Deconstructing Harry (1997)
The central character of Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry (1997) is Harry Block (Allen), a writer beset by addiction, depression, and writer’s block. As he prepares to return to his University in order to receive a writing award, Harry revisits the real and fictional characters that inhabit his world, and finds the line between them to be blurred. A darkly comic expedition into Ingmar Bergman territory, Deconstructing Harry is possibly Allen’s most acerbic comedy, and—like his Crimes and Misdemeanors and more “serious” Match Point—exposes the consequences of selfishness and romantic dysfunction.
It’s possible to see Allen’s own well-documented trials and troubles in the character of Harry, but there is ultimately little worth in trying to make such connections. The film’s interior reality is already full to the brim with supporting characters and their thinly veiled surrogates in Harry’s stories, and the film thrives off of creative interplay between genuine and imagined events (the outer story and the stories within). Early in, Harry’s therapist tells him, “You expect the world to adjust to the distortion you’ve become.” Harry’s own identity is hopelessly fractured. What invigorates the film is the way in which the women in his life defend themselves against the distorted figures they, too, have become (in his writing and against their will).
While there are several formidable female foils in Deconstructing Harry, including wild, gun-toting Lucy (Judy Davis) and a devoutly religious yet acid-tongued Doris (Caroline Aaron), none has a more powerful effect than Alley’s Joan. To characterize Joan as simply a woman scorned would be a disservice to the range of notes Alley finds for Joan’s fury.
Joan, a therapist, is Harry’s ex-wife and the mother of his son. Though they spar briefly within the present-day plot, the centerpiece of Alley’s performance is a flashback to the day Joan confronted Harry for cheating on her with one of her patients. As Joan unleashes questions on Harry, Alley physically dominates Allen, moving through the apartment like a slow-rolling storm. In the sequence, she goes from anger to despair to total incredulity in the face of his rationalizing. Although the film often jump-cuts to enhance conflict and spontaneity, the technique is largely ineffective in this sequence, because Alley has such a firm hold on the emotional and physical transitions that Joan experiences in quick succession.
The crucial turning point of the sequence is the arrival of Joan’s patient, Mr. Farber (Howard Spiegel). He walks through the door while Joan throttles Harry. For the audience and characters, this is an unexpected development, and it moves Joan to suppress her outpouring. However, given what we’ve seen prior to Mr. Farber’s entrance, this is certain to be only a temporary suspension of the dispute. Joan cannot leave her argument with Harry unresolved, and during the session with Mr. Farber, Alley is just as effective at conveying her quiet rage as she is at shouting down Harry with obscenities. The subsequent alteration between bottled-up wrath and full-tilt verbal assault is Alley’s masterstroke. Joan interrupts the therapy to kick Harry out of the apartment, and poor Mr. Farber is reduced to tears by the dissonance.
The heightened pitch of Alley’s performance is common in comedies of this sort, yet the complexity of her grief is comparable to dramatic touchstones like Miranda Richardson’s breakdown in Damage or more recently, Kristin Scott Thomas’ catharsis in I’ve Loved You So Long. That Alley’s very funny, deadly serious turn in Deconstructing Harry remains more or less unsung is evidence that great acting in comedies often goes unrecognized by critics, even when Woody Allen is at the helm.
In the context of her total body of work, Alley’s activity in the late-‘90s was a potential springboard for her film career. However, the fruits of that promise never fully materialized. She is still rightly recognized for her many years of acting in television and has found some success with recent series Fat Actress and reality show Kirstie Alley’s Big Life. Yet to review Deconstructing Harry and Drop Dead Gorgeous (1999), another dark comedy with a wonderful ensemble cast, is to witness the scene-stealing power of her talent. If there is truth in the widespread observation that Hollywood does not know what to do with actresses of a certain age, then that might partially explain why Alley does not appear in more movies. Regardless, it is doubtful that many of today’s younger leading ladies could go toe-to-toe with an actress so commanding. As Joan, perhaps Alley was too convincingly furious.
Anything Else (2003)
Although Channing’s role as Paula—Mrs. Chase, if you’re nasty—in Woody Allen’s Anything Else (2003) is a small one, it’s an important one which serves as the catalyst for the actions and reactions of many of the film’s characters.
Paula doesn’t so much breeze onto the screen as she blows through it like a gale force wind. The mother of Christina Ricci’s neurotic, hard-to-please Amanda, Paula goes through yet another mid-life crisis, requiring her to move with Amanda and her boyfriend Jerry (Jason Biggs) into their already-cramped apartment. She instantly makes herself at home, bringing all sorts of tchotchkes into the small space and eventually, a large piano she intends to use to practice for her new nightclub act.
Mother and daughter form a tandem in trying to guilt and browbeat Jerry, a young, aspiring comedy writer, into penning between-song banter for Paula’s newly-revived cabaret “career”. Whereas her daughter is whiny and passive-aggressive in her demands, Paula is utterly shameless as to what she expects from others. It’s not hard to see where Amanda picked up some of her more demanding traits, although she’s more subtle in her approach. Paula, on the other hand, has no boundaries whatsoever. Upon discovering that Jerry has purchased a gun for protection, Paula loudly protests that she refuses to live in a house with a rifle, although she’s a real pistol herself.
Yet, it is Channing’s ballsy portrayal of this boozy broad that makes Paula more likeable than she rightfully deserves to be. On paper, she’s the stock Woody Allen shrewish mother-in-law; the overbearing older woman who appears on the scene to upset the apple cart and act as just another cog that throws the nebbishy protagonist’s life into chaos. Instead, Channing endows Paula with an almost innocent self-absorption. She’s constantly on the defensive and hates to be referred to as “Mrs. Chase”, as it makes her feel old. She has no intention to break up the relationship between her daughter and Jerry. She merely wants to make herself at home and make herself feel young, perennially in the process of finding herself.
Despite the fact that she’s the daughter, it’s almost always Amanda who ends up taking on the role of caregiver. Their dysfunctional relationship and the character of Paula are defined in a scene where Paula brings home her 26-year-old horse whisperer boyfriend whom she picked up in AA. (He wasn’t the addict, just “the enabler.”) Blowing in at an ungodly hour after seeing a show, Paula interrupts Jerry and Amanda with the proclamation that “We just saw Elaine Stritch on Broadway. She was great. Want some cocaine?” What ensues is a mother-daughter coke binge as a disturbed Jerry looks on. With her delivery of that single line, Channing defines her character as a brassy bon vivant who is blissfully unaware and unaccountable for her actions.
Her fondness for the occasional toot manifests in the body language that Stockard Channing gifts her character with. Her jerky, spasmodic movements compliment her staccato delivery.
The sole time Paula allows some small bit of soft sentiment to break through is when she sits down to sing at the apartment’s piano, offering her rendition of the Peggy Lee classic, “There’ll Be Another Spring”. Everyone knows Stockard Channing has pipes, proven by her legendary turn as Betty Rizzo in Grease, however, Woody Allen wisely recognized just how adroit the actress is at showcasing emotion in production numbers. When Channing’s Paula sits down at the piano to sing, it’s the lone moment in which she appears human as opposed to being a force of nature. The song’s telling title and Channing’s strong, yet wistful delivery speak volumes about the character of Paula Chase. Beneath the pills, booze, and bravado is just a dysfunctional woman who yearns for her youth and to be cared for.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.