By Maria Puente)
Considering how long and how often it has happened, Western culture should find it easy to separate art from artist — to judge a particular work of art apart from the behavior, even reprehensible behavior, of its creator.
The ongoing tragedy of filmmaker Woody Allen and his family suggests maybe it's not so easy anymore, especially not when everyone and their wacky brother can weigh in on social media. That in turn could affect how Allen's peers judge his latest Oscar-nominated film, Blue Jasmine, and its Oscar-nominated stars.
"Oscar voters DO punish people," says Tom O'Neil, editor of GoldDerby.com, which tracks film awards.
Then again, sometimes they don't. Paging director Roman Polanski, Oscar winner, admitted statutory rapist.
"Chances are good that if we delved into the private lives of every single artist whose work we admire, surely we'd find plenty not to like, and even to be disgusted by," says Peggy Drexler, a psychology professor at the Cornell University medical school, in a posting on Time's website. "It's possible we'd never see a movie, look at a work of art or read a book again."
History is replete with tales of artists behaving badly. Composer Richard Wagner was an anti-Semite. Novelist Charles Dickens trashed his wife and secretly shacked up with a teen actress. Painter Michelangelo Caravaggio was a murderer. Movie star/filmmaker Charlie Chaplin was investigated by the FBI and banned from the USA in the 1950s, as much for eloping with an 18-year-old as for his leftist political views.
And yet, Wagner's operas are still heard (even in Israel). Great Expectations is still read in high schools across the land. Most art museums would kill to get a Caravaggio. And Chaplin's movies are still considered comic masterpieces worthy of his honorary Oscar in 1972.
This age-old debate, mostly unresolved, has come round again in the wake of the latest poisonous developments in the case of Allen and his daughter Dylan Farrow. Backed by her mother, actress Mia Farrow, and one of her brothers, she accuses him of molesting her when she was 7. He denies it, was never charged, and blames Mia Farrow for planting the idea in his daughter's head in revenge for their toxic breakup.
Two decades later, and with powerful social media at their disposal, the Farrows are campaigning against Allen as his film Blue Jasmine is riding high this awards season (even though — irony alert — Allen doesn't give a fig for awards and never shows up to accept them).
After Allen's film career was honored during last month's Golden Globes ceremony, Mia Farrow and one of her sons with Allen, Ronan Farrow, tweeted their ire, suggesting that honoring Allen for his art amounted to calling his daughter a liar.
Dylan Farrow, now 28, repeated this argument in a searing j'accuse open letter on the New York Times website last week, in which she called out Blanchett and other actors in Allen's films by name for paying tribute to his artistic achievements.
"For so long, Woody Allen's acceptance silenced me," she wrote. "It felt like a personal rebuke, like the awards and accolades were a way to tell me to shut up and go away."
All this set off vociferous arguments. When, for example, Barbara Walters tried to defend her pal Allen on The View, asking whether an artist's personal life should block him from awards, she got heated pushback from Sherri Shepherd and from critics on Twitter.
O'Neil says it's possible the Farrows' campaign could encourage academy voters to pass on awarding Allen or his actors. (Allen is nominated for best original screenplay for Blue Jasmine, while Cate Blanchett has scooped up just about every best-actress award this season for her starring role in the film.)
"Blanchett is so far out front for best actress the only thing that could explain a loss would be this scandal," O'Neil says.
Blanchett, of course, is totally innocent, and Allen is presumed innocent. But even if Dylan Farrow's accusations were true, why should Hollywood not honor Allen as an artist if his peers believe he deserves it?
After all, Mia Farrow herself has defended Polanksi, who helped make her a star in 1968's Rosemary's Baby, even though he pleaded guilty to having sex with a 13-year-old in 1977. The academy awarded Polanski the best-director Oscar for The Pianist in 2003 (he's been nominated for three other pictures, including Rosemary's Baby), and Farrow was not among the objectors.
Brad Brevet, who writes a film blog, RopeofSilicon.com, says the Polanski example shows that Hollywood can be selective about separating the art from the artist. But he admits to having more questions than answers.
"Obviously no one supports what Polanski did or what Allen allegedly did, but should that stop us from watching Repulsion and Midnight in Paris?," he says. "Should it stop people from starring in those films?... It's a massive moral quandary and I don't think the answer is black-and-white."
Peter Lehman, a film scholar and director of the Center for Film, Media & Popular Culture at Arizona State University, says historically there have always been "major contributions" from figures "who engaged in morally objectionable behaviors."
"We don't think of them as lesser, as if there were a connection to whatever happened in their private lives and the work they created. And there's no reason to think that would be different with Woody Allen's films," says Lehman.
But, he says, none of those past artists transgressed in the age of Twitter, when whispers are amplified, cockamamie theories go viral and unrelated issues are conflated with wild abandon.
Lehman is disturbed by "media steamrolling," which he says has created an environment in which people come to firm conclusions, about Allen or anything else, without actually knowing the facts. They just think they do.
"We have documentation about Wagner's anti-Semitism," he says. When it comes to Allen, "it seems to me there's a rush to judgment based on little documentation."
It's unfair, he says, but Oscar voters might be influenced nonetheless. That's because, he says, the Academy Awards are not just about picking the best in a given year.
"It's about putting their best foot forward in shaping public opinion about the film industry," he says. Some academy voters might conclude the industry's image would be harmed by honoring Allen or his movie. "It is possible that this year in this context a number of voters could be influenced."
There may be no answer to this debate except time. Consider the example of the classic filmmaker Elia Kazan (On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, East of Eden), multiple nominee and winner of two Oscars in the 1940s and 1950s. But for decades he was viewed with contempt by many in Hollywood, after he "named names" in 1952 to congressional witch-hunters pursuing Communists in the film industry. Hollywood figures who were blacklisted could not forgive him. And yet eventually he was honored for his lifetime of achievement, in 1999, four years before he died.
At the ceremony, some stars sat on their hands as the 89-year-old accepted the Oscar; most of the audience, including Warren Beatty and Meryl Streep, stood and applauded.