Wallace Shawn: Why I’m Still Willing to Work With Woody Allen (Guest Blog)

“I’ve been troubled by the speed with which some of my colleagues in the acting fraternity have distanced themselves from Woody,” the actor writes

woody allen wallace shawn
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A note to my fellow actors:

On February 1, 2014, Nicholas Kristof presented in his column in The New York Times a letter to the general public written by the 32-year-old Dylan Farrow. In the letter, Dylan Farrow repeated an accusation against her father, Woody Allen, that had first surfaced in 1992 when he and Dylan Farrow’s mother, Mia Farrow, were going through a very public breakup and a more private custody negotiation. In her letter, Dylan Farrow stated that she vividly remembered that Woody Allen had sexually abused her in an attic in her mother’s home on a particular afternoon in 1992 when she was 7 years old.

By the time of this open letter, I had appeared in five films directed by Woody Allen. These had been wonderful experiences for me, and I was thrilled to have participated in the work of such a marvelous filmmaker. And although I certainly couldn’t have claimed to have had more than the briefest chats with him on the set, I had a sense of him. I felt a great respect for him — and a great affection.

In her public letter, Dylan Farrow described the fact that the public acceptance of Woody Allen, and the awards and accolades he received, made her feel that she was being personally rebuked, as if she were being told to “shut up and go away,” and she singled out by name certain actors who had appeared in Woody Allen’s films and asked them directly what they would feel if their own children or they themselves had been abused. Although as a somewhat minor player rather than a star I was not personally named in the letter, I understood that Dylan Farrow was making the point that, in her view, for an actor to appear in one of Woody Allen’s films demonstrated an indifference or contempt towards her. The letter was a challenge to any actor who had appeared in a Woody Allen film or contemplated appearing in one in the future, and it wasn’t difficult for me to realize that I had to take this personally. Clearly, a great number of other actors must have felt the same way.

The response from the acting community took three or four years to develop. These were years in which women in mind-boggling numbers had begun to publicly describe the sexual humiliations and sexual violence they had experienced at the hands of men. In fact, one could plausibly generalize by saying that millions of people in the United States had come to accept an idea formerly only popular among a few Marxists, namely that our figures of authority — the men who were in charge in our schools and offices, our leaders, the ones whom our mothers perhaps had deeply admired decades ago, the ones whose word could at one time never be questioned — may well have been brutes, and liars as well. 

A lot of those accused of behaving in disgusting ways of course denied it. There were a lot of denials. In fact, as more and more accusations were made about more and more men, more and more denials were also issued — one for each accusation, it almost seemed. The public was drowning in denials, and as there is really no infallible way to distinguish denials made by the innocent from those made by the guilty — and denials never sound very credible anyway — most people came to see the inevitable denials as meaningless boilerplate and took no notice of them.

Woody Allen had denied abusing his daughter when the accusation was first made, and he denied it again after Dylan Farrow’s public letter in 2014. But by 2018 the fact of his denials carried little weight, and many actors who’d appeared in Woody Allen’s films began to do what Dylan Farrow’s letter of 2014 had implied that they ought to do: They apologized to the world for having appeared in his films and promised never to do so again. Some announced that they would contribute the salaries they’d received for working on those films to various charitable organizations. Actors who would formerly have been thrilled to be invited to work for Woody Allen began turning down his offers. And several of the actors who had appeared in his most recent film declined to participate in publicizing it. Then the studio that had made the film decided not to release it. The tide of opinion in society turned against Woody Allen, and he became a pariah.

Obviously, though, if it’s appropriate to condemn and shun a person because they did something reprehensible, it’s not appropriate to condemn and shun them for doing it if they didn’t do it.

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Elena Anaya and Wallace Shawn in Woody Allen’s 2020 film “Rifkin’s Festival” (Vision Distribution)

I’ve considered the possibility that I’m too biased to consider the subject objectively. As a short New Yorker who’s made his way in the world partly by being vaguely amusing, and as an older male who has experienced various types of good fortune and privilege, I do inevitably identify with Woody Allen to one degree or another. And of course he happens to have given me great opportunities as an actor. 

Since I was implicated in Dylan Farrow’s letter, though, and as Woody Allen continued to make films, I knew from 2014 on that I might once again be asked to appear in one of them. And I would have to respond. So I began to make myself familiar with the case. (And naturally, I’ve continued to follow the commentary on the subject, including the recent television documentary and Woody Allen’s own recently published autobiography.)

Dylan Farrow clearly believes what she’s saying. The suffering that she has experienced in her life and that radiates out from her open letter and her subsequent statements and interviews shows real suffering. And yet the narrative she presented left a lot of questions unanswered, and it certainly didn’t square with the sense I had of Woody Allen. 

To state the semi-obvious, we cannot directly observe events in the past. This is infuriating but undeniable, and it’s as a consequence of this that over the centuries people have attempted to establish all sorts of techniques and institutions for determining the truth about what has happened in the past. During the Middle Ages in Europe and during the George W. Bush administration, many people believed torture could yield truth. During the 1950s, most middle-class white Americans believed that the criminal justice system almost never failed to arrive at the truth.  Regarding what happened or didn’t happen in the Woody Allen-Dylan Farrow case, no technique is available that will tell us the infallible truth. 

What we know for sure is that by August of 1992 Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn, Mia’s oldest daughter, were involved in a love affair, that Woody Allen and Mia Farrow were, to put it mildly, estranged, but that as the father of three of Mia’s children (he was acknowledged as the biological father of Satchel, now Ronan, and the adoptive father of Moses and Dylan) Woody continued to visit Mia Farrow’s house in Connecticut while their lawyers were discussing future custody arrangements. We also know that Woody and 7-year-old Dylan had always seemed to have an intense relationship, and Woody clearly adored her. But Woody’s visits took place in a strange atmosphere, because Mia had told her close friends and her household staff that she now saw Woody as a dangerous predator.  He was sexually involved with Soon-Yi, and to Mia it seemed totally possible that he might suddenly pounce on one of the other children, possibly Dylan, and so she told her staff and friends that for this reason they all had to literally watch Woody at all times. Her way of interpreting Woody’s becoming involved with Soon-Yi, in other words, was to see him as someone totally in the grip of uncontrollable sexual madness.

We also know that Mia had in some way told all of her children, including Dylan, about Woody’s relationship with Soon-Yi. We can never know what was going on in Dylan’s mind, but clearly the household had fallen into turmoil.    Dylan certainly knew that her sister had disappeared from the family. And she likely could see that her mother, whom she loved and on whom she was totally dependent, was in a state of distress, and we can guess that she could tell that her mother now hated the man she’d formerly loved. 

We can’t possibly know exactly what was said in the conversation between Dylan and her mother on August 5, 1992 when Mia, based on a discussion she’d had with a family friend, asked Dylan about what might or not have happened the day before, but we do know that Mia brought out a video camera and encouraged Dylan to repeat for the camera a particular account of an experience with Woody that Dylan had apparently presented in that conversation. And we do know that for whatever reason there were several similar filming episodes over the course of that day and the next. Mia also brought Dylan to their family’s pediatrician in Connecticut and encouraged her to talk to him, and the doctor was then legally obligated to bring what had been said to the attention of the authorities. 

The authorities then turned the case over to the Child Sexual Abuse Clinic of Yale-New Haven Hospital, which ultimately, after an investigation lasting seven months and involving repeated interviews with Dylan and with Woody, concluded that no abuse had occurred. Over the course of repeated re-tellings, Dylan was not consistent in her account of what had happened, where it had happened, and other details, and sometimes she said that nothing at all had happened. The case was then re-examined by the New York Department of Social Services, which also concluded that the accusation of abuse was unfounded. The state’s attorney in the Litchfield sector of Connecticut, as might have been expected due to the fact that the attorney didn’t have a basis on which to convince a jury of Woody’s guilt, then declined to bring a case against Woody, although he claimed that he would have liked to do so and only refrained from doing so out of concern that a trial would traumatize Dylan.

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Dylan Farrow and Mia Farrow in 2016 (Photo by Ben Gabbe/Getty Images for Time)

To many people, it seems preposterous to say that a person, in this case Dylan, could possibly be wrong about what they claim to remember clearly about their own life. But this is only true if you believe that our brains are perfectly designed and flawlessly functioning machines. And that’s just not the case. On the contrary. It’s a well known fact, for example, that “eyewitnesses” tend to be very confident about what they think they saw, but they’re very often wrong. The clay of our brains, of our minds and our memories, in fact goes through a constant process of molding and re-molding. What we “remember” has a lot to do with how we interpreted and understood what we saw around us at the time a given memory was formed, which in the case of children in particular can lead to odd inaccuracies, and it seems to be an undeniable truth as well that our initial memories can be modified after the fact by influences of all kinds. In the late 1980s, literally hundreds of children in California came to believe, came to remember, that they had been sexually abused in Satanic rituals at day care centers, but this had not in fact happened. The telling and re-telling of what we think we remember can also affect our memories, as can the passage of time itself. (To use a trivial example that recently confounded me, I personally remember that when I was in my 20s I saw a movie called “Bigger Than Life” starring Gregory Peck. I remember Peck’s excellent performance as a man with disturbing delusions of grandeur. However, I have subsequently learned that Peck did not actually play the part of that man in that movie; James Mason did. And yet at this very moment, as I write this, I “remember” Peck’s performance vividly, and I’m absolutely unable to will myself to recall Mason’s performance in the movie. When I look into my memory, it shows me Peck. I can’t find Mason anywhere.)

In August of 1992, Woody Allen was a man hoping to salvage his battered reputation. He’d once been someone whom millions of people around the world had identified with, someone who’d pleased and charmed a huge public, but his affair with Soon-Yi Previn had shocked his fans and revealed him to be quite a bit less harmless than they’d thought he was. (The fact that he and Soon-Yi have now been together for close to 30 years may indicate that the affair could be interpreted somewhat differently from the way that people interpreted it at the time, but that’s another story.) Even if he had in fact been a desperately driven sex maniac, as Mia now believed him to be, he would have recognized that on August 4, 1992 Mia’s house was full of people who already considered him to be precisely that, and he would have been well aware that it would therefore not be smart to try to commit an act of sexual molestation against his daughter there, even if there had been a moment in the day when he could have done such a thing without being observed, which there probably was not.

And even if he had been a desperately driven pedophile and sex maniac, he would have known that he had absolutely no way to prevent his daughter from telling her mother about anything he might do to her, or even to prevent her from screaming and calling for help. Known to be a rather self-protective person, as well as a person hoping to climb back into the public’s favor, as well as a supplicant who hoped to work out a good custody arrangement regarding Dylan and his two other children despite the fact that he was involved in a widely condemned love affair, he had every reason not to take the risk of going to prison as a child molester, particularly as everyone knew that when child molesters showed up in prison, they were often treated extremely roughly.

If anyone finds themselves confronting this case — and Dylan’s letter and her later declarations have basically forced everyone in the film community to confront it — they are obliged to decide which of two rather implausible stories they’re going to believe. Which chapter of our psychology textbooks should we consult? People who molest children usually compile a long list of crimes, but Woody has been accused of only one crime, and it’s one which he would have had to be crazy to have committed under the circumstances. Woody had never seemed crazy, but was he, really? If he wasn’t, and the episode Dylan describes didn’t happen, then she would seem to be mistaken in regard to an important memory regarding her own life, and most of us find it hard to believe that that’s something that can happen.

In other words, we’re obliged to believe either that Woody is a child molester or that Dylan is sincere but mistaken. To me, it seems that a distressed child under a lot of emotional pressure in an impossible and impossible-to-understand situation might very easily become confused and might misjudge, misread, misinterpret, misdescribe and then misremember all sorts of things. In the atmosphere of that household in August 1992, she might have become frightened of Woody and, when asked questions by her mother, backed into an account of “touching” that gradually took on more defined and lurid contours. Especially when it was an account that at that time her mother found it very easy to believe, an account, in fact, that was a perfect confirmation of her mother’s current view of her former lover.

So yes, of course it’s possible for a seemingly respectable person to be a child molester. But it’s also possible for a person to be quite convinced that certain things happened, even though they didn’t happen, and in my view this is the case with Dylan.

As this is how I see the situation, you won’t be surprised when I say that I’ve been troubled by the speed with which some of my colleagues in the acting fraternity have distanced themselves from Woody. Some were undoubtedly overwhelmed by the sheer emotional intensity of Dylan’s original letter and her later elaborations. In the face of such moving testimony from Dylan, many actors perhaps felt that it wasn’t necessary to hear any further evidence in the case. They responded with natural sympathy to an appeal for help. And some may have felt that at this particular moment in history it was more important to support a growing movement for social transformation than it was to take the time to study the details of every individual case. Society was suddenly listening to women, most of what the women said was obviously true, and so what a woman said in any given case was more likely to be true than not.

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Woody Allen and Wallace Shawn in 1991’s “Shadows and Fog” (Orion Pictures)

Then fear entered the picture. Many of my colleagues came to feel that to work for Woody Allen, quite apart from whatever the facts might or might not be in the Woody Allen-Dylan Farrow case, would indicate to others that they had no concern for women or for the improvement of the condition of women in the world. And the more the word got around that actors were declining to work for Woody Allen, the more it came to seem to other actors and their agents that anyone who did work for him might well be shunned by everyone in the industry and might never work again, and so agents simply told their clients that Woody Allen was toxic and they should stay far away from him.  So that what began as compassion for a young woman who seemed to be crying out in pain ended up simply as one more element in the eternal struggle of actors to hold on to their careers.

Dylan seems to feel that it’s outrageous for anyone to doubt the story she’s presented. And of course there are people who disapprove of Woody because they don’t think that he and Soon-Yi should have become lovers, and there are people who dislike or even object to Woody’s films, because the films seem not to condemn men who have relationships with much younger women, and of course we’re all free to discuss and debate each other’s work or private life (though judging people’s private life without knowing much about it can sometimes lead us into idiocy). But Dylan has asked all of us, and actors in particular, to individually punish Woody for committing a very serious crime which he says he didn’t commit, so it’s not outrageous — it’s really only reasonable — for each of us to consider the case carefully before responding to what she’s asked of us. I personally have concluded that Woody didn’t commit the crime, and when he indeed offered me an important part in his latest film — a part I might well have been offered only because others had decided to turn it down — I eagerly accepted it, and anyone who travels to Europe can see the film, “Rifkin’s Festival.” 

Dylan also seems to feel that the accuracy of her account of that day lies at the core of who she is, so that anyone who doubts the accuracy of that account must obviously look down on her, must doubt her value as a human being. It’s as if she and her mother and her brother Ronan have somehow cornered each other in a three-sided trap in which each has been forced to pledge eternal loyalty to the accuracy of Dylan’s account of what happened on August 4, 1992. It’s as if any wavering on the part of any one of them about the accuracy of that account would be taken by the other two as a terrible betrayal, a sign of the absence of love. But clearly they must know that they love each other quite apart from whatever did or didn’t happen in 1992, and I’m perfectly capable of valuing Dylan as a person and wishing her every happiness in her present and future life even though I don’t believe that the episode she’s described ever actually occurred. I’ve known, admired and loved people who sincerely believed they had personal contact with God, though I myself have always remained a nonbeliever.

Editor’s Note: TheWrap reached out to Dylan Farrow to offer her the opportunity to respond. She declined through a spokesperson, but said the idea that Shawn “could validate Dylan’s personhood and then go on to invalidate her life experience” was “flawed.”