She plays Jill, the doting overachiever bewitched by Joaquin Phoenix as a philosophy professor with a PhD in misanthropy and a sagging beer belly. His existential crisis leads to another entanglement, with Parker Posey as a colleague bored in her marriage. Stone’s character is way too young for Phoenix, who manages to transcend the Woody Allen stand-in character he has previously written for actors ranging from John Cusack (perhaps the best) and Jason Biggs (definitely the worst).
Stone’s committed performance, however, with the wide-eyed mischief of a silent film star, makes Jill much more than a dithering yo-yo. Jill gets to have more depth and agency than this character is usually assigned, from Juliette Lewis’ frisky student in “Husbands and Wives” to Mariel Hemingway’s honey-faced teen in “Manhattan.”
Allen does best with women when he hires them and then gets out of the way, as he did for Cate Blanchett. When he can get such a fiercely commanding screen actress, along the lines of Judy Davis and Dianne Wiest in Allen’s late-80s and early-90s masterpieces, his female protags have real three-dimensional textures. But it’s not always the case.
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Let’s consider the nine types of women you’re bound to encounter in his oeuvre.
1. The Lovable Klutz
Who: Mira Sorvino (“Mighty Aphrodite”), Diane Keaton (“Annie Hall”), Mia Farrow (“The Purple Rose of Cairo”)
Hobbies include: Casual drug use, sexual dysfunction, tennis, flittering about.
40 years later, Annie Hall is our ultimate manic pixie dream girl. She wears funky hats and ties, and keeps half-eaten sandwiches in the glovebox of the convertible she can barely drive. She calls stuff “neat.” She’s adorable! Allen never quite wrote a klutz as lovable as Annie again, though a few share her delightfully loosey-goosey je-ne-sais-quoi, including Mira Sorvino’s Oscar-winning hooker in “Mighty Aphrodite,” the R-rated, unapologetically foulmouthed iteration of Woody Allen’s screwball heroines.
2. The Brainy Over-Analyzer
Who: Judy Davis (“Husbands and Wives”), Diane Keaton (“Manhattan”)
Hobbies and hangups include: fretting, impulsive decision-making, and late night telephone calls to their psychoanalysts, with whom they’re on a first-name basis.
The brainy over-analyzer is a loose cannon of neuroses. She’s career-driven, but self-involved, and painfully aware of her own reflection. Her most lasting relationship is with her analyst. She lives inside her head. She has frizzy hair. Because of all that brain activity and over-thinking.
Take Judy Davis’ manic-obsessive in “Husbands and Wives,” the wine-swilling ex of Sydney Pollock, who leaves her for a simpleton prostitute. Or Diane Keaton’s Mary Wilkie in “Manhattan,” a romantically wishy-washy writer with a Dachshund “penis substitute,” plenty of brains and beauty. She loves the “marvelous negative capability” of Cubist art. She hates Bergman and feeds on difficulties, which excites Allen’s hack writer Isaac. But for all their easily identifiable qualities, these are among Woody Allen’s most memorable women.
3. The Eagerly Doting Protégé
Who: Juliette Lewis (“Husbands and Wives”), Emma Stone (“Irrational Man”), Mariel Hemingway (“Manhattan”), Evan Rachel Wood (“Whatever Works”)
Hobbies include: Homework, benign mischief-making.
These free-spirits enjoy starting a middle-aged man’s car. They offer vague, frivolous escape from an existentially troubled man’s humdrum present, and their narrow interior lives are usually limited exclusively to thoughts about said man. What draws Allen’s young women out of the prime of life and to such schmucks? The May-December pairing of Evan Rachel Wood (as a homeless Southern belle) and Larry David (as Woody Allen) in “Whatever Works,” one of Allen’s weakest pictures, is gross and best forgotten. But Allen has real screen chemistry with 17-year-old high schooler Tracy (Mariel Hemingway) in “Manhattan” — but things got creepy offscreen, when the age gap didn’t stop the writer/director from allegedly coming onto his actress, who was Oscar-nominated for this role. Allen’s not the only artist with a thing for younger women (see Roman Polanski and J.D. Salinger).
4. The Psycho
Who: Scarlett Johansson (“Match Point”), Penelope Cruz (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”), Anjelica Huston (“Crimes and Misdemeanors”)
Hobbies include: Harvesting male souls, gymnastic sexual technique.
The Woody Allen Psycho is often a mistress who needs to be “taken care of,” with Scarlett Johansson’s hysterical succubus in “Match Point” being a notable favorite. She’s essentially a buxomer update of Anjelica Huston in “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” which “Match Point” nearly remakes word-for-word — even the Dostoevskian overtones remain intact. These exotic Other Women attract and allure, like a venus fly trap, an affluently married man type, before they turn into crazy nagging shrews. But the Psycho can also be sympathetic. Among the clutch of wily and intoxicating women in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” Penelope Cruz stands out as the vengeful ex-wife of Javier Bardem.
5. The Unattainably Complicated Beauty
Who: Charlotte Rampling (“Stardust Memories”), Scarlett Johansson (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona), Barbara Hershey (“Hannah and Her Sisters”), Mia Farrow (“Crimes and Misdemeanors”)
Hobbies include: Proust, picnics, doomed affairs.
These women are puzzles to be solved. Often volatile and beautiful, the Complicated Beauty has a mind of her own, which can be a problem for the men in her life. Charlotte Rampling’s Dorrie in the underrated comedy of self-reflection “Stardust Memories” (1980) plays Allen’s ex-girlfriend, an intense, emotional wild card who the director frames in disjunctive cuts and unflattering black-and-white closeups. Rarely do these women get top billing, but in “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” Scarlett Johansson’s Cristina meanders through a string of failed romantic encounters, including Javier Bardem’s swarthy macho painter, while pondering her own ambitions. She has the artistic temperament, but is not an artist. This complicated beauty is unsure of what she wants.
6. The Oblivious Wife
Who: Emily Mortimer (“Match Point”), Mia Farrow (“Husbands and Wives,” “Hannah and Her Sisters”), Geraldine Page (“Interiors”), Rachel McAdams (“Midnight in Paris”)
Hobbies and hangups include: Denial.
Wives in the films of Woody Allen are either extraneous third wheels who need to be cast off, or the albatross to some very important man’s journey to self-discovery. Geraldine Page was Oscar-nominated as a newly spinstered matriarch with OCD who sinks into despair when her husband (EG Marshall) leaves her for another woman (a vulgar dilettante played by Maureen Stapleton). This is Allen’s most complex portrait of a wife, but she’s too Bergman-bleak to feel like more than a caricature. Since then, we mostly get wives who live in a cloud of oblivion while their husbands diddle around and try to find themselves. Pity Emily Mortimer in “Match Point,” the most thankless of all Allen’s recent women roles. In retrospect, his perennial casting of Mia Farrow in the role of whiny wife (often opposite Allen as the husband character) is all too meta. Typically she plays a character begging to have a child.
7. The Self-Medicating Trainwreck
Who: Cate Blanchett (“Blue Jasmine”), Dianne Wiest (“Hannah and Her Sisters”), Christina Ricci (“Anything Else”)
Hobbies: panic attacks, nervous breakdowns, tragic dinner dates, financial ruin, delusions of grandeur, mental illness.
Cate Blanchett delivers a history-making turn as Allen’s modern-day Blanche Dubois. She doesn’t just chew her scenes; she tears down the walls. Allen also directed another fine actress, Dianne Wiest, all the way to two Oscars for playing melodramatic drama queens in “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Bullets Over Broadway.” Like Blanchett, Wiest gets Allen’s juiciest female roles, playing a third wheel of unfulfilled potential in “Hannah.” Costumed in asphyxiating belts and narrow shoulder-pads, she’s an uptight, complicated cookie who takes to the bottle and to drugs while waiting for the person she’s supposed to be to happen. She gets a happy ending but, like Jasmine, she’s one of Allen’s most tragic characters.
8. The Restless Floozy Who Throws Herself at a Man
Who: Parker Posey (“Irrational Man”)
Hobbies: Drinking, flirting and cigarette twirling.
In a recent interview, Posey expressed being “bitter about not being in a Woody Allen movie for a really long time.” She also remarked that no one writes roles for women like Woody Allen. So what a shame that all he could offer this very fine character actress is this sorry supporting role, which is really a collection of bits of other Allen femmes. But she steals every scene she’s in, portraying a chatty colleague of Joaquin Phoenix’s sad sack philosopher who’s obsessed with him, desperately looking for a way out of a dead-end marriage. She’s confident, but restless, and wields her sexuality as a tool—so why can’t Allen give her more to do?
9. The Liv Ullmann Understudy
Who: Gena Rowlands (“Another Woman”), Mia Farrow (“September”)
Hobbies include: hand-wringing, self-doubt, pacing delicately lit corridors, facing the void with grim determination.
Today, Allen’s most obvious Bergman ripoff “Interiors” plays like a parody. His subtler Bergman homage is “Another Woman,” a marriage of “Wild Strawberries” and “Persona” lensed by Bergman’s ace DP Sven Nykvist. Why didn’t Allen pair off with Gena Rowlands again? She’s brilliant as a philosophy professor who overhears another woman’s (Mia Farrow) therapy sessions through the floorboards of her Manhattan loft. Allen never did collaborate with Bergman’s muse Liv Ullmann, but a few of his actresses recreate her particular ethereal spell, including Rowlands and also Farrow, who suffers a nervous breakdown (a la pretty much any early Ullmann performance in a Bergman film) in 1987 chamber drama “September.”