Friday, July 26, 2013

Top 10 Female Performances in Woody Allen Movies

Yesterday, I listed my favorite male performances from Woody Allen’s films, and today I have the much harder task of ranking the superb female roles from Allen’s films. Will Cate Blanchett’s recent work make the cut here once I’ve seen Blue Jasmine? I certainly hope so. But for now, here are the finest female offerings from the world of Woody Allen.

10. Charlotte Rampling - Stardust Memories (1980)
as Dorrie
Rampling’s brief but flawless work as Dorrie is encapsulated in a 90 second scene in which she tearfully breaks down in front of the camera. Imploring extreme close-up, sharp jump cutting, and a broken fourth wall, this moment is Rampling’s tranquil poem with the audience. It’s as captivating and bold as anything Allen has put on screen. Equally haunting and beautiful.

9. Mariel Hemingway – Manhattan (1979)
as Tracy
Casting an actual teenager to play a teenager on screen can go one of two ways. On the bitter end, you have the cast of Twilight, who are identical in age to their characters, but all appear too jaded and unconfident to effectively play them. The flip side is Mariel Hemingway in Manhattan, who delivers a nuanced performance of teenage desperation. Hemingway was only 16 when Manhattan was filmed, but the amount of complex emotion she puts into Tracy equates to that of a seasoned pro. In short, despite her age, Hemingway hit all the right notes as Tracy, and I’m still very pleased that the Academy took notice of this.

8. Geraldine Page – Interiors (1978)
as Eve
What a slow-burning little hellion Page’s Eve is. Plagued by an artistic talent that she feels is misunderstood, Eve is demanding of those who love her, while growing increasingly mentally unbalanced. Page is so in command of this character, that she can make something like a gentle breakdown in a church utterly mortify to watch unfold. This performance never fails to rock me.

7. Samantha Morton – Sweet and Lowdown (1999)
as Hattie
Dear, sweet, Hattie. As a timid, mute sweetheart who falls in love with a compulsive and rude musician (Sean Penn), Hattie is the type of character we want to shake loose of optimism. We want to grab her and kindly say, “No, dear, this man is not for you. He will only bring trouble.” But instead we watch. We watch this very skilled actress go through the motions of calm desperation and eventual longing. Samantha Morton was a relatively new actress when Sweet and Lowdown was released, and her work as Hattie put her on the map in the best possible way.

6. Mia Farrow – Broadway Danny Rose (1984)
as Tina Vitale
I’m not sure whose idea it was for Mia Farrow to play Tina Vitale the way she did, but regardless, the actress deserves ceaseless praise for her audacity at bringing Tina to life. As Tina, Farrow plays a loose dame that constantly sports big hair, large sunglasses, and an amusingly thick New Yawk accent. It’s the kind of hyperbolic performance that could easily turn into a joke. But with Farrow behind the mask, it’s impossible not to be utterly drawn in. One of the most hilariously delicious characters Allen ever created.

5b. Dianne Wiest – Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
as Holly
Similarly to how I split two of Woody Allen’s own performances yesterday, I find it impossible to choose which Oscar-winning Dianne Wiest character I like more. First up, we have Holly, an ex cocaine addict who takes her lack of artistic ability out on the people who care for her most. There’s so much resentment cooped up in Wiest’s petite incarnation of Holly. So much rage and anguish. Holly demands to be the center of attention, but when the spotlight’s on her, she realizes she has nothing worthwhile to say. A truly fascinating performance.

5a. Dianne Wiest – Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
as Helen Sinclair
Equally as fascinating is Wiest’s depiction of stage diva Helen Sinclair in Bullets Over Broadway. Helen knows how to get what she wants. She’s smooth with some people, and swiftly crude with others. Alcohol gives her courage, angst fuels her ego. When I think of Dianne Wiest, I think of a small, kind woman who makes herself gently memorable in whatever film she’s in. Amusingly, there is certainly nothing gentle about Helen Sinclair (or Holly, for that matter). These are two against type performances that justly resulted in Oscar gold.

4. Diane Keaton – Annie Hall (1977)
as Annie Hall
For fun, I love to compare Annie and Alvy’s first meeting with their last. When they first talk, Annie is a neurotic mess, speaking in nonsensical phrases, talking down to herself, La Di Da, La Di Da. Alvy is the poised, carefree romantic, paying as much attention to his tennis bag as he is to the zany woman in front of him. The final conversation shows the tables turned – Alvy is a mess, Annie is all confidence. I mention this dynamic because, anxious or self-assured, Diane Keaton is marvelous for every second of Annie Hall. Much like Allen’s Alvy Singer, the legacy of Keaton’s Annie Hall will surely outlive us all.

3. Judy Davis – Husbands and Wives (1992)
as Sally
I’m convinced that Sally is the most domestically vile character Woody Allen ever wrote. No, she isn’t a murderer or a thief, but she is the wife from hell, personified terrifyingly by Judy Davis. When we first meet Sally, she seems like a rational and understanding woman. But as Husbands and Wives progresses, we bear witness to Sally’s wrath. Don’t get me wrong, I know Sally didn’t have the perfect husband, but the way she treats her friends and lovers is simply awful. I’m actually quite stunned that Sally has been able to maintain friendships over her years, let alone a marriage. Similarly to Sean Penn’s work in Sweet and Lowdown, it takes a real pro to make a repulsive character like Sally so enjoyable to watch. But in my opinion, Sally is Judy Davis’ finest hour.

2. Mia Farrow – The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985)
as Cecilia
Instead of describing why I think Farrow is so remarkable in The Purple Rose of Cairo, I’d like to request that my readers do something. If you haven’t seen this film, watch it. Pay attention to Farrow’s work throughout, but keep your eye out specifically for her final scene in the film. Watch it, and tell me it isn’t as good as acting gets. For those of you who have seen The Purple Rose of Cairo, watch it again anyway. I promise it will be time well spent.

1. Gena Rowlands – Another Woman (1988)
as Marion Post
Marion Post is not a nice person. She’s entitled, mean and all together unpleasant. But there’s pain behind those judgmental eyes. There’s anguish in her steady voice. Rowlands rarely lets Marion’s insecurities shine through, and that’s okay. I don’t need to love a character to love a performance. I only need to appreciate the work being done. And my God, there is much to appreciate here. The final scene of this film would be a perfect way to end one act, and begin another. But instead, Allen opts to leave it where it lies. The reflection in Rowlands’ voice and across her face never fails to move me. It’s so silently unnerving.

Click here for more lists from And So it Begins..., including:
Top 10 Male Performances in Woody Allen Movies


  1. My favorites on this list have to by Morton, Wiest in Bullets Over Broadway ("Don't speak!") and Farrow in The Purple Rose of Cairo. Another favorite of mine would probably be Scarlett Johansson in Match Point.

    1. Really wanted to include Johansson here. She's a perfect mess in Match Point. That scene when she loses it in the street is remarkable.

  2. Love love love this lit. I had a feeling that Rowland will top yous but Farrow in Cairo is my ultimate. That last scene- I have never identified with a character more in my life and I have both Woody and Farrow to thank for that.

    I actually would pick the same performances in my list, I think.

    Can't wait to see Blanchett's performance!!

    1. Thanks :)

      That final scene of Cairo just kills me. Seriously, where was Farrow's Oscar nomination for that role? In fact, where was her Oscar nomination for anything?

  3. ... and I need to rewatch The Purple Rose of Cairo.

  4. Hmm. I can think of some others I prefer, like Penelope Cruz and Rebecca Hall in "Vicky Cristina Barcelona". Mariel Hemingway is way too low. Also, I love Dianne Wiest, but I prefer Jennifer Tilly's work in "Bullets Over Broadway". Wiest is great but over-the-top, Tilly is more subtle and interesting to watch. Where's Mira Sorvino? Can't do this list without her, that's too memorable a character to ignore. Need to put her in there.

    1. Question: Are you at all aware of how condescending you sound? If not, then, wow, take a step back and think. If it was your intention to come off as patronizing and elitist, then bravo, job well done.

  5. For me...

    1. Diane Keaton-Annie Hall
    2. Mia Farrow-Husbands and Wives
    3. Dianne Wiest-Hannah & Her Sisters
    4. Gena Rowlands-Another Woman
    5. Dianne Wiest-Bullets Over Broadway
    6. Judy Davis-Husbands & Wives
    7. Diane Keaton-Sleeper
    8. Marion Cotillard-Midnight in Paris
    9. Mia Farrow-The Purple Rose of Cairo
    10. Mary Beth Hurt-Interiors

    There's so many great female performances as I cite Allen as a key influence in the way he writes for female characters. I want to include more of everything that Dianne Wiest does as I think she's Allen's best actress as well as Emily Mortimer and Scarlett Johansson for Match Point, Penelope Cruz and Rebecca Hall for Vicky Cristina Barcelona (Cruz would be my #11), and Geraldine Page for Interiors. The worst performance by an actress in an Allen film for me is Kirstie Alley in Deconstructing Harry. She's so shrill and over-the-top that it was just unbearable to watch.

    1. Excellent choices. Love them all. There really are so many flawless performances to choose from here. Picking 10 was damn hard. I love all of your praise for Husbands and Wives. And Interiors and Another Woman getting some props is great.

      Kirstie Alley... yeah, ouch.


      I can never get that out of my head and not for the right reasons. It's just so terrible. Part of me is convinced that Deconstructing Harry is Allen trying to fuse Wild Strawberries with the language of the ghetto. There's a lot of profanity in that film. Did he stumble upon some records by Tupac and Biggie? Was he listening to NIN's Broken EP? What the fuck was Woody listening to at that time he came up with the idea for that film?

    3. I remember watching that film and being slightly startled by all the swearing. But I like it.

    4. Shit man, I completely forgot how much foul language was in that movie. I really need to watch it again. Awesome that it was nominated for best screenplay.

  6. So what has turned into my 15 year project to see every Woody Allen-directed film is but one film short (not including Blue Jasmine, of course). That film? Another Woman. And reading this list (and your other list) makes me realize not only that watching it is long overdue, but that I really should have prioritized and put that one ahead of something like, say, Whatever Works.

    1. Ha, true that! It has always been my favorite. But it is arguably the least Woody Allen film Woody Allen has ever made, which is interesting. Obviously I cannot recommend it highly enough. A true masterpiece in my eye.

  7. AWESOME list! I never saw Another Woman, it is actually one of the very few Allen's films I never watched, I have to do so now! I actually didn't find Davis in H&W repulsive, I kinda felt bad for her, because she had a tough personality and it was difficult for her to find happiness in relationships. I guess Allen has so much love for his characters it's hard for me to think some of them are awful. Another female performance I loved is Rebecca Hall in VCB, she was so effortless there and so natural.

    1. Thanks! I've always thought that Hall did the best job in VCB, even over Cruz (who I love in the film as well). Davis' character in H&W is very complex, no doubt. I need to watch it again. Maybe my perception of her will have changed. LOVE Another Woman. Highly recommend it.

  8. Rampling, Hemingway, Farrow (x2), Wiest (x2), Davis, Keaton, Rowlands... Wow. Awesome job man!

  9. Some excellent choices, I've always admired the way Woody Allen writes the great characters for women in his movies.

    1. Thanks man. And same here. That's arguably what I respect most about Allen.