She speaks volumes using downward glances and a few nervous ticks; she's regal, and elegant but also tinged with sweetness and vulnerability; she's volcanic, ribald, and just a little maladroit; she's a vulgarian!; she makes character acting look like performance art...
Another Woman (1988)
Another Woman is one of Woody Allen’s lesser discussed works but by no means a sub par achievement. In fact his quiet, nuanced character study is one of his finest directorial works and scripts. It’s elevated even more by the brilliance of Gena Rowlands, who gives an understated and resonant performance.
In Another Woman, Marion (Rowlands) is introduced through her voice-over and Allen’s characterization. She is dressed in layers of earthy neutrals, hair done up in a tightly-braided French bun, in “drab contrast” to her friends and family. As she begins work on her book, she overhears the next-door therapy sessions of a young woman named Hope (Mia Farrow). The thin, fragile, emotional, and high-pitched voice of Farrow is a contrast to the steely, deep tone of Rowlands. Throughout, Allen gives us many close-ups of Rowlands, who has a beautiful, strong face like the women of Ingmar Bergman’s films (an obvious influence here; Sven Nykvist was also his cinematographer) that can register shades of regret and sadness.
As Marion becomes more introspective and sadder, Rowlands' gait slackens. Fidgety at a recital and visibly uncomfortable when a former student tells her what an inspiration she once was, Rowlands shows Marion as a bit rattled from listening to Hope. She gives us downward glances, a few nervous ticks.
The dreamlike movement of the film explores the emotional territory of Marion’s past and present. In a flashback scene, Gene Hackman, a former lover, is shown kissing Rowlands on the eve of Marion’s impending marriage to a cardiologist (Ian Holm). Rowlands looks happier, less stuffy—her hair in a loose ponytail. In one scene, she finds herself at her brother’s home, wide-eyed, in disbelief. He recalls her critiques of his writing as “overblown, maudlin, too emotional.” This is the antithesis of Rowlands and her character, but also a sense of vitality that Allen suggests as too-lacking in Marion’s own life.
In a quiet moment, Marion reads her mother’s favorite Rilke poem and in voice-over, describes the page’s tear stains from her mother. After reading the poem, Rowlands perches her glasses on her head, fist on cheek, then looks off, eyes welling, thinking of the line, “You must change your life.”
In a dream sequence, we see the contrasting style of Sandy Dennis when she performs a staged scene as Marion. Dennis uses hand gestures, moves around a bit more, and verbalizes her thoughts instead of withholding them (“there isn’t much passion in this relationship anymore”). In both instances, Allen gives Rowlands the space to react, as she gives us more sad, regretful downward glances.
With Rowlands, we often see a woman who wants to weep, as Marion describes, but the tears won't come. Her dream of her first husband who killed himself (Marion refers to him clinically as “not a suicide”) triggers an argument with her husband. She finally raises her voice, yelling at him (“There was a time when we were dying to be together.”) Here, Rowlands lets loose a bit, and also shows how she towers over him (which reminded me of the visually awkward pairing of Ingrid Bergman and Claude Rains in Notorious).
When she overhears Hope describing Marion as a “sad woman” who has “alienated everyone her”, Rowlands finally breaks and sobs. She goes home to confront her husband from a wing chair—suddenly more like Hope in one of her sessions—telling him passionately that she feels sorry for him, that he has been just as lonely as she has been.
In the coda, once she breaks away from her husband, the film gradually gets warmer. In displays of compassion we hadn’t seen before, Rowlands puts an arm around other characters. Her studio looks less cold. She flips through Hackman’s novel, finding the passages about her, and here, Allen shows them together in a montage sequence—her happiness, her loose ponytail back again. He describes Marion as “capable of intense passion, if she’d just allow herself to feel.” This is a poignant contrast to the scene where an unsettled Rowlands read the Rilke poem. Here, Rowlands closes the book, removes her glasses. Her voice-over: “I felt a strange mixture of wistfulness and hope. And I wondered if a memory is something you have or something you’ve lost. For the first time in a long time, I felt at peace.” Rowlands looks up, the sun behind her.
Rowlands is best-known for her daring performances in the films of her husband John Cassavetes. However her quiet, gracefully subtle work in Allen’s film shouldn’t be overlooked when evaluating the richness of her career. Like her performance, the theme music by Satie is regal, and elegant but also tinged with sweetness and vulnerability. Rowlands gives the camera and the audience “little gambits to seduce.”
Mighty Aphrodite (1995)
"You know why I liked you from the start? Because I'm always attracted to losers. You've got no self confidence, I like that in a guy."
-- Linda Ash, Mighty Aphrodite.
Woody Allen has been plagued by criticism of his depictions of women throughout his career. Though he writes juicy roles that attract A-List actresses, in many ways the roles can be viewed in some quarters as incongruous and dehumanizing. Linda Ash, portrayed by Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite, is no exception.
To isolate Allen’s contradictory portrayals of women in his films it’s helpful to compare them as a motif to Death. It is this unknown that Allen cannot accept or understand, so he fetishizes it. Take Allen’s Alvy Singer in Annie Hall. Alvy is attracted to books with Death in the title, because he “has a pessimistic view of life.” But, despite his continual focus on death as a subject, his characters are paralyzed by fear when confronting it personally, rather than being able to accept it as inevitable. Women, like Death, are an objectified Other, always presented as a foil to the Allen character’s development.
In the pantheon of Allen protagonists, the most misguided misogynists are those who want to save whores. These Henry Higginses are simultaneously attracted to these women for what they perceive as their animal (almost innocent, childlike) sexuality, their classless uneducated behavior, and the purpose they offer the typically dissatisfied man, the opportunity to assume a superior role in a life where he is customarily powerless. It’s important to understand that the character’s motivation is not to help the disadvantaged, but to create a situation in which they can perceive themselves as altruistic and empowered. Lenny Winerib (Allen) is a tragic hero, complete with the standard tragic flaw of hubris. The only deviation from the tragic plot the heavy-handed incorporation of Aristotelian structure references is that the hero is ultimately successful, and via a deus ex machina, the outcome is comedic.
The character that Allen wants to help escape her life diverges from the more common female archetypes characterized in Allen’s catalog. While a typical misogynist dichotomy portrays women as “Madonnas” or “Whores”, Allen’s dehumanizing dyad runs more along the lines of an innocent, warm, accepting pupil versus a castrating, intelligent, cold, rejecting bitch. While the ingenue can appreciate Allen’s sensitivity and interests, the bitch is frustrated with his obsessions that eclipse practical concerns. Where the ingenue can love Allen simply, the bitch is moody, has changed, ”has her period.” (Annie Hall).
Mighty Aphrodite’s Linda Ash depicts both a unity and divergence between his two female types. Allen’s whores accept him like his ingenues and he can mentor them, but can also satisfy him sexually, like his wives (at least, in the beginning of their relationships).
Initially, Winerib finds Linda because she is the biological mother to his adopted child. His obsession comes out of marital dissatisfaction. From the beginning of the adoption process Lenny feels he has no control. When his wife Amanda (Helena Bonham Carter), tells him that they found a baby, Lenny adamantly disagrees with the idea. The very next scene shows the couple welcoming the baby into their home for the first time. Throughout the narrative, Amanda becomes increasingly removed from Lenny’s life, while making decisions with which he profoundly disagrees.
Because he’s feeling neglected, once Winerib meets Linda he rejects her initial advances, and tries to save her from her life as a prostitute, ostensibly for when his son meets her in the future. He cleans her up, extracts her from her relationship with her pimp by trading her for court side Knicks tickets, and introduces her to a nice boxer that is her mental and physical (but not moral) match. The boxer rejects her when he discovers her porn star past, while Lenny’s wife simultaneously leaves him for another man. Linda and Lenny, in a moment of vulnerability, fall into each others arms and conceive a child. This coupling somehow convinces Lenny that he’s really in love with his wife. Conveniently, Amanda comes back to him, and Linda is “saved” by the sudden appearance of a non-judgmental helicopter pilot who loves her despite her transgressions.
The film ends with a chance meeting, years later, between Linda and Lenny who are both unaware that they are respectively raising each others child. Though Linda has been saved by both Lenny’s attention to “make her feel special and change her life,” it’s also the pilot that transports her from her plight as a porn star and prostitute. Lenny, too, is “saved” from himself, and happy in his marriage. Ultimately, though the title character refers to Linda Ash, the movie is about Lenny’s transformation, and his ability to become an actualized husband and father. Like Annie Hall is not about Annie, Mighty Aphrodite is not about Linda Ash; rather, it's about Lenny Winerib’s deliverance from himself.