Cinema Reservoir
Breaking Cinematic Opinion and Observation

The Overlooked Women of Woody Allen

Woody Allen is probably best known for being one of the greatest writers for women and his leading ladies are always showered with nominations from the Academy, the Golden Globes, even BAFTA.   His three most famous muses are Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow, and as of late Scarlett Johansson.  While they’ve worked most consistently with Allen, it’s his infrequent leading ladies and supporting actresses that have always left stronger impressions on me.  These women are not usually associated as Woody Allen actresses to the casual film goer, but their work with him is career defining.

sorvino cruz

Mira Sorvino as Linda Ash.  .Penelope Cruz as the nightmare ex-wife, Marie Elaina

Take, for example, Mira Sorvino and Penelope Cruz, two freshmen actresses with Allen, both winning the Supporting Actress category.  Both won for portraying extremely flamboyant, yet equally powerful women, Sorvino as a prostitute in Mighty Aphrodite and Cruz for the unstable ex-wife of Javier Bardem in Vicky Cristina Barcelona.  Although they weren’t the main characters  (neither one really even appears in the movie till about the half way point) their performances are what made the films work and certainly what everyone was talking about when they left the theater.  An even more interesting example is Samantha Morton, who plays a mute laundress in Sweet and Lowdown, her suttle smiles and nods and wanton looks earned her her first Oscar nomination without having to say a word.

Washed up actress Helen St. Claire woos John Cusack

Washed up actress Helen Sinclaire woos John Cusack

There are several actresses who appear frequently in Allen’s work, but almost exclusively as supporting characters.  The actress who’s won the most Oscars for doing this would be Dianne Wiest.  Her first Oscar was for playing Holly, one of the titular characters in Hannah and Her Sisters.  Holly is a mess, easily the weakest and most fragile member of her family.  Her confidence shattered by a history of drugs, she is constantly coddled by her sisters, Lee and Hannah.  She unsuccessfully navigates the job market (caterer, actress, singer) and the book she happily finishes offends her sisters.  Her optimism pays off in the end with a hit stageplay and  husband.  Wiest’s other Oscar was for the Norma Desmond-esque Helen Sinclaire from Bullets Over Broadway.  Helen isn’t an especially deep character, but Wiest steals every scene she’s in as the narcissistic has-been lush. ( Jennifer Tilly was also nominated for that film as  Olive, the no talent mafia gun moll required to be in the play within the movie.)  Dianne Wiest also also appeared in The Purple Rose of Cairo, Radio Days, and September.  In those, she plays mostly a lonely type, recently hurt and looking for love in all the wrong places.

Lucy (Davis) verbally, then physically, assaults Woody Allen

Lucy (Davis) verbally, then physically, assaults Woody Allen

Probably my favorite actress to appear in Allen’s work is Judy Davis.  She has a small role in Alice, as Joe Mantegna’s ex-wife, but really takes off with her strong supporting roles in Husbands and Wives, Celebrity, and Deconstructing Harry.  She pretty much acts as the complete female equivalent to Woody Allen’s hyper neurotic self obsessed character.  There’s a great scene in Deconstructing Harry where she storms into Woody Allen’s appartment and lets fly a hilarious  series of profanity laden insults.  It’s a really funny scene, but it’s pretty much the first time we meet Woody Allen’s character, so Judy Davis’ intense rampage lays the groundwork for how we expect others in the film to think about the Allen role.  In Celebrity, Davis plays Robin, a meek teacher when her husband leaves her in the beginning of the film.  The separation triggers a Fellinni-esque journey for both Robin and her husband (played by Kenneth Branagh)  through the web of celebrity wierdos in New York, Robin inevitably ending up stronger than her fame chasing husband could ever hope to be.  Husbands and Wives finds Davis playing pretty much the same neurotic character she plays in all Woody Allen’s work.  Davis is Sally, a woman who makes a deal with her husband (Sidney Pollock) to get divorced, both thinking they will prefer living different lives, an idea that disturbs and secretly intrigues their married friends (Mia Farrow and Allen).  The film more or less splits into two films at this point, a comedy and a drama, the husbands’ adventures play as the comedy while the wive’s section is the more dramatic, as the decisions are essentially left for them to decide.

Dianne Wiest and Judy Davis play two important female types essential to the Woody Allen universe, where women usually hold all the cards, playing the game for the men.  Allen’s world holds basically two types of male characters:  the Woody Allen model (the schlemiel, I’ve heard it called) and the guilt ridden murderer (e.g. Martin Landau in Crimes and Misdemeanors, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers in Match Point) which makes you realize how diverse the women characters get.  Wiest and Davis act out very different characters than Farrow or Keaton.  Farrow the mousy woman who longs for change but doesn’t know it, Keaton the cooky woman who leaves an everlasting imprint on the schlemiel.

Ullman plays Frenchy, desperately trying to give herself some class

Ullman plays Frenchy, desperately trying to give herself some class

In the late nineties, Woody Allen made Small Time Crooks, where he is a recently parolled, extremely inept thief.  His wife, Frenchy (played by Tracey Ullman), reluctantly goes along with his scheme to tunnel into a bank from thier front business as a cookie store.  Ullman plays yet another different type of woman.  As the cookies become more profitable than the bank robbery, the tide of power shifts and she becomes the money maker which awakens an unexpected urge in her to pair her new riches with cultivation.  Ullman is the most respected comedienne in Europe and in Small Time Crooks we are treated not only to her performance, but also a rare performance by Elaine May, best known as the other half of Mike Nichols.  While Elaine May doesn’t have many scenes to work with, she really comes off as a fascinating side character- Frenchy’s cousin who’s too brain dead to realize that Woody Allen is drilling tunnels in the basement of the cookie store.

While none of these women were ever considered Allen’s muse, they make up probably the largest section of great characters he’s created.  His famous muses seem to get stuck playing the same type of character over and over again, pretty much leaving it to these supporting actresses to explore the fertile soil of a Woody Allen script, drawing out a (sometimes) more memorable role than that of the main characters.


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