John Y. Brown, III: In Defense of a Woody Allen Fan

As a young boy my list of grown-ups I idolized included a long list of what you’d expect with any typical boy—athletes, political figures, a few movie stars (the character more than the actor, of course).

But when I was about 12 years old I was in a hotel room with a friend watching a movie that we were able to get through the hotel. It was Love and Death by Woody Allen. It played in the background while I played with my friend. But I kept trying to watch it. The humor was quirky and absurd. And when there was the scene of the view of a battlefield from the perspective of the generals (which was a pack of stampeding sheep instead of men fighting for their lives on the battlefield), I started laughing uncontrollably. I guess I thought it was brilliant and silly at the same time but it hit my funny bone from an angle and with a velocity I had never experienced before –and I stopped my playing with my friend altogether to watch this unusual and hilarious movie. And watched again a second and a third time before I stopped ordering it for fear my parents would get angry when they saw the bill.

A few years later I asked my mom to drive me to see the movie Manhattan. I heard Woody Allen had written it and starred in it. The same guy who wrote and starred in that hilarious movie I saw at the hotel when I was 12.
I didn’t like Manhattan as much as Love and Death, but left the theater a bona fide Woody Allen fan.

In high school, there were no VCR’s yet, but Louisville did have The Vogue and The Uptown art theaters which often played older and less commercially popular films, and I got to see many of the older Allen movies—Bananas, Take the Money and Run, and of course, Annie Hall, which I adored.

I wouldn’t let other kids in high school know about my Woody Allen fetish but I felt like he “got me.” Or at least, “I got him.” I was a smallish and philosophical kid that didn’t fit into any of the traditional groups or cliques in high school. Woody Allen’s humor provided a refuge for me. A sanctuary where I didn’t feel like as much of an oddity—and the pressure to be like everyone else would temporarily evaporate as long as the movie played, and I could even feel a surge of pride for being a humorous oddball who saw the world through a neurotic lens. Woody Allen helped me feel I wasn’t alone…and wasn’t defective or inferior.

As a college student living in Los Angeles for a year and a half and majoring in philosophy at USC — and still a smallish and slightly neurotic guy— I purchased a VCR and depended even more on Woody Allen’s worldview. I watched all of his movies at least several times. Some probably 10 or 12 times. They continued to provide me comfort in a world that wasn’t receptive to self-questioning, nervous, guys like me.

I also read his books: Without Feathers and Side Effects and Getting Even. And actually read each all the way through. Something I rarely did with any book even though I was a college student at the time. And I didn’t even get college credit for reading Allen’s books! And I bought a rare cassette of his early stand-up routines. Which I also found uproariously funny as well as finding a kinship with the humor. It wasn’t just comic relief any more but absorbing chunks of Woody Allen’s philosophy at life by this juncture of my fanhood.

I saw Woody Allen once at about this time in my life. My stepmother, Phyllis, was working for CBS news and living in New York. I visited her one weekend and we went to Elaine’s restaurant. Phyllis kept trying to introduce me at our noisy table to Pat O’Brien who was a sports colleague at CBS. But I couldn’t take my eyes of the two gentlemen seated quietly in the corner talking thoughtfully between themselves, Woody Allen and Dick Cavett.

Again, I was too self-conscious to mention—especially to a sports loving crowd at our table—I wanted nothing more than to meet Woody Allen. Inside I felt like one of those screaming teenage girls you see as the Beatles get off the plane for their first trip to the US. But outside I tried to pretend I was listening to a funny sports story I couldn’t care less about and laugh along with everyone else.

That same weekend in NY after everyone in my family was asleep I played a Woody Allen movie I had rented. My father woke up and got some ice cream and sat down with me and asked what I was watching. I told him and hoped he’d watch a few minutes and find the scene we were watching as hilarious as I did. He chuckled awkwardly as he had before when I tried a Woody Allen joke on him. I asked him why he didn’t like him more. He said, “Woody Allen reminds me of eating cauliflower. It just didn’t look very good and I never bothered trying it.”

In his defense, my father was never a very self-conscious person who would appreciate Allen’s humor and we just had very different taste in film. The night before I took my father to see the movie “The Gods Must be Crazy.” But we left after about 25 minutes when my father said it was too slow and he couldn’t figure out what it was about.

By the time I reached my 20s, I started coming into my own as a person and began to feel it was safer to acknowledge my Woody Allen infatuation. I read a piece—maybe in the New Yorker—about a young woman who secretly wanted to be Woody Allen, only a female version, who snarkily and with wry and sophisticated humor poked fun at others around her for being shallow. It was safe to come out of the Woody Allen closet.

Until recently.

When Allen was awarded the Cecile B Demille award for lifetime achievement at the Golden Globe awards last month. Of course, as always, he didn’t attend to receive his award. I felt like I had been vindicated in my adoration of Woody Allen’s work. But moments later I read about a series of Tweets from Mia Farrow and Ronan Farrow bringing up old accusations about child molestation charges about Woody molesting Farrow and his adopted daughter, Dylan, when she was 7 years old.

Initially, I am disappointed to report, I thought, “Oh, please. Enough already. Let the man receive this well-deserved award for his art without going there…..”

The next few days and weeks became a full-blown rehash of a shocking episode in Allen’s career that had stayed publicly buried for nearly 20 years where he and Farrow broke up after Woody fell in love with their then adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn and later married her. It was an ugly public battle and shook my worship of Allen to its core at the time. But I somehow mustered the denial and distinction between one’s art and personal life give him the benefit of the doubt to eventually continue my admiration for Woody Allen, although it would never quite be the same as before.

But this time –over the past few days—sifting through the sordid accusations and factual details again as an older and wiser man, I can’t deny that something outrageous and wholly inappropriate happened between Woody Allen and his young adopted daughter over 20 years ago.

I acknowledge that fact and am saddened to learn that you are never too old to become disillusioned with those you place on a pedestal. Or even find part of their life—which is inextricably part of who they are—despicable. And that is true even if you are a 50 year old fan and moved on from hero worship many years ago. But it still stings…and still hurts, too.

So, no, I won’t defend Woody Allen art or try to distinguish it from his personal life. But please don’t expect me –just yet anyway– to line up behind his ex-wife and adopted daughter and pile on Allen either. I would like to say that I won’t be doing that because it is a personal matter and should be handled in private. But the real reason is there is still a part of denial in me that my childhood hero was capable of doing such inexplicable things. And since I am only a fan—and not a direct player in this drama—in my defense and in defense of all similarly situated Woody Allen fans, I ask that you understand it is not the grieving of the public death of a man’s reputation that makes us unable to be objective right now. It is the grieving of the private death of part of ourselves.


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