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Shadows & Fog: Woody Allen Ran an Op on Mia Farrow
The filmmaker's 1992 press conference was a template for future disinformation campaigns.
EVERY NEWS ARTICLE I’ve read about HBO’s Allen v. Farrow documentary contains a requisite denial from Woody Allen. So we may as well start with that: Woody Allen denies that he sexually abused his then-seven-year-old daughter, Dylan Farrow; denies that he was inappropriately affectionate; denies that he made her suck suggestively on his thumb; denies that he put his mouth on her bare pudendum and breathed in and out; denies that, on a visit to his estranged partner Mia Farrow’s Connecticut home on August 4, 1992, he took Dylan to the attic and sexually assaulted her. He denies this despite ample evidence to the contrary, including: an eyewitness account of his face being buried in Dylan’s seven-year-old lap; contemporaneous video that Mia Farrow shot, in which the child related what happened to her; the conclusion of the Connecticut prosecutor that there was probable cause to issue an indictment; a body of cinematic work that amounts to a silver screen defense of older men having sexual relationships with girls; and his claim that the allegation could not be true because he was already having an affair with another of Mia Farrow’s children, Soon-Yi Previn. In his warped, demented mind, that somehow made it all okay.
But let’s be clear: Woody Allen denies all of this in the same way that Bill Clinton denied having “sexual relations with that woman;” in the same way O.J. Simpson denied murdering Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman; in the same way Harvey Weinstein denied any “non-consensual sex” with the many women he raped; in the same way Donald John Trump denied the four dozen sexual assault allegations against him; in the same way Brett Kavanaugh denied sexually assaulting Christine Blasey Ford.
Allen v. Farrow removes all doubt that Woody Allen is a monster. The fact that he continued to make films for decades after the allegations came out—that one of those films, the insipid Midnight in Paris, won him a freaking Oscar!—is further proof that “cancel culture” is nothing more than a bullshit GOP talking point.
What made the abominable crime perpetrated by Woody Allen on his own child even worse was what happened after he got caught. That hateful man and his crack PR and legal teams crafted a defense strategy that, in hindsight, is best described as an op. He couldn’t just content himself with violating his own daughter. He had to also destroy that child’s mother.
The op began nine days after the incident, and it began in court. Rejecting overtures by Mia Farrow’s lawyers to handle matters privately, for the sake of the family, Allen filed for custody of the couple’s three children: Moses and Dylan, who were both adopted, and Satchel (now known as Ronan), the youngest, who is their biological son. Thus the decision to move the dispute into the public sphere was not made by Mia Farrow, but by Woody Allen himself.
Five days later, on August 18, 1992, Allen gave a press conference at the Plaza Hotel. This was a big deal because of the allegations, but also because the filmmaker was, like his fellow nymphet enthusiast J.D. Salinger, contemptuous of the media. He rarely gave interviews. When he won those Academy Awards for Annie Hall, he couldn’t be bothered to show up for the event. Basically, he was a pretentious dick. So there were plenty of curious journalists in attendance, hanging raptly on his every word.
And while the statement was, as he points out at the end, devoid of jokes, Woody Allen gave a masterful performance that day, playing the innocent father wrongly accused, the guiltless victim of his jealous ex-lover’s scorn. Indeed, it was the best acting he’d done in years. Here is the full monologue, delivered by Allen with the usual neurotic affectations—the calculated pauses; that nervous cough that makes him seem like a consumptive—that helped endear him to generations of fans:
Over the years, you know I’ve been reluctant to speak with the press and have assiduously avoided publicity. But because of all the rumors and innuendos and cruel untruths circulating over the past week, I feel that I have to make a statement.
First, I’m greatly saddened that sources close to Mia Farrow have released to the public allegations, instigated by her, of child abuse on my part. This, my lawyers tell me, is a currently popular and heinous card, played in all too many child custody fights, and while sometimes effective, the tragedy of programming one’s child to cooperate is unspeakable. The truth is that I’ve tried in private, for the last eight months, to work out the details of a humane, shared custody that respected both mothers’ and fathers’ rights. I hope that despite many conflicts and much anger, that with calm and compromise, I could obtain an agreement in the best interests of the children.
Then, suddenly, and appallingly, I was accused of having molested my beloved seven-year-old daughter, and hysterically, the next day, of molesting my dear four-and-a-half-year-old son. This last allegation has quietly vanished, I suppose because its substance was too insane even for the instigator to stay with.
These totally false and outrageous allegations have sickened me, so that I felt that for the sake of all my three children, I must try and remove them from an atmosphere so unhealthy it can surely leave irreparable scars.
This is an unconscionable and gruesomely damaging manipulation of innocent children for vindictive and self-serving purposes. To make matters worse, if that were possible, several days ago, attorneys representing the other side called a meeting with my own, informing them that any publicity, even if the allegations are totally unfounded, would hurt me. They the proceeded to demand seven million dollars, saying that if I submitted to their demands, they would not press the allegations, and they could make the children unavailable to the authorities.
Needless to say, I did not accept their offer of quote mediation unquote, as it was called, and instructed my lawyers to cooperate fully in the investigation Ms. Farrow instigated.
I have much to say about this matter, but would prefer not to discuss Ms. Farrow’s fitness as a parent, in the interest of my children, in the press.
In the end, the one thing I have been guilty of is falling in love with Ms. Farrow’s adult daughter at the end of our years together, and as painful as that might be, I certainly feel that I and the children do not deserve this form of retribution.
Thank you for coming and listening to this. My one public appearance in years, and it’s all straight lines.
His statement was a master class in how to run an op. It was so good, and so clearly part of a coordinated strategy, that one wonders who, exactly, was advising him.
He checked all the boxes, starting with…
In crisis PR, you want to make the first move, and stay on the offensive. Otherwise, it’s like playing black in the high-stakes game of chess.
Allen cites “rumors and innuendos and cruel untruths circulating over the past week” as the reason for the press conference, but any stories in public circulation were were known because he took the initial step of filing for custody of the children—something Farrow had begged him not to do. He drew first blood. And he did it intentionally. Not to lobby for custody of the children—he didn’t even manage to feign caring about them during his testimony before the family court—but to…
Control the narrative.
What Allen did not want the press talking about, at all, was the sex crime he had perpetrated on his seven-year-old daughter. At a moment when no one knew anything about the facts of the case, he provided the press with plenty of other, less horrible storylines (the custody battle, the jilted ex-lover angle, the Soon-Yi Previn affair) to write about.
And so they did. And it worked—at least on me.
I graduated high school and went to college in 1991, the same year Soon-Yi did. Not only that, but she attended Drew University, which is in my New Jersey hometown—a 48 minute ride on the commuter train to Penn Station. By the start of my sophomore year—in August of 1992, as this story was still unfolding—I was about to direct a campus production of Allen’s stage play Don’t Drink the Water, I was thinking about transferring to film school, and I had watched a slate of Woody Allen pictures. As a teaching assistant for “Writing for Screen,” in fact, I would teach an entire class on Annie Hall. So I was more than a casual consumer of Woody Allen/Soon-Yi Previn news.
I knew he was a creep who liked young women, because he was dating one, and also because I’d watched Manhattan—and I remember the line from Annie Hall, delivered by Tony Roberts, when his character is asked if he was pulled away from anything important: “Twins, Max. Fifteen years old. Imagine the mathematical possibilities, Max.” But the first time I was aware of the sexual assault allegation was when Ronan Farrow tweeted about it in 2014.
Play the victim.
The reason Woody Allen’s life began to unravel in the summer of 1992 is because he could not control his perverted sexual impulses. Had he kept his face away from his daughter’s lap and his thumb out of her mouth, had he resisted the temptation to fondle her seven-year-old body, there would have been no criminal investigation. None of this would have happened. He has no one to blame but himself. That is the reality.
But the way he tells the story, he, not Dylan, is the victim. He, not Dylan, is the one wrongfully attacked. He, not Dylan, is the one with the grievance. And it’s always someone else’s fault: that someone else might be Mia Farrow, it might be her attorney, it might be the nameless family court judges who’d fallen for the “heinous” technique of “programming” one’s child to “cooperate.” But it’s never Woody Allen. The beloved filmmaker is blameless.
We know how this sort of thing looks in 2021, because Donald John Trump has made delusional grievance into a cottage industry. In 1992, it was novel.
Establish a villain.
It is difficult to watch Allen v. Farrow and not come away with the impression that Mia Farrow is an extremely decent human being, and was (and is) a loving and doting mother to her children. And yet in the presser, Allen casts her as a shrew, calling her “cruel,” “manipulative,” “hysterical,” “unconscionable,” “gruesome,” an “instigator”—and by inference, inhumane, unhealthy, and unfit as a parent. He also suggests, by framing the mediation process as some sort of extortion attempt, that she would be willing to sell out her children if the price was right.
None of those things are true, of course. Which is why Allen had to invest great effort and god knows how much money in the destruction of her name, her family, her reputation, her livelihood, and her career. In this sinister endeavor, he was mostly successful. Farrow claims in the documentary that Woody Allen had her blacklisted in Hollywood—much like Harvey Weinstein would later do to some of his accusers—and that for years, she could only find work in Europe. In effect, she was punished for his crime.
Craft an alternative storyline.
In 2018, the Republican operative Ed Whelan floated a “mistaken rapist” theory concerning Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations against Brett Kavanaugh. The idea was that, while Ford had been assaulted, as she claimed, the actual assailant was not Kavanaugh, but one of his classmates. Although this was such obvious bullshit that even the Murdoch rags wouldn’t print it, Whelan’s alternative storyline won the day. Every yes-voting Republican who said, “I believe Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh” was tacitly endorsing Whelan’s theory. Absent this counternarrative, the allegations would have been much harder to dismiss.
A quarter century earlier, in 1992, when Kavanaugh was still clerking for the pervy Judge Alex Kozinski on the Ninth Circuit, Woody Allen was crafting a similarly deceptive storyline: A jilted lover, humiliated by the prospect of losing her longtime partner to her own daughter, seeks revenge by concocting a claim of sexual abuse, and then “programs” their seven-year-old daughter to believe it really happened.
Helluva plot, huh? We’ve seen that sort of thing in Allen’s movies plenty of times. It is oft noted that his oeuvre is rife with young women coupling with older men; less remarked upon is the prevalence of crazy jilted exes who must be disposed of. In Deconstructing Harry, the writer’s jilted ex-mistress goes to his house, pulls out a gun, and shoots at him—but she misses, and he survives. In Crimes & Misdemeanors, a doctor has his jilted ex-mistress killed so she won’t tell his wife about the affair—and he gets away with it. In Match Point, a tennis pro murders his jilted ex-mistress, pregnant with his child—and he gets way with it.
In real life, however, the story Woody Allen invented doesn’t track. The notion of a mother “programming” her child to have false memories of abuse, even in the abstract, strains credulity. The notion of Mia doing that to Dylan, as the documentary makes clear, is patently absurd. A far more likely, if less cinematic, scenario is this: A mother who alleges child sexual abuse by the child’s father loses custody of the abused child. That happens all the time.
If we’re going to equate the situation to a movie plot from one of their IMDB pages, I suggest Rosemary’s Baby. In that classic film, a pregnant Mia Farrow realizes that her life and the life of her unborn child are in danger; as her suspicions grow about her husband, her neighbors, and her doctors, she grows increasingly isolated; everyone writes her off as hysterical; and it turns out that she was right all along. Her partner, the doctors, the neighbors—all of them are in league with the devil.
Introduce distortions and disinformation.
As the editor Gideon Lichfield recently put it, “The essence of PR is confusion.” Woody Allen’s remarks certainly confused the hell out of everyone, as he offered up distortions of the truth, disinformation, and outright lies.
The $7 million figure was not an attempt at extortion, but a negotiation for a one-time, lump-sum child support payment, covering three young children through their college years, plus reparations for the years Mia Farrow would not be working. “Without the benefit of Mr. Allen’s required financial disclosures,” her lawyers said in a statement, “the costs of support, education and medical expenses were advanced for mutual discussion, as they have been over the past several months—even before the Connecticut authorities began their investigation. Ms. Farrow has never been interested in money.” That’s what the “quote mediation unquote” Allen cites refers to. He framed typical legal proceedings as a mercenary shakedown.
Adding his own “rumor, innuendo, and cruel mistruth” to the mix, Allen claims that he was accused of having also molested Satchel, his young son. That was never alleged. Nor was Farrow being “vindictive,” and I fail to see how anyone could believe her horrible ordeal was in any way “self-serving.”
Allen claims that Farrow “instigated” the investigation. She did not. Dylan Farrow’s pediatrician is a mandated reporter of child sex abuse. That’s who notified law enforcement—and why? Because Mia brought Dylan to the doctor for a checkup, to make sure the child was okay after Woody Allen molested her.
And then the icing on he cake. He slyly cops to being “guilty” of the affair with Soon-Yi Previn, Mia Farrow’s adult daughter. Surely the audiences who loved his romantic comedies would understand if he indulged his own real-life romance! Wasn’t it Woody Allen who said, “The heart wants what it wants?”
Really, though, his defense that day amounted to this: “I could not have molested Mia Farrow’s seven-year-old daughter, because I was having sex with her 22-year-old daughter.” This both lurid and gross, but the press didn’t really give him shit about it, because he knew to…
Exhaust all resources to maintain innocence.
Woody Allen was rich, famous, beloved, and very, very powerful. He had great lawyers. He had great publicists. He had journalists and critics and actors and directors willing and able to vouch for him, to disseminate his counternarrative. He had legions of devoted fans. Many, if not most, of the journalists gathered at the Plaza Hotel for that press conference were predisposed to believe him, as was much of the moviegoing public. Like Bill Cosby, another beloved star who was a sex abuser, he took advantage of this. He leveraged his fame, his reputation, and his access to help his cause. The guy who was always “reluctant to speak with the press” and “assiduously avoided publicity” was suddenly giving interviews left and right.
That’s what Mia Farrow had to contend with. She had an op run on her. And it worked. She was painted as a hysterical, unfit mother and a jealous, jilted lover. She stopped getting jobs. Her income stream dried up. And unlike Allen, she actually cared about her kids. It must have been devastating for her.
But Woody Allen was unscathed. At most, for him, the whole sordid affair was an inconvenience. After the allegations, he would go on to make 28 more films, including Husbands and Wives, which he and Farrow were filming together in 1992. He kept playing his stupid clarinet. He kept cranking out scripts. The worst thing that happened to him was that his distribution deal with Amazon was kibboshed—in 2018! But even then, he filed suit and settled—his argument was that they knew he was a monster when they inked the deal—and walked away with millions. Plus, I mean, he’s 85 years old. How many more films about older men sleeping with teenage girls or philanderers murdering their mistresses does he realistically have in him?
Many lives were irrevocably damaged because Woody Allen sexually assaulted his young daughter—and because he ran an op on the child’s mother immediately afterward. The collateral damage was extensive. This was a highway pile-up that unsuspecting cars kept smashing into.
You want to talk about “the tragedy of programming?” Look at all the powerful men who have, since that press conference at the Plaza Hotel, taken a page from the Woody Allen playbook. There’s Bill Clinton, Donald John Trump, and Brett Kavanaugh, indignantly denying that they’ve done anything wrong. There’s Roman Polanski, soft-lit in a news segment interview, insisting that the 13-year-old he raped had given consent. There’s Harvey Weinstein hiring Black Cube to harass his adversaries, just as Allen had enlisted his own operatives to tail Mia Farrow, sift through her trash, and dig up dirt. There’s Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson and Bill Cosby, hiding their horrific crimes behind pleasant, sanitized personas, hoping fame and popularity would protect them. Surely the Thriller singer isn’t a child molester! Surely Cliff Huxtable isn’t a rapist! Surely the charming ex-athlete from the Hertz commercials isn’t a killer! To prepare for their defense, they all asked WWWD—What Would Woody Do?
One attorney in particular, a renowned Harvard Law School professor, was taking notes at that Plaza Hotel press conference. In the years that followed, he would represent O.J. Simpson (1995), Woody Allen’s neighbor and buddy Jeffrey Epstein (2008), Harvey Weinstein (2018), and Donald John Trump (2020)—and he himself would be credibly accused of sex crimes involving minors. In each defense case, he used techniques pioneered by Allen. That press conference was essentially a template for all subsequent disinformation ops. And this particular attorney had a front-row seat. His name was Alan Dershowitz. And in the 1992 custody battle, the eponymous Allen v. Farrow, he represented Mia Farrow.
Photo: Still shot of the Plaza Hotel press conference, 1992, via ABC News.