Woody Allen: Parallels in life and art
I am in love with two women, not a terribly uncommon problem. That they happen to be mother and child? All the more challenging! — from ”Retribution,” a short story published in Woody Allen’s 1980 book, Side Effects.
In terms of public perception, Woody Allen’s most revealing plot line started out as an ugly, unbelievable rumor. A month or so before the story actually broke, word quietly crept around the movie industry that Allen, 56, and Mia Farrow, 47, companions for 12 years, were no longer together. The reason: She’d found him in bed with one of her adopted Vietnamese teenage daughters. Although the source was said to be someone who had worked on Allen’s latest film, Husbands and Wives, and although the tale was passed across tables at trendy show-biz restaurants on both coasts, it was never widely disseminated. It seemed too noxious even to be taken seriously.
By mid-August, it was apparent that the rumor was wrong only in its details. The daughter was not an underage Vietnamese but Soon-Yi Farrow Previn, a 21-year-old Korean. And there was no red-handed bed scene; Farrow instead found nude photos of Soon-Yi in Allen’s apartment. But the essence of the story was true. Woody and Mia, the Charles and Di of America’s intellectual royalty, had fissioned explosively, and their mutual sniping played the front page for two weeks running. The gossip media hadn’t had this much fun since Rob Lowe videotaped his vacation in Atlanta.
The scandal, of course, has focused extraordinary attention on Husbands and Wives — a film about disintegrating relationships and older men’s fascination with younger women. Its distributor, TriStar, canceled an elaborate press junket and is now releasing the movie in 800 theaters nationwide instead of 8 cities. And although the film opens this Friday, Sept. 18, bootleg copies of Husbands and Wives reportedly have been selling for up to $200. Never has any Woody Allen film been so anticipated, or so feverishly examined for clues to its players’ private lives. Hollywood has had its share of directors’ scandals before (see Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman, or Charlie Chaplin and Oona O’Neill). But never before have life and art intermingled like this.
Consider the parallels: Husbands and Wives opens as a Manhattan couple, Gabe and Judy (Allen and Farrow) learn that their friends Jack and Sally (Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis) are breaking up. Stunned, Gabe and Judy then watch helplessly as their own marriage slowly dissolves, just as Woody and Mia have drifted apart in the last few years. One of their problems: Judy wants another child but Gabe doesn’t; Farrow’s desire to expand her brood to 11 children was reportedly a source of great discontent for Allen. Both Gabe and Jack become infatuated with younger women, and the object of Gabe’s middle-aged eye, Rain (Juliette Lewis), goes on a date with another older man to a basketball game; Soon-Yi and Allen openly held hands at a Knicks game. When Judy asks Gabe in the film, ”Do you hide things from me?” the line produced snickers at screenings. When she asks, ”Do you think we’d ever break up?” the question drew embarrassed silence.
Even the chronology of Husbands and Wives is striking. Allen finished writing the script last summer, at the same time that he and Soon-Yi were becoming closer, according to a friend of Farrow’s. Under the family’s standard summer routine, Woody would work in the city during the week, then limo up to Farrow’s Bridgewater, Conn., home to weekend with Mia and the kids. ”He was a very good father,” says Beth Manos, a Connecticut neighbor who has known the family for five years. ”He was affectionate with the kids, and they obviously loved him. They were always warm toward him.”
Last summer, however, Woody and Soon-Yi began sharing the limo up to Connecticut, and it was during these rides, says a Farrow friend, that their affection apparently developed. ”They were behaving in a way that was much too intimate for two people in that situation,” says the friend. ”There would be times they would be talking and no one else was allowed into the conversation. It was obvious that he liked her because he never talked to the other children that way. But I never suspected it would turn into a physical relationship.”
The filming and wrapping of Husbands and Wives also saw some odd synchronicities. The shooting for this fictional but deeply personal meditation on love began in early November; Allen’s affair with Soon-Yi started four to six weeks later. Primary shooting finished on Jan. 20, seven days after Farrow found the nude photos and effectively ended her long love affair with Allen.
Woody Allen’s films have often been a strange combination of intense secrecy wrapped around personal revelation. An obsessively private man, he rarely gave interviews — until the scandal broke. Yet movies like Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Hannah and Her Sisters are plainly autobiographical. None of his movies, however, bears so many reflections of his life as Husbands and Wives — and none has been more guarded from the press. Just as Woody and Mia have been slapped with a court-imposed gag order, Allen has dropped his own cone of silence over the cast and crew. Nearly everyone interviewed for this story spoke on condition of anonymity. Whenever names are used, it’s because these people were interviewed before Allen’s tentacled PR firm, PMK, was able to reach them.
This, then, is a rare glimpse inside an eerie house of mirrors: the making of a movie about the unmaking of deep relationships, at a time when the relationship between the key players was secretly coming apart.
Few people on the set of Husbands and Wives knew what was happening between Woody and Mia, but that’s not unusual. By design, no one ever knows what’s really happening on a Woody Allen set. Part of his oddball directing method is to impart as little information as humanly possible: Woody rarely speaks directly to his actors. Even one of the principal stars got almost no feedback straight from the auteur’s mouth. When Allen wanted to give an actor notes, he usually had his assistant call at night.
And, in another Allen tradition, only a select few actors got to see the full script. Given only the few pages in which she appeared, Cristi Conaway, playing a $200-a-night call girl with ”a mouth like velvet,” knew so little about her character that she had to turn to Pollack at one point and ask,”Why are you having an affair with me?”