behavior toward Dylan was “grossly inappropriate and that measures must be taken to protect her.”
Wilk also concluded that there is “no credible evidence to support Mr. Allen’s contention that Ms. Farrow coached Dylan or that Ms. Farrow acted upon a desire for revenge against him for seducing Soon-Yi.”
Woody Allen was exonerated by one institution: the Yale-New Haven Child Abuse Center. The notes of the two social workers who interviewed Dylan were destroyed, which contradicts the usual practice. Both staff members and the clinic’s director refused to testify. All we know for sure is that Dylan was questioned nine times - far more than any child sexual abuse survivor is normally interviewed. This could be seen as a form of abuse in itself.
The producers of the HBO docuseries raised doubts about Allen’s influence on the Yale program’s director. You could fault them for hinting at this without sufficient evidence to nail the charge if it weren’t for the stunning evidence that Allen waged a campaign not only to control the media narrative with the help of longtime publicist Leslee Dart, but also to use whatever political influence he could muster in New York, which remained, at the time, very much the New York of notorious fixer Roy Cohn.
That effort may have included leaning on then-Mayor David Dinkins to fire a highly respected New York City social worker who had also found that abuse was likely.
Mia Farrow and Jeff Daniels in 1985's Purple Rose of Cairo
Why does the story still make people so hysterical, take sides? It’s not just that the era of #metoo is upon us. Or the defensiveness of men.
It’s not the enduring power of the myth that Woody Allen created for himself, the nebbish who triumphs, the Jewish boy who gets the gorgeous shiksa (many shiksas, in fact). The auteur.
Certainly the massive public relations effort Allen mounted, and continues to this day, has had the desired effect. I don't think that explains the case's fascination, either.
As a Woody Allen fan, still, sort of, I think it comes down to art and life. In The Purple Rose of Cairo, art that comes down off the screen to become life. In the film, Cecilia, a downtrodden waitress, goes to a film to escape her pallid life and loveless marriage.
Cecilia - played by Mia Farrow - tries to navigate the two worlds. She makes the “moral” choice by deciding to stay with a real life man, but in the end, loses herself in movies again. Because real life just doesn’t cut it.
We Americans have always loved the myth and hated truth. We can’t face it. Howard Hawks knew it. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
And the legend is the man's story, cowboy or nebbish.
Allen leaving the New York State appellate court in 1992.
When the trial’s ten weeks neared an end, so did our vacation. By this time, people had wearied of the soap opera and the spectator seats were practically empty. The crowd was mostly working reporters and the Oxenberg family. It must have been a slow news day when one of the local TV news crews asked my brother Danny, a musician in the cult rock group, The Supreme Dicks, for an opinion.
“No comment,” he said.
My mother, Helen, was in a similar frame of mind. She wrote an advice column and her motto was, take my advice, I’m not using it. Possibly she’d heard enough about other people’s problems in her work life.
“Alright. I’ve seen enough,” she told me.
“Wait,” I said. They were about to introduce evidence showing how crazy Mia was, how vindictive, how violent. Woody Allen’s attorney Elkan Abramowitz approach the witness stand with an exhibit. A velvet-covered box with a Valentine’s heart inside and photos of Mia and the kids. With sharp cocktail forks stuck in their hearts.
Keep in mind that when Mia discovered pornographic Polaroids of her daughter Soon-Yi at Woody’s apartment, Woody was finalizing his adoption of Soon-Yi’s youngest siblings.
I looked at my mother, pretty sure she was thinking what I was thinking: “Woody Allen is damned lucky those forks aren’t in his neck.”
The heart wants what it wants. All in all, I thought Mia making her feelings into an arts and crafts project showed admirable restraint. My sister Julie, a clinical psychologist herself, pointed out that rather than sending Woody a boiled bunny or a picture of him with a knife in his heart, Mia had sent him a tableau of what he had done to her and her family.
In Allen v. Farrow, filmmakers Amy Ziering, Kirby Dick, and investigative producer Amy Herdy interview social workers and law enforcement officials, including a moving conversation with the Connecticut prosecutor who has, for decades, second-guessed his decision to spare Dylan the trauma of testifying in court.
He has good reason, and not just because Dylan's side of the story didn't come out until much later. The case was so high-profile that it, arguably, set the template for similar court cases. The filmmakers cite statistics about the legal strategy of using a concept called "parental alienation," the effort by one parent to turn kids against the other parent.
When it comes to sexual abuse, the use of this idea has had horrifying results. In 98 percent of cases when men accused of sexual abuse used the parental alienation strategy in court, family courts did not accept the child's sexual abuse accusations as true. Even though the whole idea came from an unscientific pop psychology book, every year, custody courts require an estimated 58,000 children to have unsupervised contact with the parent accused of abuse. Often these parents win custody of their children and, in 88 percent of these cases, the abuse continues, according to the Journal of Child Custody.
There is a sense of unreality about those statistics. They are so extreme. So many of the perpetrators skate, as if they're innocent bystanders.
One perspicacious writer points out that Woody gives the sexual initiative to Mariel Hemingway's character. He does the same with Soon-Yi in his memoir. According to the book, the first time he kissed her, Soon-Yi told him she was wondering when he would make a move. He has said that Soon-Yi wanted him to take the pictures.
Maybe so. But I almost want to hear what the "good" Woody Allen would say about the dissembling one.
How was it even possible that the writer and director of films with serious moral purpose could be so clueless?
In 1992, I was agnostic about the sexual abuse charges. By 2021, when I watched Allen v. Farrow, I couldn’t bury the lead.
Without a doubt, Allen was inappropriate with Dylan, didn’t get it, made her feel unsafe. Did he touch her genitals with his finger in an attic one day?
There is countervailing evidence from the other children, from family friends, from the courts. In HBO's podcast, Priscilla Gilman, the high school girlfriend of Mia's son Matthew Previn, who is now an author and advocate for parents with autistic children, spoke passionately about "the big, bustling, nourishing family," and Farrow's "attentiveness to the uniqueness of each child."
Did Mia Farrow, like any other mother, lose the plot now and then?
All of that is beside the point. It is Woody's narrative and it doesn't stand up to logical scrutiny. Was Woody Allen forced to "behave inappropriately" with seven-year-old Dylan because Mia screamed at the kids? That line of thinking could let a whole lot of sex offenders off the hook.
Ronan Farrow, in the documentary, reports that Allen offered to pay for his college education in return for Ronan's defamation of Farrow, casting doubt on Moses' account.
I trust Ronan on the facts. And I realize now that I was unfair to Dylan.
Over the last several weeks, as Allen v. Farrow aired, and I found myself in those eternal, pointless Facebook arguments, I had to look at my own ambivalence. It’s so untalked about. Fathers who make daughters feel unsafe, on a continuum from unambiguous sexual violation to something’s “off.” There is so much boundary-crossing affection that doesn’t feel right, doesn’t feel safe. I’ll bet a lot of them, like Woody Allen, don’t even know they're doing anything wrong.
I think the daughters know.
Far from being exonerated, Woody Allen was denied custody. This ruling was upheld by two appellate courts. He was found to be a danger to his children. His contact with the children was limited to supervised visits.
Regarding Dylan’s claim of sexual abuse, though they were never adjudicated, the trial court found Dylan’s story credible. The Appellate Court of the State of New York went even further, finding that the preponderance of evidence “suggests that the abuse did occur.”
Those are facts. Not opinion: facts. If you believe Woody Allen was exonerated by every court you believe a lie, a narrative created by Woody Allen’s publicity machine, that enabled him to keep making movies and enabled us to keep enjoying them if we chose.
Mia Farrow had acted in Woody's movies for over a decade. He told her she didn't need her own agent; she could work with his. After their breakup, she only acted in two films, both in Europe. She threw herself into international humanitarian work for the United Nations, speaking on behalf of victims of genocidal attacks in Darfur; she still travels to South Sudan. This isn't a photo op for her, just as her call to adopt orphaned kids was hard-wired.
Allen was never charged; he went on with his career uninterrupted, he married his children’s sister, whom he had met when she was ten years old. From the evidence presented in the documentary, it seems likely that he began a sexual relationship with her when she was in high school. Ancient history now, almost as ancient as Woody, who is 85.
The story isn’t about Woody anymore, his innocence, his victimization. It’s time to tell the story of the people who lived with the consequences of his actions. HBO is telling the story from Dylan’s and Mia’s point of view, but you can bet their legal department has vetted every moment of it. I am very grateful to HBO for taking the chance to bring the truth to anyone willing to see it.
There is one person who was exonerated by every court: Mia Farrow.
Mia Farrow in South Sudan, 2019. She was 75 years old.
You can feel it in the air, the desire to hate on Mia Farrow. Reminiscent of Hillary, people just “know” there’s something wrong with her, without quite knowing why. Mia adopted (aka rescued from being orphans) too many children! I don’t know her; I’m sure she’s screwed up and not perfect. But I can relay this fact. After ten weeks of a trial initiated by Woody Allen, the purpose of which was to prove that Mia Farrow is an unfit parent, with all the resources at his disposal to do so, he failed.
The trial court and two appellate courts specifically found Mia Farrow to be a fit parent.
I studied recordings of Woody's routines when I briefly tried comedy while raising money to finish my film. He was smart, and he was hilarious. His movies combined satire, romance, nostalgia, and moral philosophy. He played with form. I owe a big debt of gratitude to Woody Allen. As a viewer, and an artist.
Annie Hall is still my favorite film. Woody Allen put an asterisk on the enjoyment of his films for those who love his work; he made loving him as a father impossible for his own children.
The custody trial I attended was a long time ago and I’ve gone back to the court documents to check my memories. I found a dissenting opinion in the appellate court ruling. I don’t want to cherry pick the facts; I’m including it to show the other side. The real side.
The judge agreed with upholding the trial courts’ custody ruling but thought the conditions of visitation could be more liberal for Satchel, now Ronan.
"Mr. Allen would welcome Satchel by hugging him, telling him how much he loved him, and how much he missed him." Also described by both supervisors "was a kind of sequence that Mr. Allen might say, I love you as much as the river, and Satchel would say something to the effect that I love you as much as New York City..."
Then Mr. Allen might say, I love you as much as the stars, and Satchel would say, I love you as much as the universe.
Sadly, there was also witness testimony that Satchel had told Mr. Allen: "I like you, but I am not supposed to love you.”
The little boy who loved his father as much as New York City and as much as the universe lost him. Ronan deserved to have an uncomplicated Dad, just as much as Dylan did.
In a miracle of karmic justice he grew up to be one of the journalists who brought down Harvey Weinstein’s decades-long reign of entitled abuse of women.
I hope Woody is proud of his son. He should be.
I’m going to watch the finale this Sunday with an open mind and heart. I hope you will as well. You’re entitled to your own opinion. You’re not entitled to your own facts.
Woody Allen may not be able to see the consequences of his behavior.
But you can.
I have an appeal to Woody Allen, today. Woody – you’re on my poster! Please don’t lie anymore about what the courts said or didn’t say. You were never prosecuted you never will be. Let Dylan have her say.
That can be your gift to her.
Jan Oxenberg is an independent filmmaker-turned-TV writer and producer who has been on the staffs of 11 drama shows including Parenthood, Pretty Little Liars, and Cold Case. She is currently co-executive producer of a new Apple series. Her film Thank You And Good Night was re-released by the Criterion Channel this year.