Over the past three decades, it has become increasingly difficult to watch Woody Allen’s films – both old and new – without thinking of his private life, in particular the accusations of child sexual abuse leveled at him by former lover Mia Farrow and their adopted daughter, Dylan. This has been doubly true in the wake of the #MeToo movement and the renewed focus on the evidence presented in last year’s HBO docuseries Allen v. Farrow. It wasn’t that long ago, however, that his films still received general releases, were cast with major Hollywood stars, and garnered serious attention at awards time.
For years, Allen lived a charmed existence. He had the freedom to make whatever films he wanted, with minimal interference or concern for their marketability. He turned them out with such regularity his fans could count on at least one new Woody Allen project a year. The period from 1982 to 1992, when Farrow was his leading lady on- and off-screen, was especially fertile, producing 12 features and one omnibus segment. The lone hiccup was the collapse of Orion Pictures, which had distributed his features following the Heaven’s Gate-hastened downturn of United Artists. TriStar Pictures was prepared to pick up the slack for 1992’s Husbands and Wives, though, and took to heart the adage that there’s no such thing as bad publicity by moving up the US release to September 18 (just four days after its TIFF premiere) and giving Allen his widest-ever opening and biggest opening weekend to capitalize on the media frenzy surrounding the child abuse allegations he felt compelled to respond to with a rare press conference the month before.
What got lost in the fray was one of Allen’s most challenging and stylistically daring films, made in quasi-documentary form with handheld camerawork, jump cuts (sometimes in the middle of sentences), and even some zooms, as well as interviews with the actors in character. Those looking for signs of art imitating life (“a voyeur’s treasure hunt,” per Jami Bernard in the New York Post) had to ignore that Husbands and Wives had been scripted and filmed long before Allen’s breakup with Farrow, and Gabe and Judy Roth, the married couple they play, are conspicuously childless. Even so, the moments where Judy asks Gabe, “Do you ever hide things from me?” and “Do you think we’d ever break up?” did gain extra layers of meaning (as evidenced by the way clips from the film are deployed in Allen v. Farrow).
Both questions are posed in response to the bombshell that Gabe and Judy’s close friends Jack and Sally (Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis) are splitting up, though they’re not sure how much of a “trial” the separation really is. Some of the most painful – and painfully funny – sequences in Husbands and Wives detail Jack and Sally’s misadventures on the dating scene after being married (if not necessarily monogamous) for years. Jack moves in with his unsophisticated aerobics instructor and Judy sets Sally up with her soulful co-worker Michael (Liam Neeson, not having to mask his Irish accent), but neither finds lasting satisfaction with their new companions.
Of course, in light of Allen’s gossip-worthy fling with Farrow’s college-aged adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, most critics and viewers focused on the subplot involving college professor Gabe’s infatuation with one of his writing students, Rain (Juliette Lewis), who has had a string of relationships with older men. It starts innocently enough, with him praising one of her stories, to which she responds, “Your approbation means more to me than anybody’s.” Before you know it, they’re taking long walks after class, he’s giving her lifts home in his car, and her parents are inviting him to her 21st birthday party. It’s there that they share their one romantic moment, during a power outage when Rain asks for and receives a kiss (cue the ominous thunder and lightning), at which point Gabe nips things in the bud before they go too far. Tellingly, he’s the only one of the four main characters left uncoupled when the film circles back to them a year and a half later.
In reality, Farrow was the one left in a lurch while Allen carried on with Soon-Yi, a situation considered suitable fodder for a Mad TV sketch just a few years later. As for Husbands and Wives, it garnered Academy Award nominations for Allen’s screenplay and Davis’s supporting performance, a typical outcome that continued for the next two decades, with Allen personally racking up eight further writing and directing nods (and one win). The tide started turning, though, after his tribute at the 2014 Golden Globes, when Ronan Farrow (his one biological child, with Mia Farrow) entered the fray. As David Sterritt wrote in the Christian Science Monitor at the time of Husbands’s release, “One looks forward to a time when Allen and Farrow have gotten their lives in order once more, and all of us can concentrate on the cinematic work that gave them their only claim to public attention in the first place.” Clearly, we’re not there yet.
“Husbands and Wives” isn’t streaming anywhere, but is available for rent or purchase by the curious.