Let us pretend, for a second, that Woody Allen’s worst feminist detractors are right. Let’s pretend that he’s written too many manipulative women, too many heart-breakers, and too many ditzes to ever be comfortably on ‘their’ side. What then? What does this say of Allen’s oeuvre as a whole, and Allen as the progenitor of such? And, more importantly, is there any evidence of these things to begin with?
Well, there is, partly because one can find almost anything in a complex film if one searches hard enough, and partly because — as Dan Schneider argues — there is an odd tinge of “loathing” underneath it all, wherein Woody Allen’s women fight, cheat, steal, or even lust after a man too old and too manipulative to ever be fair game. At times, this is even played off for comic effect, although the irony is, of course, that there is always someone (even if not Allen) imagining himself in such a position, and tries to be precisely that. Yet assertions without numbers are a hard sell, and have gotten many a critic into trouble with such ‘frills’ as evidence. So, how does one gauge how true the claims are? How does one even measure how good or bad a female Allen character really is? The latter is easily answered: with one’s eyes. Allen’s characters all have motivations and behaviors, for good or ill, and it is up to the viewer — and not a film book, or a theorist — to untangle them. As for the numbers? Let us merely take, for the sake of this thought-experiment, a tally of those who might be OK’d by a feminist reading, and those that will simply never be.
Allen’s early films are none-too-fertile ground for such an analysis since they are, without question, more gag-driven than character dependent. Yet even here, one sees Allen’s desire to invert Hollywood tropes, and even play rough with gender stereotypes. Many of these women, for instance, simply reject Woody’s advances, or otherwise poke fun at him. Nancy (Louise Lasser) from Bananas wants nothing to do with a rote, passionless ‘weakling’ like Fielding Mellish; Louise (Janet Margolin) from Take the Money and Run is almost beyond analysis, given how steadfast she is, and without reason; and the Diane Keaton/Allen ‘troika’ of Sleeper, Play It Again, Sam, and Love and Death has the male lead chasing her, and often losing her. Sure, one sees Boris (Love and Death) already bed a woman well beyond his means, but one also sees some interesting inversions in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex*, especially the last sketch, wherein the woman is the aggressor, and a priest represents male “Catholic guilt”, to balance out some of the less flattering depictions of women. One cannot, at any rate, get what’s necessary here — at least not for our purposes.
Allen’s first glimpse ‘proper’ into the female psyche was Annie Hall, a film that was supposedly mess before Ralph Rosenblum cut it down by about an hour. Thus, from a 150 minute tale from inside a man’s head, full of metaphysical concerns that make Annie Hall’s seem timid, by comparison, there was suddenly more focus on the duo’s relationship, wherein the film’s true narrative plays out. Alvy (Woody Allen) is a manipulator, and all-around miserable, but what of Annie (Diane Keaton)? “Annie is both a ’70s feminist icon & nightmare”, Dan Schneider writes, but as he goes on to show, the latter is only superficially true. Yes, she is dependent, and no, she’s not exactly full of the noblest goals, yet they are her own, to the chagrin of her lover, who wishes ‘deeper’ growth upon a woman incapable of it. This continues (albeit in a less comic vein) the trend that started in Allen’s early films, wherein the ‘Woody’ persona was simply incapable of getting the girl to do precisely as he asks, even as they go on to live their own lives, while he’s alone, trapped in his own self-wrought patterns. In short, Annie’s character is a definite ‘plus’ to any feminist reading of the film, as long as one pays close attention to her character.
This pattern would only continue with Interiors, despite all three sisters being far more deeply flawed than Annie ever was. On the ‘plus’ side, there is Renata (Diane Keaton) who is married a loser envious of her talent, rather than the other way around. On the ‘minus’ side, however, Renata’s poetry is selfish and vain, as she wishes to use it gain the promise of eternal life and other immature desires, but whether this is truly a feminine reflection or merely the B.S. of an artist-type, makes it a difficult read. Joey (Mary Beth Hurt) is seemingly a ‘minus’, for she is bitter, resentful, and completely lost, but, on the ‘plus’ side, experiences the most growth, even getting a new mother-figure (a ‘plus’ character) after Eve (‘minus’) dies, and seems more ready for her future. Flyn (Kristin Griffith) would definitely be a ‘minus’ in most people’s eyes, but as I’ve argued elsewhere, she is definitely the most emotionally pure of all three sisters, and despite having the reputation of a gossip and airhead, does little in the film, itself, to show this (except for her drug use), and speaks with the kind of self-knowledge she merely accepts ‘as is’. It is healthier than Joey’s pining for the impossible, or even Renata’s wan interpretations of her own art. A strong ‘plus’, then, cloaked as it is in something more predictable, and misleading.
Manhattan, by contrast, was the first deep film to give feminists some ammunition against the ‘Woody’ persona — not to mention against the women, themselves! The director plays Isaac Singer, a would-be and apparently bad novelist who’s in love with New York City, as Allen pairs beautiful shots of Manhattan against the grim reality of its inhabitants. In short, Isaac is a manipulator involved with a seventeen year-old girl, Tracy (Mariel Hemingway), whom he dumps for Mary (Diane Keaton), an utter basket case, only to try and get back with Tracy when Mary, in turn, leaves him. It is also Allen’s first ‘deep’ portrayal of a relationship between himself and a nigh-psychotic, for while Annie might have been a ditz and psychologically unhealthy to a point, she’s clearly grown up by film’s end. Mary, by contrast, is a nut-job from the very beginning who simply cannot grow, unaware, as she is, of her own patterns. Yet it is really Tracy’s appearance that grates, not only due to the two characters’ age difference, but because Isaac does precisely what someone with ‘an imbalance of power’ might do: he has sex with her, shows her off (while feigning surprise at her age), and more or less strings her along for months as she falls in love, and he refuses to nix it. So, what’s the tally? Feminists might complain that Isaac is lionized, and it’s true, for he gets away clean, even as a more subtle reading of the film shows that Isaac is skewered and excoriated non-stop. Yet Mary is a clear ‘minus’, and Tracy is harder to gauge. She is somewhat of a victim (‘plus’), but also seems to have a depth and personal agency that age conceals. In short, the manipulator is given love and approbation (‘minus’), even as the discerning viewer knows that she’ll ultimately come to reject him and his childishness, for she is simply too smart and good-looking for it to be any other way. A lukewarm ‘plus’, then, but I’m straining.
Stardust Memories — Woody Allen’s best film, in my book — would further progress kind of triangles that abound in Woody’s films, with a clear psychotic (Dorrie), a neurotic (Daisy), and — as the aliens would call her — a “mature woman” (Isobel). Unsurprisingly, Sandy Bates (Woody Allen) goes for the psychotic of the bunch, who alternately gives him a great time, for she’s bright, elegant, and ‘classy’, and also hell, for she’s manic depressive, jealous, and was once sexually abused by her father. In one of the film’s best scenes, her presence is fractured by Allen’s jump-cuts, which reveal a mind in disarray, while in another, Dorrie accuses Sandy of flirting with her kid cousin (‘minus’). Daisy, by contrast, is sane, but a druggie (‘minus’) with fidelity problems, while Isobel is the very best of the bunch (‘plus’) who is, nonetheless, not a real person, to him, but practically a savior figure for Sandy — ‘minus’? Alvy, Isaac, and a few other ‘Woody’ personas are ever-needy, immature, and not very good artists, to boot. Yet why is Sandy, of all people, attracted to the first two? It’s a question that might puzzle, even enrage, anyone looking for a ‘gendered’ interpretation of the film, for Sandy, unlike Allen’s other personas, is pretty well put together. Yes, one sees him nervous about life, hung-up on irrelevant existential concerns, and the like, but what is rarely noticed is how much others absolutely need him, turning Sandy into a kind of ‘hero’ that they require things of, which often have little to do with fame or success.
Nonetheless, he is stuck on the ‘wrong’ women, and in a big ‘minus’, seems as if he using those even lesser than he is for a temporary lift, despite knowing it’s all doomed. In yet a further ‘minus’, Sandy is shown to be creating a perfect woman via a mock science experiment, only to fall in love yet again with the ugly, dumb, and impossible one, merely because he programmed her to be ‘impossible’. In a final ‘minus’, he rejects Isobel at least a couple of times, as she is, at bottom, too mature, too normal for him to ever love. Yet, as before, things are not as simple as they seem, for even on the film’s most basic level, he grows up, gets together with Isobel, learns of his own folly via extraterrestrials, and that’s that. On another level, it is Sandy Bates directing his film, whose maturity is finally seen for what it is (i.e., real) and the other characters revealed to be full of motives, vanity, and complexities he, himself, could not give to his own creations, as such things are deeper in real life. And then, of course, there is the notion that Stardust Memories is Allen’s film, too, and that Sandy’s worst skewering was written by — well, by Allen, himself. All ‘pluses’, and deep ones, at that, that counteract most claims of misogyny.
After the first major ‘pairing’ of Allen/Keaton, Mia Farrow would come into the picture by 1982. Although A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy was her first foray into film with Allen, it is really Zelig that had Mia in her first deep role, however comic, as Dr. Fletcher, followed up in 1984’s Broadway Danny Rose at her most stylized (and, therefore, least real). She plays Tina, the former girlfriend of a wimpy Mob guy, who starts an affair with the married and washed-up club singer, Lou Canova. It’s an interesting choice, as it’s one of the first times that Allen has cast a downright stereotype (no matter how well-sketched) in an indubitably successful work. One can look at her behavior, petty and generous, ‘street’ and ‘soft’, and draw conclusions, but given how deeply the work is attached to a milieu, rather than character, any sort of deductions are best left to later work. No ‘plus’, no ‘minus’, but merely neutral, at worst.
1985’s The Purple Rose of Cairo is such a work, as Mia Farrow plays Cecilia, a lost Depression-era type married to a brute, in what was probably the deepest Allen comedy up until that point. On the ‘minus’ side, she seems to be a zombie, going from movie to movie to get away from her life, while gossiping about the ‘stars’ at a diner where she works, and frolics with a real-life fantasy, only to naively choose the ‘real’ Gil over Tom, and is therefore disillusioned. On the ‘plus’ side, however, it is clear that her marriage — whatever may come of it — cannot go back to being as it was, given her “Rilkean” (to use Dan Schneider’s word) moment at film’s end. So, what’s the score? Critics might point to the fact that Monk was right about Cecilia all along (“It’s not like the movies out there!”), verifying that a brute’s perspective was the superior one. Yet the deeper point is that it is Monk’s abuse, as well as Cecilia’s disillusion, that prompts a very possible change in her, for she is no longer willing to be part of such patterns. A strong ‘plus’, as well as Mia’s greatest boon to her acting career thus far.
Then, there’s Hannah and Her Sisters, which takes the earlier film’s ambiguities and deepens them significantly. Mia plays Hannah, the oldest of three sisters — interesting women, all — whose ‘acting’ accomplishment (and Allen’s writerly one) is her ability to inhabit two distinct Farrows: one as a good, caring sister, and a good daughter and wife, and the other a manipulator, whose very manipulations are devious precisely because the viewer can never decide how real they are. Woody Allen, himself, has long touted the ambiguity of the film, in this regard, and it is a great touch, as it shows people precisely as they are, in their most complex manifestations. Of course, on the ‘minus’ side of a feminist reading, Hannah’s quite cold (she has a child with her husband’s best friend, ‘as agreed’; she needs no compliments, nor emotional support; she subtly uses her position against others), and puts people down even when she doesn’t meant to, giving her the feel of ‘evil’, no matter how factually untrue. Other sisters have issues as well, such as Holly (Dianne Wiest), who saves herself purely via writing (a definite ‘plus’), and Lee, who saves herself via marriage (a ‘minus’, no doubt). Yet it is Hannah who resolves her deepest problems, it seems, without ever resorting to the help of a man, which goes beyond ‘plus’ or ‘minus’, and into the transcendental territory that, alas, most people’s patterns and behaviors never breach.
September and Crimes and Misdemeanors saw Mia in far lesser roles, which mostly had to do with the characters played. September is, no doubt, a huge ‘minus’ for all involved: Stritch is cold and difficult to believe as a mother-figure; Wiest is a cheater, and a traitor to her friend, all over a man; and Mia as a Liv Ullman-like headcase who neither has a true defining moment (at least one that’s believable), nor any genuine growth throughout the film. By contrast, Crimes and Misdemeanors has Mia play a superficially strong character, who seems to go against the grain, only to fall for the film’s de facto ‘comic’ villain due to the man’s success, thus revealing her own inner lacks. It is yet another ‘minus’, for Mia, but just as bad for Dolores, who is a victim the viewer is — if only slightly — glad to see gone, and Wendy, a horrific shrew and gold-digger. One film, but three ‘minuses’ for the major women involved, breaking it to a total of six within a span of two years, with a wan ‘plus’ due to Mia’s radio-star success in Radio Days, and another for her ‘sweetness’ in Shadows and Fog. Yet the two are so innocuous, and so harmless to the male ideal, as it’s popularly skewered, that one wonders whether it’s even appropriate to keep score.
Alice is perhaps one of the ‘least’ of Woody Allen’s women, for Mia’s title character is at once a stereotypical Upper East Side housewife at film’s start (‘minus’!), and a stereotypical follow-your-dreams ‘success’ at film’s end, wherein her fairly standard desires are given life through some rash decisions that only speak to her inner lacks (another ‘minus’). But, she is happier, now, and she could respect herself more, making any feminist reading lukewarm, at worst.
Such films will ill-prepare a viewer, however, for 1992’s Husbands and Wives. It is not only Woody’s last truly great film, but also features Mia Farrow’s final performance for Woody. Yet instead of being sweet, like in Purple Rose, or ambiguous, as with Hannah, or simply tepid, as in Alice, Mia’s character, Judy, is downright insidious, a cancer that not only disrupts Gabe’s sense of self, but draws Michael into her web, as well, with a kind of selfishness and exactitude that borders on sociopathic. Yet while September found the viewer engaging with a weak woman, whose very reality is undermined by the thinness of her character, Judy is, by contrast, utterly real, and frighteningly so. Interestingly, the film, itself, was being finished around the time of the Allen/Soon-Yi scandal, and although Mia would (rightfully) grow to loathe Woody’s behavior towards her, it would remain a bitter irony for Mia that not only was this her last truly great acting performance, but that Allen, himself, was the one who utterly forged her identity, in this film and others. Yes, one can point to good performances in Rosemary’s Baby or The Great Gatsby, but those films are a far cry from what she’d end up doing with Allen. In a way, then, this makes Husbands and Wives doubly ‘minus’, even as the Jack/Sally arc ultimately paints the other two as part of a well-oiled (even if deeply flawed) relationship. Likewise, Sam (Lysette Anthony) is a ‘plus’ as a dumb but utterly self-knowing fitness instructor, and Rain is a ‘minus’ as a “twenty year-old twit” (to quote Gabe) who ‘threateningly’ loses Gabe’s novel.
Now that Mia’s out of the picture, something needs to be said for Marion’s (Gena Rowlands) character in Another Woman, who remains one of cinema’s greatest creations. Critics have decried its bleakness and its ‘gloom’, but in reality, it’s one of Allen’s most hopeful films, not the least of which is due to the fact that Marion goes through her deepest transformation at the age of fifty, at a time when in Hollywood (and elsewhere), a woman’s life is effectively over. In another ‘plus’, the male lead is a slimeball who is clearly derided left and right, Marion’s father shares her flaws, but cannot atone, while it is Marion’s imagined analyst (rather than a ‘real’ male figure) that cuts through her most deeply, even as an ex-lover is there to provide the why’s. Yet while Marion has made bad choice in life, marriage, and work, there is a chance for a clean slate, not unlike Cecilia in Purple Rose, whose own ‘Rilkean’ moment is updated with real-life references to Rilke’s work, and carried out with great visuals and poesy. A definite ‘plus’, all around, especially as Marion remains one of the most deeply sketched female characters of all time, in any medium.
Although Diane Keaton would return to 1993’s Manhattan Murder Mystery, wherein she is both a pain to feminists, via nigh-insanity, as well as a boon, due to her desires to ‘take control of her life’ — however wan such a thing may be, in context — Allen’s ‘big’ work with the same actresses was all but over for another decade. 1995’s Mighty Aphrodite saw the appearance of Allen’s first major bombshell, via Mira Sorvino, who played a definite ‘plus’ as the resourceful ditz as effectively as Mia Farrow did in Radio Days, and continues on the heels of Allen’s more ‘street’ characters, while 1996’s Everybody Says I Love You casts Julia Roberts as a selfish neurotic (‘minus’), and 1997’s Deconstructing Harry and 1998’s Celebrity saw the return of Judy Davis. In the 1997 film, Judy Davis is both the spurned lover, as well as the loony one, wherein she is manipulated by Harry (Woody Allen) twice — once into sex at her father’s funeral (a clear ‘minus’), and another time when she was convinced by Harry to not kill him, simply by his sharing a humorous story he’d written. It is yet another ‘minus’, for now, it is the male misogynist who is able to control women by the power of the word, even as that word, from what we can tell, is not exactly good writing to begin with. A couple of other women fall for his wiles (all ‘minuses’), yet it is Fay (Elisabeth Shue) who is the smart, attractive, and mature woman who grows away from Harry, and is too intelligent to ever really be hurt. She is the redeeming female of the bunch, even as, realistically, the film is much more of a skewering of Harry’s terrible behavior than it is a celebration. Celebrity, especially, is an interesting glimpse into the female psyche, wherein Judy Davis returns as Robin, a ‘weakling’ whose timidity is overcome as she becomes a well-known celebrity gossip. This is certainly a ‘plus’ on the scorecard. And yet, even that is unsettling, for on a much deeper level, it is clear that Robin has become something she’s always loathed, making her just as confused as her bad and immature ex-husband. Robin is the prime example of the woman who ‘has it all’, only to have lost something big in the interim. The final tally, then, depends on whether a gendered reading looks at male-defined success, of which she has plenty (via her new husband, no less) or at more transcendental categories, which makes her success quite dubious.
If Celebrity was fractured along ideological lines, then Sweet and Lowdown is strictly about character, as there are two strong yet wildly divergent female leads. The film features a great performance by Samantha Morton, who, according to Schneider, plays “a strong Woody woman cloaked as a weak Woody woman”. That, in itself, is a definite ‘plus’, especially since Hattie — for all the abuse Penn showers upon her — never really seems to take her lover’s bad behavior too seriously, and is never warped by it, as she simply refuses to become a victim. Yet, in some ways, Blanche (Uma Thurman) is just as interesting. A liberal type who decides to go ‘slumming’ with Emmet Ray (Sean Penn), all the while trying to crack his behavior, the twist is that she is merely as sick as he is, for neither understand each other, nor (what’s worse) even understand themselves. A clear ‘minus’, for any gendered reading of her character, as Blanche, despite being superficially strong, either has White Knight Syndrome (in reverse!), or merely wishes to understand things forever beyond her ken, given her white-bread upbringing. There is evidence for both claims, yet, in both readings, Blanche is a woman that, if not out-and-out bent on her own destruction, knows less of herself than she thinks.
Unsurprisingly, The Curse of the Jade Scorpion has received flak not only because it’s one of Woody’s lesser films, but because of the deep irreality of three young and attractive women falling for a 65 year old nebbish, down to the wonderful ripostes between Allen and Charlize Theron’s ‘femme fatale’, which are both flirty, and impossible to believe. Yet, for all that, it’s a comedy, and a comedy utterly dependent on its own ridiculousness. To deduce any grand conclusions from such misses the point, a fact that’s less so in Small Time Crooks, wherein a mostly-for-laughs comedy nonetheless has a tinge of social comment. This is not only in the plot-line, itself, but in little touches, such as visuals that clearly show Ray (Woody Allen) as ‘apart’ from the world, and Frenchy (Tracey Ullman) as making an attempt to enter it, albeit through the wrong door. In this way, Frenchy gets a definite ‘plus’, not merely because she strikes it rich as a talented and determined woman, but also because, after a silly and self-destructive detour, ultimately finds herself, as herself. And, naturally, the fact that she ends up with a loser like Ray is immaterial, as going ‘higher’ is irrelevant (and dangerous!) if it’s not within one’s purpose. If the film has a lesson, it is that, coupled with a feminist ending cloaked as something else.
Hollywood Ending and Anything Else were just too light and silly for any real analysis. Ellie (Tea Leoni) has no character arc, nor real reason for ever getting back with Val (Woody Allen), save for an odd ‘romantic’ scene that mostly looks like an attractive, middle-aged woman tucking in her aging father into bed, while Anything Else features the abysmal Amanda (Christina Ricci), whose character ‘minus’ is still not as strong as Mia Farrow’s Judy, given how over-the-top bad and manipulative Amanda is, almost to the point of stereotype, compared to Judy’s hyper-realism and noxiousness. Thus, Tea gets Leoni is decidedly neutral, while Ricci — a self-absorbed cheater and drama queen — gets a weak ‘minus’. This is not, of course, due to the nature of the characters (who are both negatives), but the narratives, themselves, and what may or may not be reasonably deduced from their anomie.
The string of ‘minuses’ would only continue, albeit far more realistically, with Melinda and Melinda, a film whose title character (Radha Mitchell) is played from both comic and dramatic perspectives, with neither depictions being particularly flattering. ‘Comic’ Melinda enters the picture via an overdose of sleeping pills, while ‘tragic’ Melinda ends up precisely where she began: in pure self-destructiveness, wherein she only ‘got better’ due to the influence of a man that simply left her at film’s end. ‘Comic’ Melinda is a wan ‘plus’, for she grows up, ultimately dating the man who’s right for her, even if her complexity is only hinted at in the narrative arc. ‘Tragic’ Melinda is a clear ‘minus’, however, even as one of the film’s narrators — a woman — can be seen as an over-voice that sees the tales for what they are, and is thus above the fray and beyond such evaluations.
Match Point saw a slight return to not only Allen’s Golden Age, but to extensive work with a single actress — this time, Scarlett Johansson. It is both an odd and fortuitous choice, as Johansson’s dramatic acting, especially as the sex goddess she is depicted to be, here, really does not work. I’ve already detailed why, but suffice to say that a needy, emotional wreck that longs for her lover when he clearly does not want her (as Dolores before her) is a big ‘minus’ to a woman’s depiction, in the same way that Chloe’s (Emily Mortimer) passionless, rote, and down-the-middle existence does not do much to further it, either. Yet it is really the underrated Scoop that has Johansson in a wonderful comic role as a wannabe reporter, wherein her acting is both incredibly expressive and quite independent of her good looks — a ‘plus’ all its own, for it shows an attractive woman of talent that nonetheless plays a ‘geek’ role, and flourishes in it. Yes, she ends up falling for a killer, and even sleeps around for the sake of getting an interview with a film director. But, a) her love seems real, and follows a realistic (not comedic) arc, and b) she merely uses sex for a greater good, for to use one’s assets (the body) is not less ‘feminist’ than to use the mind, which is simply the non-material side of the same coin. In short, Johannson is crafty, intelligent, likeable, and self-assured, and even manages to snag a probable murder conviction for a sociopathic male socialite — a little girl’s fantasy, no doubt, wherein she is both a heroine, while remaining her true, geeky self. Obviously, a big ‘plus’.
It is harder, then, to rank Vicky Cristina Barcelona. On the one hand, Johansson plays yet another vixen, and the film’s all the worse for it, as it simply establishes her as part of the troika of stereotypes the film panders to: the hot-blooded Spanish artists with little discernible talent — only melodrama — and the unwitting American tourist who gets trapped by them. Yet, even here, this is less of an attack on dumb women than on a particular ‘type’, for while Penelope Cruz is utterly loathsome, she is no worse than her husband, as they’ve come together (and will inevitably stay together) to exacerbate their own issues. It is Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall that “can’t live like this”, for while they are both lost and without a real core, they do grow up, even if to what extent is unknown. Some might point to Hall’s character’s ‘intelligence’, but this is questionable, as she is working on a rather odd college degree (to put it mildly) and never challenges Bardem’s bad art and other pretensions, as the film’s point is that such things are a bit beyond her. One could therefore label both women as a ‘plus’ or ‘minus’, and still be right.
2007’s Cassandra’s Dream features one female character of note, Angela (Hayley Atwell), who plays the ‘illicit’ woman quite well, at turns deftly criticizing Ian’s great immaturity (‘plus’), and at others cheating on him, for she, too, lacks a real core (‘minus’). Yet she seems to undergo a genuine transformation, and one that will probably stay with her. A ‘plus’, overall, as she ultimately transcends the symbol that Ian minutely crafted for her, even as he, himself, is not around to enjoy it. By contrast, Whatever Works is, like other films before it, too silly to take seriously, and the core arc of a pretty Southern belle falling in love with a hateful old fart simply too unrealistic to argue pro or con. One could say some interesting things for Melodie’s mother, but she, too, exists almost purely for comic relief, while her transformation from meek, conservative housewife into a highly sexualized photographer (and phony!) is both superficially empowering, and none-too-flattering. One has to save the opinions for stronger work.
You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger is, if nothing else, a film with a few interesting scenes marred by some empty characterizations. Alfie’s new lady is an unrepentant gold-digger (‘minus’), Sally is a stereotypically ignored and ill-treated wife of a bad writer (‘neutral’), Helena starts with some strong characterization, only to end up as the film’s de facto comic relief living out a world of delusion (‘minus’), and Dia is an utterly lost cheater who falls in love with a bad artist’s projection, rather than the man, himself (‘minus’). Midnight in Paris fails in its characterizations, as well, with the film’s ‘alternate’ world of the 1920s being full of well-sketched caricatures, and the ‘real’ world of Owen Wilson marred by the fact that everyone is a stereotype — not the least of which is Gil’s fiancee, Inez, who is a harpy, a shrew, cold, and anything else one might think of to classically associate with a ‘bad’ woman. Not only is she a ‘minus’, but a bigger one than Christina Ricci’s Amanda (Anything Else), for this film at least succeeds on technical grounds, thus forcing the viewer to consider Inez’s behavior with a little more consequence, and thus connect with her on a more visceral level.
To Rome with Love fares a little better, mostly due to one of its deeper tales. Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) is an architecture student living in Rome who bumps into John (Alec Baldwin), a famous architect whom Jack admires. They seem, at times, to not only be older or younger versions of each other, but the same person merely spaced a few decades apart. This little ‘kick’ gets the film going, as John’s Play It Again, Sam-like comments towards his naive former self fall on deaf ears, thus setting the tale up from a masculine point of view. Despite John’s warnings, however, Jack falls for the phony Monica, an utter loon in the Anything Else vein, as well as a 21st century version of Allen’s earlier neurotics. She is a clear ‘minus’, breaking the trust of her friend, Sally, manipulating Jack, then ultimately leaving him as soon as something slightly better comes her way. A few things might be said for the film’s other female characters, but given how lacking the other tales are, any real deductions simply miss the boat.
For all its bleakness, Blue Jasmine is not so much a ‘minus’ to the feminine, as it is a mere strike against Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), herself, and the arrogant, self-deluding type she comes to represent. Chili (Bobby Cannavale) is the ‘good’ brute to Monk’s (Purple Rose) bad one, and Ginger (Sally Hawkins) is mostly self-aware and mature, making for a big ‘plus’ even as her adoptive sister is so lacking. In fact, Jasmine is not only absolutely nuts, but has no redeeming features whatsoever, at turns playing the jealous wretch when she rats out her crook husband (Alec Baldwin), or the ungrateful boob when she comes to stay with Ginger. Nor does she grow, either as a character, or even with the viewer, in the rare Woody Allen film that does not get much better with multiple viewings, but only reveals more of its flaws when Cate Blanchett’s acting is no longer front-and-center, and the viewer has to deal with some of the film’s other half. In short, she is a big ‘minus’ — a well-written minus, no doubt, and quite a realistic one, at that, but a ‘minus’, nonetheless.
This finally brings me to the deeper point. In the final tally, Allen’s films have, maybe, 25 or 30 positive depictions of women, and 30 to 35 negative ones, tipping, it would seem, the balance in favor of the view that Allen has some inner ‘need’ to be critical of them, and perhaps even supporting Dan Schneider’s contention of Allen’s “arrested sexual development”, both within his films, and without. Yet I started this essay with a hypothetical, and to merely entertain some possibilities — not settle on them. The fact is, Allen has crafted some of cinema’s greatest characters, whether it’s Marion from Another Woman, or the two trios of sisters from Allen’s ‘sister’ dramas. Often, they are bad people. At times, they are ditzy, selfish, and stuck in their patterns, sometimes without much possibility to break free. Yes, critics will complain of this, yet if one wants ‘reality’, as is, it must be taken as a sum, as terrible human beings are no less a part of this reality than smart, good, and mature ones, no matter how one may complain of the depictions. Perhaps Allen’s motivations here are suspect. Perhaps Allen ‘wished himself’ into Chris’s shoes when Chris frolics with Match Point’s Johansson in the wheat, with Allen thus living this out vicariously. Perhaps Allen, himself, had a boyhood ‘detective’ fantasy based on the noirs he’d seen as a child, and can play it out via Jade Scorpion, and the various lusts within, in the same way that he lets Johansson play a little girl’s fantasy in Scoop. Yet, for all that, Allen is wise enough to let so many of those romances fail. But whether this is his own strikeouts as a child, thus giving him bittersweet recollections via film, or merely his belief in the atypical ending and anti-Hollywood tropes that define his work, is irrelevant. At bottom, such relationships do not come to fruition because it’s only right, given the personages involved, and if Allen is simply in his characters’ shoes, he is, therefore, also skewering himself, and his own immaturity.
‘Perhaps’, as the phrase goes and will continue to go, but we’re dangerously close to the area of tabloid. I prefer to avoid such things. Instead, I’d look at the bottom line. Allen has attracted a huge number of well-known and little-known actresses, and they’ve foregone the huge sums they’d make in other films for a mere crack at a Woody film, with the understanding that they’ll be part of something intelligent, and good. I am, after all, a man writing of a woman’s psyche. So is Allen. Yet the women know, and they have come. Most likely, they will continue to come. This is not equality or ethics, ‘good’ or ‘bad’. It is a matter of greatness. Pre-Woody Mia Farrow would know. Post-Woody Mia would probably know even better, personal feelings aside. “Now, why would a dame want money,” as Humphrey Bogart might say in Play It Again, Sam, “when she could live forever?”