Everything you wanted to know about schmucks: Peter Pringle in New York watches Woody Allen act out his most tragic role

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The Independent Online
THE SEEDY Manhattan courtroom No 341 is not the kind of place that makes it into Woody Allen films. Paint is peeling from the walls and ceiling, and the public benches are studded with spent chewing gum. The judge wanders in unannounced with a paper cup of coffee, his voice barely audible above the din of a jackhammer on a nearby building site. A muscular cop with a gun asks the witness to spell her name.

'M-I-A F-A-R-R-O-W. Born 9 February 1945.' The spindly Ms Farrow, dressed in what looked like a schoolgirl outfit and wearing sensible shoes, seemed half her 48 years as she raised her right hand and took the oath. As best she could, she avoided looking at her former lover, Woody Allen. In his trademark sports jacket and corduroys, Mr Allen slumped, stony-faced, in the well of the court, surrounded by his lawyers.

As the intimate and painful story of their 12 years together unfolded in Mr Allen's child custody case this week, the court heard charges of his child sexual abuse and of her blackmail; of desperate tales of adoptions in far-off lands; of a dollars 1m cheque, visits to psychiatrists, hate letters and life in Manhattan's fast lane.

Although it had all the trappings of a film script, this performance was a real-life tragedy, with children as victims of both their history and the new public exposure of their young lives.

By the end of the week many following the case might never again think of Woody Allen solely as the genius apostle of the counter-culture family. Nor might they see Mia Farrow as the angelic innoncent that Woody Allen cast in Alice, The Purple Rose of Cairo and Hannah and Her Sisters.

Mr Allen, it turns out, is a schmuck in real life. A proper cad. And Ms Farrow is not just a sweet thing; she is a jealous, sometimes hysterical woman whom you might not trust with your favourite stuffed animal. What a disappointment for the odd couple's fans. But what a horror for the three children whose custody is the reason for all this sordid and public theatre.

Moses, 14, Dylan, 7 - both adopted - and Satchel, 5, have spent all their lives with their mother. But in court last week, Mr Allen sought to show he was a better bet as a father than Ms Farrow was as a mother. Yet under cross-examination, this big-time, wealthy film director became a small-time, Velcro dad who could press himself on, or peel himself away from, Ms Farrow's extended family as the mood took him. Under cross-examination, Mr Allen admitted he had never dressed the kids, nor bathed them, nor taken them to a baseball game. He did not know the names of their pets. He hadn't seen the children's school reports; he didn't know their friends. And, on occasion, he might even have joked about the adopted ones being 'bastards'. 'I may have said the children in the literal sense are bastards, but not in the pejorative sense,' he said, straining for the distinction.

And then one day he compounded years of parental neglect by becoming 'romantically involved' with one of Ms Farrow's other adopted children, 22-year- old Soon-Yi. It happened suddenly, uncontrollably. 'My thought was, my God, this is a serious thing, I have real feelings for her, then this thing exploded,' recalled Mr Allen, 56 at the time.

Wanting to learn how the lovers thought the affair would end, the judge asked Mr Allen if he believed he could keep it secret. 'You know, I thought she was going back to college very soon . . . a week down the line, or two weeks,' said Mr Allen, 'and we would have said, 'This is crazy, obviously we're not going to continue this.' Or 'Let's go to Mia and say we want to get married.' ' But then Mr Allen doesn't think of marriage as many others do. 'Marriage is a piece of paper,' he once told Ms Farrow.

She found out about the impact of his exploding feelings from nude pictures of Soon-Yi that Mr Allen had casually, perhaps purposely, left on his mantelpiece. To Ms Farrow, it was additional evidence that he was sexually odd. She cited his emotional smotherings of the adopted infant Dylan, gestures she had always considered to be excessive. But, Mr Allen's lawyer asked, were they sexual? He claims his client is just a harmless 'hugger and a kisser', and that Ms Farrow has tried to turn the affectionate gestures into sexual events, which they never were.

The lawyer said independent experts had found Mr Allen not guilty of molestation. The gestures were 'inappropriate', Ms Farrow said. They were 'relentless and overpowering. It was his neediness expressing itself to Dylan rather than her needs to him.'

'Needy' was Ms Farrow's word, said Mr Allen scornfully. To prove he was not needy, Mr Allen once sent her a cheque for dollars 1m to help with the children and the lawyers' fees for the adoption of Dylan. And what was Ms Farrow's reaction to this gesture, Mr Allen's lawyer inquired. 'I thanked him from the bottom of my heart,' she replied candidly.

It was the type of reply that repeatedly put Mr Allen's lawyer, Elkan Abramowitz, off balance as he tried to portray Ms Farrow as a woman who adopts children with alarming regularity; who allows her children to jump turnstiles at subway stations (one of them did once); lets them go to school without eating their cornflakes; and is inattentive enough to let one sneak out of the door one evening to spend the night with a friend downstairs in the same building. Mr Abramowitz sought to show that Ms Farrow was so jealous of Mr Allen's affair with Soon-Yi that she became a vengeful, manipulative and devious woman.

If these two stars were acting, there is no doubt about who gave the better courtroom performance: it was Ms Farrow. It is hard to think that even she could invent the caring, if sometimes misguided, person she portrayed. She never made light of her memory lapses, as he did. When she did not know, or was not sure, she said so. Frustrated Mr Abramowitz said of one incident: 'If I told you it was 31 July, would you agree?' Radiating concern, Ms Farrow replied: 'If you promise it's so, then I'll believe you.'

For all her usual motherly composure on the stand, she could be hysterical, she admitted. She had blown up when she found the nude pictures of Soon-Yi, and the young girl had confessed to an affair with Mr Allen. 'I just pounced on her. She kicked me, and I hit her on the side of the face and the shoulder,' said Ms Farrow, the tears welling up in her eyes. 'I'm not proud of it.'

As the first week of the trial came to an end, one lingering question was which of Ms Farrow's former husbands had offered to break Mr Allen's legs. She admitted such an offer had been made, but was prevented by the judge from naming the name. 'It was a joke,' she said.

The case continues.

(Photograph omitted)