Relationships

“There Is Something Oblivious About Him”

The worst part of New York magazine’s Soon-Yi Previn profile is the way it portrays Woody Allen as a helpless, childlike lunk.

Soon-Yi Previn and Woody Allen
Photo illustration by Derreck Johnson. Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images.

From the outside, Woody Allen’s romance with Soon-Yi Previn has always seemed suspect. She was 21 when their affair started, a Korean immigrant who grew up in poverty. He was in his mid-50s, a multimillionaire and A-list director and actor. And most disturbingly, of course, she was his girlfriend’s daughter.

Any one of these factors would have made for an incredibly skewed power dynamic. Together, they added up to something that looked more sinister, even pathological. When Allen’s daughter Dylan Farrow accused him of molesting her at age 7, his relationship with Previn was taken by some arbiters in the court of public opinion (but far from all of them) as a bit of foreshadowing that supported a theory of Allen’s guilt.

The New York magazine profile of Previn, which published on Sunday night, was seemingly meant to remove their marriage from the body of evidence in the Dylan Farrow case, or at least allow the defense to reinterpret its meaning. Because Previn had never given a major interview before, her reticence gave journalists and observers no reason to assume she was anything but a naïve young woman who had been manipulated by Allen into a fundamentally inequitable relationship. By giving several interviews to a magazine reporter, allowing her into their home, and telling the story of their relationship from Previn’s point of view, Previn and Allen hoped to portray Previn as an independent adult with full agency and good decision-making skills, an equal partner in a marriage that just happened to begin under inauspicious circumstances.

But the profile ended up conveying the opposite message. Once the writer, #MeToo skeptic Daphne Merkin, discloses 700 words into the piece that she’s been friends with Allen “for over four decades,” it’s difficult to read Previn’s quotes without imagining Allen hovering nearby, possibly pulling some strings. And indeed, he was: Many if not most of Merkin’s conversations with Previn took place in the Previn-Allen home—with Allen in the room. There’s always an underlying sense of theatrical domestic harmony when a couple presents itself to a journalist for a piece about how much of a non-molester the male party is. With Merkin as the writer, imparting such unbiased observations as “Before I let myself out, I stop to watch the two of them go upstairs together, holding hands,” that subtext becomes text.

Merkin gives her buddy Allen a wide berth to control the narrative of his life, however divorced it is from the truth. She presents a quote he gave an Argentinean TV station—“I’ve worked with hundreds of actresses, and not a single one … ever, ever suggested any kind of impropriety at all”—without questioning it, though it’s a generous stretch of the truth. (In 2015, Mariel Hemingway said a fortysomething-year-old Allen flew to visit her at her parents’ house when she was 18 to try to convince her to travel to Paris with him; when she confronted him with her suspicion that he would make them share a room, he left.) Merkin also periodically lets Allen jump into her conversations with Previn to correct his wife. When Previn says Allen has reshaped her life by giving her “a whole world that I wouldn’t have had access to,” Allen interjects to clarify that he “provided her with material access and opportunity, but it’s all her,” and that he’s “more introverted and nondescript.” Another journalist might have confronted Allen with the way he described his role in their relationship to the Hollywood Reporter in 2016:

She was an orphan on the streets, living out of trash cans and starving as a 6-year-old. … And so I’ve been able to really make her life better. I provided her with enormous opportunities, and she has sparked to them. … She’s very sophisticated and has been to all the great capitals of Europe. She has just become a different person. The contributions I’ve made to her life have given me more pleasure than all my films.

This far creepier characterization positions Allen as both white-savior colonizer and parent, raising a Korean-born child into the Westernized wife of his desires. Merkin’s failure to mention it betrays the apparent purpose of the profile: not to give the long-silent Previn the chance to claim her life story as her own, but to make one last-ditch effort to save Allen’s legacy from the bright lights of the #MeToo movement.

To accomplish that goal, the New York magazine piece portrays Allen as bumbling, unaware of social cues, susceptible to the wiles of willful women, and in a twist, the naïve and manipulatable member of the couple. Merkin describes him as “oblivious” and portrays Mia Farrow as demanding and needy. She observes Previn mothering Allen, correcting his posture and helping him keep his balance as they walk. And Previn waves away Allen’s 12-year relationship with Farrow as merely an effect of his “pathetic” and “trusting” disposition. “He was probably putty in her hands,” Previn says. “One thinks that he’s so brilliant … and yet on certain things he’s so shockingly naïve it makes your head spin.”

The aim here is to cast doubt on Allen’s moral responsibility for his pattern of pursuing teenage women in a fatherly way, irrespective of whether or not he actually molested his daughter. If he’s just a pitiful, guileless lunk who’s easily tempted by precociously bright, seductive women, who’s to say he’s done anything wrong? If he’s merely a victim of a prudish feminist culture, a vengeful ex-lover, and a he-said-she-said sexual adjudication system that has recently inched further in favor of the shes, there’s no need to hold him accountable—women are the only ones to blame.

But it’s clear that the supposedly socially inept Allen is the one steering this vessel of image rehabilitation, even as it’s supposed to center Previn’s story. He tries to make Farrow out to be the sexual transgressor in the story: His account of her “obsession” with breastfeeding their child Ronan—who he insists on addressing by his cast-off birth name, Satchel—is sexist and sexualized; and when Merkin invites him to opine on Ronan’s paternity, Allen accuses Farrow of having multiple affairs. For a second, it’s almost enough to make the reader forget that he cheated on her with her daughter.

That’s the least of the contradictions in a piece that overflows with them. Previn says she was “mature” enough at age 5 to run away in search of a better life for herself, but says she still doesn’t know how to apply makeup, at age 47, because Farrow never showed her how. She remembers thinking at age 6 that Farrow “didn’t ring true or sincere” when she first hugged her at the orphanage, but can’t remember how her relationship with Allen transitioned from basketball games and school drop-offs to sexually explicit photo sessions because “it was 25 years ago.” She and Allen claim that she was self-assured and independent enough at 21 to embark on a sexual relationship with her mother’s middle-aged boyfriend without anything being weird, but present as evidence of Farrow’s cruelty the fact that she kicked Previn out of her house when she discovered the affair and threatened to cut her off from the family’s money.

There’s one smaller revelation about Allen and Previn’s relationship in the New York profile that casts a clarifying light on Sunday’s installment of the Woody Allen legacy preservation project. Previn tells Merkin that the first time Allen said he loved her was during a press conference he held about two weeks after Dylan said he’d molested her. “Even then, I wasn’t sure if he meant it,” Previn says. “We had never said those words to each other.” Allen upped the ante of their romantic relationship in direct response to accusations of abuse, using a young woman as a shield without her buy-in. Now that those allegations are threatening his career again, he’s giving a repeat performance of his love for the press. The magazine framed the story as an “introduction” of Previn, an opportunity for her to define herself on her own terms, not as Allen’s victim or pity project but as an agent of her own destiny. Instead, it tightens the shackles that bind Previn’s identity to Allen’s misdeeds, simplifying and weaponizing her life story for the sole benefit of his name.