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Woody Allen, Mel Gibson & More Maligned Auteurs: How to Justify Watching Their Films (Or Not)

Woody Allen, Mel Gibson & More Maligned Auteurs: How to Justify Watching Their Films (Or Not)

Editor’s note: With Woody Allen’s “Cafe Society” and Mel Gibson’s “Blood Father” both recently surfacing at the Cannes Film Festival, the controversies surrounding both men have been stirred up once more. Here, several members of the IndieWire team — editor at large Anne Thompson, senior film critic David Ehrlich, deputy editor and chief critic Eric Kohn and editor in chief Dana Harris – trade thoughts on the matter.

ANNE THOMPSON: Woody Allen had a rough start to Cannes, but he wasn’t the only artist whose integrity was under attack. The festival began with his son Ronan Farrow overtaking the conversation about Allen’s opening-night entry, “Café Society,” and continued with Mel Gibson attending the festival with well-reviewed midnight movie “Blood Father.” The next day, the actor presented the Palme d’Or. In both cases, questions circulated about whether these men, long-tarnished by scandal, should be ostracized by the global film community — or forgiven.

READ MORE: Cannes Review: Mel Gibson is Officially a B-Movie Star With ‘Blood Father’

Hollywood history is rife with stars who have run afoul of the law or the rules of society, from Robert Mitchum serving jail time for marijuana possession (which did not hurt his career, much as Robert Downey, Jr. survived his incarceration for drug use ) to the exiles of supposed Communist Charlie Chaplin, Ingrid Bergman (living openly out of wedlock with Roberto Rossellini) and Roman Polanski, who pled guilty to unlawful intercourse with a minor and then fled the country. While Chaplin and Bergman were welcomed back by Hollywood, Polanski still lives and works in Europe.  

Allen has never been charged or prosecuted for assaulting his young daughter Dylan in 1992 when she was seven, but while his ex-wife Mia Farrow and family members believe that he did so and continue to accuse him in the press, we will never know what he did. Which is one reason why Allen continues to make movies, which his loyal fans attend, and has been nominated for nine Oscars since then, winning Original Screenplay for “Midnight in Paris.” 

As for Gibson, we all know exactly what he has said, intoxicated in public, and on a leaked private phone call. In his case, it’s up to each individual to decide whether or not to forgive him. He has been publicly excoriated, flogged, and shunted to the margins of his profession. Now he is making his way back, acting in a well-received movie at Cannes and directing the upcoming Lionsgate World War II drama “Hacksaw Ridge,” starring Andrew Garfield as a conscientious objector medic who wins the Congressional Medal of Honor for saving lives without killing people in Okinawa.

If Gibson delivers an awards-worthy movie, should the industry give him his due?  

DAVID EHRLICH: Is there a God? Did Tony Soprano die? Can you separate the art from the artist? These are the questions that will never go away, the questions to which the world will likely never have a clean, simple answer (best guesses: no/yes/read on). One thing is for sure: Meaningful art will endure regardless of how people feel about the person who made it. It’s been 100 years since “The Birth of a Nation,” and we still teach it in film schools. “Cafe Society” comes out in July, and we’ll probably have forgotten about it by Labor Day. 

In regards to how people feel about Woody Allen and the ethics of continuing to support his work, it’s hard to overstate how convenient it is that he made the majority of his masterpieces prior to the accusations that he sexually assaulted his daughter. 

It’s easy to hold Chris Brown’s feet to the fire because he hasn’t recorded a single listenable song since he violently attacked Rihanna. On the other hand, think about someone like porn star James Deen, who was recently accused of raping his ex-girlfriend and fellow sex worker, Stoya. Yes, there was an appreciable furor over the (widely corroborated) allegations, and several companies terminated their working relationships with Deen, but it’s safe to assume that people still get off to his performances. But you don’t have to.

Maybe we have a moral imperative to boycott art by terrible people, but how do we decide who qualifies for that dubious distinction? Winona Ryder was famously arrested for shoplifting, so should we never let her steal another movie? In 2004, Josh Brolin was arrested on a misdemeanor charge of domestic battery against his then-wife Diane Lane, so does that mean we were wrong to champion his lead performance in 2007’s Best Picture-winning “No Country for Old Men?” How many babies do we throw out with the bathwater? Sometimes, as in the case of Bill Cosby, these distinctions make themselves. More often, they don’t.

Everyone has to draw their own line in the sand, hold tight to the courage of their convictions, and go from there. There’s a very, very real possibility that the patriarchy and the court of public opinion may have failed Woody Allen’s young daughter. But if the outstanding allegations against the filmmaker bother you too much to enjoy his work, then don’t pay to watch it — I promise you that Lionsgate will get the message.

In some respects, the fact that Mel Gibson’s offenses are so clearly preserved in amber has made it easier for him to survive them in the public eye. His sins are readily digestible, his behavior just another piece of fodder for the news cycle that’s indistinguishable from whatever video package TMZ has queued up next.

Should the industry give Gibson his due? Well, either the awards are solely based on the quality of his art, or the whole thing is a farce, right? And if I know anything about the Oscars, it’s that the art always comes first. If Gibson delivered a masterpiece, as unlikely as it may seem, that would be quite a predicament. Would I want to sit alone in a room with the guy? Only if I could wear one of those safety suits from “The Hurt Locker.” But that’s not the point — ultimately, the onus over what to do about a new Mel Gibson movie isn’t on the public so much as it is on the people who stand to profit from it. Likewise, if the industry agrees to fund him, then the industry must be amenable to the idea of rewarding him for the art that he makes in return.

ERIC KOHN: At Cannes, I overheard one Woody Allen rep sigh that this brouhaha over his past behavior comes up every six months, since that’s roughly the amount of time it takes for him to complete a new movie. If that’s the case, why does it seem like the controversy has accelerated in recent years? Has our society truly progressed to the point where every artist’s past sins must be subjected to renewed scrutiny? That certainly seems to have been the case with Cosby. But in his situation, broader awareness of the comedian’s terrible off-camera behavior directly contradicts the family values that imbued him with cultural weight. Our revelations about his behavior have transformed him into a walking paradox. 
That’s not the case with Allen or Gibson. Even before he married one daughter or was accused of abusing another one, Allen radiated a pervy old-man vibe. So did some of the classic Greek poets when they celebrated their romances with young boys. This isn’t a defense, but a fact: Artists do weird, twisted and ethically problematic things, but that doesn’t stop them from creating great art. I can appreciate the operatic slant of “The Triumph of the Will” without embracing its grandiose vision of the Third Reich. So too can I watch a Woody Allen movie like “Manhattan,” in which he sleeps with a high schooler, and appreciate its caustic, neuroses-filled humor without endorsing the lead character’s kinks. 
As for Gibson: At no point in time have we really heard this guy renounce his terrible beliefs. I think it’s pretty obvious from the evidence out there that he’s still an anti-Semitic loon with rage issues. He also made one of the most innovative action movies of all time with “Apocalypto,” and while I didn’t think there was much originality to the shoot-‘em-up antics of his new vehicle “Blood Father,” he certainly radiates a middle-age badass screen presence that carries the material along. That aspect of his screen persona has literally nothing to do with his psychotic tendencies. There is no cultural paradox here. We can watch him, hate him, and still enjoy the ride.
But that’s a separate issue from whether or not the industry should endorse a person like this. Hollywood produces work that implicitly speaks to cultural standards. In many cases, it’s a mirror for society’s wildest fantasies. Gibson should not epitomize any of that. On some level, his movie-jail sentencing should last for life. Any studio that casts him in a prominent role is wading into problematic territory. That doesn’t include “Blood Father,” a movie far too simplistic for anyone to mistake it for an endorsement of Gibson’s beliefs. As an actor, he is forever tainted. Give him silly, disposable roles or give him nothing at all.
As a director, however, Gibson can hide behind stories that don’t necessarily radiate the same ideological lunacy he has espoused in the past. He may never find redemption, but as long as he doesn’t make a sequel to “The Passion of the Christ,” he can move forward. And maybe he’ll make something great. 

DANA HARRIS: If we’re going to seriously consider the issue of forgiveness for artists, I think we have to consider the element of proof. One of the reasons, if not the reason, that the tide of public opinion turned against Bill Cosby and Chris Brown and Mel Gibson, is we know. Reasonable doubt is gone. Cosby has not been convicted, but we’ve seen dozens of accusers step forward. And now that his depositions have been released, we have it in his own words. With Chris Brown, we all saw those photos of Rhianna’s damaged face to back up her testimony. The recordings of Gibson gave us his racism and sexism in his own words. 

And, if you’re going to compare Allen vs. Gibson, with the former seeing virtually no professional backlash while Gibson is still trying to emerge from the immolation of his career, I think the same is true. For Gibson, we have the memory of “sugar tits” for life. With Allen, we have a sense of “ick,” our own opinions, and a prosecutor who almost but not quite pressed charges nearly 25 years ago because he said he feared for the mental health of the accused. There’s still reasonable doubt, and with that comes a lot of ethical wiggle room.

So, let’s remove the doubt and put Allen on the same plane. To be clear, we do not know — but let’s say we did know, with the same kind of certainty as Cosby et. al., that Allen sexually abused Dylan Farrow. Could we still appreciate Allen’s work as an artist?

For me, the answer is no. Any more than I can now listen to Bill Cosby’s original “Fat Albert” standup routines, which were hilarious. The work is the same, but the crimes create cognitive dissonance. Their charges — a serial rapist, the sexual abuse of a child — are so far outside the pale that it destroys my ability to enjoy their art. 

For what it’s worth, my perspective on Allen’s movies has changed a lot since I became a childhood fan while watching Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel’s reviews on “Sneak Previews.” Some of the first movies I rented on VHS were “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan,” and I loved them as much as I hoped I might. As an adult, I’ve liked few films he’s made in the last 20-plus years for reasons that have everything to do with the work and nothing to do with his life.

But even some of those films I loved look different to me now. Allen’s narcissism and self aggrandizing can be intense. When I was that kid in Texas, I addressed the age discrepancy, and social acceptance, of the Mariel Hemingway relationship in “Manhattan” with, “That must be how it is in New York.” Today, it looks like the fantasy of a filmmaker I don’t really want to know. 

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