The Sins of the Director

Published February 22, 2014
'Blue Jasmine' star Cate Blanchett with the film's director Woody Allen.

At this year’s Academy Awards presentation all the talk will be about Our Cate. Will her chances of taking out the Oscar for Best Actress be damaged by that open letter to the New York Times in which Dylan Farrow claimed to have been molested at age seven by her stepfather, Woody Allen? “What if it had been your child, Cate Blanchett?” wrote Farrow provocatively.
This question must be taken as rhetorical as there is no sensible answer. Like dozens of other well known actors, Blanchett’s only crime was to take part in a Woody Allen film. At this moment Allen’s new feature, Magic in the Moonlight, starring Colin Firth, Emma Stone and Jacki Weaver, is already in post-production.
Judging by her recent success in the BAFTAs it appears there is no reason to revise Blanchett’s status as the short-odds Oscar favourite. Although the United States is prone to fits of moral outrage, Hollywood is largely immune. George Clooney and his peers may get angry about the crisis in Dafur, but they are less likely to make judgements about another celebrity’s private life. There are too many skeletons in too many closets. Despite the long-running accusations, Allen has never been charged with any offence and must be allowed the presumption of innocence.
Given that many actors would kill for an Oscar it seems fanciful to imagine the Academy punishing Cate Blanchett for not dissociating herself from a suspect director. Neither is it clear what Dylan Farrow expects. Should Blanchett denounce Allen as a child molester on the basis of the New York Times piece and refuse any awards for her performance in this tainted flick?
Such a stand would put her in a very lonely place. Over the past couple of decades it has become a Hollywood status symbol to star in one of Allen’s increasingly lacklustre features. Appear in a Woody Allen film and your standing as an emerging talent seems to be be confirmed, even though there is no mega pay packet involved.
Allen has sought out the best and brightest to help attract audiences to a body of work that has grown increasingly cynical and formulaic. People will pay to see stars such as Scarlett Johansson, Penélope Cruz and Alec Baldwin, even when they’ve grown tired of the neurotic Allen template.
Blue Jasmine is no masterpiece but it is Allen’s best film in many years. For Cate Blanchett it offered the kind of role actors fantasise about – a character that plummets from the pinnacle of wealth and high society to the bottom of the heap. Jasmine clings to whatever threads of dignity she can muster while being drawn back into the working class existence she thought she had escaped forever. It’s a powerful character study, and a dark fable for the era of the Global Financial Crisis.
Of all offences against conventional morality pedophilia generates the most extreme reactions. One need only think back to the firestorm that engulfed photographer, Bill Henson, in 2008, to realise how violently people react to any suggestion of impropriety towards children.
The hair-trigger nature of these responses makes it all the more imperative to judge cases on the basis of evidence not supposition. As such, it seems manifestly unfair to can Blue Jasmine on the basis of an incident that allegedly occurred more than 20 years ago. The acrimonious split of 1992 between Allen and Mia Farrow has ended in stalemate, with Dylan and her brother Ronan taking their mother’s side, while the other brother, Moses, defends Allen.
Allen says it’s a smear from which he has already been exonerated, while Dylan claims that the evidence tendered in the New York Supreme Court in 1992 left her step-father under a cloud, concluding that his behaviour was “grossly inappropriate” though not sufficient for a conviction.
Whatever the truth, the story will plague the reclusive Allen for the rest of his life and have a negative impact on his relationships with actors and audiences. What it won’t do is make Blue Jasmine a lesser film, or take anything away from Blanchett’s performance.
Many Hollywood directors such as John Ford and John Huston, have been aggressive drunks, but we don’t think less of The Searchers or The Maltese Falcon. Roman Polanski, who was arrested for having sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977 now elicits widespread sympathy due to his heavy-handed treatment by the American courts. Unlike Allen, Polanski is a convicted criminal, but this doesn’t mean films such as Chinatown or Rosemary’s Baby can be crudely dismissed.
The question of whether an artist’s work can be judged on the basis of his or her life is one of the world’s oldest dinner party conversations. Picasso was a bastard, goes the argument, but an artistic genius. The same goes for Rembrandt, who probably ruined his own career with his vain and grasping ways; and for a host of famous artists, writers, composers and impresarios. Think of Australia’s most famous author, Patrick White, who took pleasure in reducing people to tears and was happy to call himself a “monster”. In the pantheon of all-time greats, the bastards are probably in the majority.
There are exceptions to the rule. For instance, no-one ever had a harsh word to say about Joseph Haydn or the Douanier Rousseau.
Many great artists owe at least part of their fame to their notoriety as human beings. Caravaggio was a murderer on the run; Francis Bacon a compulsive gambler with a taste for rough trade, and Balthus a self-aggrandising liar obsessed with little girls. There were authors such as Jean Genet, jailbird and thief; and William Burroughs, a drug fiend who killed his wife while playing ‘William Tell’. An extreme case is the 16th century composer, Carlo Gesualdo, who butchered his wife and her lover, but wrote music that is still acclaimed for its spiritual depths.
A sexual adventurer such as Lucian Freud acted as if he couldn’t give a damn about anything but his own pleasures. The elderly Kingsley Amis went one step further, making racist and anti-Semitic pronouncements in a deliberate attempt to shock and offend. Those who knew him well said these statements were contrary to his actual beliefs, but provoked by alcoholism and misanthropy. To avoid the work of Louis-Ferdinand Céline because of his anti-Semitism would be to ignore one of the most original and powerful writers of the modern era.
All art draws on the creator’s life experience but if we cannot separate a book from its author or a film from its director we are ignoring the role of the imagination. It is even less appropriate to presume that because an author or a director is a morally corrupt person anything he or she makes will be subject to the same corruption.
One need only look at Walt Disney – recently slammed by Meryl Streep as a racist, an anti-Semite and a ‘gender bigot’ – and ask if those personal proclivities had any impact on the way his films were received.
None of this provides an excuse if Allen is guilty as charged, but we will probably never learn what really happened between him and Dylan Farrow. The bitterness, recriminations and suspicion are here to stay, but so are more than 20 features Allen has completed since the family bust-up in 1992. The latest outburst may hasten Allen’s long-anticipated retirement or it may dissuade celebrities from appearing in his films. What it shouldn’t do is prevent Cate Blanchett from securing the Oscar that is almost within her grasp. It would be a travesty if the sins of the director were visited upon his actors.