Why “Whatever Works” Really Doesn’t Work at All – Woody Allen and the Dangers of Pragmatism


The Story:

After receiving the lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes in January, Woody Allen has been the subject of countless columns posted on the web. Nearly all ask the same question: Can we rightfully lavish praise on a gifted artist even when he is, if allegations are true, a despicable man, deserving of public shame and a long-term prison sentence?

The lurid — often sensational — details of the Woody Allen/Mia Farrow drama, which began 22 years ago but have resurfaced due to renewed recognition of the prodigious filmmaker’s work, might seem to belong more to an Entertainment Tonight segment than the pages of The New York Times. But the story is worthy of our attention because it captures the sad and inevitable consequences of a modern relativistic ethic. As the breakdown of the Allen-Farrow family aptly exhibits, when we ignore biblical morality, we breed distrust, anger, and resentment, and we fall into a nightmarish prison of our own making.

The tragic tale of a broken family

The accusations against Woody Allen were first made in 1992. In the midst of an acrimonious breakup and an emotional custody battle, Mia Farrow accused Woody Allen of inappropriately touching their 7-year-old daughter, Dylan. To this day, Dylan insists that she was sexually abused by her father. Allen, however, bluntly dismisses the allegations, describing them as ludicrous and altogether baseless. The claims should be dismissed, Allen says, because the whole drama is a ploy developed by Farrow to tarnish his name.

Dylan, however, has vividly described a history of hurt, depression, and instability resulting from her father’s alleged misdeeds. In a letter to The New York Times published in early February, Dylan describes the anxiety and panic she used to experience when seeing her father’s face on t-shirts and on television. The same face that elicited praise from audiences produced dread in Dylan. When Dylan heard that Allen was being given the lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes, she reportedly curled up in a ball on her bed, crying hysterically.

For over 20 years, Allen and Farrow have calumniated each other, tearing each other’s character to shreds and tearing their family apart in the process. Farrow calls Allen a monster. Meanwhile, Allen says Farrow is vindictive, dishonest, and utterly lacking in integrity. Although someone is lying, it is difficult to know who.

The debacle has been a perpetual source of pain for everyone involved. Moses Farrow, the only person in the family who has a relationship with Allen, says that his mother created an “atmosphere of fear and hate toward [Allen].” Ultimately, Moses says, it doesn’t matter who is saying what, because he “cannot trust anything that is said or written from anyone in the family.”

Allen, who issued his final words on the subject in a New York Times editorial on Sunday, says he was exonerated by the Child Sexual Abuse Clinic of the Yale-New Haven Hospital, which after an investigation, claimed that Dylan was not sexually abused and that the entire story most likely arose from emotional distress and coaching from the child’s mother.

Woody Allen does what his heart wants and refuses to take responsibility

But conspicuously absent from Woody Allen’s editorial is his refusal to take any responsibility for causing this entire episode. After all, as John Podhoretz writes in his excellent piece in the Weekly Standard, it was Woody Allen “who slept with and took pornographic photographs of the teenage sister of his three children, the daughter of his all-but-common-law wife. His conduct was unspeakable — and when Walter Isaacson, the editor of Time, asked Allen about it, he replied, famously, ‘the heart wants what it wants.’ He was 56 years old.”

Instead of admitting that, by following his own visceral desires, his own base passions, he destroyed the 12-year relationship he had maintained with Farrow and their three children, Allen pettily criticizes Farrow of duplicity. Who is Farrow to judge, Allen asks, when she herself dated a much older man (Frank Sinatra) when she was 19? Allen dated and ultimately married Soon-Yi, Farrow’s adopted daughter, and evidently feels no remorse.

Whatever Works: His Character and Philosophy Are Evident in His Films

In the 2009 film Whatever Works, the main character, Boris, played by Larry David, who basically serves as a stand-in for Allen himself, says, “That’s why I can’t say enough times, whatever love you can get and give, whatever happiness you can filch or provide, every temporary measure of grace, whatever works.”

“Whatever works” is the philosophy that guides every character in the film. The young, southern girl, Melodie, who runs away from her Mississippi home in order to pursue fame in New York City, marries Boris before divorcing him in favor of a younger man. “Whatever works,” she says. Melodie’s mother, Marietta, divorces her husband after he loses all of his money and enters a polyamorous relationship with two business associates. “Whatever works,” she says. Marietta’s husband, grieving the loss of both his wife and his wealth, “discovers” he is gay. In the process of suppressing traditional values in favor of a relativistic and hedonistic ethic, these characters opt for temporal pleasure over eternal virtue.

Woody Allen, like Boris from Whatever Works, chased the object of his desires and did what made him happy. He did whatever he could — whatever he wanted to — and caused tremendous hurt in the process.

Sermon Insights:

We must be careful not to set up idols who will lead us astray (Ezekiel 14:3-4).

“Son of man, these leaders of Israel have set up idols in their hearts. They have embraced things that will make them fall into sin. Why should I listen to their requests? Tell them, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: The people of Israel have set up idols in their hearts and fallen into sin, and then they go to a prophet asking for a message. So I, the Lord, will give them the kind of answer their great idolatry deserves.’”

For years, Woody Allen has been praised for his liberal philosophy and artistic sensibility. Furthermore, his relationship with Mia Farrow was commended for its unconventional nature. Unquestionably, this film icon, who has infused his films with his philosophy, has caused great ruin by following his heart. The tragic consequences of Allen’s hedonism should be a warning to anyone who might be infatuated with his philosophy.

As a culture, we should strive to honor people who exhibit excellence not only in their professional lives, but also in their private lives. Why is it so easy for Christians to look to celebrities as role models rather than their parents, their teachers, or their coaches? Direct your congregation to local heroes instead of celebrities, for, as John Podhoretz writes, “Successful entertainers are often awful people. … Fame causes ordinary folk to worship the entertainer. … No wonder, then, that the word ‘idol’ has come to be associated with celebrities, because what the public does with them is a modern form of idol worship.” Do not let your congregation fall into idol worship that leads them to embrace sin.

Your heart will lead you astray (Proverbs 14:12).

“There is a path before each person that seems right, but it ends in death.”

When asked why he left his girlfriend of 12 years to marry her young adopted daughter, Allen slyly replied, “The heart wants what it wants.” Yet we know that original sin has tainted us, so that we are naturally inclined to pursue pleasure or power over virtue. There might be no better example than a man who drifts from place to place, avoiding commitment and grasping for satisfaction at every turn. Whenever you think of prioritizing pleasure over the law of God, consider the example of Woody Allen and the wisdom of Solomon, both of whom indicate that such a decision ends in destruction.