In honor of Allen’s new film, I thought it’d be fun to list my favorite performances from his movies. The fellas are up first, with the ladies dropping tomorrow. Enjoy!
as Salvador Dalí
Sure, there are far more substantial (and Oscar-winning) roles to occupy this spot, but I couldn’t not including Adrien Brody’s scene stealing turn as Salvador Dalí in Midnight in Paris. Brody’s performance is confined to roughly two minutes and the repetition of mostly one word, but it is utterly perfect. A fun bit of casting coupled with genius, restrained screenwriting.
9. Gene Wilder – Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex *But were afraid to ask (1972)
as Dr. Ross
I don’t want to give away why Wilder is so great in this film, but let me put it this way, the title of Wilder’s segment in the film is “What is Sodomy?” and the two main stars are Gene Wilder, and a sheep. Enough said.
8. Ian Holm – Another Woman (1988)
Woody Allen loves writing cold, elitist male characters, and Ian Holm’s Ken is one of my all time favorites. As Gena Rowlands’ uptight doctor husband, Holm is a small fury of a man. Passive aggressive, shallow and hopelessly entitled. His double use of the term, “I accept your condemnation” will force you to hate him.
7. Max von Sydow – Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Another cold, entitled character, von Sydow’s Frederick is the type of reclusive genius whose girlfriend is constantly apologizing for his intelligence. She defends Frederick to everyone she knows, before finally realizing that his intellectual methods of “teaching” her (as if she needs to be taught) are crippling. A brief performance, but an exceptional one.
6. Martin Landau – Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989)
as Judah Rosenthal
The best Woody Allen characters are the ones that we want to like, but can’t help passing judgment on. Because they are so well written, their layers are impossible to pick apart. For example, on the surface, Judah Rosenthal is a good man. A successful doctor, devoted family man, and so on. But when he hires a hit man to kill his impetuous mistress, it’s only natural that we turn on him. Landau knows this. He’s aware of the audience’s potential shift of appreciation for Judah, and he smartly plays right into it. The final scene of this film may be the single best scene of Landau’s career. Despondent and faultless.
5b. Woody Allen – Stardust Memories (1980)
as Sandy Bates
I’m splitting the fifth pick for no other reason than it is the same actor playing two roles I love equally (I’m doing the same tomorrow as well). First up is Allen’s conflicted and humorously complacent Sandy Bates, a famous filmmaker attending a weekend film festival of his own films. Constantly berated by “fans” who beg Bates to go back to making funnier films, the director drifts amusingly between two worlds: the harsh reality of fame, and the dream world of existentialism. Allen has noted that Bates is the character most like his real life personality, which is equally as pleasant as it is unnerving.
5a. Woody Allen – Annie Hall (1977)
as Alvy Singer
By far the most popular and neurotic character Allen has ever played, Alvy Singer is the kind of cinematic treasure that will outlive us all. Whether he’s arguing about the use of substances during sex, trying to catch a giant lobster in his kitchen, or listening to Christopher Walken discuss his suicidal tendencies, there isn’t a note in his performance that Allen doesn’t hit remarkably.
4. Jonathan Rhys Meyers – Match Point (2005)
as Chris Wilton
Chris Wilton is my favorite pathetically desperate male character of Woody Allen’s career. When we meet Chris, we have no reason not to fall absolutely in love with him. He’s kind, appreciative, self educated, a hard worker. But once he marries into money, his true colors are revealed. He subtly morphs into a philandering, money-obsessed jerk who puts himself before everyone. The conclusion Chris reaches in order to once again be free, is the same conclusion a handful of Allen’s characters have also reached. But I’ve never seen it played with as much despair as Meyers does here. I’m undeniably drawn to Chris’ pain.
3. Gene Hackman – Another Woman (1988)
as Larry Lewis
Gene Hackman has never played a character like Larry Lewis. A kind, gentle soul void of anger, resentment, and/or violence. Through flashbacks, we learn that Larry is the one that got away from bitter author, Marion Post (Gena Rowlands). Perhaps Larry could’ve stopped her from turning cold and unpleasant. Perhaps his quiet love could’ve saved her from the rain. Larry is a very small part, but it will always remain one of my favorite of Hackman’s career. His earnestness brings tears to my eyes.
2. Sean Penn – Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
as Emmet Ray
Emmet Ray might be the most exquisite out-and-out asshole Allen ever penned. He’s an excellent musician haunted by competition and regret, which he continually numbs with booze and women. When he finally comes across a gal worth keeping, he treats her like utter shit. And when I watch Sweet and Lowdown, I am reminded how difficult it is to play a character like Emmet Ray so convincingly. Emmet teeters right on the edge of audience gratitude and dissatisfaction, and it takes a skilled actor to make the role work. Penn is one such actor; few could make such a shitty person so compelling.
1. Woody Allen – Manhattan (1979)
as Isaac Davis
To be perfectly honest, Allen’s off-screen delivery of the opening monologue in Manhattan is almost enough to call Isaac Davis my favorite male character Woody Allen has ever written. But there’s more. So much more. Juggling a romantic relationship with a 17-year-old, while battling his lesbian ex wife for time with their son, while falling in love with his best friend’s mistress, is certainly no easy feat, but Allen’s frantic neurosis was made for this role. Isaac contains all of the trademark qualities of a self-played Woody Allen character, but in the end, I’m left with his silent, welcoming face. Staring into the eyes of the woman he loves, begging her to stay without saying a word. It’s a level of restraint that we rarely see from Allen himself, but I always find it compelling.