Can you separate an artist’s behavior from his or her art — and should you? There’s no easy answer to that question, but we still fight about it regularly over cultural figures such as Orson Scott Card, Mel Gibson, Charlie Sheen, R. Kelly, Alec Baldwin, Roman Polanski, and most recently Duck Dynasty’s Phil Robertson. One of the more durable focal points for this dilemma is Woody Allen, who became a hot-button issue in 1992 when he married his stepdaughter Soon-Yi Previn and got embroiled in a custody battle with his ex-girlfriend Mia Farrow, who alleged that he’d molested their then-7-year-old adopted stepdaughter, Dylan. Each new Allen film dredges up the debate over whether his career achievement eclipses his scandalous acts. His latest project, Blue Jasmine, has been heralded as an Allen comeback, and won an acting award for its star Cate Blanchett at last night’s Golden Globes, where Diane Keaton accepted the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement on his behalf. The usual “never forget!” calls were heard on Twitter as a hagiographic clip reel played and Keaton sang about what a good pal he was. Then Farrow and her son, Ronan, joined in, and what might otherwise have been a standard kissy-kissy Hollywood moment acquired darker shadings.
It used to be that those who believed they’d been misunderstood or wronged aired their grievances to the press, mostly newspapers. Maybe they’d write a piece (or have someone write it for them), or maybe they’d give quotes to a reporter who’d reprint them, with or without context. When the public lost interest in their particular scandal, the press deemed it “old news” and moved onto the next tawdry thing; beyond that point, there were few forums for continued outcry. Today, thanks to social media, those who feel personally affected by a famous person’s behavior can weigh in instantly and publicly, sometimes at the exact moment when the man they believe wrecked their lives is being feted as a great artist and (in some ways) wonderful guy. And so, when Keaton began her rambling tribute to Allen as a great artist and true friend, Mia Farrow tweeted “Time to grab some icecream & switch over to #GIRLS” and then “Nite all.” Meanwhile, Ronan, Allen and Farrow’s biological son (provided the Frank Sinatra rumors aren’t true) tweeted, “Missed the Woody Allen tribute - did they put the part where a woman publicly confirmed he molested her at age 7 before or after Annie Hall?”
Over the next few hours — as happens on the Internet — an array of responses to their tweets popped up, basically summed up by such ideas as: You go, girl (and son)!/These two need to get over it. /Are you kidding, look what he did to them!/ I get that they’re mad, but that joke is in bad taste./Ronan is so hot! To review the reactions — or seriously gauge your own — was to ride an emotional Möbius strip, circling from callousness to mortification and back again.
It’s sometimes hard to reconcile the seriousness of messages sent via Twitter with the format and tone of the delivery system. The issues involved here were extraordinarily painful, and yet the Farrows’ expression of pain seemed — in 140 characters or less, with abbreviations and hashtags — glib, especially as they’d taken similar jabs at Allen before: Back in 2011, when Sarah Silverman tweeted “When ur relatives drive you crazy just close your eyes & pretend it’s dialogue in a woody allen movie,” Farrow responded “tried that. Didn’t work,” a response that went viral and was aggregated with many variations of the headline “Mia Farrow wins the Internet!” Last year, Ronan tweeted, “Happy father’s day – or as they call it in my family, happy brother-in-law’s day.”
The perception of glibness is unavoidable on Twitter, which is not a place for somber counterpunching editorials or 3,000-word New York Review of Books thumbsuckers. It’s a free-associative format that’s conducive to inspirational quotes, surreal juxtapositions, links, photos, muttered asides and, in this case, bitter jokes — the type that in another era might have been followed by hesitant rimshots. The momentous and the trivial share space in the same person’s feed. Those who don’t follow Mia Farrow and have only seen her three aforementioned tweets might think, “Oh, that’s now just her shtick.” But checking back into her account today finds far more somber follow-ups, including links to the Vanity Fair coverage of the abuse allegations, and the statement, “A woman has publicly detailed Woody Allen’s molestation of her at age 7. GoldenGlobe tribute showed contempt for her & all abuse survivors.” And then, just a few hours later, “omfg look at this baby panda.”
However, even amidst Twitter’s sea of trivialities, news, and posturing, the Farrows’ tweets were powerful. These virtual slaps were different from a “real” disruptive act — a loud “boo” shouted out while others are applauding, or a drink tossed in somebody’s face at a reception — and yet just as bracing, because while they allowed the event itself to proceed undisturbed, they merged with our recollection of it after the fact, and will stay online for as long as “online” remains a thing. We don’t have to argue about what was said in that auditorium or whether it was appropriate to say it at that moment, because the Farrows weren’t there. They were watching from the same collective living room in which people live-Tweet their color commentary about people on TV — the same hive-mind space where people bitch about fumbled passes and laugh at a sitcom leading lady’s new hairdo and pass around links to Breaking Bad tumblrs.
The same electronic statements that seem so terse and glib can remind us — messily, which is as it should be — that artists and entertainers aren’t just topics or issues or windows into this or that moral conundrum. They’re people. They make choices. They cause and suffer pain. Twitter is a place where the non-famous go to lash the famous — out of disdain, outrage or boredom — and then wait to see if the famous lash back. The Farrows’ tweets about Woody Allen don’t fall into that predictable call-and-response pattern. They come from a more grievously wounded place. They don’t answer the bigger question of whether an artist’s private life should affect our opinion of their work, and they were never meant to. They were meant to remind us that as far as they’re concerned, Woody Allen is the guy who couldn’t be left alone with Dylan.