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A thorny legacy: Woody Allen at 85

Verena Greb
November 30, 2020

Despite years of acclaim as a director, actor, musician and writer, Woody Allen's reputation is overshadowed by allegations of sexual abuse.

Woody Allen  seated by a window, peers at  his reflection in the mirror on the surface of a table
Image: Briquet-Hahn/ABACA/dpa/picture alliance

Allan Stewart Konigsberg started his career as a freelance gag writer while still a teenager, in the early 1950s. Before the decade was out, he was working under the name Woody Allen as a full time comedy writer with the likes of Mel Brooks and Neil Simon. By the early 1960s he had firmly cemented his reputation as gag writer.

By his own estimate, in 1962 alone, he wrote 20,000 jokes. But that was only the beginning of his career. From TV shows like the Ed Sullivan Show and the comedy clubs of Greenwich Village, Manhattan, he metamorphosed into what we know him as today: Woody Allen has become a household name as one of the 20th century's most influential filmmakers.

Cate Blanchett, Emma Stone, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix, and again and again Scarlett Johansson — the crème de la crème of Hollywood stars have played in films by the renowned screenwriter and director.

But his career has also been dogged by controversy.

Woody Allen
A career that spans decades: Woody Allen in 2019Image: Luca Bruno/AP Photo/picture alliance

Woody Allen has tapped the collective themes of the 20th century

Born in the Bronx on December 1, 1935, Allen is a true all-rounder. Not only has he written numerous successful plays, entertained the world with his jokes and filled his trophy cabinet with evidence of his filmmaking prowess — including four Oscars, a few Golden Globes, and the Cecil B. DeMille Award — he's also an accomplished clarinetist, playing in The Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band which has been touring around the world.

According to the biographer Stephan Reimertz, Allen has negotiated "the collective themes of the 20th century" in his oeuvre of over 50 films.

"It reflects the middle class with its complexes such as money, sex, culture and psychoanalysis, with their ever-new tests of self-esteem. According to the plebeian tradition of comedy, he finds those general human fears of failure in the seemingly small everyday problems of the middle class, downfall and death," wrote Reimertz.

Allen's films are often set in the metropolis of New York — such as Manhattan (1979), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), Everyone says: I love you (1999), Blue Jasmine (2013) or A Rainy Day in New York (2019). Allan Stewart Konigsberg knew the city from childhood, having grown up in New York's Jewish neighborhood Flatbush in Brooklyn.

Turning the camera on filmmakers and the movie industry

At the beginning of the new millennium, the aged Allen relocated his films primarily to European metropolises such as Barcelona, Paris or Rome.

In his 2019 film A Rainy Day in New York, however, he moved back to his hometown. This film, like his most recent Rifkin's Festival (2020), revolves around the film business. While in A Rainy Day in New York a student for a university newspaper is allowed to interview an aging star director in Manhattan, the new comedy is set at the San Sebastian Film Festival — the location of the actual world premiere in 2020.

Woody Allen
Shooting a new movie in Spain in 2019, Allen wears his trademark horn-rimmed glassesImage: Getty Images/AFP/A. Gillenea

It is not uncommon for Woody Allen movies to feature the film industry. The most famous example of this is one of his earlier films, The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). In the movie, reality and film world merge with one another, as the cinema screen, which actually separates both levels, becomes permeable.

Accusations of sexual molestation cast a shadow on his oeuvre

But his image as a productive artist and excellent filmmaker has been damaged, especially in recent years by an allegation that stems from his private life. His former partner, Mia Farrow, accused Allen of sexual abusing their adopted daughter Dylan Farrow in the 1990s. Allen has always denied the accusation. He lost custody of Dylan due to the accusations, but was never convicted of sexual abuse. Several investigations concluded that there was no credible evidence of sexual abuse.

When Dylan Farrow repeated the allegation in 2014 in an open letter posted on a New York Times blog, the industry began a rethink, spurred by the emerging #MeToo debate since 2017.

Well-known actresses and actors turned their backs on Allen, including Colin Firth and Natalie Portman. Others have also expressed their regret about working with him. Timothée Chalamet (A Rainy Day in New York, 2019) even decided to donate his fee to the "Time's up" movement, which campaigns against sexual harassment and abuse.

Mia Farrow and Dylan Farrow
Mia Farrow and daughter Dylan have accused Woody Allen of sexual abuseImage: Evan Agostini/Invision/AP/picture alliance

The romantic comedy with Chalamet in one of the leading roles was part of a deal between Amazon Studios and Allen, which the US group initially broke in 2018 because of allegations of abuse. In the USA the film was not shown in theaters; it was only released through video-on-demand in October 2020. In Europe it started in 2019. Woody Allen is taking legal action against Amazon Studios.

Book releases, concerts affected

The renewed allegations triggered a public response to his music and writing, too. In 2017, activists from the women's rights group Femen disrupted a concert the clarinettist was giving with his band in the Hamburg Elbphilharmonie.

His book publications suffered more severely in the US than in Germany. Allen's US publisher Hachette cancelled the April 2020 publication of his memoir Apropos of Nothing, while the German Rowohlt publishers' translation appeared as planned.

Hachette publishing house employees went on strike in early March in New York and Boston to force the decision. Dylan Farrow's brother, Ronan Farrow, who is estranged from his father and who published a bestseller about the Weinstein scandal with Hachette, also spoke out against publishing the Allen memoir in the US. Dylan Farrow was pleased with the Hachette staff solidarity action, as she announced on Twitter:

Not everyone turned away

The actress Scarlett Johansson has continued to publicly stand by Allen. To a large extent she owes him her Hollywood career — she worked with him in three of his films, Match Point (2005), Scoop (2006) and Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008). In a 2019 interview with the Hollywood Reporter, she said she believed in his innocence, "I love Woody. I believe him, and I would work with him any time." Later she clarified her comments in another interview with Vanity Fair to stress that she couldn't be the judge of what actually happened between Allen and Farrow: "I don't know any more than any other person knows."

 Woody Allen and Scarlett Johansson
Scarlett Johansson with Woody Allen in Cannes in 2005, for the premiere of 'Match Point'Image: Laurent Emmanuel/AP Photo/picture alliance

Two-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds in 2010 and Django Unchained in 2013) has also not refused to work with Allen; he is playing the role of Death in the director's new romantic comedy.

The fact that Elle Fanning, who starred in Allen's 2019  A Rainy Day in New York, did not donate her earnings to charity, unlike co-star Timothee Chalamet, could be seen as a statement of support for the director. Jude Law, who also acted in the film that was shot in 2017, publicly defended the fact that he had accepted to work with the director, saying enough had been said and that it was a "private affair."

Woody Allen biographer Stephan Reimertz has described him as "wispy, a nervous wreck, intellectual, enfant terrible, hysteric, womanizer, philosopher and cult figure." As the filmmaker turns 85, he definitely looks back at a conflicted legacy.


Translated from German by Carl Holm and Dagmar Breitenbach.