A Life Less Ordinary
Given all the talk about Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra, thought I'd dig out this...
The Times Magazine, June 2006, by Jeff Dawson
Whatever way you cut it, Mia Farrow has certainly lived a life. Though she wouldn’t relish the comparison, the impression is of a pop-culture Zelig — a version of Woody Allen’s figure that pops up at key moments in history. She’s been pals with Salvador Dali, Roman Polanski, John Lennon; wife/partner to Frank Sinatra, Andre Previn and, infamously, Allen himself. Last year, when Farrow breezed into London, the star witness in the Polanski/Vanity Fair libel trial, there she was, right back in the storm’s eye of the Manson slayings. Recently, as some revisionist version of The Beatles/Maharishi bust-up surfaced, Farrow took centre stage again, getting transcendental with the Fab Four in Rishikesh.
In modern times Farrow has become better known as a sort of reclusive Earth Mother, retreating from that sordid Woody Allen business (more of which later) to adopt a gaggle of waifs (she has had 14 kids in total); hitching her celebrity “concern” to assorted UNICEF missions. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t question the nobility of any of Farrow’s humanitarian ventures — all power to her — but it isn’t half as interesting as the old days. I wonder whether it bothers her, this constant referral to the past. But no, she says, “because I was there[ital]. What are we going to talk about? The future?”
Farrow is more lively than you would imagine. Quite enchanting. She tells a story about a cottage she once acquired in Co. Wicklow, Ireland, which went mouldy inside because she never left the heating on and had some kind of trouble getting her utility bills forwarded from the local post office. “Everything turned green,” she groans. Polanski got the best handle on it. “There are 127 varieties of nut … and Mia’s 116 of them.” She chuckles. “He would know.”
In a chi-chi hotel suite looming over Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Farrow sinks into the sumptuous sofa and beams beatifically. She’s certainly got the hair for her current incarnation, her long ash-blonde mane in hippy contrast to the elfin do of yore. In a couture cardie’n’trousers ensemble, she is spindly thin, her eyes bright, her skin so translucent I swear you can see a vein pumping in her temple. She could knock ten tears off her actual 61, reminding me of an anecdote about Sinatra, who spotted the 19-year-old starlet on a 20th Century Fox soundstage and sent a goon over to check she was of legal age. Ah yes, Old Blue Eyes. She married him in 1966, her 21, him 50. “Didn’t work out as a marriage (it lasted 18 months) but did work out as a friendship,” she assures. “We were good friends throughout out lives. He was a great guy.”
Farrow has opted out of film work for a decade, bringing up her kids at her Connecticut home. Having supplemented her own three children by Andre Previn in the early‘70s with a trio of adoptees (including an orphaned Korean girl named Soon-Yi), she has since become every placement agency’s favourite client. Some of her brood have been special needs kids, such as the blind Vietnamese girl, Tam, who died, sadly, in 2000, aged 19. Now, the later, younger additions are flying the coop. Come September, only Quincy Maureen, an African-American teenager, will remain. “So I can think about time and how I’m going to spend it,” says Farrow. Thus, after some periodic TV work and a lauded return to the New York stage, comes her first film since 1995.
The movie, The Omen, is a big bump-in-the-night remake of the 1976 horror classic. In it, Farrow plays nanny to devilish young Damien. Her inclusion seems a deliberate nod to Rosemary’s Baby (directed by Polanski), the first of the Satan’s Spawn flicks (see also The Exorcist), and the film which made Farrow a star in 1968. She was just 23 then and won raves as the gamine wife of John Cassavetes, impregnated by Beelzebub. “Rosemary’s Baby was the best thing that ever happened to me professionally,” she enthuses, running through a mental checklist to meritocratically praise everyone in it. “It was success, fame and fortune and it was the ’60s, so everybody was into the spiritual journey, you know, Sergeant Pepper …”
The Beatles are never far away. After her marriage to Sinatra went belly-up (he had served divorce papers on the set of Rosemary’s Baby, miffed that she had chosen it over his own flop, The Detective), she and sister Prudence (the Dear Prudence of Lennon’s song) joined the boys on their magical mystery tour to India. In what has become a standard version of events at their meditation retreat, relations with the Maharishi soured when the yogi got a bit fresh with Farrow (“Maharishi, what have you done?/You made a fool of everyone” wrote Lennon in a lyric, the name changed later to Sexy Sadie).
The story was recently contradicted by self-styled guru Deepak Chopra, who claimed it was rather the Maharishi who had evicted The Beatles for dropping acid in his ashram. But this gets Farrow agitated. “Deepak Chopra should talk about what he knows,” she snaps. “I[ital] was there. There were no drugs at the ashram, those guys were not kicked out. Ringo left because of the flies (she laughs), I left for my own reasons and the other guys left eventually because they just got bored. George stuck it pretty close to the end along with Prudence.”
Lennon eventually became a New York neighbour of Farrow’s, moving in to the famous Dakota building next door, the towers of which you can just see out of the window today, across Central Park. It was in it, coincidentally, that Rosemary’s Baby had been filmed, Lennon’s eventual murder outside the gates given as evidence of a curse attached to the movie. Usually such things are a concoction of the publicists (the new Omen, for good measure, opens on 06/06/06), but when it comes to Rosemary’s Baby, you’d be hard pushed to top the run of ill fortune. The year after release, Polanski’s pregnant wife, Sharon Tate, was butchered by the Manson Family.
It was at Elaine’s restaurant, a Manhattan celeb eaterie, where Farrow had met a grief-stricken Polanski on his way to the funeral. In a 2002 article in Vanity Fair, it was claimed that Polanski had actually spent the evening trying to cop off with a “Swedish beauty”, a charge vehemently denied and the reason for last year’s libel trial (which Polanski won thanks to Farrow’s testimony). “It felt good to do that, it was the right thing,” she sighs. “Somebody was fibbing. Someone was getting a long nose, if you know what I mean.”
Tragedy follows Farrow. Though she was born into Hollywood royalty — daughter of writer/director John Farrow and actress Maureen O’Sullivan (Jane from the Tarzan films) — the silver spoon was tarnished. At age nine, she contracted polio and spent time in an iron lung (one of her adoptees, Thaddeus, is a polio-afflicted paraplegic she plucked from the streets of Calcutta). At 13, she lost her brother Mike in a plane crash. At 17, her father — something of a womaniser — died of a heart attack. She was at her mother’s in New York when it happened, ignoring his phone calls, her father expiring with the receiver in his hand. Farrow says the early suffering made her want to become a nun — “a nun, then a doctor, a paediatrician working in Africa,” prefiguring her later passions. Does she ever watch her mother’s old movies — Jane romping around in the tree house, a sassy proto-feminist to Johnny Weissmuller’s dumb ape man? “Yeah they’re great. I show them to my kids,” she gushes. “My mom is amazing. Gorgeous. Wow, what legs.”
Her parents had taken out some insurance on Mia’s passage into The Biz, enlisting George Cukor and gossip columnist Louella Parsons as godparents (a Catholic, she was born Maria de Lourdes Villiers Farrow). When she began theatre work, they employed family friend Vivien Leigh to hit up the talent-spotters. By 18 Mia had sprung from the stage to Peyton Place, the original glossy TV soap opera, and from there the would-be carmelite sashayed to Sinatra. “I always knew Frank would end up in bed with a little boy,” snipped ex-wife Ava Gardner, who — in another confusing twist — had had a fling with Farrow’s father.
By 1970, Farrow was married to composer Andre Previn, living in leafy Surrey for nine years, acting with the RSC and doing occasional films like The Great Gatsby. But Previn’s constant touring led to another divorce. Farrow returned to New York and was introduced to the quirky, neurotic Woody Allen. Allen, in need of another muse after Diane Keaton, cast Farrow in 1982’s Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, and they worked/played together pretty much exclusively, making 13 films in ten years — including big critical hits Hannah And Her Sisters and Crimes And Misdemeanours. They were the toast of gentrified New York — she in her apartment one side of Central Park, he in his garret opposite. They had one kid together, Satchel, and adopted two more. The clans meshed, according to her, into a big tantamount family.
What happens next is has been pored over endlessly but bears repetition. In 1992, when Farrow was rummaging around in Allen’s gaff, she discovered “nude” (read pornographic) polaroids of Soon-Yi, then aged 19-21 (there was never any birth record). Allen, at the time 56, confessed to an affair (the pair since married). To say that the bottom fell out of Farrow’s world is an understatement. Not only was her long-term lover sleeping with her daughter, but was also, as she alleged, committing “virtual incest” “There was just nothing in the books to tell me quite where to place all this,” she ponders. “I mean hard for the children, too. This is the father in their life. So we have a son whose father is married to his sister, or, if you like, a sister who’s married to the father.”
The ensuing, and vicious custody battle over their three kids exonerated Allen (who, for the record, is now Farrow’s son-in-law) from a further charge of abuse against daughter Dylan, but it was a Pyrrhic victory. He lost all access to the children and, pointedly, all three have changed their names, refusing to have anything to do with him. Sinatra offered to break his legs.
She claims there is no “lingering vindictiveness” but can never reconcile. “It’s just not acceptable behaviour,” she says. Would she ever open a door to Soon-Yi one day? She chooses her words carefully. “I’ve had to close ranks in the family,” she expounds. “You can’t have a chair with a missing person forever and there are children who don’t know she exists in my family.” But they’ll hear things eventually, surely? “Yeah, and I’ll still say the family is complete. She can’t be my daughter any more. I just can’t go on thinking of her as a daughter.”
Only recently, Allen said he had considered casting Farrow again in one of his later movies. “Well it’s astounding really,” she replies. “What can I say? Well how nice, or how strange? Or how little he understood?” That said, she is surprisingly generous. “I’m very grateful to have made the films and grateful for some very good times as well.” Aside from Rosemary’s Baby, she adds, Purple Rose Of Cairo and Broadway Danny Rose, in which she starred for him, make up her three favourite films (and clips from which she recently denied use of in an official Woody Allen documentary).”
But, onwards and upwards. Farrow has a couple of other film in the works. “I keep forgetting how much fun acting is, you know?” Meanwhile, on June 10, she will be heading with UNICEF to the hell-hole of Darfur, accompanied by 18-year-old son Ronan Seamus (formerly Satchel), an ex- child prodigy now studying Law at Yale. The horrors of the Sudan, she says, are making it a “Rwanda in slow motion” and she will do all she can to bring attention to it. I trot out the traditional cynicism. Haven’t the poor Africans suffered enough celebrity visitations? But. she is wise to such views. The press are simply denied accreditation there, she explains. By a quirk she is allowed in (she went two years ago) and if she can grab one headline, then it’s worth it.
Outside, pootling on Madison Avenue, is the limo waiting to take her on the long drive back to New England. It will be in marked contrast to what lies ahead.“Do be careful,” I say. “I will, I really will, don’t worry” she promises. She gives a big warm smile. “And thank you.”