Throughout the making of his forty-five features, filmmaker Woody Allen has consistently excelled in character development. In addition to the artistic and neurotic personalities that often mark the inhabitants of Allen’s films, the characters’ specific professions are often part of Allen’s recipe for success. Frequently choosing an occupation that associates with a distinct ethos, the filmmaker provides context and introduces us to the world of the character. More often than not, these professions are central to the plot, as many of Allen’s characters are somehow creatively or professionally blocked at the start of their respective films, leading to narratives that center on overcoming those obstacles, both personally and profesionally.
Having opened at Cannes as an Out of Competition selection, Woody Allen’s latest feature, “Irrational Man,” hits theaters on July 17. Set in a quaint Rhode Island college, Joaquin Phoenix plays Abe Lucas, a philosophy professor and notorious womanizer, going through an existential crisis. He’s certainly not the first Allen character to be similarly unmoored.
In Allen’s magnum opus, “Annie Hall,” he stars as the protagonist Alvy Singer, a self-conscious gag writer and stand-up comedian. The character’s social awkwardness and list of phobias contort his life into an everlasting stand up routine. He relentlessly cracks jokes, makes witty cultural references and shares his critical outlook with anyone who will listen. The film jumps in chronology, as Alvy Singer investigates what went wrong in his relationship with Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). Allen’s techniques that break the fourth wall supplement Singer’s occupation as a comedian, and help develop the film’s important themes. Alvy learns it is difficult to keep a relationship alive when he relies on his comedic shield. Alvy Singer’s vulnerability and desire to be perfect forces him to turn everything into a joke and hide his true emotions.
Russian Soldier (“Love and Death,” 1975)
Woody Allen stars as Boris, a Russian soldier, in “Love and Death.” It is a satire of Russian literature and culture. Boris is a peasant who approaches life timidly because of a childhood encounter with Death. He tests his courage when the Russian Army drafts him to fight against Napoleon and the French. On the battlefield, Boris becomes an accidental hero as his attempt to hide in a cannon ends up taking down four generals. The source of much laughter, Boris’ profession as a soldier and the sheer ridiculousness of it are at the core of the film. The film develops from Boris’ unsuitable profession as it echoes Allen’s techniques, in which he juxtaposes the seriousness of war with comedy. A rare experiment with physical jokes for Allen, he makes it visually apparent that Boris is out of place. Through Boris’ perspective as an outsider, the director is able to enhance the satirical nature of the film.
Journalist (“Manhattan,” 1979)
Diane Keaton stars as Mary Wilke in Allen’s black-and-white masterpiece, “Manhattan.” In her sixth collaboration with the director, Keaton plays a journalist from Philadelphia. Diverging from her iconic role as the wide-eyed and naive “Annie Hall,” Keaton thrives as the empowering and jaded heartthrob. She is caught in the middle of the film’s romantic jumble, but unlike her pursuers, whom are blinded by emotion, she is rational and distances herself through intelligence. Mary Wilke is not flawless, but her harsh criticism and fierce demeanor allow her to remain empowered. The film revolves around the dynamics of modern dating and how they are artificial and shallow. Mary Wilke stands out because of her occupation as a journalist. She not only writes the truth, but also remains true to her self through actions.
Ophthalmologist (“Crimes and Misdemeanors,” 1989)
In debatably Allen’s darkest film, “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” Martin Landau plays the All-American prototype, Judah Rosenthal. An ophthalmologist, Judah lives in Connecticut and drives a Jaguar. Despite his humanitarian funding of a new hospital wing and role as a community leader, he is not the just man that he appears to be. Judah’s two-year affair with a flight attendant and incapability to own up to the adulterous crime prompts him to resort to murder. The film is supplemented with a religious subplot, which questions the role of morality when Judah goes unpunished. Allen generates exceptional irony with Judah’s profession as an eye doctor. It serves as the perfect counterpoint and answer to the plot’s question: how do both God and society turn a blind eye? Justice may become blind if it relies on the eye doctor for a remedy, as he is the one committing crimes. Allen develops a political undertone, in which he investigates the flawed logic and lack of justice in a fixed system.
Talent Agent (“Broadway Danny Rose,” 1984)
plays Danny Rose, an eccentric talent agent, in his black-and-white comedy,
“Broadway Danny Rose.” When it comes to show business, Danny Rose is the mayor of The Island for Misfit Toys. He has a loose definition of talent and willingly represents
anyone, from blind xylophonists to piano-playing birds. The film opens with a
scene at the New York Carnegie Deli, where a group of comedians sit around a
table and share their favorite Danny Rose stories. Using the group to
structure the film, Allen introduces us to the two-bit agent through
flashbacks. He does not possess the typical Allen qualities like the charming
wit. Danny dresses poorly and lacks an intellectual side, but he makes up for it with morality. The anecdotes give Allen the means to develop laughable moments and
depict Danny Rose as more of a caricature than a human being. Allen uses the comedic framework and Danny Rose’s career to critique show business and a world where nice guys finish last.
Gangster/Bodyguard (“Bullets Over Broadway,” 1994)
Despite “Bullets Over Broadway” revolving around a playwright and his self-proclaimed genius, it is a gangster, named Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), working as actress’ bodyguard, who steals the show. When the production hits a stand still, it is Cheech’s raspy voice that is heard from the depths of the theater. Although he is not properly trained in the arts, he uses common sense and offers blunt critiques of the play’s dialogue. It is a comedic twist that defines the film and it is a refreshing take on the creative process, relative to other Allen films. Allen strays from his norm, as he uses the shock value of the unlikely hero to emphasize the need for street knowledge on top of book knowledge. Allen counters the problems of the playwright, whom is lost in expectations and willing to sacrifice his art for success, with the bodyguard’s solution, which relies on an instinctual approach and a clear vision.
Jazz Guitarist (“Sweet and Lowdown,” 1999)
In “Sweet and Lowdown,” Sean Penn delivers an outstanding performance as Emmet Ray, the second best jazz guitarist in the world. Structured as a fictional docudrama, Penn learned how to play the guitar in order to enhance the film’s authentic look. Sporting a mustache and gypsy garb, the musician has an alcohol problem and runs a prostitution line on the side. Despite negative traits, it’s hard not to pity Ray and his solitude, which stems from a lack of social skills, in both the friend and romance departments. Allen uses the musician’s career and the realistic aesthetic to question what an artist sacrifices in the pursuit of unparalleled talent. The depiction of Emmet Ray reveals that, off of the stage, the guitarist struggles to function and communicate because the only language he speaks is music.
“Vicky Cristina Barcelona” is an example of how Allen develops characters using an urban location that suits his or her specific profession. In tune with Barcelona’s history as a hub of artistic talent, including names like Gaudi, Miro, and Picasso, Javier Bardem plays an abstract painter, Juan Antonio. The plot thickens when rumors of Juan Antonio’s broken marriage and a murder attempt reach the ears of Vicky and Cristina. He eventually seduces the two girls, but their dream of a term abroad takes a nightmarish turn when Antonio’s ex-wife (Penelope Cruz) arrives. She is Antonio’s muse and the source of his painting style. Their relationship is full of intense passion, but with such wild emotion also comes a sadistic side. Allen reveals how life imitates art through the painters’ unconventional relationship whereas their love is as abstract as their paintings.
Screenwriter/Novelist (“Midnight in Paris,” 2011)
With a surplus of interesting writers to choose from, it is the internal turmoil and relevance to the plot that makes Gil’s (Owen Wilson) profession stand out in “Midnight in Paris.” He is a successful yet self-loathing Hollywood screenwriter with aspirations to become a well-known novelist. Gil is on a trip to Paris with his fianceé’s family and every night as the clock strikes twelve he time travels back to the1920’s. He encounters his creative heroes, including artists like Dali, the famous ex-patriot writers, such as Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and he even gets some advice on his work-in-progress from Gertrude Stein. Attempting to write a novel, he attributes his writer’s block to the fact that he was born in the wrong time period. Allen uses the character’s profession as a writer and his desire to be somewhere else as the means of exposing the main underlying issues, in which Gil is hesitant to face his own reality and accept his crumbling relationship.
Aspiring Interior Designer (“Blue Jasmine,” 2013)
In “Blue Jasmine,” Allen takes a different approach on profession. Awarded an Academy Award for Best Actress, Cate Blanchet stars as Jasmine French, whose life as a New York socialite falls to pieces upon the conviction of her money laundering Wall Street husband. Battling the psychological damage from public humiliation and regret with a Xanax diet, she moves to San Francisco to live with her sister. Jasmine hopes to cash in on her good taste and become an interior designer. Serving as a metaphor for Jasmine redecorating herself, Allen highlights the process of getting back on your feet. Jasmine rarely catches a break and her impractical and somewhat pretentious desire to become an interior designer parallels her trauma. Despite progress, the career orient of her recovery emphasizes her inability to escape from her former life and the subsequent memories.
Clairvoyant (“Magic in the Moonlight,” 2014)
“Magic in the Moonlight” is certainly not Allen at his best but nor is it he at his worst. In spirit of her part in the upcoming film, “Irrational Man,” Emma Stone’s entertaining role as a deceiving clairvoyant and mystic, Sophie Baker, is commendable. Set in the beautiful French Riviera, Sophie’s ploy to hoodwink a wealthy American family is interrupted by the cynical and Hudini-esque Stanley Crawford (Collin Firth). A notorious debunker of charlatan spiritualists, Stanley is nearly convinced of Sophie’s authenticity, as she makes a candle magically float over a table. In a textbook Woody Allen film, the romantic comedy features a plot twist. Leveraging Sophie’s profession as a clairvoyant, Allen turns the plot on itself to reveal love as the sole source of magic and enchantment when Stanley falls for Sophie.