[27 September 2010]
Cassandra’s Dream (2007)
We know her as the irrepressible Poppy in Mike Leigh’s Happy-Go-Lucky, for which she burst out of nowhere and won a Golden Globe. Woody Allen seems to have a preternatural instinct for discovering intuitively brilliant young actresses (Scarlett Johanssen, Rebecca Hall, Hayley Atwell), and he cast her as the innocent, charmingly ditzy blond girlfriend of Colin Farrell’s ne’r-do-well, Terry.
As the two doomed brothers, a kind of East End Cain and Abel, Ewan McGregor as Ian, and Colin Ferrell as Terry, share the simple desire to get rich by gambling and real-estate speculation, and break away from dreary London. Ian is the more ambitious of the two, and he takes on a posh, Sloane Ranger-type girlfriend, Angela (Hayley Atwell), all sensual pretensions and attractive phoniness. She’s the sort of woman Ian thinks he needs to have by his side to be taken seriously. But Terry has stuck around with his school sweetheart, the bubbly, supportive Kate.
Kate asks little from life. A three bedroom flat, a stable life with Terry. She has a prancy, upbeat walk, a cheery smile, but a certain steely resolve lies underneath. She’s a little like Tracey Ullmann’s Frenchy Fox from Small Time Crooks, one of those brassy, optimistic work-class women who Allen admires from time to time, just because they’re too happily ignorant to be neurotic. The childlike glee on Kate’s face when Terry shows her their new flat gives you a sense of a life full of gentle tranquility for Terry, far from the smoke-filled gambling dens and petty gangsters that he takes up with. As far as women are concerned, Terry was the sensible brother. Perhaps if Ian had an uncomplicated girlfriend like Kate, he may not have been so motivated to get money so quickly, and he wouldn’t have been embroiled in his Uncle Howard’s (Tom Wilkinson) murky business proposition.
As Kate, Hawkins has relatively little to do in terms of dialogue. She’s not on screen very much, but when she is, she’s terrific. She has a great versatility in switching from being both breezy and melancholy, and I think that’s something Allen must have noticed in her readings. There’s the scene where Kate goes over to Ian, to express her concerns over Terry’s sleepless nights and traumas. She conveys all her anxiety and helpless confusion at being left out in the dark, all in the course of two minutes. “I’m worried about Terry. He thinks he’s killed someone.” That’s of course the terrible bit of information that plants the seed of suspicion in Ian’s mind that leads to the film’s conclusion. The prophetic and dark undertones of movie are such that it seems as if Uncle Howard had an unwholesome instinct for what would happen between the two brothers and how everything would tie together in an awful way.
How ironic that it took a Woody Allen movie to cinematically showcase Hawn’s talents as a dancer and singer. Everyone Says I Love You (1996) represented a different direction for the use of music in Allen’s films. Songs of a bygone era (e.g., “I’m Through with Love”, “Everyone Says I Love You”, even the Marx Brothers’ “Hooray for Captain Spaulding”) furthered the story instead of merely providing a melodic backdrop. The film is a strange blend of Allen’s usual nebbish-character comedy, old-style Hollywood musical, and multiple modern romances.
In the only film in which she worked with Allen, Hawn creates a socialite with a social conscience, even if she sometimes misses the mark with her good intentions. In her desire to improve the lives of prison inmates, she promotes cuisine and cell decoration. She brings home a released convict more eager to take advantage of the women gathered around the table than the posh dinner to which he has been invited. In many of her scenes, Steffi is the catalyst for the humor rather than the joke. She’s a liberal philanthropist who manages to stay involved with her equally busy brood of children from her current (Alan Alda’s emotive attorney Bob) and former (Allen’s neurotic writer Joe) husbands, especially while her children and her ex struggle to find true love.
Hawn’s Steffi is light enough to defy gravity when she dances, as she does near the end of the film, but she is a delicious soufflé rather than a bubbly airhead, a far cry from the ditzy dancer of the Laugh-In years or the wide-eyed comedienne in rom-coms like Foul Play (1976) or Overboard (1987). Allen succeeds in showing Hawn’s previously unrevealed or merely glimpsed talents. He advised the actress not to sing quite so well, because Steffi isn’t a professional vocalist, but he emphasized her talent as a dancer. Although Steffi is confident and speaks her mind, her deeply romantic nature is obscured until one pivotal scene by the Seine.
Hawn sings “I’m Through with Love”, a tune ex-husband Joe says she taught him, but audiences know that neither is through with love nor each other. Nevertheless, this magical dance number helps explain not only why Joe and Steffi fell in love, but why they split up. The romantic setting is perfect—a quiet evening in Paris, just the two of them. They reminisce about the first time they watched the sunrise from the river’s banks, and they recognize the romance of returning to this precise spot once more. They first dance as a couple, but then Goldie’s Steffi takes center stage.
Her grace mesmerizes Joe (and the audience). She leaps and soars far above her partner. Her trust in him is obvious; he catches her effortlessly. As Hawn explained during an Inside the Actor’s Studio interview, life (as well as acting) is all about trust that someone, such as Steffi’s ex or Goldie’s director, will be there to catch her.
In this scene, Joe stays stuck on the ground, whereas Steffi is the epitome of a free spirit. He puts her on a pedestal; at one point he lifts her so that she stands balanced on his hand, but she soon dances away. Yet the scene ends with Steffi taking Joe’s hand, and the two stroll together, continuing their conversation. The friendship and love remain, but the former spouses seem ultimately incompatible partners in the dance of life, despite the temptation to rekindle romance one evening in Paris.
Although Allen’s film received mixed reviews (only Roger Ebert unabashedly loved it) and the idea of a Woody Allen musical may sound even stranger in retrospect than it did in 1996, Everyone Says I Love You gifts audiences with Hawn as a mature actress showcasing some surprising talents. Just like Joe, audiences fall in love with a grown-up Goldie.
It’s not a terribly original bit of analysis to affirm that Hemingway has not had a great acting career in film, or that she didn’t fulfill the promise she made in her beginnings, when she seemed to have beauty, intelligence and talent to spare and got so many nominations for awards, including one for the Oscar just in her second film for the big screen, Manhattan. Following that impressive beginning, she had to wait three years to have her next film released, and then went on to making Star 80 (a cult film only nowadays). After that, again the long wait for projects, the TV, and forgotten roles in forgotten films that balanced that early taste at the best awards with the bitter after taste of two back-to-back Razzie nominations. From there, the relative but still indubitable oblivion.
Watching Manhattan again, it’s still difficult to imagine how such slow but steady languishing could happen. Perhaps part of the problem was that she was difficult to cast: she was only 16 when Manhattan was shot and, despite playing a role that required a special maturity, despite the fact that she captured the hearts of an audience that was mostly older than she was, she looked and sounded like she was indeed, only 16. After a role like that, one couldn’t imagine her playing a normal adolescent, as her image was closely linked to the precocious, mature, clever Tracy; but she was 16, she looked like a 16-year-old girl, and her voice was as sweet and innocent as a teenage girl’s voice normally is. You couldn’t cast her as a normal teenager, but you couldn’t cast her in leading lady roles, either.
Yet there’s a consolation for this: if she became so attached to that persona, it’s because she played it so exceedingly well that people identified the actress and the character. Maybe this hurts some careers, but at least we know that performances like Anthony Perkins’ in Psycho, Louise Fletcher’s in [One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest or yes, Hemingway’s in Manhattan[ will be considered as some of the finest examples of the art of acting for many years to come.
Hemingway created a template for a role that Allen has tried to use again in some of his later films, and she set the bar so high that, although arguable, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that she has not been matched by her successors. Hemingway’s Tracy was the first “nymphet” in Allen’s filmography, and the role/concept would re-appear in different incarnations, the most obvious one being Juliette Lewis’ Rain in Husbands and Wives, and less obvious ones being the women played by Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite, Samantha Morton in Sweet and Lowdown, Charlize Theron in Celebrity or Scarlett Johansson in Scoop, even though in the last case the openly sexual component of the early nymphets was finally sublimated into a screwballesque friendship.
Still, Hemingway’s model remains the most natural, the most believable and realistic, and the most charming, although I want to underline how that charm is never forced or underlined: her Tracy doesn’t try to be sweet, wise-beyond-her-age and loveable at all costs, no. In Hemingway’s hands, she seems naturally mature, and there’s never a false note in which she winks to the audience, trying to make obvious that she’s so clever and witty. In the same way, she never underlines the character’s youth or enthusiasm, letting it spring naturally.
In Allen’s canon it’s extremely difficult to single out performances, because in his hands many thespians have delivered career-best performances. I must confess that, in such canon, I initially didn’t pay much attention to Hemingway’s work, generally focusing on the long-time muses Farrow and Keaton, or on the showier work of some ladies in more openly comedic, sometimes even outrageously funny roles (Judy Davis in Husbands and Wives, Tracey Ullman in Small Time Crooks, Wiest in Bullets over Broadway…). But over time, after having seen many times many of his films, I’ve found myself drawn to this subtle, low-key, perfectly modulated work. Scenes such as the one in which Isaac first breaks up with Tracy are among the most genuinely touching in the director’s filmography, and it’s thanks to how honestly and pristine the quiet suffering of Tracy, the quiet suffering of Hemingway, comes across.
It’s a pity that Hemingway’s career didn’t go to the further places one could have expected after her promising beginnings, but it’s beautiful that she at least has such a high peak, that she has one work that has become a template so hard to imitate. It’s also beautiful that Allen acknowledges it, as shown in the gift he gave to her in 1997, with a role in his great Deconstructing Harry, when her career was nowhere.
Barbara Hershey’s face, intense but somehow vacant, looking directly into the camera, occupies the very opening moments of Hannah and Her Sisters. Hershey played just this one role for Allen, but in his canonical 1986 picture about the ups and downs of family life she became a clear entry into the catalog of his most potent and dangerous leading ladies. Lee is the bait that lures her sister Hannah’s compulsive husband (Michael Caine) away for a year’s affair and sets the overriding question of the film in motion: can self-sufficiency be a bad thing?
Lee is young and fragile compared to the rest of her family. She has a history of substance abuse and she is involved with a controlling older man (Max von Sydow). Confronted with Elliot’s overwhelming desire, she submits, we might guess, more from repressed curiosity than specific passion. When Elliot openly reveals his feelings for the first time, the two confer in hushed tones outside Lee’s apartment. She tries to reassure herself that she isn’t to blame, talking about her sister and saying “we’re very close”, which sounds a lot like denial. Hershey makes Lee seem sincere, though, a mixed-up girl simultaneously threatened and a little excited at the thought of breaking ties with her suffocating life and violating her chronically stable, emotionally sacrosanct sister.
The flaws of the characters involved do not undercut the drama of the feelings at hand. Rather, they bring what is already a situation fraught with betrayal into sharper focus. Hershey and Caine (Caine won an academy award for his role), may seem selfish, but they are also thoroughly convincing. Allen gives his customary care to Hershey’s sexual presence on screen to ensure that the guilt and shame of their affair hits home with the audience. In his interviews with Eric Lax he compares her entrance in Hannah and Her Sisters to Scarlett Johansson’s in Match Point and Christina Ricci’s in Anything Else as pivotal moments in which actress and character alike are unveiled for the first time and the mood is set for the rest of her performance.
To Elliot, Lee is as vulnerable as she is desirable and the opening sequence elicits that dual nature. There is indeed something of the predatory, furtive male glance in the way the camera follows her through the wall with Elliot’s voice-over praising her beauty. Allen emphasizes Hershey’s ragged looks and wild hair with what had become, for him, a rare use of the close-up. She is self-evidently the perfect vehicle for Elliot’s wanton daydreaming, and a symbol of all the sexual hang-ups which would haunt the director’s life and work.
For Hershey, Hannah and Her Sisters marked a culmination of her long struggle to gain recognition in the ‘70s. For Allen, it was hailed as a return to form. It has come to define the Woody Allen Picture of the ‘80s: domestic, feminine and sensitive to an extreme. Hershey’s performance is essential to all that, for hers is the face, not of temptation, but of the compulsion to abandon the safety of household life for the danger of something rash.
After a decade-long run of increasingly sophisticated comedies, Woody Allen threw a startling curveball with 1978’s Interiors. Deeply influenced by Ingmar Bergman’s stark chamber dramas – in fact most critics view it as an homage as much as a piece of art in its own right – it eschewed the satirical buffoonery which had made Allen’s previous discussions of metaphysics and psychology so much fun. This time, existential angst was as serious, and as dangerous, as the death it portends. In her first screen role, the sublimely mousy Mary Beth Hurt provided a revelatory performance as Joey, the untalented and overlooked sister of a famous poet and actress (respectively) who has become stuck caring for her deranged mother.
In this utterly confident debut performance, Hurt channels the rage of the underappreciated, and the anxiety of the unaccomplished, into a tightly wound ball of repression. She manages throughout to appear as close to the edge as her overtly unhinged mother through rigid shoulders and a series of carefully uncontrolled outbursts (“She’s a vulgarian!”). She is tough to watch too closely – one fears she might pop. As she heaps praise on her successful sisters (which they play down, or even refuse as meaningless), we know that she is burning inside with her own lack of it. Her poetry is mediocre, we learn, and her photography is simply amateurish. “Joey doesn’t have an eye” remarks her sister. As her academic husband Mike, Sam Waterson putters around her, oblivious to her concerns, and very nearly openly hostile to her mother. His attempts at intimacy are few, and fleeting. Indeed, their marriage never feels like it has an ounce of sexual energy in it, nor of passion of any kind for that matter.
Hurt and Waterson play their scenes together with a desperate coldness; theirs is an emotionally crippled union that belies their young ages (and works as the analogy to the broken marriage of Hurt’s parents). We see nothing in their future but further drift. When Waterson turns to her and tells her that he loves her, her response is both defensive and reasonable: “Why do you stick with me? I give you nothing but grief!” A pessimist and a depressive, Hurt’s Joey struggles with her own shortcomings, internalizing her (to us) obvious psychological turmoil. Her helmet of a haircut – severe fringe over sad eyes – speaks volumes about her desire for order in an horrifically unstable situation. As her mother becomes ever more suicidal, Hurt’s identification with her becomes ever more intense, leading to the famous climax where, just for a moment, we lose sight of which is which, mother or daughter, as they thrash in the sea. It is one of Allen’s most stirring moments.
Huston’s roles in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors and Manhattan Murder Mystery are both what may be considered small roles. She is not the star, necessarily, but she is still central to each of the stories.
In Crimes and Misdemeanors Huston plays Dolores, the desperate other woman coming apart as her affair with Martin Landau’s Judah is ending. Dolores is quickly introduced via a letter intercepted by Judah. Addressed to Miriam, his wife, the letter is a confession of their affair. Immediately it is clear that she is distressed and rash. Confronted by Judah, Dolores threatens to tell Miriam everything unless he leaves her. While playing a very familiar kind of character Huston injects a despair that is punctuated by the frequent flashbacks to a better time in her relationship with Judah, and manages to bring something fresh to the role.
Huston’s role in Manhattan Murder Mystery is almost the polar opposite of Dolores. Marcia Fox is a successful author – the word “brilliant” is used to describe her frequently throughout the film. She is confident and exudes a worldliness that stands in stark contrast to the hopelessness of Dolores’ character. One of Allen’s most underrated films, Manhattan Murder Mystery exhibits some wonderful performances from Diane Keaton, Alan Alda, and Woody Allen (in what may be one of his most charming roles), but it is Huston’s self-assurance that serves as a well-needed breather in this world of neurotics. As the murder mystery takes center stage, they all jump to wild conclusions and concoct more than a few hare-brained schemes. However, it is Huston’s theories that are most convincing and her coolness is especially persuasive not just in the film, but to the audience, as well.
Huston is effortless in her portrayal of such distinctly different women. As much as Dolores is a classically tragic character, Marcia is cool, collected, and draws those around her to her. Despite the obvious differences between these characters, they do share the characteristic of being a polarizing figure to those around her. Dolores is clearly a threat to Judah’s marriage and the kind of life he has built over many years; while Marcia creates friction by causing insecurity and jealousy on the part of Keaton’s Carol. The degrees may vary, but Huston is no wallflower and her characters exhibit a strong presence in both films.
Worth noting is Huston’s sense of humor and comic timing in Manhattan Murder Mystery. Dolores may have been a despondent wreck for most of Crimes and Misdemeanors, but Huston reveals a sly wit as Marcia that seems tailor-made for her. She is quick and sure and displays a real understanding of people. Again, this contrast between Dolores and Marcia serves as another example of the ease in which Huston steps into such different characters.
Huston’s turns in both Crimes and Misdemeanors and Manhattan Murder Mystery present an actress with a genuine insight into her characters. Varied though they may be, Dolores and Marcia are both equally compelling and reinforce Allen’s strengths as a writer and director. Huston’s presence is an undeniable force in both films and the ease in which she inhabits each character is absolute – in short, two wonderful performances.
Woody Allen always knows what to do with his actresses.
If there’s one role Johansson was born to play, it was that of the sexy temptress. The first we see of her Nola Rice in Match Point is in a dimly lit room. She’s covered in dark sensuous hues. She lights a cigarette and speaks in teasing one-liners. Nola appears to hail directly from a ‘40s noir film. What could be sexier than…a game of ping pong? Nothing, that is until Jonathan Rhys Meyers clutches her close to show her how to follow through on the ball, a take on the old cliché of making tennis (or in this case, table tennis) an intimately contact sport. A curious choice, though, considering Meyers’ Chris is actually a tennis instructor.
However, the dichotomy of the seductress and the child’s game serves as an interesting segway into Johansson’s Nola. Around her fiancé and his family, she is the femme fatale icon that is played up in that first scene. She speaks with confidence and wit, and the timbre of her voice alone can make men’s hearts melt. Yet it always appears like it’s a front, a show for the wealthy Hewett family, what her fiancé calls a “come hither” look. It’s no mistake that Nola is an actress in the film.
When she’s away from them, though, the real Nola comes through. This Nola isn’t nearly as level-headed as we thought. She is extremely uneven, alternating between a comfortable confidence (without the self-awareness) and, more often, insecurity. It’s a testament to Johansson’s underrated abilities that she is able to turn these very different traits on and off without ever losing the emotional core that’s always present in her character. She may be the other woman, but her ultimate fate is tragic.
From the very first shot of Scarlett Johansson in Woody Allen’s next film, we know that the role she plays is a complete 180 from her Nola Rice. For good reason too: whereas Match Point is somber and maybe even a bit self-serious at times (though not without moments of black humor), Scoop is nothing but a good time.
Sporting a pair of glasses and a pen and paper, Scarlett Johansson plays Sondra Pransky, an eager journalism student from Rochester. She’s in a London hotel, trying to get an exclusive interview with a filmmaker. Sondra doesn’t attempt to get the interview by sleeping with him: she gets drunk, sleeps with him, and walks away empty-handed, anyway.
While Nola was aware of her feminine charm, Sondra is completely oblivious. It’s not a surprise since her sexual charms are more awkward and cute than purely sultry. There is only one moment in the film where she seems to emanate the same heat as Nola: it’s when she takes off her glasses, pulls away her robe to reveal a sleek one piece, and then proceeds to fake drown in hopes of getting Hugh Jackman’s attention. Allen doesn’t allow us the fantasy of Johansson for more than a few seconds. She refuses to play that part ever again, or perhaps she simply can’t.
Even then, she wins the man over. Their relationship takes off on a fast track as she simultaneously falls in love and investigates the man for murder. Any strides she makes in either of these departments seem to be by pure happenstance, unaware that what she’s doing naturally is working to her advantage. Johansson’s performance is trickier than most will give her credit for: she has to tread the fine line of being the awkward, over-eager student and the woman who woos over the wealthy British aristocrat.
The Woody Allen surrogate has found their way into several of Allen’s films. Usually, this character is played by a man: Kenneth Branagh, John Cusack, Larry David. In Scoop, though with Allen present, Johansson takes on the neurotic, nerdy attributes of her director’s screen persona. The film itself was critically trashed and criminally underrated, but too little attention has been paid to the comic wiles that Johansson pulls in her performance. She plays the Woody Allen surrogate perhaps as well as anyone.
Johansson’s next performance in an Allen film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, is both completely different than her first two, but also an amalgam of them. Cristina is a student with academic ambitions, but also enjoys playing the part of sexual desire.
Johansson is over-shadowed by her co-stars in the film, particularly Penelope Cruz and Rebecca Hall, who give showier performances, but Johansson’s performance is nearly as strong. Her initial scenes seem unintentionally self-conscious, but she quickly settles into her part. Whereas Cruz and Hall’s score their critical praise in their delivery, Johansson’s is a more subtle performance. She doesn’t speak her emotions or thoughts, but conveys meaning through glances and movements.
She is the antithesis of Vicky, her best friend played by Hall, and she goes out of her way to prove it. Unlike the neurotic, self-aware Vicky (who is definitively “American”), Cristina wants to flow with her idealized portrait of the “European”, sexually adventurous and easy-going. Her body language – the tilting of her head, the playful biting of her finger, the twirling of her hair – is all meant to convey a sense of freedom and autonomy that she associates with European living.
Since Match Point, Johansson has been in a bit of a slump, her only notable achievements being her work with Allen. She has not worked with the director since Vicky Cristina Barcelona, but their streak of three films together gives high hopes that this is a collaboration that will continue into the future.
An oft-forgotten but rich, essential addition to Woody’s Hall of Fame, Kavner has contributed her signature rasp of a voice to six of Allen’s projects, building up an impressive resume of character turns that precede even the earliest rough incarnations of Marge Simpson on The Tracey Ullman Show, and as that character grew in prestige, so too did Kavner’s collaborations with Allen develop in unusual, fascinating directions.
From her first appearance as Gail, co-worker and primary lifeline of Woody Allen’s Mickey, in Hannah and Her Sisters, all the way to her sharp, vivid cameo as Grace in one of Deconstucting Harry’s strangest narrative doodles, Kavner has carved out a niche for herself playing the types of women who usually fade into the wallpaper in Allen’s narratives. Freed of the burden of overt sex appeal, Kavner crafts women of strength and resourcefulness, and often undermines traditional gender binaries by making her creations intellectually and pragmatically superior to Allen’s own fictional doppelgangers.
Gail is a wonderful example of the traditional Kavner mold: as Mickey’s assistant at the comedy show he produces, her opinions combined with her organizational skills keep Mickey on task, in a job, and capable of coping with his day-to-day existence. Once Mickey becomes convinced he has cancer, he turns to Gail not just for comfort, but for rational advice: he clearly views Gail as not just a peer, but the person he trusts and respects most. Radio Days’ “Mother”, like Gail, balances a nurturing side with resilience, tact, and common sense: a duality that will also come to define Marge Simpson over the course of her 20-plus-year run on network television.
Maternity has become, of course, a major trope in Kavner’s body of work with Allen: following her substantial role as Radio Days’ motherly figure, many of her subsequent character turns focus on the familial. As Alma, the protagonist’s venomous ex-fiancee in Shadows and Fog, Kavner sketches a portrait of the nurturing instinct betrayed and gone sour; here her strength comes across as a violent, even emasculating threat instead of bedrock of support. Deconstructing Harry’s Grace seems to be a loving, intelligent wife and mother, but her husband’s existential crisis (literalized by appearing physically out-of-focus) baffles her, indicating Allen’s concern with the limitations of the family unit.
Kavner’s most compelling and rewarding riff on themes of maternity and endurance, however, can be found in Oedipus Wrecks, Allen’s contribution to New York Stories, a 1989 anthology film also featuring work by Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola. Oedipus Wrecks is practically a valentine to Kavner, a short but surprisingly moving rumination on family and romance. As Treva, a psychic whose client Sheldon (Allen) courts her once he starts to realize how similar to his mother she is, the qualities that have always made Kavner such a unique (if unheralded, and certainly asexual) force in Allen’s films posit her as not just sexually viable, but a true romantic heroine.
Kavner, so rarely given the opportunity to show off her charm, is a total peach in the role, exuding charisma and warmth in every frame. The character is the perfect centerpiece in a portfolio of brave collaborations, a true showcase of the actress’ remarkable skill at giving complicated, atypical female characters moments in the spotlight.