By Christopher Campbell | Spout June 18, 2009 at 2:40AM
In Woody Allen’s "Whatever Works," Larry David plays what most people refer to as “the Woody Role.” This means that he’s filling in for Allen, who for whatever reason is showing up less and less in his films these days. But the Woody Role isn’t merely about a substitute actor starring in place of Allen, it’s often also about that performer channeling the Woody character, that neurotic persona that too many viewers believe is Allen’s true self (as if he’s simply playing himself onscreen in what are also believed to be generally autobiographical works).
David’s performance as “Boris Yelnikoff” in "Whatever" is not completely Woodyesque, but only because David has his own familiar neurotic onscreen persona that is very separate from -- though sometimes complimentary to -- Allen’s. And yet he does still come across as a Woody proxy due to the fact that he’s speaking (ranting) dialogue written by Allen rather than improvised (as in "Curb Your Enthusiasm").
A number of other actors have served as Woody surrogates, some better and some worse, including a few unofficial proxies in films/series not written or directed by Allen. We list them in order from bad to best after the jump.
10. Burt Reynolds in "The End" (1978)
Jerry Belson apparently wrote the lead role in "The End" for Woody Allen, but ultimately Burt Reynolds took the part and directed the slapstick comedy, too. Even without knowing that Allen was the first choice for “Sonny Lawson,” you can tell the film would have been much better with him starring. It would have fit in great with his early 70s work. Reynolds (paired up with the late, great Dom DeLuise) is funny enough, but as Frank Rich wrote in his Time magazine review, “Reynolds' many talents do not include an ability to impersonate Woody Allen.” This film makes us wonder what it would have been like if, conversely, Allen had been cast as the lead in the "Smokey and the Bandit" movies.
9. Will Ferrell in "Melinda and Melinda" (2004)
Don’t get us wrong, we think Will Ferrell is enjoyable in "Melinda and Melinda," but he’s just not a very good surrogate for Woody Allen. Of course, he’s not necessarily meant to be aping the Woody persona, and this kind of proxy supports the usual claims that Allen doesn’t intend these actors to be stand-ins for himself, but then again this isn’t "Sweet and Lowdown" or "Match Point." “Hobie” is a character that could very well have been portrayed by Allen, and Ferrell does sound a little unnatural speaking in Allen’s words. Maybe we’re just too used to Ferrell acting stupid and immature. Also, we can’t help but wish the character had been played by Allen’s first choice, Robert Downey Jr.
8. Jason Biggs in "Anything Else" (2003)
Compared to his terrible, whiny-voiced costar, Jason Biggs seems to deliver a performance on par with Laurence Olivier. But even without Christina Ricci stinking up "Anything Else," Biggs disappoints in the role of “Jerry Falk,” at least in terms of his take on the Woody Role. Though Allen appears in this movie, Falk is clearly a young incarnation of the Woody persona, especially considering the plot recalls "Annie Hall" so much. But Biggs plays him too straight and subdued, as if he were in one of Allen’s dramas rather than a comedy, and he’s unfortunately too upstaged and sidelined by the loud and obnoxious performance from Ricci.
7. Corey Parker in "Flying Blind" (1992-1993)
Corey Parker first reminded us of a young Woody Allen in the role of the Jewish intellectual army recruit “Arnold Epstein” in "Biloxi Blues." But it was in the short-lived sitcom "Flying Blind" that he garnered his most comparisons to Allen. As the neurotic nebbish “Neil Barash,” he was also part “Ben Braddock” and Neil Simon, but he mostly channeled the neurotic Woody persona, if only a bit shyer and more reserved. Thinking back to this TV series, we wish that Parker had been the one cast in "Anything Else," or any other Allen film employing a proxy. Interestingly enough, Parker’s costar, Tea Leoni, did later play Allen’s ex-wife in "Hollywood Ending."
When Fox Television announced a miniseries was in the works based on Kristi Groteke’s book “Mia & Woody: Love & Betrayal,” Woody Allen reportedly found the idea of someone playing him ludicrous. He even joked that Tom Cruise should get the part, according to one biography. Instead Fox cast Dennis Boutsikaris, best known to us for his appearances in "*batteries not included" and "'Crocodile' Dundee II." As far as Woody Allen impersonations go, his is pretty good, yet the performance is still unavoidably laughable. What else could be expected, though, with someone portraying Allen with primarily only the onscreen Woody persona to use as inspiration? It’s kind of like Robert Pattinson (or anyone else) being hard to take seriously as Salvador Dali.
5. Rebecca Hall in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona" (2008)
Last year, Karina wrote a post that recognized Rebecca Hall as the first female Woody. “I don’t *think* he’s ever previously asked an actress to take on the role of the square, insecure neurotic who babbles their way into a seduction in the same way Hall does in 'Vicky Cristina,'” she wrote. In response, the cinetrix noted that Mia Farrow may have actually been the first female Woody in "The Purple Rose of Cairo." Either way, the character of “Vicky” may be too unlikable, too unintelligent and too lacking in good jokes to completely be considered a Woody proxy, but she does have enough of the self-hatred and commitment doubts for there to be an argument for her case. It’s not too difficult to picture a gender-reversed version of "VCB," in which Allen plays “Victor” and some random hot Hollywood actress plays the sexy Javier Bardem role.
4. John Cusack in "Bullets Over Broadway" (1994)
Roger Ebert proposed that in "Bullets Over Broadway" Allen may have represented himself more in Chazz Palminteri’s gangster bodyguard character than in John Cusack’s playwright, “David Shayne.” But in superficial terms the Cusack role is certainly the Woody proxy, even if employed as a sort of false front. Watching the young actor in scenes opposite Dianne Wiest and Mary-Louise Parker, it’s hard to believe Allen could have fit the role and spoken his own dialogue any better. Cusack doesn’t impersonate Allen, but he does capture just enough of the persona to keep him from simply being John Cusack dropped into a Woody Role, the way Ferrell, David and Biggs seem dropped into their respective Allen films.
3. Stanley Tucci in "Deconstructing Harry" (1997)
"Deconstructing Harry" features a number of Woody proxies, despite Allen starring in the film in the primary Woody Role, because scenes from a bunch of Allen’s characters’ novels are depicted within the movie. The actors playing these secondary proxies include Richard Benjamin, Robin Williams and Tobey Maguire. Stanley Tucci, as “Paul Epstein,” is the best, though. When we close our eyes during his scenes we hear Woody more than Tucci. That’s how precise his delivery is. We can only hope the actor gets to be a full-on Woody proxy in some future Allen film.
2. Seth Green in "Radio Days" (1987)
"Radio Days" comes across as the most autobiographical of Allen’s films due to the way the filmmaker narrates the nostalgic story in first-person voice-over. But the narrator’s younger self is named “Joe,” not “Allen” (Allen’s real first name). Still, the boy is definitely the childhood version of the Woody Role, and it’s easy to imagine little Seth Green growing up to be “Alvy Singer,” “Isaac Davis,” “Danny Rose,” or any other Woody character, maybe even “Jimmy Bond.” We just have to forget that Seth Green really grew up to be “Scott Evil” instead.
1. Kenneth Branagh in "Celebrity" (1998)
Kenneth Branagh is the greatest Woody proxy as journalist “Lee Simon” in "Celebrity," and yet he doesn’t have any of the neurotic characteristics you expect from a Woody impersonation. Basically he’s Woody turned handsome and more confident. But he’s still identifiably Woody. The voice isn’t completely spot-on, but Branagh’s delivery is even more precise than Tucci’s, and overall the British actor gives one of the most interesting and expert performances seen in an Allen film. Few people agree, however. Peter Travers called it a “party-trick performance,” Todd McCarthy labeled Branagh’s “direct imitation” “embarrassing,” and Roger Ebert wrote that Branagh “does Allen so carefully, indeed, that you wonder why Allen didn't just play the character himself.” But we enjoy the actor immensely in the part and believe there is much more to the performance than mere mimicry. And even if it were, why should other direct imitations garner Oscar nominations while Branagh gets criticized so harshly?