All of Woody's women

All of Woody's women

Hollywood diaries

All of Woody's women

Like many protagonists in Woody Allen’s movies, the title character in his new film, Blue Jasmine, sometimes speaks with a familiar stammer and exhibits a telltale existential dread. But beyond that, she could hardly be more different from her creator.

Jasmine, a fallen New York socialite played by Cate Blanchett, is left emotionally brittle by the deceptions of her husband (Alec Baldwin), a philanderer and a financial huckster. Having fled to San Francisco to start anew, she is oblivious to the calamities that have stripped her of her station. She continues to be obsessed with class, status and luxury brands, and knows how to pronounce the name Louis Vuitton for maximum annoyance.

In the span of more than 40 of Allen’s films, including Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, strong and memorable women have become as much a hallmark of his movies as the venerable Windsor font in their credits. These are women who dominate and who are subjugated, who struggle and love and kvetch and fall apart; but they rarely conform to simplistic stereotypes. Jasmine may be deeply troubled, but at least she’s deep.

Yet almost nothing connects these characters — who have been played by actresses including Diane Keaton, Dianne Wiest, Scarlett Johansson and Penélope Cruz — except that they have all sprung from the mind of the same filmmaker, one who professes no real insight into how he writes and casts his female characters, but remains confident that he still knows how to create them. “People have criticised me for being narcissistic,” Allen said, adding. “People criticised me for being a self-hating Jew. But not being able to create good women was not aimed at me very often.”

Allen may not wish to recall it, but his movies have also drawn charges of chauvinism and sexism, by detractors who have said they frequently depicted women as neurotics, shrews and prostitutes.

For successive generations of actresses, the opportunity to work in one of Allen’s films has become a kind of career validation. And for Allen, the phase of his career that began with the 2005 release of Match Point has seen him delve into female characters, who are further removed from his familiar life experiences, and more interested in finding and asserting their place in the world.

Johansson, who starred in Match Point, Scoop and Vicky Cristina Barcelona, said that Allen ‘appreciates the versatility of the heroine, her ability to be both doe and lioness. His openness to the possibility that a woman can be both hunter and hunted allows him to explore more deeply the complexity of the female spirit’.

Allen, 77, could not immediately account for why women figure prominently in his work except that, well, they interest him. “They’re attractive, they’re complex, and the guys have never been portrayed superior to the women,” he said. “The guys are usually inferior, because they’re less grounded than the women.”

Allen credits his romantic relationship with Keaton that began in the 1970s with opening his eyes to the potential of female characters. When he started dating Keaton, Allen said, “I started to appreciate her so much, personally and as an actress, that I started writing from the woman’s point of view.” In the movies that followed Annie Hall, he said, “It’s always more comfortable for me to write women.”

As Keaton recalled it, their relationship was not unlike Annie Hall, with Allen becoming both her partner and mentor, offering her an attentive ear and introducing her to Freudian analysis. In the years since, Allen has had little trouble casting the actresses he has wanted, landing the likes of Geraldine Page, Julia Roberts and Judy Davis, and helping earn Oscars for Wiest (a two-time winner, for Hannah and Her Sisters and Bullets Over Broadway), Mira Sorvino (Mighty Aphrodite) and Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona).

Allen said his female characters sometimes spring from his own best guesses of how women might react in certain situations. “Now this does not mean I feel it or think it accurately all the time,” he said. “I don’t.” But in the case of Jasmine, she was inspired by a woman he’d heard about from his wife.

This woman, Allen said, was “a very high Upper East Side liver” who “had a precipitous drop and had to downsize radically.” “She went from someone with a limitless amount of money to someone who had to shop in bargain places and even get a job,” he said.
The Jasmine character may well invite further criticism of Allen’s perspective on women, and whether there is something antiquated about the idea of a woman whose world is shattered when she loses her money and her man. But Blanchett said she had known similar people. “By circumstance or lack of confidence, their identity gets consumed by their partner,” she said.

Though Blanchett played a similarly lost soul as Blanche DuBois in a heralded stage production of A Streetcar Named Desire, she said Blue Jasmine more immediately reminded her of playing Shakespeare’s Richard II, of ‘that sense of falling from grace, the delusion, the interface between the role you’re given and the one you’re longing to inhabit.’

Blanchett said she tried to suggest as much to Allen while working on a scene for Blue Jasmine. “I said, ‘How would you do this, Mr Allen? And he said, ‘Well, if I were playing the role,’ and I turned to him with a backwards grin and said, ‘You know, you could have played this role.’ ” Allen thought about it “for a good minute and a half,” Blanchett said, “and said, ‘No, it would have been too comic.’”

Johansson affirmed Allen had a feminine side in him that longed to break out. “I believe Woody, at heart, would have been happiest to have been born as the classic opera diva,” she said.