It’s been close to twenty years since Mia Farrow did battle with her one-time boyfriend/boss Woody Allen, in actual law courts and in the even nastier courts of public opinion. She wrote an autobiography in 1997, What Falls Away, in which she described her life up to the point Allen started an affair with her adopted daughter Soon-Yi, which resulted in accusations on both sides that were so ugly that we’ve all made a kind of pact of forgetfulness so that we can go on seeing Allen’s movies. Farrow has continued to work as an actress, but in fairly obscure films. She turned up this year in Michel Gondry’s loopy Be Kind Rewind; at 63, she looked almost exactly the same as she had in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), and it was a reminder that she has spent her whole life pursuing a dream of childhood, both in her compulsive adoption of children, many of whom have special needs, and her determination to keep herself childishly pure in looks and attitude. “She lived all alone in her own world,” said Bette Davis, observing a teenaged Farrow on the set of John Paul Jones (1959), which was directed by her father, John Farrow.
Farrow grew up in Beverly Hills with John Farrow and her mother, Maureen O’Sullivan, a minor movie star at MGM and Jane to Johnny Weismuller’s Tarzan. At age 9 she was stricken with polio, which seems to have been a seminal experience for her that created both fear and guilt in equal measure. In What Falls Away, Farrow is always describing her feelings of embarrassment and mortification in all sorts of social situations, and it’s easy to feel how her neuroticism and low self-esteem could eventually shade itself into a passive aggressive pride and a kind of ruthless avenging conscience. She was in love with Michael Boyer, the son of movie star Charles, and the most touching scene in the book is when she comes to see Charles and his wife Pat after Michael has killed himself: Farrow is very good at describing the opulent ghostliness of the Beverly Hills of her childhood, where people are always sequestered away in different rooms, either weeping or drinking.
When her father and then her older brother Mike died, Farrow felt the need to go to work to help support her family, and she started making the rounds as an actress, since it was the only world she knew. In New York, she made friends with Salvador Dalí, and you can see why the great surrealist was so drawn to Farrow, for she was like a figure from one of his paintings: flat, two-dimensional, a little harsh, more than a little strange. Farrow feigns helplessness at all points in her book, but this starts to feel pretty peculiar as a number of big-deal things happen to her; she becomes a huge star on television in a series of Peyton Place, then marries the much-older Frank Sinatra. She cuts her hair pixie-short to avoid “vanity,” but when she becomes an even bigger star after the release of Rosemary’s Baby, she hightails it to India to meditate, and the Beatles just happen to drop by….
Farrow fell quickly away from these lurid extremes of fame, for she was hard to cast: as a smart modern girl in John and Mary (1969), Farrow is out-of-it and fey, and she looks too stunned to get any of her chit-chatty dialogue out. Worse was The Great Gatsby (1973), a decidedly heat-struck, unsuccessful version of Fitzgerald’s novel, where she gave a bizarrely artificial performance as Daisy Buchanan, like Tarzan’s Jane ready for the nuthouse. In her book, Farrow is especially vague when describing the circumstances of her 70s marriage to the composer Andre Previn, though she does apologize, grudgingly, to his ex-wife Dory, a songwriter who wrote a tune about Farrow’s husband stealing. Previn doesn’t seem to have been around much during their marriage, which is when Farrow started her children collecting in earnest. As she describes her relations with Sinatra, Previn and then Woody, it’s hard not to notice how she gravitates to difficult, famous men as if she likes the idea of their partnership more than the reality, which is what got her into such trouble with Allen, of course. In a recent interview, when Farrow was asked if she was seeing anyone, she girlishly revealed that she was getting close to (wait for it) Philip Roth!
Clearly, this is a woman who is drawn to disaster in her personal life, but there’s a brighter flip side to this strain in Farrow that has come to the fore in her fierce activism against the genocide still going on in Darfur. Religiously, she keeps up a blog about Darfur, www.miafarrow.org, where all sorts of information about the genocide can be found, and she almost single-handedly shamed Steven Spielberg into declining any role in staging the Olympics in China, which she claimed was helping to fund the genocide. Farrow may still look as frail and defenseless as Rosemary, but this is a woman who knows how to play hardball to get what she wants. Her queasy public life is always going to take precedence over her work in films, but let’s not forget her achievements in that area, especially in the movies that Woody Allen built around her in the 80s. In thirteen films, Allen celebrated and sometimes assailed Farrow, and they both emerged victors, artistically, at least.
1. Rosemary’s Baby: Farrow eases us into Roman Polanski’s almost self-indulgently disturbing picture of the occult with a plangent, uncertain “la la la” lullaby under the credits, and she keeps up this mood with her dutiful, people-pleasing manner in her early scenes. She looks both sexy and innocent in her pigtails and short skirts, and she’s charming when she keeps reciting her struggling-actor husband’s meager credits. The Catholic schoolgirl guilt sequences in the first half of the film match up neatly with Farrow’s own childhood experience, and her spacey quality is perfect for this role: you can believe that Rosemary wouldn’t be suspicious about her devil baby until it was much too late. Borderline ridiculous pulp material is made seriously upsetting by Polanski, especially when he has Farrow cut her hair, so that she looks like a Holocaust victim (“It’s Vidal Sassoon ... it’s very in,” Farrow chirps, obliviously). Toward the end of her nightmare, Farrow’s Rosemary has her small spurts of aggressiveness, but they prove pitifully ineffectual. Throughout the ordeal of this justly famous horror movie, Farrow ideally embodies Polanski’s insight into the overall impotence of basically decent people in the face of total evil.
2. Secret Ceremony (1968): Saddled with an absurdly unconvincing long black wig, Farrow leaps right into the center of Joseph Losey’s classic bad movie we love, which stands as a mother lode of unintentional hilarity. It’s a three-way contest between Farrow, Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Mitchum to see who can give the most outrageous performance, and though Liz tends to dominate, Farrow wins if we’re using a yardstick of sheer lunacy. Farrow plays her damaged rich girl Cenci as a full-blown village idiot who’s utterly without guile or protection, all wide eyes and smarmy smiles and physical abandon. Underneath all the laughs, though, lies a retroactive trap for Farrow: she’s playing a sly child abused by her stepfather (Mitchum), a child who evidently likes being abused by him, on some level. So, yes, she’s basically playing Soon-Yi many years before the early 90s catastrophe, but any attempt to suss out deeper meanings is wonderfully defeated by the film’s insistently, triumphantly vulgar tone, which Farrow captures perfectly, to her peril and our delight.
3. The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985): This uncharacteristically specific poisoned valentine to 30s movie escapism is one of the best films Woody Allen has ever made, and at its center is Farrow’s lyrical Cecilia, a Depression waitress who lives exclusively in her own dream world. Allen is not usually a generous director of actors, but he always films Farrow with mistrustful love, and he gives her close-ups in Purple Rose where he seems to marvel at the flood of idealistic feeling that lights up her fine-boned little face. This nearly perfect film is the clearest indicator that Allen and Farrow were completely mismatched temperamentally (pessimist versus optimist) and this mismatch creates the hard-to-place tension in all of the films they made together. At the end of Purple Rose, when Farrow’s Cecilia has been heartlessly jilted, Allen gives her a moment where she slowly raises her head to look up at Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing “Cheek to Cheek” in Top Hat (1935). Farrow doesn’t do any tricks with her face to show us what she’s going through; she simply sits there in her movie theater and lets her whole being fill up with apprehensive hope and love. This close-up is deluded and incriminating and very moving, and it says a lot about Farrow, but it’s big enough to make a claim far beyond Farrow and Cecilia and the fantasy of the Purple Rose plot. It’s the feminine answer to Charlie Chaplin’s last close-up in City Lights (1931), all the more heartbreaking because it is so much more reserved.
4. Alice (1990): A modest but underrated Allen movie, Alice functions largely as a vehicle for Farrow, who plays a rich, spoiled housewife tickled by the idea of an affair with a jazz musician (Joe Mantegna), but too timid to do anything about it until a Chinatown sage (Keye Luke) gives her a potion that unlocks her inhibitions. When Farrow swallows Luke’s magic herbs, her face opens up like a flower; what follows, in a very long take, is the best single scene Farrow has ever played, a hair-raising seduction of Mantegna that begins when she says, “Your eyes are really ... on fire,” and builds wildly from there. Every time she says his name (it’s Joe), it sounds more indecent, more provoking, and she punctuates every intimate “Joe” with subtle little mouth movements and knowing glances. When she dares to put the back of her hand to one side of his face and then another, it really feels shockingly bold, but she manages to top this moment of physical contact when she purrs, “Duke? My favorite, Joe,” then finishes this perilously forward flirtation with talk of how Coltrane “opened up a whole new world of harmonics for me.” The meek Mia mask is dropped, and here we have the woman who bewitched Sinatra, Previn, and Allen himself. Alice is a straightforward gift to Farrow, who Allen seems to see as a small, impregnable fortress, almost as infuriatingly goody-goody as her overly content matriarch Hannah in Hannah and her Sisters (1986).
5. Husbands and Wives (1992): In her autobiography, Farrow revealed that she actually shot some scenes of this unforgettably raw Allen drama after she found out about his betrayal with her adopted daughter, but she must have had premonitions, for her Judy Roth is all of a piece, the gamine gone sour: quietly furious, almost feral, encased in bulky sweaters, awkwardly tripping down the street. It could be argued that what’s striking about Farrow here is beyond her control, and that this isn’t really a performance, per se, but her anguish in this film is so punishingly real that it must stand as probably the most affecting thing she has ever done on screen. She looks as if she hasn’t slept in days, and she’s always touching her face self-consciously; her voice has become terminally whiny, and she’s capable of scathing attacks. A negative force field surrounds Farrow here, and her constant state of irritation sometimes boils up into outright hostility (she always seems to be crying, “Bullshit!”). What must be stressed, however, is that though Allen did her unbelievable damage in life, he always remained charitable and sensitive to her on screen, to the last. Instead of leaving her on the discordant note of Husbands and Wives, let’s remember the conclusion of Alice, where Allen imagines an ending for his heroine that has her throwing off materialism and actually working with her idol, Mother Teresa, just as Farrow herself has found meaning in her aggressive and tireless humanitarian work.
House contributor Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal and Senses of Cinema, among other publications.