The fascinating new American Masters documentary on PBS about my favorite director Woody Allen focuses, as expected, on his work. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of Allen’s life, however, is his marriage to Soon Yi Previn, the daughter of his longtime girlfriend Mia Farrow, a Korean born woman 35 years his junior. In the film, many of Allen’s colleagues and friends comment on his ability to “compartmentalize” his life, chiefly citing the fact that during the time Mia Farrow discovered the affair and the bitter custody battle for their children ensued, Allen “never skipped a beat” in his work. He has made a film a year for over forty years, a remarkable achievement.
And yet, you can look at his work and see a serious drop off in the quality around this time. He split with Farrow at the end of shooting Husbands & Wives; the custody battle was during Bullets Over Broadway. While I have enjoyed all his later films (after Bullets), to varying degrees, they don’t have the depth of his earlier work and one senses in Allen a reticence to tackle the complex issues inherent in relationships and marriage he was once eager to explore. Perhaps this lack of artistic edge can be attributed to the complacency of contentment – he claims to finally have found peace in his marriage to Previn. Or Allen may simply be past it, already reached his peak creatively and is on the decline.
In a recent interview, Allen claimed not to know what the scandal was all about, protesting that his relationship with Soon Yi was very conventional in many ways, primarily in that she is a fulltime homemaker unlike his actress paramours. Obviously, the read on this setup is that she is completely non-threatening to Allen, and he has said as much in interviews. But while Allen may be able to compartmentalize his life, that doesn’t mean that his life as a whole is not affected by its parts – including his films. What’s missing is his former quest for truth in the miasma of ambivalence that comes from long relationships. His later movies seem almost fairytale, and have neat endings, tied with a bow on top, suggesting, or perhaps reflecting, the neat happy ending he has found with Soon Yi.
To an outsider, or in this case, a dyed-in-the-wool fanatic, the relationship looks a bit different. It’s an obvious cliché, young woman with father issues, older man dreading death, and it catches attention because it’s an unusual pairing except in cases where the man is rich, and especially if he’s famous. I’m not saying it’s wrong – but don’t pass it off as “normal.” Also, though he may have finally settled down, it seems more likely that’s because he’s getting older, rather than he’s found his soul mate.
Finally, there’s the impact the relationship has had on his only biological child, Ronan, (formerly Satchel – Mia changed it); and the impact the relationship has had on Mia Farrow and Soon Yi, who was twenty when they started up in 1992 and couldn’t possibly realize that gaining a boyfriend meant losing your mother forever. Ronan has publicly condemned his father for his decision, and doesn’t speak to him. Soon Yi and Mia don’t speak; nor do Mia and Woody, though he has said he still considers Farrow for movie roles.
Allen is purportedly pleased with the fact that he has at least one juicy scandal attached to him, and indeed it has all the makings of a Greek tragedy. Again, no judgment as to the decision making – Amurikans love their freedom – I’m just asking Allen to be honest with himself about it. Most of all, for selfish reasons, I’d like to see him explore it in his work.