Sadly, Colin Firth’s words on Woody Allen have a power that women’s don’t

A controversial director may be brought down, but only because powerful actors are finally turning on him. How much progress is that?

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“I wouldn’t work with him again.” With just six words, Colin Firth generated scores of headlines, as he responded to a Guardian journalist’s query about his views on director Woody Allen.

Allen has been accused of sexual assault by his adopted daughter Dylan Farrow. The first time the allegation emerged was shortly after the incident was said to have happened in the early 1990s, when she was seven years old, and allegedly told her mother. The second time was in 2014, when Farrow, then 28, made a similar allegation in an open letter. Allen has vehemently denied the claims for decades; following two investigations, no charges were filed against him. 

As of 2018, Dylan Farrow, now an advocate for survivors of sexual abuse, has written two open letters to Hollywood celebrities asking them to stop working with and celebrating her father (Ronan Farrow, her brother, was one of the investigative journalists who uncovered the Weinstein scandal in October last year).

As the Times Up movement against sexual harassment swept the Golden Globes, Farrow accused celebrites who turned up wearing black and #TimesUp pins but remained happy to work with Allen of hypocrisy. “I struggle to understand how a woman who believes Woody Allen is ‘empowering to women’ can claim the role as an advocate for women suffering from sexual harassment,” she told Buzzfeed. “I struggle with how a powerful force like Justin Timberlake can claim to be in awe of the strength of women and stand with them at this #MeToo moment and then in the next breath say that working with Woody Allen is a ‘dream come true.’”

“Despite my credible allegations, Woody Allen has been enabled, praised, and supported while I’ve been ignored, disbelieved, and criticised by many in Hollywood,” she added. “#TIMESUP has defined new promises and principles, I only ask that its supporters uphold them.”

After her statement, more prominent figures came forward. During a panel on Times Up, Natalie Portman, who starred in Allen’s 1996 film Everyone Says I Love You, told Oprah Winfrey, “I believe Dylan. I would want to say that: ‘I believe you, Dylan.’” Reese Witherspoon tweeted Farrow, saying “I’m with Natalie. I believe you, Dylan.”

Celebrities who have worked with Allen since Farrow’s allegations first emerged also stepped up: British actress Rebecca Hall donated her fee from Allen’s upcoming film A Rainy Day in New York to the Times Up movement, saying, “I am profoundly sorry. I regret this decision and wouldn’t make the same one today.” Greta Gerwig, also an Oscar contender for her directorial debut Lady Bird, said: “If I had known then what I know now, I would not have acted in the film. I have not worked for him again, and I will not work for him again. Dylan Farrow’s two different pieces made me realize that I increased another woman’s pain, and I was heartbroken by that realisation.” Rachel Brosnahan, the lead actress in The Marvellous Mrs Maisel, called her decision to act in a Woody Allen TV series Crisis in Six Scenes “the decision that I have made in my life that is the most inconsistent with everything I stand for and believe in.”

It’s clear that more famous women than powerful men have spoken out against Allen, from Ellen Page to Mira Sorvino. As Ira Madison writes in the Daily Beast, “Where are the other prominent men? […] Why should men fear the question? There’s no consequences for them industry-wise for shameful behavior.”

Some high profile male actors are now speaking up, too. Actor David Krumholtz said on Twitter, “I deeply regret working with Woody Allen on Wonder Wheel. It’s one of my most heartbreaking mistakes. We can no longer let these men represent us in entertainment, politics, or any other realm. They are beneath real men.” Actor Griffin Newman was the first star of A Rainy Day in New York to donate his salary (to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, RAINN), with Hall following in his footsteps. Oscar contender Timothée Chalamet similarly pledged to donate his full salary for the same film, in which he has the lead male role, to Times Up, RAINN and the LGBT Center in New York. “I don’t want to profit from my work on the film,” he said. And now an Oscar winner Colin Firth, a star with considerable box office power, adds his voice to the mix.

For the first time, it feels like the tide might be turning against Woody Allen in Hollywood – a stark contrast to just four years ago, when he was awarded the Cecil B DeMille award for outstanding contribution to entertainment at the Golden Globes. And the succession of statements from different stars over the last few days demonstrates clearly how much influence Hollywood celebrities have in these conversations – as one rebuke leads to another, and another, and forces audiences to reconsider their perception of Woody Allen.

Even if some of this is cynical (one could accuse Gerwig or Chalamet of responding to questions about Allen in the way they think is most likely to generate positive headlines as their Oscar campaigns for Lady Bird and Call Me By Your Name continue, though I find it unlikely), it still sends a strong signal that accusations of abuse are being taken seriously. 

Allen has responded to the latest intervention by Farrow by repeating his denial, and alleging that the accusation was planted by Farrow’s mother. “I never molested my daughter – as all investigations concluded a quarter of a century ago."

Powerful men condemning Woody Allen will undoubtedly have an impact on his future career. It does mark a shift in attitudes: until Colin Firth spoke up, the path of least resistance was remaining silent. Still, this moment feels like just another example of how ingrained our social hierarchies of credibility and influence are. Dylan Farrow has made her allegations against Woody Allen for over 25 years, but six words from Colin Firth may have more cultural impact than her decades of committed campaigning. Of course, the latter would be impossible without the former – but if a select group of rich and powerful white men have the ability to dictate who is celebrated and who is condemned, than we’re looking at the same system that allowed Harvey Weinstein and Kevin Spacey to flourish from a different angle. While sceptics of feminist movements like Times Up hysterically insist that women can end men’s careers with a click of their fingers and an accusation of sexual assault, that clearly isn’t true – unless an extremely famous man will vouch for you.

There are still hundreds of powerful people that have defended Allen or stayed silent: Steve Carell, Larry David, Alec Baldwin, John Cusack, Jude Law. Women, too: Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, Emma Stone – even Selena Gomez, whose own mother said, “I had a long talk with her about not working with him and it didn’t click. She makes all her own decisions. No matter how hard you try to advise.” (Gomez has however reportedly also pledged to donate her salary from an Allen film to charity).

We still have an impossibly long way to go before there is a redistribution of credibility amongst the marginalised, the abused and the oppressed. If men like Colin Firth are ready to listen and echo the voices of women like Dylan Farrow, hopefully we’re making a start – the best use of a rotten system. But the cult of celebrity got us here, and I’m not sure it’s going to get us out.

Anna Leszkiewicz is the New Statesman's deputy culture editor.