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The Woody Allen vs. Mia Farrow story is also a story of workplace abuse

The HBO docuseries Allen v. Farrow argues that when Mia Farrow and Woody Allen were together, Allen controlled Farrow’s professional life.

Woody Allen and Mia Farrow on a film set.
David Mcgough/DMI/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

The new HBO docuseries Allen v. Farrow is the latest entry in what has become a cottage industry of reexamining the misogyny of the ’90s and ’00s with today’s post-Me Too lens. The series, which explores the allegations of child molestation against Woody Allen voiced by his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow when Dylan was 7 years old, presents a compelling case that Dylan’s 1992 accusations were deeply credible — but that popular culture at the time simply brushed them aside, eager to believe a man as powerful and famous and iconic as Woody Allen.

Allen v. Farrow traces how the media of the 1990s largely followed the narrative set out by Allen. In a publicity storm of interviews and press conferences, Allen argued that Dylan’s mother, the actress Mia Farrow, had brainwashed Dylan into believing that Allen molested her as part of a twisted quest for revenge after Allen had an affair with Farrow’s college-age daughter, Soon-Yi Previn. (Allen was legally Dylan Farrow’s father, but not Soon-Yi’s.) And the media accepted that argument as reasonable, and cast the entire case as a juicy and tawdry he-said-she-said between a Hollywood power couple.

Allen v. Farrow is eager to reframe that narrative. It features multiple interviews with a now-adult Dylan Farrow as she reiterates her accusations against Allen, at times visibly shaking. It shows footage of a 7-year-old Dylan making her accusations, and compiles interviews from experts in child sexual abuse who review Dylan’s old footage and agree that her testimony appeared to be real and uncoached.

The docuseries also makes a point of noting the enormous cultural power that Woody Allen had at his disposal when he began to wage his publicity battle against Dylan’s accusations, and against Mia Farrow. (Allen declined to appear in the documentary, but he released a statement decrying it as “a hatchet job riddled with falsehoods.”)

There was the goodwill Allen had earned from the city of New York, which closed an investigation against Allen and declined to press charges, by shooting his movies there. There was his money, and the lawyers and private detectives it enabled him to hire. There were the hordes of avid movie fans who identified with him, who worshiped him, who were eager to defend him from any charge of wrongdoing.

Finally, there was the issue of Allen’s professional power, and specifically his professional power over Mia Farrow. It’s here that Allen v. Farrow delves into an under-discussed aspect of the Allen-Farrow relationship, one that plays very differently in a post-Me Too world than it would have in 1992.

Between 1980 and 1992, when they were dating, Woody Allen and Mia Farrow would film 13 movies together. Allen would write and direct and frequently star, and Farrow would act. She did not appear in movies made by other filmmakers during that period.

That means that Farrow and Allen were not only romantic partners; Allen was also Farrow’s boss. He hired her, and he could fire her.

In his 2020 memoir Apropos of Nothing, Allen presents this situation as one in which Farrow was taking advantage of his benevolence toward her. “I was, as my shrink pointed out, mainly a sponsor in the household,” he writes, situating himself in 1989, the year that he began the process to legally adopt two of Farrow’s children, Dylan and Moses Farrow. (Farrow had previously adopted Dylan and Moses on her own; she also had six other children, some biological and some adopted, with her ex-husband, the composer André Previn.) “I had employed Mia for ten movies, hired her sister, hired her brother, hired her mother, given her a tax-free gift of a million dollars so she could better support all these poor kids, not just mine.”

Allen’s argument is that he was Farrow’s meal ticket, and that his propensity to hire her illustrates one of the many ways he was duped by a vindictive woman who never truly cared for him.

But Allen v. Farrow paints a different picture of Allen and Farrow’s professional relationship.

“It was Woody’s world, and it was very controlled,” Farrow says of their 12 years of collaboration in the series’ second episode. “I didn’t have an agent anymore, because I was with him. I did not need an agent. He said I could share his agent.” Which means that Farrow was using Woody Allen’s agent — her boss’s agent — at the time that she was exclusively making films with him. Her entire professional life was effectively under his thumb.

And why did Farrow go along with the idea of only making Woody Allen movies and only using his agent? Because he convinced her that he was helping her out, she says. “I didn’t at that time believe I could get an agent,” she tells the camera. “Because I was old, I was in my 30s. I thought he was doing me a giant favor.”

All of which means that when Farrow ended her relationship with Allen after finding explicit pictures of her daughter Soon-Yi in his possession, and then went public with Dylan’s accusations against him, she was not only breaking up with her partner of over a decade and the father of three of her children. She was also antagonizing her employer.

So the story of Woody Allen and the Farrows is not just a story about child abuse and incest, although it is both of those things. It is also a story about workplace abuse. The power dynamics of this family were deeply shaped by the power dynamics on the sets of the movies they made together.

Intentionally or not, Allen molded his relationship with Farrow so that he was in control of how she earned her money. And when their relationship ended, he took full advantage of that position.

“He told me I would never work again in this country,” Farrow says in the fourth episode of Allen v. Farrow. “He said, ‘No one will ever hire you again.’”

Instead, Farrow took acting jobs in Ireland and France. She became a United Nations goodwill ambassador. She would have no major feature film roles in the US between 1992’s Husbands and Wives — the last movie she shot with Allen — and 2006’s remake of The Omen.

So what happened with Allen didn’t only fracture the Farrow family. It was also professionally and financially devastating for Farrow.

In 2017, Ronan Farrow, Mia Farrow and Allen’s biological son, published a series of investigations into accusations of sexual assault against Hollywood mega-mogul Harvey Weinstein. During those investigations, Ronan found that one of Weinstein’s sexual harassment tactics was to use his industry clout to blackball actresses who turned him down.

The Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson would recall that when he contemplated casting Weinstein victims Ashley Judd and Mira Sorvino in 1998, he received a call from Miramax, Weinstein’s production company, telling him the two women were “a nightmare to work with” and he shouldn’t hire them.

“At the time, we had no reason to question what these guys were telling us — but in hindsight, I realize that this was very likely the Miramax smear campaign in full swing,” Jackson said. “I now suspect we were fed false information about both of these talented women — and as a direct result their names were removed from our casting list.”

What Mia Farrow describes happening with Allen seems to fit into a similar pattern. Allen allegedly used his considerable industry might to punish Farrow professionally for making Dylan’s accusations public, in the same way that Weinstein used his endless resources and Hollywood clout to punish Judd and Sorvino for refusing his advances.

And in both cases, the enormous cultural capital that we as a culture had granted both men allowed them to wield their power unobtrusively, behind closed doors. They were able to get their revenge without having to say anything in public. Then their victims were left to deal with the fallout.

“I was so scared of him,” Farrow says of Allen toward the end of Allen v. Farrow.

“Are you still scared of him?” asks the interviewer from off camera.

Farrow nods, going teary before forcing a laugh. “I know,” she says, “that shouldn’t go with my really strong package that I’d like to present.”

But it shouldn’t be surprising that Farrow is afraid of Allen. He created a situation in which he was her boyfriend, the father of her children, and her boss. He had all the power over her. And Allen v. Farrow shows how he used that power to manipulate the public’s opinion of her and to make her life worse.

Correction: An earlier version of this article said Allen adopted Dylan and Moses in 1989. That is the year he began the process of adopting them, but it would not be legally completed until 1991.