Say what you will about Woody Allen, the man knows how to direct women. Or maybe his casting director just hires the right actresses for the part. Regardless, an actress in one of his films is at least guaranteed an interesting role and, a lot of times, an Academy Award nomination. Here are my favorites from among the women in Woody Allen’s films:
Diane Keaton was in eight of his films and really owes her career to him. She started with him on stage in Play It Again, Sam and then did the 1972 movie version of Allen’s comedic homage to Humphrey Bogart and Casablanca. Next, she was the loopy Luna in the futuristic Sleeper (at one point doing a wickedly funny Brando impersonation), Sonja in Love and Death, and then the title character in Best Picture Oscar-winner Annie Hall ,where most of America fell in love with her stammering wackiness and eclectic wardrobe (Allen has perfectly described her acting as a ”nervous breakdown in motion”). That role earned her an Academy Award for Best Actress. She also reintroduced the phrase “La-De-Da” back into the lexicon. In the filmed-in-black-and-white Manhattan it’s off-putting that Allen and Keaton don’t like each other when they first meet (because they were just so perfect together, at least for a while, in Annie Hall). They do eventually become involved in this still-contemporary look at relationships in the Big Apple. It’s interesting to note that the most maturely written character in the film is the 17- year-old Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), who was nominated for aBest Supporting Actress Oscar for her role. And Meryl Streep has a great turn as Allen’s venemous lesbian ex-wife.
You would never think comedy and pick the ethereal Mia Farrow as your go-to girl. But as the record holder among Allen’s female leads (she made appearances in 13 of his movies), Farrow proved again and again what a fine comedienne she is. Some people complained that after a while Farrow was just playing the Woody Allen character, but I disagree. Her first film for Allen was A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy, a light 1981 romp for which Farrow was nominated for a Razzie Award for Worst Actress (rather unfairly, I’d say). She then made the mockumentary Zelig with him, but it is in 1984’s Broadway Danny Rose where she really shines. She is laugh-out-loud funny as Tina, the extremely blunt mobster moll in the hilarious and underrated film. Sporting a bouiffant hair-do and a Brooklyn accent, Farrow completely obliterates any traces of her previous screen incarnations. In 1990’s Alice (another overlooked gem), Farrow’s delivery itself is child-like and her naiveté is almost heartbreaking as she navigates the class treachery of Upper West Side Mahattan society. She underplays brilliantly. And in scenes with Joe Mantegna when under the influence of Dr. Yang’s (Keye Luke) special herbs, her new found sexiness is fun to watch.
In The Purple Rose of Cairo (Allen’s best film in my opinion), Farrow plays Cecilia, a Depression-era waitress with an abusive husband (Danny Aiello) who escapes to the movies on a daily basis. One day a character named Tom Baxter (Jeff Daniels) comes down from the screen after noticing Cecilia in the audience yet again. And as Cecilia recounts it “I met a wonderful new man. He’s fictional, but you can’t have everything.” Tom professes his love for her and as they say, hi-jinks ensue. Farrow is wonderful in the role. And in the very last scene of the film everything she is feeling is expressed on her face without a word of dialogue. Dianne Wiest makes her first appearance in an Allen film playing Emma, a prostitute who encounters Tom and who is so enamored of him, she brings him back to the whorehouse where all the girls offer him a freebie. She only has a few scenes in the film but she definitely makes an impression.
Both Farrow and Weist returned in 1986’s acclaimed Hannah and Her Sisters, with Barbara Hershey joining the pair as the middle sibling. Weist’s Holly is a bit of a mess: an actress/singer/caterer and former recreational drug user. It’s amusing just to watch Allen’s reaction to her coke snorting. Wiest’s reading of Allen’s dialogue is flawless. She is a subtle comedienne but she always elicits the laugh. Holly falls for an architect played by Sam Waterston and finds herself in a rivalry with her catering partner April, played by Carrie Fisher. And she has an amusing inner dialogue about the situation (“I hate April, she’s pushy…”) where her comedy chops really shine. She won her first Academy Award for the role. Farrow is incandescant as Hannah, the reliable anchor that holds the family together. Hannah’s husband Elliot (Michael Caine) is in love with Hannah’s other sister Lee (Hershey), who lives with a gloomy older artist named Frederick (Max Von Sydow). Von Sydow gets one of the best monologues in the film as he tirades against the state of society and television: “You see the whole culture…Nazis, deodarant salesman…beauty contests, the talk show…Can you imagine the level of a mind that watches wrestling?”
Allen himself narrates Radio Days, his 1987 homage to the golden age of radio that focuses on one Rockaway Beach Jewish family. Julie Kavner is the matriarch of the family and Wiest plays the unlucky-in-love Aunt Bea. Kavner who has been in seven Allen films, really shines here. Farrow tackles another accent, doing her best Jean Hagen Singin’ in the Rain voice playing a nightclub cigarette girl with big ambitions. After taking elocution lessons (“Hark, I hear the cannons roar. Is it the king approaching?”) she turns into a radio personality spewing mellifluous tones. Once again, Farrow just nails it. Even Diane Keaton makes a cameo in one scene, as a singer performing at a USO show. It’s a sweet nostalgic film with a fine supporting cast; look for Mercedes Ruehl and Larry David in tiny roles.
In 1994’s Bullets Over Broadway, Wiest plays a great lady of the Roaring ’20s “thee-ah-tah” named Helen Sinclair, who agrees to star in a new play by struggling writer David Shayne (John Cusack) with the hopes of beefing her part up. Also in the play is Olive (Jennifer Tilly), a mobster’s moll and incredibly BAD actress whose gun-happy boyfriend (Chazz Palmintieri) is bankrolling the endeavor specifically for her. Wiest puts on an affected voice to great effect. Her signature line is “Don’t speak!,” and each time she says it, it gets funnier. Both women were nominated for Oscars, with Wiest winning her second golden man.
Some actresses haven’t fared as well in a Woody film: Christina Ricci in Anything Else, Radha Mitchell in Melinda and Melinda, and Tea Leoni in the wretched Hollywood Ending (She is a fine comedienne, though; just watch Flirting with Disaster). Judy Davis did well by Allen in Alice, Deconstructing Harry, Celebrity and especially in 1992’s Husbands and Wives (which earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination). Scarlett Johansson had good roles in Match Point and Vicki Christina Barcelona, and a not-so-good one in the not-so-good Scoop, while her Vicki Christina Barcelona co-star Penelope Cruz won an Oscar for her portrayal of Javier Bardem’s fiery ex-wife. Patricia Clarkson brought her numerous gifts to Vicki as well, and she was the best thing in Whatever Works, playing a Christian woman who comes to New York to rescue her daughter from the city’s depravity and winds up in a menage a trois. Let’s hope they work together again. An Academy Award also came Mira Sorvino’s way for her 1995 turn as a dim prostitute in Mighty Aphrodite. The underrated Anjelica Huston graced Crimes and Misdemeanors and Manhattan Murder Mystery to good effect. And comedy legend Elaine May was perfect in Small Time Crooks.
For some reason, men don’t have the same luck receiving awards in Allen films. Michael Caine won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Hannah and Her Sisters, but Martin Landau (Crimes and Misdemeanors) Chazz Palminteri (Bullets Over Broadway) and Sean Penn (Sweet and Lowdown) lost in their respective bids for the golden statuette.
Allen’s latest film, the just-opened You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, is garnering mixed reviews. However, Gemma Jones and Pauline Collins (Shirley Valentine) who star in it, have received excellent reviews. Once again, Woody’s winning way with women works.
Editor’s note: Since this article was first published, Allen has made five more films, with 2013’s Blue Jasmine earning a Best Actress Academy Award for Cate Blanchett and a Best Supporting Actress nomination for co-star Sally Hawkins (who appeared in Allen’s 2007 effort Cassandra’s Dream). Two of Woody’s other works, 2011’s Midnight in Paris and 2014’s Magic in the Moonlight, were nominated by the Alliance of Women Film Journalists for their Most Egregious Age Difference Between the Leading Man and the Love Interest “award.”