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Woody & Mia: The Scandal

Woody Allen and Mia Farrow were two of my special heroes in the movies, both on and off the screen, and now I am going to lose one of them, and perhaps both.

There is no way to analyze all of the charges and countercharges of the last week and determine who is telling the truth and who is not. That job belongs to the courts, where this case will no doubt play out during many sad weeks.

This is certain: If the child abuse charges made against Allen by Farrow are proved, he will be forever cast in a light completely different from the person I have respected so much over the years. And if the charges turn out to be unfounded, the result of fantasies nurtured by Farrow in bitterness and anger, then she will have done an unforgivable thing.

Apart from those charges, there is the fact, agreed to by all, that Allen has been having a love affair with Farrow's adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn. There are two ways to look at this. One is to observe, as poets and songwriters have through the years, that love conquers all and that although romance may lead us onto dangerous paths, we have no choice but to follow our hearts. Another is to observe that a man who has shared the love and trust of a woman for many years owes it to her, and to himself, not to place himself in the path of such a romance with her daughter. East Side, West Side.

It was a week of public charges, countercharges and testimonials from friends, relatives, publicists and attorneys of the two warring parties. Nobody emerged looking good.

It seemed clear that Allen brought his custody suit after he knew child abuse charges had been filed, and that seemed calculating; but on the other hand, Farrow did not distinguish herself by somehow allowing videotapes of herself questioning her daughter to fall into the hands of a television station. It was clear that bitterness and anger were the controlling emotions on both sides.

What a tragedy that it came to this. There was something so reassuring about the popular image of "Woody and Mia" and their strange Manhattan lifestyle, he East Side, she West Side, he the lonely guy who lived in an apartment where every possession was placed with mathematical precision, she the embracing den mother to a house full of children.

I visited Farrow once, a year after scenes from "Hannah and Her Sisters" had been filmed in her living room, and I looked up and saw that the gaffer's tape for the lights was still stuck to the ceiling. She smiled and said she'd just been too busy to take it down. Kids were pounding down the wooden hallways and a dog was barking and there was a sense of cheerful chaos. 

Across Central Park in Woody's house one day, he showed me his old portable typewriter, placed on a wooden table in front of a window looking out over the park, and said that was where he wrote all of his movies. And the idea of him sitting up there, day after day and year after year, working completely independently of the ordinary constraints of Hollywood filmmaking, making his films his way with his friends, was a symbol of how it ought to be in the film business.

He was our Ingmar Bergman; he had the same kind of independence and self-contained artistic family as the Swedish director he took as his model and hero.

And yet there is a streak in Bergman, and Allen too, of deep and mordant fear. They make movies about good men who do bad things, about those who lose their faith in God and their fellow man. People asked for years why Woody didn't go back to making those funny comedies like "Bananas" - instead of making those painful films about sin and guilt like "Crimes and Misdemeanors." Maybe it was because Allen found it too easy to make us laugh and was more interested in the other side of the coin, in why we sometimes cry and fear and are haunted by demons.

Sometimes Allen seems to feel that all parts of life, even the good parts, are traps baited with evil. "I was watching 'Cinderella' and 'Sleeping Beauty' on TV with my little daughter," he told me one autumn day a couple of years ago. "And you know the way Disney draws those chipmunks running around, and you could lie down in the grass, and it will all be lovely? But what you don't see are the creeping, crawling things in life. The other morning I read about a woman who was asleep in her bed, and she was killed by a bite from a spider."

The spider lurks beneath even the sunniest moments in an Allen film, just as, in Bergman's "Through a Glass Darkly," a woman goes insane when she has a vision of God and realizes that God . . . is a spider.

"The truth is," he told me the same day, "life is hard going. It's tough, it's Darwinian, it's dog eat dog. You have nothing to guide you except your own sense of morality, and if you lose that compass, it's a terrible existence."

Typing those words again, I am reminded of Allen's character in his most recent film, "Shadows and Fog," which I thought was one of his least successful but which may have contained an element of autobiography that was overlooked when it came out. In the film, an evil slasher is stalking the streets of a dark, threatening city. The Allen character is roused from his sleep by a mob that insists he join them in searching for the killer, and as he stumbles, unwilling and disoriented, through the night and fog, he does not know what he is looking for and is hardly surprised when at one point he even becomes a suspect himself. 

Allen is famous for not giving interviews, but for some reason he has often agreed to talk with me, and in every one of our conversations the same theme has emerged: the sense that the rug could be pulled out at every moment, that all happiness is illusory, that the spider's bite is waiting in the middle of the night.

"I can honestly say," he told me once, "that not a day goes past when I do not seriously consider the possibility of suicide."

But why? I wondered. And in my mind I reflected on his personal and professional success. It all seemed illusory to him. And then one time when I went to talk to him, his face was shining because of the child he and Farrow had adopted (although it emerged last week that he had not legally become the adoptive father until somewhat later). And the next time he was astonished that he had become a biological father, years after he had given up all thought of such an event. And he confessed he did not think of suicide every day any more; he had better things to think about, and there was something in being a father that made such thoughts irrelevant.

Now everything has come crashing down.

Here is what I hope happens.

I hope it is proved, as I sincerely believe, that Woody Allen does not have within him the ability to abuse a child. I cannot conceive he is capable of such a thing.

I also hope it develops that Mia Farrow brought those charges in all sincerity, but that, as sometimes happens, they were the result of unhappy miscommunication between adult and child and are not based on fact.

And I hope that Woody Allen and Soon-Yi Previn, if they are indeed in love, are able to accept the responsibility for their decision and to be as happy as possible.

I want everything to turn out, in other words, like a movie - like a Woody Allen movie in which the characters are terrified of their humanity and the closeness of destruction, but somehow manage to muddle through to some sort of acceptable compromise with fate. That's what I hope. What I fear is another matter.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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