Woody Allen's lead women serve as bridges between various forms of insanity, provide an air of sophistication and enigma to each role and in one instance, becomes the cold heart at the center of his coldest film: Diane Keaton, Elaine May, Radha Mitchell, Emily Mortimer, Samantha Morton, Geraldine Page and Charlotte Rampling.
Play it Again Sam (1972), Sleeper (1973), Love and Death (1975), Annie Hall (1977), Interiors (1978), Manhattan (1979), Radio Days (1987), Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993)
Diane Keaton played different types of people in different types of Woody Allen films, while always seeming herself. Even in her first scene of her first film with Allen, 1972’s Play It Again, Sam (not directed but written by Allen, based on his play, which Keaton acted in), she flashes her inimitable smile, a soft one that’s also self-deprecating, while sharing jokes with him about their neuroses. In her next five Allen films she played a poet in a slapstick science-fiction future (Sleeper); a brainy, lusty heiress in his Russian literature spoof (Love and Death); the eccentric, neurotic, immortal Annie Hall; a tormented author in one of Allen’s stoic Bergmanesque dramas (Interiors); and a brash urban intellectual with a chaotic life (Manhattan). In each case except Interiors, she plays Allen’s love interest, yet her character is always as memorable as his.
Those five films, from 1972 to 1979, represent Allen’s move from straight-up silly comedies to the more romance-centered comedy/dramas that became his stock-and-trade, and the template that many romantic comedies have followed since. Keaton starred in his films at the very time that his style was maturing, and can easily be seen as an important part of that maturation. To say she was growing as an actress as his films were growing in depth may be true, but the statement has a note of condescension to it. More accurate is to point out the important role her acting played in the development of his filmmaking.
In his early comedies, she’s playing the straight-man; deadpan, but capable of drawing laughs from her expressions and the timing of her lines. As Allen’s films change, her characters become more developed, building her memorable way of reacting to Allen’s jokes, with a knowing look or sometimes by not reacting at all, into a way of projecting multiple emotions at once. In Annie Hall, Manhattan and even the more dour Interiors, she makes emotional outbursts, tears and smiles all part of the same action. There’s a scene in Manhattan where she bounces between an argument with her married lover (Michael Murphy) and answering routine phone calls, even handling the dog, in one motion. It suggests the way people really act, where drama is part of daily life, not a series of big moments.
Annie Hall was Allen’s turning-point movie, which makes Keaton’s Annie Hall a turning-point character (also an Oscar-winning one). Allen has said he wrote the role specifically for her. He gave her the last name Keaton was born with. More important is what viewers see, the way Annie Hall’s eccentric behavior and inner conflicts are projected by Keaton in her face, body and speech. She puts us there with Allen, adoring her more with each encounter. Even the most casual watcher of romantic comedies since Annie Hall could tell that the female half of many movie couples follows the prototype set by Keaton as Hall. Try to think of a hit romantic comedy where the woman’s “quirkiness” isn’t foregrounded.
Keaton made two returns to Allen’s film world. Both have a sweetness that’s a testament to the heartwarming presence Keaton has in Allen’s overall filmography. In the nostalgic Radio Days (1987), her role is as singer only, but her song (“You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To”) plays in its entirety, and has an emotional pull that speaks to the characters’ circumstances.
Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) was even sweeter, a light mystery film, an homage to film noir, that also 'rhymes' with Annie Hall in interesting ways. Co-written with Marshall Brickman, who co-wrote Annie Hall, the film was sort of spun from a murder-mystery plot that was part of Annie Hall early on, when that film had a different name and hadn’t yet been skillfully, historically, edited. In Manhattan Murder Mystery, as in so many Allen films, both main characters are pursuing the notion of other lives they could have lived. Here they do it like they’re dipping their feet in water. Keaton’s scenes with Alan Alda, playing a longtime friend who always had a crush on her, are particularly affecting, because the characters have history together and the actors show it in their ease around each other. Their camaraderie is different than that of Allen and Keaton. That contrast is significant, woven into the film’s jokes.
History is evident between the Keaton and Allen’s characters, too. The resonance with viewers comes from both the actors’ comfort with each other and our associations with them as a couple. There’s a scene in Manhattan Murder Mystery where Keaton’s character wonders whether their life has become too stagnant. Have they become “just another dull aging couple…a pair of comfortable old shoes”? If you look at it from the right angle, it’s easy to imagine this as an alternate future for Annie Hall and Alvy Singer.
Husbands and Wives (1992)
Husbands and Wives is a meta masterpiece of what is perhaps Woody Allen’s most treasured themes: Men acrobatically stabbing themselves in the heart with their own raging, woebegone erections.
Throughout the film, men wildly gesticulate, fumble and burst, “I’m confused! I’m upset!” All of this erotic confusion is smothered in intellectual airs thick enough to choke a horse. Allen’s Gabe is a Columbia writing professor who pivots on his podium so that his smarmy bespectacled eyes are trained on the glimmering ingénue, played this particular round with a sharp twist and off-kilter charm by then 19-year-old Juliette Lewis, just a few years before her star-making turn as natural born killer, Mallory Knox.
Lewis’ TK readily sees through Allen. As Allen flirts with Lewis over a story she wrote for his class, she calls him to task: “Why are you asking me so many questions?” He fumbles, exposed. “The writing was very intense.”
Countering all of the typical Allen tricks, she refutes the idea that you need to live an exotic life in order to write anything worth reading. He presses her about the “worldliness” in her work. “It’s just a trick. You don’t have to know,” she says and tells him about writing a story about Paris when she was ten, even though she had never been to Paris.
Allen pulls no punches and doesn’t attempt to disguise that he plays cad to Lewis’ ingénue. Instead, he organizes a ping-pong match between the two of them and then uses a mockumentary-style fourth-wall confessions full of jump cuts that brutally expose how painfully aware Gabe is of his faults.
Struggle as he might, intellectualism can’t save Gabe. After all, acute awareness of being a jerk doesn’t make you any less of a jerk. (Perhaps, Allen seems to be saying, it makes you a bigger jerk.) Later, Gabe talks about other professors who are notorious for seducing students. “This goes on,” he says, “Cause it’s a cinch.”
Allen’s cast of stock characters usually contains two ingénue types: the all-accepting adoring and the rebellious Lolita that serves him his comeuppance. Rain defies Gabe’s expectations by beginning at the former then turning into the latter.
In class, Rain blushes and coos, “Your affirmation means more to me than anybody’s.” Then later, she criticizes the manuscript Gabe gave her to read. His only copy, she then loses it in the back of a cab—perhaps, she muses, she lost it on purpose on a subconscious level because she is, after all, competing with him. When Rain challenges his attitudes in the manuscript, he recoils in horror and calls her a “twenty-year-old twit.”
Lewis’ Rain is an Upper West Side Lolita that embodies both types: she is submissive in that she is literally his student and lives with her parents, but she has also already indulged in a series of affairs with older men. “What am I doing with these older men?” she wonders aloud, while recounting her series of affairs—including her analyst—for Gabe. About her affairs with older men, Rain muses: “In the end, I felt I was kind of symbol of lost youth or unfilled dreams,” Rain muses. “Or am I being too dramatic? Of course, Gabe, wonders the same. As was Allen in 1992, whose personal life lead the New York Times to begin the review of the film with, “WELL, what about the movie?”