In the last of our Woody Allen features this week we’re focusing on the element of the director’s work which stays longest with us. While the roundabout of New York neuroses and existential angst allows for a general framework on which to build your scene, it is the voices Allen puts into those scenes which endure.
A new cast announcement for a Woody Allen film is like a fantasy film actors scorecard. For years now it has been a common notion that any actor would want to work with the director, almost as a rite of passage and this video gallery gives an indication of the variety of characters in Allen’s films.
Certainly his use of the ensemble cast has rarely been bettered, with even the throwaway characters, there for a punchline, are given great dialogue. Here are some of his best.
Dick Christie – Play it Again, Sam
Roberts crops up in a number of Woody Allen films, usually as the more experienced and emotionally settled straight man to Allen’s manic storm of neuroses. Physically they make for a great pair, and while he’s more well known for his role in Annie Hall it’s in Play it Again, Sam that the dynamic between the two pays off the best.
That Roberts is always giving someone on the phone his exact whereabouts (and phone numbers to call him at, should an emergency arrive) becomes endearing rather than annoying is tribute to Roberts’ likability and Allen’s canny use of the absurd to make the wife-stealing narrative all the more tragic.
Miles Monroe – Sleeper
One of Allen’s finest examples of the earlier, funny films is a play on When the Sleeper Wakes and in Miles Monroe the writer/director pulls off one of the most pathetic revolutionary heroes of all time. Despite the Utopian ideals of safe streets, robot servants and orgasmatrons in every homes all is not well and Miles Monroe’s awakening spurs a swell in an underground rebellion.
This stranger in a strange land tale is a masterpiece of slapstick and parody. As with all good science fiction Sleeper take a sideways swipe at contemporary idiocies, and there’s a fair amount of shuddering in the fourth wall in many of Allen’s early scenes. Certainly the nuance of his later films is missing, the satire is sledgehammer subtle. But his turn as the reluctant protagonist, hell bent on staying out of trouble no matter what the cost makes Sleeper a hit in any time.
Judah Rosenthal – Crimes and Misdemeanors
The complex machinations of a mind turning to murder is a theme common to some of the best of Allen’s output. It’s a melodramatic conceit that a swift killing may solve one problem but cause many more, but in films such as Crimes and Misdemanours and Match Point it is an erosive act, a black hole from which very little escapes.
Martin Landau’s performance in Allen’s 1989 was a high water mark for both actor and director, whose bleakly serious September and Another Woman preceded this exceptional film. Landau’s ability to twist and turn in the cage of his own moral dilemma gave a gravitas which anchors the film, and gives its final act a dreadful sense of inevitability.
Helen Sinclair – Bullets over Broadway
It’s one of two Oscar-winning performance for Wiest directed by Allen, and the gin-soaked legendary actress around whom a fledgling playwright’s debut show is built is easily one of the most memorable characters of Allen’s.
The scene above is one which is just too good to pass up, and as well as being very silly and played brilliantly by both Wiest and Cusack, shows off a disarming vulnerability to the character. It is her complete denial that is her downfall, ‘don’t speak’ she repeats, don’t break her spell.
Annie Hall – Annie Hall
An obvious choice perhaps, but a worthy one. Diane Keaton’s performance in Allen’s masterpiece is still one of the best examples of a character leaping off of the page and coming to full luminous light in the hands of the perfect actress. It’s so easy to see why Allen’s Alvy Singer fell for Annie Hall who, almost forty years on, is as vibrant and vivid as ever.
Also, bringing up Annie Hall allows me to watch this clip again, and it’s still as great as it ever was.
Jeanette “Jasmine” Francis – Blue Jasmine
The most recent Oscar-winner from Allen’s films was well earned by Cate Blanchett in her role as a riches to rags socialite, spiraling out of control and adrift in a world the rest of us take for granted.
Many of Allen’s most enduring and true characters are out of their depth. As Blanchett’s Jasmine holds onto her own sense of identity while all around conspires to make her wake up and find solid ground it is Sally Hawkins’ Ginger (Jasmine’s sister) who provides a healthy dose of reality. As before, most of Allen’s greatest characters have a mirror, the confident to the nervous; where Ginger has a sensible head on her shoulders, Jasmine cannot bear to keep her feet on the ground. The juxtaposition of the two opposites plays out in many of Allen’s films, but rarely so well executed as here.
This scene above is the clearest example of why the Academy gave Blanchett the award. The deep-seated values, so inherent and damaging to her character are laid bare in a brutal unmasking of a woman who cannot admit that everything has changed, and that there is no going back.
New York – Multiple
A final hurrah for Allen’s muse, the one character he has always returned to. No-one creates a scene like this without being in love with all his heart.