Woody Allen’s Distinctive Female Characters
By DAVE ITZKOFF
NY Times: July 17, 2013
Like many protagonists in Woody Allen’s movies, the title character in his new film, “Blue Jasmine,” sometimes speaks with a familiar stammer and exhibits a telltale existential dread. But beyond that, she could hardly be more different from her creator.
Jasmine, a fallen New York socialite played by Cate Blanchett, is left emotionally brittle by the deceptions of her husband (Alec Baldwin), a philanderer and a financial huckster. Having fled to San Francisco to start anew, she is oblivious to the calamities that have stripped her of her station. She continues to be obsessed with class, status and luxury brands, and knows how to pronounce the name Louis Vuitton for maximum annoyance.
For all the illusions torn away from her by the end of “Blue Jasmine,” a comedy-drama written and directed by Mr. Allen that Sony Pictures Classics will release in New York and Los Angeles on July 26, she stands as his latest distinctive female character in a roster full of them.
In the span of more than 40 of Mr. Allen’s films, including “Annie Hall,” “Hannah and Her Sisters” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” strong and memorable women have become as much a hallmark of his movies as the venerable Windsor font in their credits. These are women who dominate and who are subjugated, who struggle and love and kvetch and fall apart, but they rarely conform to simplistic stereotypes. Jasmine may be deeply troubled, but at least she’s deep.
Yet almost nothing connects these characters — who have been played by actresses including Diane Keaton, Dianne Wiest, Scarlett Johansson and Penélope Cruz — except that they have all sprung from the mind of the same filmmaker, one who professes no real insight into how he writes and casts his female characters but remains confident that he still knows how to create them.
“People have criticized me for being narcissistic,” Mr. Allen said one June afternoon, over iced tea at the Bemelmans Bar of the Carlyle Hotel. “People criticized me for being a self-hating Jew, that’s come up. But not being able to create good women was not aimed at me very often.”
Mr. Allen may not wish to recall it, but his movies have also drawn charges of chauvinism and sexism, by detractors who have said they frequently depicted women as neurotics, shrews and prostitutes.
This chorus reached a climax of sorts in the 1990s, when acerbic films like “Husbands and Wives” and “Deconstructing Harry” were released and he had his notorious breakup with his frequent co-star Mia Farrow, who discovered his relationship with her adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn, now Mr. Allen’s wife.
As the critic Steven Vineberg wrote in a 1998 essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “More and more, ‘Woody’ ” — Mr. Allen’s on-screen persona — “has taken on the uncomfortable role of apologist for Woody, whose woman problems are by now as well known as his movies.”
Still, Mr. Allen has continued to create a steady supply of substantial roles for women, often of ages unrecognized by Hollywood (that is, anyone over 30), with Ms. Blanchett’s potent “Blue Jasmine” performance arriving in the middle of a summer movie season that has been largely devoid of female faces.
For successive generations of actresses, the opportunity to work in one of Mr. Allen’s films has become a kind of career validation. And for Mr. Allen, the phase of his career that began with the 2005 release of “Match Point” has seen him delve into female characters who are further removed from his familiar life experiences, and more interested in finding and asserting their place in the world.
Ms. Johansson, who starred in “Match Point,” “Scoop” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” said in an e-mail that Mr. Allen “appreciates the versatility of the heroine, her ability to be both doe and lioness.”
“His openness to the possibility that a woman can be both hunter and hunted allows him to explore more deeply the complexity of the female spirit,” she said.
Mr. Allen, 77, whose copper-colored hair has mostly gone gray, and whose demeanor was more wistful than impish, could not immediately account for why women figure prominently in his work except that, well, they interest him.
“They’re attractive, they’re complex, and the guys have never been portrayed superior to the women,” he said. “The guys are usually inferior, because they’re less grounded than the women.”
That surely applies to the nebbish Mr. Allen often plays in his own films. But those closest to him say the filmmaker should not be confused with his awkward, unknowing alter ego.
“That’s a role he can play easily,” said Letty Aronson, Mr. Allen’s sister and longtime producer. “It’s almost as if that’s what people expect. They don’t expect him to be a Cary Grant type.”
In fact, Mr. Allen credits his romantic relationship with Ms. Keaton that began in the 1970s with opening his eyes to the potential of female characters.
In his earliest films, Mr. Allen said, “whether it was ‘Bananas’ or ‘Sleeper’ or ‘Play It Again, Sam,’ whatever silly little thing, they were always from a male point of view” — even “Annie Hall,” which begins with Alvy Singer speaking directly to the audience.
But when he started dating Ms. Keaton, Mr. Allen said, “I started to appreciate her so much, personally and as an actress, that I started writing from the woman’s point of view.” In the movies that followed “Annie Hall,” he said, “It’s always more comfortable for me to write women.”
As Ms. Keaton recalled it, their relationship was not unlike “Annie Hall,” with Mr. Allen becoming both her partner and mentor, offering her an attentive ear and introducing her to Freudian analysis.
“I was constantly complaining about things and constantly had this low self-esteem,” Ms. Keaton said, “and had a tendency toward crying and worrying about why I wasn’t good enough, and he took it.”
Not only did Mr. Allen pay attention, Ms. Keaton said, “he took an interest in my family and in my mother, who was a fantastic woman and a complex character, and in my sisters.”
The surest sign that Mr. Allen was listening to her was when she read his script for “Annie Hall” (written with Marshall Brickman) and her character’s voice sounded just like her.
“We can all feel it and understand it,” said Ms. Keaton, who won an Academy Award for her performance, “but we cannot write other people’s sounds.” Mr. Allen, she said, “can hear it — Annie Hall, flumping around, trying to find a sentence, that’s just remarkable what he did for me.”
In the years since, Mr. Allen has had little trouble casting the actresses he has wanted, landing the likes of Geraldine Page, Julia Roberts and Judy Davis, and helping earn Oscars for Ms. Wiest (a two-time winner, for “Hannah and Her Sisters”and “Bullets Over Broadway”), Mira Sorvino (“Mighty Aphrodite”) and Ms. Cruz (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”).
(If anything, Mr. Allen’s practice of paying actors far less than they make on other films has driven away more men than women. “We have no money, and everyone knows it, and they think it’s kind of humorous now,” said Juliet Taylor, Mr. Allen’s veteran casting director. “There are people who have said, ‘I just don’t work for less than my price’ — mostly American male movie stars.”)
Back when she was a casting assistant on “Bananas” in 1971, Ms. Taylor recalled, “when an actress would come in, the producer would talk to them because Woody was too shy.”
Today, “many of his good friends are women,” she said. “He is one of the guys who you can really sit and chat on the phone with for hours.”
This does not mean his alumnae get any special treatment when they work with him in later projects. When Ms. Keaton reunited with Mr. Allen in 1993 for “Manhattan Murder Mystery,” she said he did not hesitate to call her out for struggling with an early scene.
“He said, ‘That scene’s no good,’ ” she recalled. “And I’m going, ‘What am I going to do?’ I’d flown in from California.” After further takes, Ms. Keaton said, “he says, ‘Still no good.’ So finally he cut the scene out. Thank God he didn’t fire me.”
Mr. Allen said that his female characters sometimes spring from his own best guesses of how women might react in certain situations. “Now this does not mean I feel it or think it accurately all the time,” he said. “I don’t.” But in the case of Jasmine, she was inspired by a woman he’d heard about from his wife.
This woman, Mr. Allen said, was “a very high Upper East Side liver” who “had a precipitous drop and had to downsize radically.”
“She went from someone with charge accounts every place and a limitless amount of money, virtually, to someone who had to shop in bargain places and even get a job,” he said.
Sensing the makings of classic tragedy, Mr. Allen said, “if there was some way that she brought it on herself, it could fulfill some of those Greek requirements.”
The Jasmine character may well invite further criticism of Mr. Allen’s perspective on women, and whether there is something antiquated about the idea of a woman whose world is shattered when she loses her money and her man. But Ms. Blanchett said she had known similar people.
“By circumstance or lack of confidence, their identity gets consumed by their partner,” she said. “Before they realize it, they’ve given away a lot of their autonomy and settled for security, and made a series of compromises.”
Though Ms. Blanchett played a similarly lost soul as Blanche DuBois in a heralded stage production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” she said “Blue Jasmine” more immediately reminded her of playing Shakespeare’s Richard II, of “that sense of falling from grace, the delusion, the interface between the role you’re given and the one you’re longing to inhabit.”
Having played the opposite sex in the film “I’m Not There,” Ms. Blanchett said she found a freedom in it that Mr. Allen might also take from writing women’s roles.
“Often you can write more closely about your own perspective and experience of the world through a character of a different gender,” she said.
Ms. Blanchett said she tried to suggest as much to Mr. Allen while working on a scene for “Blue Jasmine.”
“I said, ‘How would you do this, Mr. Allen?’ ” she recalled. “And he said, ‘Well, if I were playing the role, ’ and I turned to him with a backwards grin and said, ‘You know, you could have played this role.’ ”
Mr. Allen paused and thought about it “for a good minute and a half,” Ms. Blanchett said, “and then he said, ‘No, it would have been too comic.’ ”
Mr. Allen, who cast himself as Blanche DuBois and Ms. Keaton as Stanley Kowalski for a comic re-enactment of “A Streetcar Named Desire” in his film “Sleeper,” said that he often yearned to play the kinds of women he writes, who are given license to be “emotional and sarcastic and flamboyant.”
“I always wanted to play those parts,” he said. “I always felt I could play them because I feel those kinds of things.”
Ms. Johansson affirmed that Mr. Allen had a feminine side in him that longed to break out.
“I believe Woody, at heart, would have been happiest to have been born as the classic opera diva,” she said. “He lives for dramatic flare, gossip, intrigue, crippling heartache and turmoil — just as long as it’s happening to someone else.”
But Mr. Allen dolefully accepted his role as an observer of women’s lives rather than an inhabitant. When he made his 1987 drama “September,” he said he wanted to play the role of an audaciously outspoken mother that instead went to Elaine Stritch.
Had he kept the part for himself, “it would have been a one-joke comedy,” Mr. Allen said. “They’d laugh when I came in, and after five minutes of that, they’d want to go.”