Can Praise and Condemnation Exist Together?

Separating the art from the artist is not always easy

I’ve asked myself this question in one form or another since I was a teenager: If I hate the artist but love the art, do I boycott the art on principle?

Most recently, it’s about Woody Allen. Diane Keaton bestowed him with a lifetime achievement award at the Golden Globes last Sunday evening as Ronan Farrow (Woody's or Frank Sinatra’s son, the jury is out) tweeted about Allen molesting Dylan, Ronan's sister.

That night the Internet was abuzz with public executioners arguing with apologists for his predatory behavior — he didn’t adopt Dylan; Soon-Yi was a consenting adult when he started an affair with his wife's daughter; he and Mia Farrow didn’t live together so he wasn’t a stepfather; Mia Farrow is bitter over Soon-Yi and brainwashed Dylan; and on and on.

You don’t have to excuse his disturbing behavior in order to love his movies. Even if he is a pedophile, he is also a brilliant filmmaker. I would never miss a Woody Allen movie.

However, out of my own mouth have spilled the words, “Mel Gibson movies? I would NEVER! He is an anti-Semite”; “Kevin Costner’s a Republican. I wouldn’t watch his films if you paid me”; and “'Prizzi’s Honor' is probably the last film I saw with that anti-abortion rights idiot, Jack Nicholson.”

It was when I was raving about Woody Allen’s “Match Point,” and a friend said, “I can’t believe you still see his films” that I realized what a hypocrite I’d been.

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I don’t like Mel Gibson films, Kevin Costner is a boring actor, and Jack Nicholson has played every character the same way for the last 20 years. That’s why I don’t see their films. It’s just convenient to throw a little politics in there.

But I listened to Michael Jackson despite his bizarre fixation on children; I sang Cat Stevens songs to my children at bedtime even though he is a Muslim who stood behind the fatwa against Salman Rushdie; I read them books by Roald Dahl, the Nazi sympathizer.

Basically, I accept that brilliant artists are part of humanity, not outside it. It would be a ridiculous undertaking to only patronize the work of those with flawless characters.

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Take Roman Polanski, for instance. What a complex man. He is a Holocaust survivor; both his parents were killed in concentration camps; his wife and unborn child were slaughtered by the Manson “family”; his films are dark and tortured and psychologically weird. He loves young women. Young women seem immortal, maybe that is the appeal for him, but why do we care?

The U.S., from the '80s on, has a preoccupation with sexual morals that is oppressive, puritanical, hypocritical, and backfires all the time — a president of the '60s has the sexiest movie star in America, who also happens to be his lover, seductively sing to him and the country is mesmerized, but in the '80s Clinton is impeached over a tame and stupid sexual scandal.

In 2009, in this puritanical bend, the U.S. went after Roman Polanski for sex crimes he committed in the 1970s for which he was sentenced and served time. Also making headlines in the U.S. at that time was the epidemic of rape by U.S. military men in the Philippines and elsewhere. What a convenient new headline — turn the attention away from sex crimes by the U.S. military to a European Jewish filmmaker.

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Clearly, Polanski shouldn't have been forcing himself on a teenager in the '70s but neither should have the scores of other celebrity men. I was a teenager in the '70s and girls like me were at every Hollywood party, often on the arm of a man decades older. It was a permissive time in the U.S., especially Hollywood — pre-AIDS, post-revolution; a hedonistic time. Peter Sellers, in his 50s, married a 22-year-old. Everyone loved his films; no one cared. It was the way of movie stars.

But this is a complex subject and nothing makes me more aware of that than the case of Jack Henry Abbott. Abbott was in prison for murder when he wrote to Norman Mailer who helped him publish his prison memoir, “In the Belly of the Beast.” Mailer also helped get Abbott paroled based on his talent. Six weeks after his release, Abbott stabbed a waiter to death who wouldn’t let him use the bathroom in a café.

I read “In the Belly of the Beast” at the time. It was a great book. After Abbott’s crime was reported, I cringed over his vivid, blandly reported, play-by-play description of how to stab a man in the heart, and thought Norman Mailer was the biggest dupe on the planet.

Jack Henry Abbott is a great writer and a murderer. He should never have been released from prison based on his talent, and the talented among us should not go free for their crimes.

Can praise and condemnation exist together? Can we recognize and celebrate the talent of the most heinous among us while acknowledging that they are despicable human beings?

Maybe Woody Allen is a good example.

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