Dianne Wiest and Evan Rachel Wood
The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Hannah and Her Sisters (1996), Radio Days (1987), September (1987), Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
In the five films produced during her creative partnership with Woody Allen, Wiest displays decades’ worth of range: from naïve ingénue to imperial diva, from chirpy speed-talker to weary bystander, from prostitute to dame, from clotheshorse to close-cropped ghost, she makes character acting look like performance art.
Every actor is capable of changing their appearance to fit a certain role, but Wiest reinvents her own physical syntax, building entire characters out of head movements and entrances into rooms and exits out of vehicles. Her Oscar-winning performance as Holly in Hannah and Her Sisters runs on jitters, side glances, swipes at thin air, and amphetamine-fueled buoyancy; September’s Stephanie is a wounded animal, sober, slow-moving, washed out, strangely asexual; and the inimitable (and also Oscar-winning) Helen Sinclair of Bullets over Broadway operates on non-stop caps lock, every syllable and hand gesture aiming for the rafters, even when she’s alone in her own home. Throughout their ten-year period of collaboration, Wiest’s performances reveal no actorly agenda of her own, but instead a deep understanding of Allen’s various visions, be them Chekhovian experiments, nostalgic flights of halcyon fancy, or bawdy period crowd-pleasers.
Yet despite her innate malleability as a performer and the disparity of her roles, each of Wiest’s contributions to the Woody Allen canon brings it with a particular aura of creativity and romanticism quite removed from Allen’s own persona. The characters she plays are frequently anomalies in the Woody Allen universe because in general they are guided by, and often suffer from problems of, the heart instead of the head. The prostitute Emma of The Purple Rose of Cairo uses affection as a language; the reckless and passionate Holly searches for love and approval at the expense of her own safety in Hannah and her Sisters; Radio Days’ Bea yearns for true love even as the world around her grows increasingly stifling and unromantic. These characters are all also linked by their association with the arts: Holly is perpetually in search of her creative muse, struggling as an actress before hitting her stride as a writer; Bea is associated with music and the radio, in one incident suffering a spectacularly awful date due to the on-air shenanigans of Orson Welles; and Helen Sinclair is practically a walking, talking, bellowing ode to the irresistible glamour of the theatre.
Wiest may never have attained the ‘muse’ status of Diane Keaton or Mia Farrow, but the compassion and romance she imbues in these characters often serves as the perfect complement to Allen’s verbosity and neurosis. When Helen Sinclair, in despairing her fervent passion for script-writer David Shayne, howls out the line “Go, Scorpio, Go!”, you can practically hear Woody the Cynic chuckling behind the camera, amazed that he could dream up such an irrational and oblivious creature. On occasion, however, and often at the most unexpected times, Allen’s romantic side can get the better of him, and in these moments it’s Wiest who functions as the perfect conduit for his tenderness.
Mickey, Allen’s hypochondriac doppelganger in Hannah and Her Sisters, initially rebuffs Holly only to find himself drawn back to her years later. Her writing excites and inspires him, triggers something in his gut that he can’t articulate. Sure, she might like punk rock more than jazz, and has a spottier past than her sisters, but her vivacity is so refreshing, so unexpected, so new, that he just can’t help feeling drawn to her. Their blissful embrace closes Hannah and Her Sisters on a note so humane and optimistic, it completely disarms the audience, hitting them straight in the gut. It’s the moment that best encapsulates Dianne Wiest’s captivating power as a performer, and ensures that her creative partnership with Allen will endure for decades to come.
Evan Rachel Wood
Whatever Works (2009)
Melodie St. Ann Celestine lost her virginity behind a tent at a fish fry. This we believe as she tells her story to fourth wall-breaker/misanthropist/physicist Boris Yelnikoff, played by Larry David, on the steps of Grant’s Tomb and during their first-time tour of New York City. It’s Melodie’s bubbly, fast-talk attitude that carries us incredulously through Woody Allen’s Whatever Works. It is Wood, Melodie’s real-world persona, who, if she’s a right-minded person, probably feels a little stung these days, having presumably sat through and discussed at length at least one full display of her first foray into another one of Woody Allen’s neuroses.
Celestine is a character that viewers should find difficult to bear. It isn’t always her stock lilt or the film’s blocky scenes that inhibit Wood. In a New York Times review of the film, A. O. Scott brightly remarked of its caliber: “frantic action is not the same as acting”, and it’s true. Wood is hindered by the same rhythm. From Yelnikoff, she adapts dull distaste for life fatalism and moves out of her small-town Louisiana shell into a marriage with Yelnikoff, formed under the pretense of quantum mechanics, shared dourness, and outright silliness.
So here we have Evan Rachel Wood married to Larry David, living in NYC detritus (like a sharecropper, as Melodie’s mother tells us), and eating grits. It’s all quite ludicrous, which is fine, because we’re watching Wood in a Woody Allen film. She’s an indie darling of sorts, having given us Thirteen, Down in the Valley, and, among many others, King of California. The odd equation we find is that Wood is accomplished, Woody is accomplished, and yet, together, they form a bad nothingness more poorly dimensioned than one of Mr. Yelnikoff’s lectures on string theory.
Melodie St. Ann Celestine never develops in Whatever Works because she was never fully formed in the first place. Easy enough. Even when schemed by her mother into a relationship with a younger and more appropriate man, Celestine doesn’t take shape. She simply never was.
Celestine’s mother Marietta (Patricia Clarkson), compliments Wood’s character quite well. Both have a ruinous idiot-come-lately flair when their Southern inexperience should show us naiveté and capacity. When explained the nature of her character by the young man who, more than halfway through the film, seduces Celestine, she finds herself unable to quite place the assessment. “That sounds familiar…” she starts to say. Yeah, we say, it does.
Wood is an interesting actress. Her goody-girl demeanor was not an off-base choice for Allen. The character, were it of a film of the same ethos, with the same highfalutin, poser-postmodern concept, but written by someone else and without the ridiculous Southern belle put-on, played seriously by Wood, could maybe work.