From Woody Allen to Bill Cosby, Why Comedians Are Confronting Alleged Sexual Abusers
Hollywood’s least favorite scandal is at it again, in a big way.
This week, beloved director and accused pedophile Woody Allen was just trying to have a lovely Cannes, premiering his new period piece Café Society. But before audience members could bask in the glory of another two-hour examination of the way that pretty, neurotic, white people talk to each other (in the 1930s!!) the acclaimed festival was wracked by an encore of Allen allegations. The old wounds, regarding Allen’s alleged sexual abuse of his adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, were reopened by her brother Ronan Farrow in a recent Hollywood Reporter column.
In a convincing clapback, Allen’s own son takes on both his father’s inappropriate behavior and the media’s culpability in protecting one of Hollywood’s most powerful players. Farrow is uncompromising in his assessment of his father’s supposed crimes toward Dylan, insisting that “even at 5 years old, I was troubled by our father’s strange behavior around her: climbing into her bed in the middle of the night, forcing her to suck his thumb—behavior that had prompted him to enter into therapy focused on his inappropriate conduct with children prior to the allegations.”
Farrow addresses systemic issues, such as the fact that survivors who choose not to pursue legal action against their assailants are often later dismissed or doubted. The assumption is that a decision not to prosecute is akin to admitting that the assault was fictitious or lacked sound evidence. In fact, Farrow argues, in cases like his sister’s, a child’s safety and well-being is often valued over a costly and traumatic legal process. Unfortunately, the fact that Allen was never convicted has been used as a crucial caveat in the court of public opinion: If Allen was never found guilty, then why should we continue to rehash this supposed crime?
This slippery slope of forgiveness and abuse amnesia is particularly ripe for re-examination in light of the Bill Cosby case.
In his column, Farrow reserves the largest portion of his criticism not for Woody Allen, but for a system that breeds and protects Allens and Cosbys. Despite a slew of sexual assault allegations, Cosby’s Teflon reputation and diligent PR team managed to keep the beloved comedian above the fray, dismissing these women’s stories as little more than attention-grabbing stunts. Sixty alleged victims and countless un-thorough interviews and deliberate erasures later, we’ve finally come to terms with Cosby’s crimes. Now, it’s time to address our complicity.
Farrow outlines a system wherein reporters are fed sound bites and spin, reticent to criticize a celebrity for fear of losing access to their publicist’s other A-list clients. While it’s easy to imagine one under-pressure reporter sweeping something under the rug, it all adds up to a whole lot of people who just aren’t doing their jobs. If journalistic ethics aren’t what they’re cracked up to be, then who can we trust to hold the rich and famous accountable—and how can we address a system that supports criminals and silences the impotent and abused?
These questions came to a head at Cannes, where Allen’s handling of renewed controversy actually served to accentuate his son’s criticisms. Farrow’s insistence that journalists are actually punished for reporting was swiftly corroborated by his father’s PR team—thanks, dad!—when The Hollywood Reporter was barred from attending Café Society events, in clear retaliation for its decision to run the critical column. When THR asked for an explanation from Leslee Dart, Allen’s longtime publicist, she responded: “It’s only natural that I would show displeasure when the press—in this case, The Hollywood Reporter—goes out of its way to be harmful to my client.” In a clear attempt to look less petty than he had just proven himself to be, Allen claimed ignorance when it came to his son’s essay, insisting that “I never read anything about me.”
Luckily, Allen’s camp wasn’t able to cover up all the criticism.
At the Wednesday night opening of Café Society, Cannes master of ceremonies Laurent Lafitte debuted a Woody Allen joke that even Ricky Gervais would’ve probably shied away from, cracking, “You’ve shot so many of your films here in Europe and yet in the U.S. you haven’t even been convicted of rape.” The Roman Polanski-inspired barb drew gasps from the rarified audience—particularly in light of the fact that, as predicted by Ronan Farrow, no reporter had dared raise the rape issue at a friendly press conference with Allen earlier that day.
For American audiences, “Reckless Cannes Personality” is definitely Lafitte’s biggest role yet. The French actor and comedian has little name recognition stateside, and boasts a shorter Wikipedia page than William Hung. In France, the veteran actor is known for his steady work, with more than 50 credits on his résumé. In a Hollywood Reporter interview, the newly infamous 42-year-old, who wrote all of his own material, insisted that “What I’ve learned only just this morning is that Woody Allen’s son made a statement yesterday with accusations [involving rape]. I didn’t know that. When I wrote this joke, it was more a joke about Europe and why one of the greatest American directors spent years in Europe, [while Allen] didn’t have to because he wasn’t accused of rape in his own country, compared to Roman Polanski. It was [meant] as a joke about American puritanism and the fact that it is surprising that an American director wants to do so many movies in Europe.” The rest of Lafitte’s opening gala shtick included making out with 72-year-old film icon Catherine Deneuve.
While it seems that Lafitte’s monologue was little more than an inadvertent trip into some deep political dogshit, this isn’t the first time that comedy has played a crucial role in a serious story. In fact, many credit comedian Hannibal Buress’s 2014 stand-up routine, in which he unapologetically called Cosby a rapist, for reviving public interest in the decades-old allegations. If, as Ronan Farrow is alleging, magazine and television reporters are discouraged from doing their full due diligence (i.e., considerately reminding the public that many of their favorite celebrities are actually alleged assaulters and abusers), then maybe comedians could act as an alternative source of transparency.
It’s not too radical of a notion. After all, more Americans than ever are getting their news and political acumen from career comedians. As the beloved Jon Stewart abdicated his reign at The Daily Show, Pew Research Center reported that 12 percent of online Americans cited The Daily Show as their news source. Even more interestingly, these viewers were far younger on average than the consumers who took in network or cable news. Daily Show spawn like The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver have taken on the work of further blurring the line between news and comedy. As any millennial with a newsfeed will tell you, Oliver’s illuminating segments on topics as diverse and deadly serious as transgender rights and America’s crumbling infrastructure are more than just comedy clickbait. They’re amusing takes on vital issues; mandatory viewing for educated citizens disguised as “something funny I can watch on my phone.”
In addition to making the news a little bit more fun, humor can offer a bit of cover for a comedian with bite. Just ask Larry Wilmore, who came under fire for using the n-word as the host of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. Wilmore’s edgy speech, which used deadpan humor to take on the tense subject of race relations in America, certainly stirred up discomfort at the annual Nerd Prom. However, Wilmore’s position as edgy entertainer gave him the leeway to hit on topics and punchlines that politicians or reporters would likely steer away from. Defending his performance, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest insisted that “I’m confident that Mr. Wilmore used the word by design. He was seeking to be provocative.”
Of course, “provocative” comedians like Larry Wilmore and Hannibal Buress are far from apolitical. Like John Oliver and Jon Stewart, they’ve discovered that comedy can be an effective vehicle for some pretty heavy material. Humor is a great way to flavor an unpalatable truth, so that no one knows what they’re eating until it’s too late. The educated, political comedian, with their willingness to offend and their renegade positionality to the toothless press machine, might very well be the only insider equipped to take on Hollywood’s scumbags and sycophants.