This week’s Cannes Film Festival premiere of the Woody Allen period-set romantic drama Cafe Society was supposed to be a crowning moment for the 80-year-old Manhattan movie icon.
Instead, events surrounding the ceremonial kick-off turned into a Fellini-esque public down-dressing, a media circus — with correspondents from The Hollywood Reporter barred from a publicity luncheon for being “harmful” — and, almost by default, a referendum on a too-deferential press corps that failed to question Allen about decades-old sexual assault allegations concerning the writer-director’s daughter.
On Wednesday’s glitzy opening-night ceremony for the 69th installment of France’s most venerable film fest, things got off to a rocky start when Cannes master of ceremonies Laurent Lafitte aimed an off-color joke at Allen that drew audible gasps from the audience. “It’s very nice that you’ve been shooting so many movies in Europe, even if you are not being convicted for rape in the U.S.,” the French comedian said.
It was an oblique reference to director Roman Polanski’s legal limbo on a 1977 rape charge. But more broadly, Lafitte’s remarks brought to mind accusations Allen has vehemently denied and been battling in the court of public opinion for many years: that the multiple Oscar winner sexually molested his daughter Dylan Farrow when she was 7-years-old.
Allen has never been convicted of any such charges and has denied the allegations consistently. He insisted he wasn’t offended by the joke. “I am completely in favor of comedians making any jokes they want,” Allen said at the premiere gala.
Nonetheless, the rape joke arrived just hours after his estranged son Ronan Farrow published a widely discussed guest column in The Hollywood Reporter slamming the media — and in particular, The Hollywood Reporter’s cowardice in its own recent cover story on Allen — for failing to question the filmmaker’s alleged sexual assault.
“Every day, colleagues at news organizations forwarded me the emails blasted out by Allen’s powerful publicist, who had years earlier orchestrated a robust publicity campaign to validate my father’s sexual relationship with another one of my siblings,” Farrow wrote, drawing comparisons with the culture of media acquiescence surrounding the growing Bill Cosby sex scandal.
“Reporters on the receiving end of this kind of PR blitz have to wonder if deviating from the talking points might jeopardize their access to all the other A-list clients,” Farrow said.
As if on cue, Allen’s influential longtime publicist Leslee Dart prohibited a quartet of reporters from The Hollywood Reporter from attending a luncheon for Cafe Society on Thursday. “It’s only natural that I would show my displeasure when the press — in this case, The Hollywood Reporter — goes out of its way to be harmful to my client,” Dart said in a statement to the magazine.
The upshot? All that controversy has largely overtaken any buzz surrounding Cafe Society, a bittersweet comic romance set in ‘30s Hollywood starring Jessie Eisenberg and Kristen Stewart, which has gotten generally positive reviews and which received a three-minute standing ovation at its premiere. “I think any jokes about rape, homophobia or Hitler is not a joke,” Cafe Society costar Blake Lively told Variety about Lafitte’s joke. She declined to comment on Ronan Farrow’s essay, which called out actors for continuing to work with the director, saying she hadn’t read the article.
The Cannes episode underscored that the decades-old allegations will continue to hang over the filmmaker and those who work with him. In 2014, just before the Academy Awards, Dylan Farrow wrote an op-ed in which she recounted the alleged abuse in detail and slammed Hollywood for continuing to celebrate the filmmaker. Allen responded with an op-ed piece of his own, accusing her mother, Mia Farrow, of implanting the memories.
This time, Allen, for his part, did what he could to downplay the impact of his son’s essay. “I never read anything about me, these interviews I do, anything,” the filmmaker said Thursday. He also declined to comment on Farrow’s allegations. “I made my statement a long time ago in The New York Times, they gave me a lot of space and, you know . . . I just think it’s so silly, the whole thing. So no, it doesn’t bother me. I don’t think about it. I work.”
Chris Lee is a former staff writer for Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He covers entertainment, culture and business in Los Angeles.