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10 Of Woody Allen’s Best Female Characters

10 Of Woody Allen's Best Female Characters

There are a few stock criticisms often leveled at a new Woody Allen film: his characters are all neurotic messes; his films are relentlessly white and upper-middle class; when he tries for profundity, he flounders; when he leaves Manhattan, he never achieves anything like the heights of his New York-set stories; his eye for his own approximate generation’s foibles and concerns has always been sharper than that for the much younger… the list goes on. But however much you may have your knives out, you just can’t accuse Allen of not writing decent roles for women. 

A glimpse through his back catalogue proves quite the reverse, in fact. His male characters, whether they’re the famous Allen proxy, Allen himself or some other version, may often be central, but it’s his women who more often get the startling, attention-grabbing roles, in leads and support. He’s a writer-director who clearly loves women and is fascinated by them, but unusually he doesn’t let that cloud his ability to write breathing, complex, interesting, fully realized female characters. “Blue Jasmine” (review here), which opens this weekend and is a powerhouse showcase for Cate Blanchett, is the latest in a long line of Allen films to feature a tremendous female performance, which made us think about our other favorites. Through all the peaks and valleys of his career, it’s a reminder that he’s given us an embarrassment of riches in this regard—here are the premiere female roles that edge slightly above the pack for us.

Marion Post (Gena Rowlands) in “Another Woman” (1988)
Allen’s deep love for Ingmar Bergman, and his longing to make a film that achieves the levels of depth he finds in the Swedish master’s work, are almost the stuff of cliche by now. But while, like almost everyone else, our hearts belong entirely to his “earlier, funnier” stuff, “Another Woman“—a direct transposition/riff on the story of “Wild Strawberries“—is maybe his best expression of that urge, largely due to an absolutely wonderful turn by Gena Rowlands in what is, especially compared to the wilder work she did with Cassavetes, an impressively controlled and cerebral performance. Marion Post is a philosophy professor in her 50s, widely respected and successful, who one day, through a trick of a ventilation system, begins to overhear the conversations in an adjacent analyst’s office. In particular one woman’s troubles prompt her to start reevaluating her own life, which leads to some unsettling conclusions about her marriage, her choices, her previously unassailable sense of herself and her place in the world. Rowlands is fantastic, but the role is a pretty audacious one on paper too—how often do we see films entirely devoted to an aging female character coming to the very inward revelation that in favoring smarts over spontaneity, perhaps she robbed herself of passion, and in setting a standard so high for herself, she may have incurred the resentment of those she considered friends? The film is not on par with the Bergman masterpiece it references, occasionally it feels on-the-nose, especially with its often slightly redundant voiceover, but Marion Post is a fantastic melding of actress and role—the kind of symbiosis that means that while we know it was originally intended for Mia Farrow (who, heavily pregnant, took the smaller role of the eavesdroppee instead), we just can’t imagine anyone else embodying it so well.

Lee (Barbara Hershey), Holly (Dianne Wiest) and Hannah (Mia Farrow) in “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986)
Yes, there’s really no way around this triple entry, which is one of the many remarkable aspects of Allen’s story of three sisters and their respective romantic entanglements—even with a cast so seemingly overpopulated, Allen manages to give time and depth to so many of them. There’s a real skill for the skewering detail on display here—the relationship of the aging parents is only glimpsed a few times but is startlingly well-drawn, while Michael Caine‘s cheating husband, Allen’s own comic relief/ hypochondriac ex-husband and Max von Sydow‘s tortured artist/lover/mentor are all vivid enough to have been the central characters of any film. But in fact that honor goes to Hannah, Lee and Holly and the conflicting currents of jealousy, insecurity and love that flow between all three sisters. Farrow‘s Hannah is a classic Allen character, the “perfect” one whose perfection alienates others, and it’s a strong turn arguably bested by her co-stars. Hershey is great as Lee, the youngest who has a thing for older, teacher-type men, but also embarks on an affair with Hannah’s husband, falling in love, we feel, with his infatuation for her rather than with him. And Wiest‘s Holly is actually the one who the story redeems, as she goes from ex-coke fiend and flighty unsuccessful actress to caterer to successful married writer at the very end. With Carrie Fisher also making an impression as the ultimate frenemy, and the film covering just over two tumultuous years (three Thanksgivings mirroring the three Christmases covered in Bergman‘s “Fanny and Alexander“) the scope is broad and yet Allen keeps every ball in the air, and even within such a rich feast Farrow—and Wiest and Hershey especially—each get to individually shine.

Marcia Fox (Anjelica Huston) in “Manhattan Murder Mystery” (1993)
Diane Keaton and Woody Allen are both great in this film as the bickering couple who haven’t so much fallen out of love as forgotten how far in they are, and for us it ranks up there among the director’s very funniest—an especially surprising feat considering it was his first film in the immediate aftermath of his very public and messy breakup from Mia Farrow. As you might imagine, Keaton’s part was actually written for Farrow, and Allen has recently said he seriously contemplated offering to his ex-wife, even after the very dramatic and publicized split, but was talked out of the idea. But as good as Keaton is—you’ll see our praise for her elsewhere in this list—we wanted to shine a light on some supporting female performances too, and so Anjelica Huston sprang to mind. As Marcia, it’s not a big role—playing the writer who tempts literary agent Larry (Allen), away from his long, comfy marriage—and the hawklike, statuesque Huston makes an odd contrast with the diminutive, nervy director. But it’s a great meeting of minds and cute flirtation springs up based on Huston’s poker chops and her unexpected aptitude for catching a murderer. Perhaps because she’s so much the antithesis of the archetypal dolly bird type that we might imagine an aging man to be tempted to stray with, she makes a well-rounded, surprisingly funny addition to an already sparkling cast. It’s testament to Allen’s unusually thoughtful treatment of women, even in smaller roles, that her eventual pairing off with Alan Alda’s Ted is almost as satisfying as his own lead character’s rediscovery of marital love.

Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) in “Annie Hall” (1977)
Well, really this one’s a no-brainer. Forget Woody Allen films, forget female performances, Diane Keaton’s totally unique embodiment of a role written specifically for, and partially about her, has to rank as simply one of the greatest screen characters of all time. Of course Allen had been in a relationship with Keaton (originally, Diane “Annie” Hall) but here demonstrates the uncanny ability to shape the character inspired by her in an unsentimentalized way—the fondness, and the gentle wonder a lover might have felt at the foibles and quirks of the object of his affection are certainly communicated, but never at the expense of the sense of her as a real person, lived from the inside out. And Keaton slips into the role that fits her like a glove, as fearless about the character’s flaws and idiosyncrasies as Allen was writing them, even those that were directly lifted from her real life habits (if “Lah-di-dah” wasn’t a specific verbal tic of Keaton’s, then her habit of muttering nonsense words when uncomfortable reportedly was). Annie Hall adheres to none of the screenwriting 101 tricks for writing characters, instead it feels like she sprang to life fully formed, and fully embodied by Keaton in such a way that it’s impossible to think of either one without the other, and it’s no mean feat that she feels so real, seeing as it’s actually Alvy’s (Allen) head that we spend the most time in, through voiceover or surreal fourth-wall-breaking. No matter, from her unmistakable and totally individual style (resolutely anti-outrageous but still completely personalised) to the sparky intelligence that flashes through the cracks in her gauche exterior, Annie Hall is a summary lesson that in moviemaking, character isn’t just plot, isn’t just destiny, it’s absolutely everything. And perhaps the greatest miracle of them all is that this bittersweet study of a Manhattan relationship can support all these lofty claims for its greatness, but still flits by with charm and joy and an incredible lightness of touch.

Tina (Mia Farrow) in “Broadway Danny Rose” (1984)
So we were a little torn between this entry in the Allen/Farrow canon and the underrated “Alice” in which she’s more central. But the gum-snapping, sunglass-wearing sexpot in “Broadway Danny Rose” won out, thanks mainly to the range it shows in the actress’ talent (her Alice is a maybe a more nuanced creation, but also less outright fun). Because fun is the order of the day here, from the Greek chorus of veteran comedians who have gathered at the Carnegie Deli to tell stories and reminisce, to the loving and somehow unpatronising way Danny Rose’s (Allen) roster of terrible acts are introduced (or even just referred to): the one-legged tap dancer; the rollerskating penguin dressed as a rabbi; the woman who plays the wine glasses and has “Never taken one lesson! Not one!” Farrow plays Tina, the mistress of has-been-crooner-now-resurgent Lou Canova, thrown together with Danny Rose when Canova gets his big chance and wants her by his side, but they’re in the middle of a lover’s spat. Danny Rose is such an appealing character in his optimism, blind faith and usually unreciprocated loyalty to his clients that Farrow’s Tina is really more a supporting character, but Farrow invests her with a lot more depth than she might have had. And she does all this from behind an almost permanent pair of sunglasses, which hide her huge expressive eyes altogether (seriously, covering Farrow’s eyes is kind of like casting Fred Astaire and getting him to sit at a table for the whole movie). But somehow here it works and we notice Farrow’s gifts as a more physical actress as a result—her bristly, staccato movements and absolute self-assurance all reek of a woman who knows that half the men she meets are in love with her, and is concomitantly bored by it all. It couldn’t be a more atypical Farrow role, but it totally works and is absolutely necessary that we care for her as we do in order for the happy/sad ending (one of Allen’s most delicately balanced) to work as well as it does.

Sally (Judy Davis) in “Husbands and Wives” (1992
Probably the most satisfying and complete film of Allen’s that isn’t a comedy (though very funny at times), “Husbands and Wives” oddly enough feels like it gets closest to the “serious” cachet Allen has always longed for, because it doesn’t try to be a formal experiment in profundity or whatever, but just plays absolutely to Allen’s pin sharp eye for the absurdities and intricacies of (yes, white, upper middle, intellectual) marital relationships in New York City. And in amongst the note-perfect cast of the two main couples Gabe and Judy (Allen and Farrow) and Jack and Sally (the eternally underrated-as-an-actor Sydney Pollack and Judy Davis), it’s really Davis who stands out as the film’s MVP. When Jack and Sally announce their separation to a shocked Gabe and Judy, it prompts the latter couple to start reevaluating their own relationship. The twist is, of course, that it’s their relationship that ultimately can’t stand that kind of examination, whereas Jack and Sally end up getting back together in pretty short order (and due to Sally’s terrifying strength of will). Farrow’s role as the ultimate passive/aggressive, who even guilts her new guy (Liam Neeson) into marrying her by the end, is itself a withering dissection of a certain type of woman, but Davis’s strident, abrasive Sally is something else. Spitting out barbs and venomous jabs even as she strides militantly ahead, unaware of the gaping maw of loneliness that lurks inside her, seldom has a female character been so completely self-absorbed and utterly unapologetic about it, yet remain a compelling and real-feeling person, helped by the whipsmart caustic accuracy of a lot of her dialogue that is where the film derives a lot of its humor. In fact while both the female characters are defiantly in the Woody Allen wheelhouse, they kind of put the lie on the reductive criticism that “all Allen’s women are shrewish neurotics” because while they both kind of are, he finds as many gradations between them as similarities. And anyway, if he does have that preoccupation, it simply couldn’t have found a more perfect vessel than Davis here. It’s no surprise they’ve collaborated frequently—on “Alice,” “Deconstructing Harry,” “Celebrity” and last year’s “To Rome With Love“—and we’d love to see them pair up again soon.

Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona” (2008)
And speaking of emotional instability (no matter where this segment appears in the feature, it’s about Woody’s women, so we can be pretty sure we were speaking about emotional instability), let’s get on to Maria Elena (Penelope Cruz) in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona.” Honestly we were a little torn about this one’s inclusion—it’s not an Allen film we have that much time for, all things told, despite its starry cast (Rebecca Hall, Scarlett Johannson, Patricia Clarkson, Javier Bardem, Chris Messina, Cruz) and many awards and nominations. But while one of our issues is with the overly exoticized view of the red-blooded Latins in the cast (Bardem was once referred to in a something we read about this film as a “hairy love chorizo” and we’ve never been able to forget that phrase), we can’t deny that Cruz is a force of crazy, crazy nature in this film. It’s also probably one of the most successful of the recent “roles Woody was inspired to write specifically for a certain actress” even if Cruz’s turn as the potentially psychotic, potentially suicidal ex-partner of Bardem’s does kind of blast everything else off the screen, particularly the rather anodyne-and-whitebread-by-comparison romantic quandaries of our two dazzled protagonists (Hall and Johannson). Still, Cruz certainly can’t be faulted for shifting the film’s gravitational orbit around herself, and as an Allen woman on the more dramatic and demonstrative end of the spectrum, she does get to fill the screen with flash and fire and almost Almodovarian melodrama at times. The role won Cruz her Oscar and probably remains her best role in a U.S. film to date.

Helen Sinclair & Olive Neal (Dianne Wiest & Jennifer Tilly) in “Bullets Over Broadway” (1994)
Yes, another double entry, but while Dianne Wiest is rightly lauded for her marvelously OTT performance as theatrical grande dame Helen Sinclair (“The world will open up to you like a magnificent vagina!,” “Don’t speak!”) we wanted to also shine a little light on Jennifer Tilly‘s totally winning and very funny turn as the aspiring actress/gangster’s moll who causes all the trouble in the first place. Seemingly channeling Judy Holliday, Tilly’s Olive, the archetypal talentless but demanding actress who only got her role through the machinations of her gangster boyfriend, is really one of the films (many) highlights. From the screechy voice to her pronunciation of “hors d’oeuvres” and her response to an explanation of the word “masochistic” (“Enjoys pain? What is she, retarded?”), Olive may not be the deepest female character of Allen’s but she’s perfectly tailored adornment to what is really a much broader, more knockabout farce than Allen had done for a while. And of course Wiest’s Norma Desmond-esque Sinclair is just tremendous—the aging star who seduces the young playwright David (John Cusack in Woody Allen stand-in duty) in a kind of gender reversal of the teacher/pupil dynamic that Allen often is attracted to for his couples. Yet Helen has her tendernesses too—Wiest fields the human moments when the mask slips and approaching old age and irrelevance looms with real feeling. But mostly it’s fun and frothy hijinks as the bodyguard (Chazz Palminteri) discovers an hitherto undreamed of aptitude for art, Olive embarks on an affair with leading man and compulsive eater Warner Purcell (Jim Broadbent) and David has to choose between his play and his girl (Mary-Louise Parker). That, again, in amongst such a stuffed-to-the-gills cast and a madcap plot, two such memorable performances can peek their heads above the rest is little short of amazing.

Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) in “Manhattan” (1979)
If we’re often relatively unimpressed, within the Allen canon, with the roles written for much younger women, Tracy in “Manhattan” is the exception that somewhat proves the rule. No doubt because the age difference between her and the Allen character Isaac actually forms a major part of the plot, the issues that arise as a result are dissected and analysed, at least a little from both sides, rather than being swept under the carpet or passing all-but-unremarked-upon as happens elsewhere. So the 17-year-old Tracy is dating the twice-divorced 42-year-old Isaac and, in one of those neat inversions of accepted wisdom of which Allen is so fond, Isaac finds himself being tempted away from his much younger girlfriend by the more age-appropriate Mary (Diane Keaton). So rather than the older man running back to his wife after a fling with a younger model, here Isaac’s “fling” is with Mary (by way of a circuitous series of ins and outs and complications) after which he tries to get Tracy back. It’s a tricky role to play, as Tracy needs to have a freshness and inexperience that is part of her allure, while also demonstrating a maturity in her commitment to their relationship that shows up Isaac’s own fickleness. And it’s a line Hemingway walks well, turning in perhaps one of the most sincere of Allen’s female characters, but no less real for it, and doing it without the benefit of a huge amount of screen time. And in the scene in which he breaks up with her, her devastation is totally believable and suddenly makes us care a lot more a character who we could have just written off as a kid with daddy issues and a mentor complex until then. In fact the denouement, which evokes “Pygmalion” in how it suggests that it’s not just the protégée who is defined by her relationship with the teacher, but also the other way round, requires her to subtly turn the tables on him. “You ought to have a little more faith in people” she chides him gently, before leaving for England. But what we understand is that he ought to have had a little more faith in her, but that time is passed. In fact, he’s probably learnt a great deal more from her than she from him.

Cecilia (Mia Farrow) in “The Purple Rose of Cairo” (1985)
Allen himself is on record as saying that “The Purple Rose of Cairo” was one of the rare films that ended up very close to being what he saw in his head initially, and the deftness with which he handles a complicated meta-narrative bears that out: similarly tricksy devices, like in “Stranger than Fiction” say, often stagger a bit under their own contradictions, but Allen keeps things shooting along breezily, until an unexpectedly moving and truthfully sad ending. And a lot of the credit has to go to Farrow, who sells Cecilia, the timid, wide-eyed Depression era downtrodden wife (to a hilariously boorish Danny Aiello) brilliantly, and smooths over the less logical parts of the film’s premise by seeming to know innately how to respond believably to unbelievable situations. So she first falls for Tom (Jeff Daniels) as he steps off the screen to be with her, the embodiment of perfection, and then for Gil (Jeff Daniels) the actor who played Tom, who comes to town to sort out the mess Tom’s literal fourth-wall-breaking has caused. Farrow invests Cecilia with such sweetness and guilelessness that her adultery and ability to fall for two men in the space of couple of days never feels cynical or selfish, making the irony of the ending even more cruel, even if she can always lose herself in the movies again. Perhaps it’s because we’re as in love with the medium as Cecilia is, but she feels like a perfect proxy for us as we experience the dangers and the delights of losing yourself to dreaming in the dark.

A couple of honorable mentions: aside from Farrow in “Alice” which we mentioned above, the ladies of “Interiors” (Kristen Griffith, Maureen Stapleton, Geraldine Page, Mary Beth Hurt, Keaton again) certainly deserve praise, but more as part of an ensemble than individually perhaps (though Stapleton gets the co-starring MVP and Mary Beth Hurt is the strongest of the main sisters). And there are a good few roles that are smaller still that we cherish—like Elaine May in “Small Time Crooks” and Meryl Streep‘s sparkly turn as Allen’s ex in “Manhattan.”

Of course, a few of our own biases show on the main list, and feel free to call us out on them below. Mira Sorvino may have won an Oscar for “Mighty Aphrodite” but it’s the kind of role (goodhearted hooker) that we feel Allen covered elsewhere and to greater effect by not making it the central focus of a film. And while others disagree, this writer never really have never found any of the roles for Allen’s much younger contemporary female muses (Scarlett Johannson, Evan Rachel Wood, Drew Barrymore, Christina Ricci) all that much to write home about.

When Allen writes and directs women as his contemporaries it’s like he can see them clearly and can trust those actresses to negotiate their darker aspects with sensitivity. But his younger female characters feel distorted by remove: where his writing for Keaton, Wiest, Farrow et al portrays women as rounded, complex and sometimes weird characters, it feels like his writing for the younger generation never attains the same degree of psychological insight—and for whatever reason we tend to get something more superficial. This is more about lifestage than actual age, however, and while Cate Blanchett is 30 years his junior, the role she plays in “Blue Jasmine” is of a more mature woman, who has had quite a bit of life experience to that point, going through an “I’m not so young any more” epiphany, which is a quandary that Allen knows like the back of his hand and can write without reaching quite so hard. It feels like every new Allen film is heralded as a “return to form” in some quarter, so we’ll refrain from that, and confine ourselves to speculating instead on whether it might be the role to bring Blanchett her inevitable first Best Actress Oscar? The early money says it’s got a very good chance.

Any female roles Woody has written that you cherish? Let us know below.

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