In some ways, The Hollywood Reporter’s new interview with Christina Engelhardt is hardly surprising. In it, the former model reveals the details of her 8-year affair with Woody Allen — a secret relationship that allegedly began in 1976 when Engelhardt was 16 years old (and Allen was 41). But at this point, the idea that Woody Allen has a preoccupation with teenage girls isn’t exactly news. For one thing, he’s literally made movies about it! In the interview, Engelhardt discusses her belief that she was the inspiration for Mariel Hemingway’s character in Allen’s 1979 film Manhattan (the one where Allen plays a writer who is dating a high school girl), though she also acknowledges that she likely wasn’t the ONLY inspiration. After all, another woman named Stacey Nelkin had already revealed she was in a relationship with Allen starting when she was 17, and also believed herself to be the inspiration for the same character. And earlier this year, The Washington Post explored the personal Woody Allen papers that have been archived at Princeton University, discovering in the process that… yeah, his work has always been creepily misogynistic and lecherous, particularly in the ways it objectifies teenage girls.
[And that’s without diving into Dylan Farrow’s molestation accusations against Allen, or his marriage to Mia Farrow’s other adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, which allegedly began when she was in college — though Allen had known her since childhood.]
But even if the idea that Woody Allen dated a teenager is depressingly obvious at this point, what Engelhardt’s account does illustrate is the ways in which a young person can be taken advantage of while still believing themselves to be in a consensual relationship — and the ways they may struggle to wrap their heads around the experience later on in life. According to Engelhardt, she is the one who pursued Allen. She saw him in a restaurant and left him a note with her number, which he later called. And yes, the pair became “physically intimate” in the weeks prior to her 17th birthday, so she was not of legal age of consent in New York (she says Allen never asked her age, but knew she was a high school student). But Engelhardt simultaneously blames herself for continuing the affair for as long as she did, while acknowledging that she had very little agency in the relationship itself:
From their first rendezvous (quizzing her on the meaning of life, challenging her to a chess match, inviting her to watch a basketball game in his TV room, making out with her), terms were decreed by Allen. She considered him then, and still considers him now, a Great Man. She pushed back little if at all.
“I was a pleaser, agreeable,” says Engelhardt, a fan of Allen long before they met. “Knowing he was a director, I didn’t argue. I was coming from a place of devotion.”
The thing about relationships built on power dynamics that skewed is that the person with less experience and power may be agreeing to things out of fear, or even because they don’t know how to effectively communicate “no.” Engelhardt goes on to say that after about a year, Allen started bringing other women in for threesomes, and while she was fine experimenting in the bedroom, she felt differently when he told her he wanted to introduce her to his new girlfriend — Mia Farrow. But she ultimately went along with it, because she was afraid of losing Allen if she refused.
Despite the initial shock of jealousy, Engelhardt says she grew to like Farrow over the course of the “handful” of three-way sex sessions that followed at Allen’s penthouse as they smoked joints and bonded over a shared fondness for animals. (“When Mia was there, we’d talk about astrology, and Woody was forced to listen,” she laughs.) Engelhardt writes in her manuscript, “There were times the three of us were together, and it was actually great fun. We enjoyed each other when we were in the moment. She was beautiful and sweet, he was charming and alluring, and I was sexy and becoming more and more sophisticated in this game. It wasn’t until after it was done when I really had time to think of how twisted it was when we were together … and how I was little more than a plaything.” She continues, “While we were together, the whole thing was a game that was being operated solely by Woody so we never quite knew where we stood.”
Engelhardt goes on to say she thinks Allen “groomed” Farrow, and that Farrow was only participating because he wanted her to. But she doesn’t ever acknowledge that maybe he was grooming her as well, to accept her position in his life. And that’s another thing about this kind of power dynamic — the victim may cling to the idea that what happened was consensual because shouldering the blame themselves implies they had power in the situation, which may be less painful than admitting that they didn’t.
Even with hindsight, though, she’s unwilling to indict Allen, who declined to comment for this story. “What made me speak is I thought I could provide a perspective,” she offers. “I’m not attacking Woody,” she says. “This is not ‘bring down this man.’ I’m talking about my love story. This made me who I am. I have no regrets.”
The #MeToo movement has been about being open and honest about our experiences, and part of that means accepting a person’s story for what it is. What’s fascinating about this interview is that, for Engelhardt, Woody Allen was a complicated and painful chapter in her life, but he wasn’t (in her eyes) an abuser. And yet, somewhere deep inside, she clearly is uneasy — and would feel very differently if her own child went through a similar experience.
She’d also been dreaming of her 19-year-old daughter. In Engelhardt’s slumber, she’d learned that a significantly older suitor, a major celebrity, was pursuing her child, that he was offering to show her the world, to take her to Paris. “I was mirroring myself,” she says. “In the dream, I was OK with it.” Now that Engelhardt was awake, was she still on board? “Um, no.”
Reading Engelhardt’s story won’t change your mind about Woody Allen, but it may shine a light on the ways people like Allen are able to perpetuate cycles of manipulation — and the conflicting impact it leaves on their victims.
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