This week, in an interview, Oliver talks to Katie Duggan about the Woody Allen archives in Princeton University’s Firestone Library. Katie’s piece “The Women of the Woody Allen Archives,” appears in the March 31st edition of the Nassau Weekly.
This podcast was produced by
“I’m ashamed of my new movie,” a famous film director admits. “I did something that would have been untouchable to me before. I made unconscious concessions to the audience—I played it safe—I broke no new ground—I took no risks because the bitch goddess of success opened her legs in my brain.” This revealing admission comes, maybe unsurprisingly, from Woody Allen. But they were not spoken by him at a press conference for a recent film. This quote does not even come from the mouth of director, but from his pen. The man who actually speaks these words is Roland Pollard, a fictional character in Allen’s still yet-to-be-released film A Rainy Day in New York, as he confides in a young female journalist who interviews him for her college newspaper. Though there is no evidence that this film is anything but fiction, there are still connections between Pollard and Allen. Allen arguably has not been breaking new ground in his work for years, as we’ve seen older male/young female relationships pop up over and over and over again, including in A Rainy Day in New York. Though the film has been completed, its planned distribution by Amazon Studios has been put on indefinite hold due to the sexual assault allegations against Allen by his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow. While it remains to be seen whether this film will ever be released, it is not hidden from us entirely: some early notes and script excerpts from the film, including the aforementioned bit of dialogue, are available in Rare Books and Special Collections at Princeton University’s Firestone Library. The collection, known as the Woody Allen Papers, is made up of fifty-six boxes of archives dating back to 1955, and contains everything from essays and short stories to multiple drafts of many of his screenplays.
The Woody Allen Papers are tucked away in a sort of crypt: the library preserves the documents in neat boxes, and in theory makes them accessible to all library patrons, but the collection is also hidden three levels underground. Though anyone can request to view the documents in the reading room, doing so feels like a process of unearthing and discovery, as one must sift through hundreds of folders, the contents of which are not widely publicized by Princeton and are not available in digitized form. Richard Morgan of the Washington Post was the first person to go through the entire collection at Firestone, and in his article, he notes that “from the very beginning to the very end, Allen drips with repetitious misogyny.”
I have watched and enjoyed a number of Woody Allen’s films, but it seems difficult to talk about a Woody Allen film without talking about Woody Allen himself, and I admit I find it impossible to approach his work objectively. It’s hard not to inscribe Allen’s relationships with the women in his life (especially the younger women) onto his work and his frequent older man/younger woman romantic pairings. An age gap is not unusual for Hollywood films in general, but Morgan’s article in the Washington Post made me wonder about why unbalanced power dynamics in romantic and sexual relationships were a repetitive fixation in Allen’s work. I aimed to visit the archive and investigate into the nature of Allen’s textual treatment of women myself, paying particular attention to the way that this prolific writer describes female characters, and the patterns of language he uses to do so. As I pulled some of these documents to examine the way Allen writes about women, the narrative was largely unchanging; his objectifying tendencies have not been so deeply locked away after all, but have been hiding in plain sight for years. In my reading of the Allen Papers, I was not aiming to use them to pass any judgment on the assault allegations against Allen, nor was I approaching the texts with an assumption of his guilt. “Innocent” and “guilty” are for the legal system to decide. But amidst the many discussions of needing to “separate the art from the artist,” I wanted to look at the art and see what it had to say about women.
Our first encounter with a character on the page is usually in the form of a brief introduction. These introductions are vital: the adjectives used and the first things we are told about a character set the tone for how we perceive them thereafter. Brief character breakdowns often all we get in a film script to form an image in our minds: a name, an age, and sometimes a few adjectives are all that are given to embody an entire person. But each physical characteristic that is described shapes a particular way of looking, and nowhere is this gaze more apparent than in Allen’s descriptions of female characters. The writer-director has written many award-winning roles for female actors, and created an immense number of memorable female characters: Annie Hall, Jasmine Francis, Hannah, Holly, and Lee, and the list goes on. But using this fact alone to say that Allen often writes women to be multidimensional misses the point that often he doesn’t. It also discredits the craft of the actors in bringing these women to life: Morgan refers to this rhetoric of attributing the women’s awards to Allen’s genius as “a nesting-doll joke: His trophies have trophies.” This objectification and thingification of women into trophies, as something to be owned and to provide aesthetic pleasure to the owner, pervades nearly every character description. In the draft of a short story “By Destiny Denied,” later published in The New Yorkerin 1976, two women are introduced primarily in terms of their appearance and desirability. Margaret Figg is a “comely New England schoolteacher,” while to describe Blanche Mandelstam, Allen writes that “years ago Blanche would have been considered pretty but that would have been in pre-historic times. By today’s standards her features combine to make her resemble the rubber ape mask sold at magic shops.” Blanche is defined by society’s (and men’s) standards of attractiveness.
While one could argue that physical characteristics are important to helping the reader visualize a character, a problem arises when women are framed first and foremost in terms of their desirability to men, and are hardly allowed to be conceived independent from the male gaze. This need to be desirable seems to plague female characters—in the work of many writers—wherever they go. In these screenplay descriptions, women are either pretty, pretty but they don’t know it, so pretty that they become only sex objects, or so un-pretty and grotesque that one cannot fathom they could have their own sexual desires. In another story, “The Condemned,” Allen introduces us to Juliet, a highly intelligent, opinionated Marxist. Yet Cloquet, the man whose thoughts we are privy to, prioritizes her appearance over her politics, and notes a troubling need to “own” her and reduce her to an object:
Juliet was a Marxist, Cloquet thought. And the most interesting type of Marxist. The kind with long, tanned legs. … At this moment she stood before him in a tight skirt and blouse and he wanted to possess her. To own her like he owned some object such as his radio or the bubble pipe he used to harass the Nazis during the occupation.
In the handwritten draft of the manuscript, littered with crossed-out phrases and copious notes, Juliet is described as having “good legsgreat legs enormous breasts,” as if the author could not decide which part of her body was most important for his narrator to objectify. The list of Allen describing women as sex objects, or as visual pleasure for men, goes on and on. In one story, a male narrator talks about his crush on Thelma, who “although only fifteen years old was endowed with sufficient physical gifts.” In another, a male narrator bemoans his poor luck because God has given him an ugly daughter. In “The Kugelmass Episode,” a male narrator (a common thread throughout many of the stories), unhappy in his second marriage, asks a magician to help him have an affair with characters from literature, plucking Madame Bovary from her novel so that he can sleep with her.
Even on film, the medium for which Allen is most well-known, there is a male-centeredness of the narratives, an inescapable male gaze. In Hannah and Her Sisters, we first glimpse Lee from Elliot’s perspective, as he fantasizes about her, his wife’s sister: “God she’s beautiful,” he thinks. “She’s got the prettiest eyes…And she looks so sexy in that shirt…I just want to be alone with her and hold her and kiss her and tell her how much I love her and take care of her.” The writing heightens the sensation that the viewer is a voyeur, always looking at women. In Play It Again, Sam, a film which Allen wrote and starred in but did not direct,the action notes that Allan Felix (played by Allen), a recently divorced film critic, “just can’t help looking” at a girl waiting to use a phone booth, with her body “pressed against the glass.” Later in that same film, Jennifer, a woman Allan is dating, tells him about her sexual history, beginning when she was twelve years old.
Jennifer’s sexual activity is described not in terms of her own desires and agency, but rather in terms of her perceived attractiveness to men around her—her sexual experiences as a child retold to titillate the viewers. The question of age also cannot be ignored, for the pairing of young women with older men seems to be a narrative favorite of Allen’s. His character’s girlfriend in Manhattanis described as being sixteen years old in one draft, an “infant,” as he calls her; she is aged up to seventeen in the produced film. The notes about Ashleigh Enright, the young student journalist in A Rainy Day in New York, show Allen waffling on her name—Ashleigh or Ashley? Enright or Ingraham? —but also on her age, as he writes that she “should not be 20 or 21. Sounds more like 18—or even 17—but 18 seems better.” Though Ashleigh goes to Pollard for a professional interview, the interaction ends with Pollard offering her alcohol and asking her to have lunch with him.
A sense of uncertainty pervaded much of my experience of the Allen papers: not just in the author trying to decide on character names and ages, but also in the reader trying to distinguish between Allen and the author-avatar characters he often plays. The Allen/Allan naming in Play It Again, Samfurther collapses the identity of Allen and his characters into one (Woody Allen’s given first name is “Allan” after all), and this creation of a fictional doppelgänger or alter-ego is something that reoccurs throughout his work. We can never quite be sure how much of what we see in the text is representative of Allen’s personal perspective, but it is not up to the author alone to determine meaning and interpretation (though some literary critics may disagree). In the wake of the #MeToo movement, there has been much discussion about the need to separate the art from the artist. Woody Allen is a particularly difficult example, for by inserting versions of himself into his art, any clear distinction between the artist and his fictional creations starts to break down. I still wish to be careful about using the identities of the actor/writer/director and his characters interchangeably, but even without inscribing prior judgment or biographical information of Woody Allen onto his writing, it can be seen that Allen often performs versions of a similar fictional persona in his work. Most of his short stories are written in the first person, and the nondescript male narrators, though given different names, become almost interchangeable; Allen also stars in many of his own films, and a number of his characters are involved in the film industry in some capacity. He has a type he often plays: the neurotic intellectual who fumbles in romantic interactions. In Annie Hall’s famous balcony scene, Annie and Alvy engage in nervous flirty chatter. Annie worries that she’s not smart enough for him. Meanwhile, Alvy thinks that she is a “great looking girl,” and, in one draft I read, admires her body; in the final version of the film, he instead thinks “I wonder what she looks like naked?” With this scene, Allen makes the subtext part of the text itself, and mines the comedic potential of revealing what his male characters are trying to pretend they’re not thinking. All men are like this, right? Not just the ones Allen writes or plays?
Even if Woody Allen does not endorse a word his characters say, he still implicitly gives weight to their objectifying point of view, and allows them to exist onscreen ogling at women. The men in his films share many similarities, and cannot seem to hold themselves back from objectifying the women around them. The “Woody Allen-type” character, whether played by Allen himself or embodied by another similar man (like the film director Pollard in A Rainy Day), at times feels like he has too much self-awareness of bad habits to really be written by Allen himself—but at the same time not enough at all. The writing openly admits the sexist tendencies of the characters, and makes them readily apparent to the viewer. That nesting-doll joke returns in another form: Allen’s work is full of itself, both figuratively and literally, thinking that the demonstrated behaviors towards women are acceptable in any form. After layer upon layer of similar-but-not-quite-identical versions of himself, what is ultimately hiding inside? Are all these characters just exhibiting surface-level sexism, or is it objectification all the way down?
Allen goes even further in what he allows his characters to do to women in “The Lunatic’s Tale,” a short story where women’s bodies are taken from them to serve the sexual needs of a man. The central conflict of the story is that the sexual needs of the narrator, Dr. Ossip Farkis, “required the best of two women,” as he admits. There is Tiffany Schmeederer, who has an “erotic radiation that oozed from her every pore,”and Olive Chomsky, who is interesting and intellectually stimulating, but bears an unfortunate resemblance to the narrator’s aunt. After going to see a Bela Lugosi film in which a mad scientist switches the brain of a human subject with that of a gorilla, the narrator decides that he has found the solution to his woes: “If such a thing could be devised by a screenwriter in the world of fiction, surely a surgeon of my ability could, in real life, accomplish the same thing.” There is a purposeful blurring between the worlds of fiction and reality, as here the work of the screenwriter does not merely reflect something in the real world, but motivates reality.
Intentionally or not, Allen’s work authorizes the continued objectification of women: if an Oscar-winning screenwriter can make people talk about women this way onscreen, why can’t people talk that way in real life? This is part of why I find Allen’s writings are so troubling: without critique of his work, it feeds the male gaze even further and perpetuates thinking about women that reduces them to their bodies. By continuing to build his narratives around neurotic, lascivious men, Allen builds sympathy for their perspective. We’re meant to be shocked by their actions sometimes, but we’re also meant to laugh at them or feel for them. Take Dr. Farkis, the mad scientist who evokes a twisted version of Frankenstein adaptation when he tries the brain transplant procedure on one “dark and stormy night.” Just like Dr. Frankenstein took great care to select beautiful features for his creature, Dr. Farkis literally reduces women to the desirable parts of their bodies, fashioning the perfect woman to fulfill his desires. Surely, he reasons, if he places the unparalleled mind of Olive into the unparalleled body of Tiffany, his indecision will be solved: “Suffice it to say that one dark and stormy night a shadowy figure might have been observed smuggling two drugged women (one with a shape that caused men to drive their cars up on to the sidewalk) into an unused operating room at Flower Fifth Avenue.”
The drugged women are dragged into an operating room and forced to undergo a procedure that they have not consented to. This invasion of the unconscious body, and the drugging of women to carry out a man’s desires against their will, seem to be a clear metaphor for sexual violence. Yet the procedure recounted with a shocking glibness, as if Farkis knows that he can admit to what he has done and still get away with it. Though the consciousness-swapping is motivated by purely selfish interests, Farkis still tries to act like he is doing the women a favor by invading their bodies, as if they “asked for it” or “secretly liked it”: “Tiffany Schmeederer, her mind now existing in the less spectacular body of Olive Chomsky found herself delightfully free from the curse of being a sex object,” while “Olive Chomsky, suddenly the possessor of a cosmic topography to go with her other superb gifts, became my wife as I became the envy of all around me.” Though many of Allen’s stories, including this one, are works are satire and perhaps not meant to be taken so seriously, isn’t satire meant to illuminate some truth about society? So what exactly is being illuminated here? The only takeaway seems to be that women are constantly denied control over their own bodies by male creators, whether those creators are mad scientists or film directors.
“In perpetrating a revolution, there are two requirements: someone or something to revolt against and someone to actually show up and do the revolting,” writes Allen in a satirical piece on civil disobedience. Though the piece goes on to joke about different means of protesting (including “pretending to be an artichoke”), his words have something to them. We must be willing to call out that which is unacceptable. As the recent media reckonings surrounding assault and gender equality have shown, women constantly navigate having their bodies scrutinized. Even if Allen’s works are complete fiction, that does not mean that the images of female selfhood they project it cannot have implications for real women. Why was it ever okay to write about women, think about women, treat women that way? Why was it okay to keep treating them that way year after year, never learning or growing?
Of course, Allen is by no means the only writer to objectify women in his work. When I’m watching old movies on television, I often can’t believe some of the words that come out of the characters’ mouths. But this sexism isn’t confined to the Hollywood of the past: last spring, I worked part-time as a script reader for a film company, and I read an appalling number of scripts that, if they featured female characters at all, introduced them with only descriptions of their physical assets or variations on the word “hot.” Stereotypes and bra sizes are used in lieu of character development. It shouldn’t be too much to ask that writers do better in writing nuanced characters of all genders. If writers like Allen have proven that they are capable of creating memorable female characters, then why don’t they do so more often, instead of resorting to cheap sketches of women as vehicles for male pleasure?
The film director character in A Rainy Day in New York was maybe onto something when he realized that a director repeating the same thing again and again was something to be ashamed of. After combing through box after box of the Woody Allen Papers, and reading numerous versions and revisions of the same stories, I was sick of it all. Even if some of the writing was not that bad, “not that bad” is no standard we should hold ourselves too. We cannot keep these misogynistic transgressions, even fictional ones, confined to the past or sealed up in a box. It seems that Allen has made some confessions to us already through his work; now we must really listen. The female characters and the male ones who constantly try to possess them are not conjured entirely out of thin air, and Allen, whether in the role of author, director, actor, fictional character, or something in between, must be held responsible for the monsters he has created in art and in life.