There are two enduring cliches that appear in reviews of Woody’s output.
The first has peppered critique at various points over the past twenty years: “a return to form”.
Its a back-handed complement that acknowledges that Woody has produced great work, but not all of his films reach the levels of his earlier output. It’s a lazy term. Even in his most patchy periods there is usually something of merit within the films (CASSANDRA’S DREAM is a possible exception).
The ‘return to form’ myth has been trotted out recently in response to BLUE JASMINE, his latest film, starring Cate Blanchett as a socialite who has fallen on hard times. Critics have have been very warm towards the film, particularly Blanchett’s mesmerising performance that channels Blanche DiBois in a depiction of a woman who is breaking down under the weight of her own delusions.
Another assertion frequently used in reviews for the film is the well-worn idea that he “writes wonderful roles for women”. He certainly has a track record of creating films that feature female relationships, such as HANNAH AND HER SISTERS and films where women are in the starring role, films like MELINDA, MELINDA that show a great deal of sensitivity towards women.
In interviews, he has credited Diane Keaton with helping him understand the perspective of women. She was responsible for encouraging him to use female voices to avoid the machismo associated with male leads, so that he could explore the areas of life that he is interested in: humility, how the id and the ego interact and the futility of petty emotions in the face of human suffering.
I’m not so sure that he is that great at writing roles for women. I think there is a tendency of over-praising him because there are so few leading roles available for female actors. At least he is a high-profile American auteur who is able to have a female lead. What is more, he also has revived the careers of women in their ‘mature’ years. However, he has a tendency to draw female characters broadly, fitting them into archetypes. The films that I have included below have some of his staple female caricatures.
The happy hooker. The neurotic artist. The ingenue. The trapped housewife. The cruel, deluded socialite. They are all characters that you can spot in many of his movies. Of course, the same could be said for the male characters that he writes, however I think his talent lies in his ability to direct women. He is generous in allowing them to find the character themselves, allowing them to change dialogue, inflection and the intensity of scenes depending upon their instinct. I suspect (this is me being very generalist) that women respond better to this approach than men. Diane Keaton gives a very indulgent and compelling performance in INTERIORS, I don’t think anyone else would have let her go with it. Miro Sorvino came up with a voice that I’m sure many directors would have lost patience with after the first week of shooting. The power of Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine is in her immersive, exhausting performance, not within Allen’s hackneyed words.
Woody may not “write wonderful roles for women”, but he does have a remarkable understanding of how to get the best work from female actors.
This is the one that was a Bergmanesque statement of intent that startled contemporary audiences with its earnestness. Three sisters are thrown together and thrown apart when their father separates from their mother. Geraldine Page plays the mother with a stoical grace that holds the films together until her tragic demise. She’s an interior designer, which is a metaphorical occupation that Woody has returned to in BLUE JASMINE.
THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985)
This is the film that Woody often cites as a personal favourite. He says that the final film most closely resembled his original conception than any other. Its loosely based on a scene in Buster Keaton’s SHERLOCK Jr. (1924) which featured a similar scene where the characters of a film break the forth wall to interact with the audience.
Mia Farrow is at her most down-trodden as a house-wife in an abusive relationship with an Italian-American (Woody’s ethnic short-hand for brainless thuggery) who finds metaphorical escape at the movies. The metaphor becomes reality and the escape becomes a complicated reflection on cinema’s role in escapism and a distraction from the absurdity of existence.
MIGHTY APHRODITE (1995)
There is enough distance from Mia Farrow’s child-abuse allegations to feel a bit more comfortable with the peculiar scenes where Woody tries interact with his young, talented adopted son. There’ll never be enough distance to appreciate him smooching with the squeaky-voiced Mira Sorvino. It’s creepy on so many levels that it’s a wonder that he was ever allowed to make a film ever again, never mind Sorvino winning an Oscar for it!
It’s the one film in his output that I like to ignore; not even a comedy, broadway floor-show, Greek chorus can redeem it.
ANYTHING ELSE (2003)
One of Tarrantino’s ‘Films of The Decade’. In some ways, this is a version of ANNIE HALL-lite as Jason Biggs is the central character who falls in and out of love with Christina Ricci in New York City and the story slips in an out of time to tell their story.
Woody appears as a man in the park who gives Biggs tips on how to manage his love-life. There’s a hint that he is living his relationship vicariously.
Remember … Tarrantino is not the best person when it comes to recommendations.
BLUE JASMINE (2013)
OK. Let me get the things out of the way that everyone is saying: Cate Blanchett is extraordinary as Jasmine (not) coping with her fall from grace at the hands of fraudster husband Alec Baldwin; Sally Hawkins is captivating as her sister Ginger who is Woody’s version of the noble-working class; the direction is masterly too, wandering from the past to the present and back again seamlessly.
I have a nagging problem with the film that was difficult to shake off when I saw it at the exclusive Dirk Malcolm screening last month. It’s related to Woody’s understanding of the internet age. We are asked to believe that this New York socialite, who is adept at her smartphone, is unable to complete an online course on interior decorating until she has completed an 1980s-style night-school on ‘computers’.
If that’s not bad enough, her new love of her life, ‘Dwight’ has not done a cyber-stalk google search to discover her high-profile secret.
It’s good, but it would have been better if it was set in 1996!