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San Jose Mercury News
Perspective section, p. 1C
Sunday, July 11, 1993

Civilization Drowns in a Flood of Gossip

by Howard Fast

SOME years ago, my wife and I had a small pied-à-terre in the same building that housed Woody Allen's penthouse. I would see him in the elevator, crouched in one corner, his old hat tilted over his face, not so much an avoidance of people -- as I realized later -- but a timidity that was very real.
Finally, I decided to introduce myself and speak to him, and he appeared to be grateful and eager to talk. When his film "Hannah and Her Sisters" opened, to what were possibly the best reviews that any film had received for years, I asked him how he felt about it.
"It's terrifying," he said. "Where do I go from here?"
As time passed, I got to know him better. Certainly, he was the most open, the most unassuming film maker I had ever known -- and I have known a good many of them. His vulnerability was not a pose; like the rest of us, he lived in a world filled with dangers and imponderables, and he dealt with them with self-abasing humor and a talent for filmmaking unlike anything else in the field.
In a society saturated with the brutalities and inanities of Hollywood, he continued to probe, in film after film, the secret depths of the lonely, the tortured and the bewildered. He abjured violence, and he plied his trade as an honest playwright.
In time, my wife and I asked him and Mia Farrow to dinner. He was not an easy dinner guest, and I very much doubt that he accepted many dinner invitations. He had no light chitchat, and Farrow was very silent. I imagine that the only place where he came fully alive was on a movie set; yet, all in all, it was a pleasant evening.
The point I have to make is that here is a man who is neurotic, tortured by the inner doubts and terrors that torture so many of the human race, but also possessed of great talent in that greatest of all modern arts, the making of film. In that sense, he is a national treasure. He has given us work that is a part of our continuing heritage; he adds to our comprehension of what we are and urges us to look inward at the mystery of ourselves.
Along with this, he has his own problems, with sex, with women, with men, with society, with his appearance, with his background as a Jew in New York. But all of these are problems he shares with millions of other men and women.
We live in a world where men and women turn on each other in rage; where half of all marriages are doomed almost before they start; where, as someone once said, before a man and a woman can know each other, they must tear each other's heart to shreds. And all of us -- or most of us, certainly -- can give thanks that what we do and how we live with each other takes place behind closed doors. That is our right; take away that right and this most difficult of all worlds becomes a jungle, indeed.
It is also Woody Allen's right. The obscene glee that the media takes in exposing his life to the world and wrecking the lives of the people concerned -- children especially -- is one of the dirtiest sides of what we are pleased to call our civilization.
Of course, people love gossip. We take a nasty satisfaction in knowing that a president is a womanizer, that "great" men and women are as fallible as we are, that a gifted composer is a cross-dresser, that a priest seduces little boys, that a judge beats up his wife -- all of it grist for the mill of the Nielsen ratings and newspapers' circulation.
I don't know whether Woody Allen ever made improper advances to his small daughter. But I do know that millions of fathers and mothers have had their children crawl into warm beds with them and cuddle up to them, and I sense something irrational and crazy about this whole business. After millions of readers have sat in judgment on him, what can Woody Allen deny? In a single week, three small children were shot to death on the streets of New York, and the total coverage was less than that given to the day's follow-up on the Woody Allen-Mia Farrow story.
Judge Elliot Wilk, whose contributions to our society are less than earthshaking, took 33 pages to condemn and damn Woody Allen. Well, judges are what they are, and the power to sentence and punish never seems to go along with compassion or pity -- or, for that matter, charity.
No one has profited from all this, not Woody Allen, certainly, not Mia Farrow, not their children -- and truly not ourselves, who buy gossip and lap it up so eagerly, and never give a second thought to who suffers.
Howard Fast is an author, playwright and screenwriter. He wrote this article for the Greenwich Time.