There are a few stock criticisms often leveled at a new Woody Allen film: his characters are all neurotic messes; his films are relentlessly white and upper-middle class; when he tries for profundity, he flounders; when he leaves Manhattan, he never achieves anything like the heights of his New York-set stories; his eye for his own approximate generation's foibles and concerns has always been sharper than that for the much younger... the list goes on. But however much you may have your knives out, you just can't accuse Allen of not writing decent roles for women.
A glimpse through his back catalogue proves quite the reverse, in fact. His male characters, whether they're the famous Allen proxy, Allen himself or some other version, may often be central, but it's his women who more often get the startling, attention-grabbing roles, in leads and support. He's a writer-director who clearly loves women and is fascinated by them, but unusually he doesn't let that cloud his ability to write breathing, complex, interesting, fully realized female characters. "Blue Jasmine" (review here), which opens this weekend and is a powerhouse showcase for Cate Blanchett, is the latest in a long line of Allen films to feature a tremendous female performance, which made us think about our other favorites. Through all the peaks and valleys of his career, it's a reminder that he's given us an embarrassment of riches in this regard—here are the premiere female roles that edge slightly above the pack for us.
Marion Post (Gena Rowlands) in "Another Woman" (1988)
Allen's deep love for Ingmar Bergman, and his longing to make a film that achieves the levels of depth he finds in the Swedish master's work, are almost the stuff of cliche by now. But while, like almost everyone else, our hearts belong entirely to his "earlier, funnier" stuff, "Another Woman"—a direct transposition/riff on the story of "Wild Strawberries"—is maybe his best expression of that urge, largely due to an absolutely wonderful turn by Gena Rowlands in what is, especially compared to the wilder work she did with Cassavetes, an impressively controlled and cerebral performance. Marion Post is a philosophy professor in her 50s, widely respected and successful, who one day, through a trick of a ventilation system, begins to overhear the conversations in an adjacent analyst's office. In particular one woman's troubles prompt her to start reevaluating her own life, which leads to some unsettling conclusions about her marriage, her choices, her previously unassailable sense of herself and her place in the world. Rowlands is fantastic, but the role is a pretty audacious one on paper too—how often do we see films entirely devoted to an aging female character coming to the very inward revelation that in favoring smarts over spontaneity, perhaps she robbed herself of passion, and in setting a standard so high for herself, she may have incurred the resentment of those she considered friends? The film is not on par with the Bergman masterpiece it references, occasionally it feels on-the-nose, especially with its often slightly redundant voiceover, but Marion Post is a fantastic melding of actress and role—the kind of symbiosis that means that while we know it was originally intended for Mia Farrow (who, heavily pregnant, took the smaller role of the eavesdroppee instead), we just can't imagine anyone else embodying it so well.
Lee (Barbara Hershey), Holly (Dianne Wiest) and Hannah (Mia Farrow) in "Hannah and Her Sisters" (1986)
Yes, there's really no way around this triple entry, which is one of the many remarkable aspects of Allen's story of three sisters and their respective romantic entanglements—even with a cast so seemingly overpopulated, Allen manages to give time and depth to so many of them. There's a real skill for the skewering detail on display here—the relationship of the aging parents is only glimpsed a few times but is startlingly well-drawn, while Michael Caine's cheating husband, Allen's own comic relief/ hypochondriac ex-husband and Max von Sydow's tortured artist/lover/mentor are all vivid enough to have been the central characters of any film. But in fact that honor goes to Hannah, Lee and Holly and the conflicting currents of jealousy, insecurity and love that flow between all three sisters. Farrow's Hannah is a classic Allen character, the "perfect" one whose perfection alienates others, and it's a strong turn arguably bested by her co-stars. Hershey is great as Lee, the youngest who has a thing for older, teacher-type men, but also embarks on an affair with Hannah's husband, falling in love, we feel, with his infatuation for her rather than with him. And Wiest's Holly is actually the one who the story redeems, as she goes from ex-coke fiend and flighty unsuccessful actress to caterer to successful married writer at the very end. With Carrie Fisher also making an impression as the ultimate frenemy, and the film covering just over two tumultuous years (three Thanksgivings mirroring the three Christmases covered in Bergman's "Fanny and Alexander") the scope is broad and yet Allen keeps every ball in the air, and even within such a rich feast Farrow—and Wiest and Hershey especially—each get to individually shine.
Marcia Fox (Anjelica Huston) in “Manhattan Murder Mystery” (1993)
Diane Keaton and Woody Allen are both great in this film as the bickering couple who haven't so much fallen out of love as forgotten how far in they are, and for us it ranks up there among the director’s very funniest—an especially surprising feat considering it was his first film in the immediate aftermath of his very public and messy breakup from Mia Farrow. As you might imagine, Keaton's part was actually written for Farrow, and Allen has recently said he seriously contemplated offering to his ex-wife, even after the very dramatic and publicized split, but was talked out of the idea. But as good as Keaton is—you'll see our praise for her elsewhere in this list—we wanted to shine a light on some supporting female performances too, and so Anjelica Huston sprang to mind. As Marcia, it’s not a big role—playing the writer who tempts literary agent Larry (Allen), away from his long, comfy marriage—and the hawklike, statuesque Huston makes an odd contrast with the diminutive, nervy director. But it’s a great meeting of minds and cute flirtation springs up based on Huston’s poker chops and her unexpected aptitude for catching a murderer. Perhaps because she’s so much the antithesis of the archetypal dolly bird type that we might imagine an aging man to be tempted to stray with, she makes a well-rounded, surprisingly funny addition to an already sparkling cast. It’s testament to Allen’s unusually thoughtful treatment of women, even in smaller roles, that her eventual pairing off with Alan Alda’s Ted is almost as satisfying as his own lead character’s rediscovery of marital love.
Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) in “Annie Hall” (1977)
Well, really this one’s a no-brainer. Forget Woody Allen films, forget female performances, Diane Keaton’s totally unique embodiment of a role written specifically for, and partially about her, has to rank as simply one of the greatest screen characters of all time. Of course Allen had been in a relationship with Keaton (originally, Diane "Annie" Hall) but here demonstrates the uncanny ability to shape the character inspired by her in an unsentimentalized way—the fondness, and the gentle wonder a lover might have felt at the foibles and quirks of the object of his affection are certainly communicated, but never at the expense of the sense of her as a real person, lived from the inside out. And Keaton slips into the role that fits her like a glove, as fearless about the character’s flaws and idiosyncrasies as Allen was writing them, even those that were directly lifted from her real life habits (if “Lah-di-dah” wasn’t a specific verbal tic of Keaton’s, then her habit of muttering nonsense words when uncomfortable reportedly was). Annie Hall adheres to none of the screenwriting 101 tricks for writing characters, instead it feels like she sprang to life fully formed, and fully embodied by Keaton in such a way that it’s impossible to think of either one without the other, and it's no mean feat that she feels so real, seeing as it's actually Alvy's (Allen) head that we spend the most time in, through voiceover or surreal fourth-wall-breaking. No matter, from her unmistakable and totally individual style (resolutely anti-outrageous but still completely personalised) to the sparky intelligence that flashes through the cracks in her gauche exterior, Annie Hall is a summary lesson that in moviemaking, character isn’t just plot, isn’t just destiny, it’s absolutely everything. And perhaps the greatest miracle of them all is that this bittersweet study of a Manhattan relationship can support all these lofty claims for its greatness, but still flits by with charm and joy and an incredible lightness of touch.