By John H. Foote
Some directors are just wizards with actors and bring out their finest work. Clint Eastwood believes that half his job as director is done when casting the film, and he might be right. As a former stage director, the greatest lesson I ever learned was when to be quiet, when to leave these artists alone to do their thing. Far too often it is forgotten that actors are very creative people too. Allen has always been a gifted filmmaker with actors and especially actresses, guiding countless to Oscar nominations and wins. No doubt being an actor has helped enormously guide the talented artists through his films.
Seventeen actors and actresses have been nominated for Academy Awards for their work in an Allen film, seven winning the Oscar, ten others nominated. The winners include Diane Keaton in Annie Hall (1977), Dianne Wiest and Michael Caine in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Wiest again in Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite (1995), Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) and Cate Blanchett in Blue Jasmine (2014). In many cases, as explained below, the winners swept the awards that year, winning everything.
Here are the 10 best performances in a Woody Allen film.
1. DIANNE WIEST IN BULLETS OVER BROADWAY (1994)
Simply one of the greatest performances in the history of the movies, Wiest is superb as a vain, preening, manipulative needy, praise craving, hard drinking grand old dame of the stage during the depression. Knowing she must seduce her director to make her part more substantial, she goes about doing that … you will never hear the words “don’t speak” again and not think of her. Stunning. She won every single acting award available to her that year, an extraordinary feat given the number of awards out there these days. Wiest won her second Academy Award for this performance, an astounding piece of acting.
2. CATE BLANCHETT IN BLUE JASMINE (2013)
Damaged, hurt and wounded, Blanchett brings to mind Blanche DuBois with this astounding performance that, like Wiest, swept the acting awards that year. Whether babbling nonsensical, or focused and broken, Blanchett is haunting in the film throughout, lying to cover up a past that shames her, smiling through heartache, and constantly making everything about her because in the past it was always about her, she truly knows nothing else. Now broken and filled with despair, she is brilliant. Universally acclaimed, Blanchett won every single Best Actress award available to her that year, including the Academy Award.
3. DIANE KEATON IN ANNIE HALL (1977)
Keaton perhaps understood Allen better than anyone because she lived with him for years in the seventies and they have remained good friends ever since. She is Annie Hall. And like her character, they simply grew apart, she no longer needed him. They helped educate one another as lovers, and as she grew, she discovered she was fine without him, but valued his friendship. Scattered, needy, yet starving for knowledge and willing to do anything to learn, she was a wonder as Annie and won the Academy Award for her work. A biting and honest portrait of a very modern love affair. As she exclaimed, “la di da”.
4. DIANE KEATON IN MANHATTAN (1979)
As Mary the pretentious neurotic Allen falls hard for in Manhattan, arguably his best film, Keaton is again superb. Brittle, angry, needy, pinched and unspeakably selfish her character is not terribly likable, so it is to her credit she makes us care for this nightmare of a woman. Bathing in insecurities and possessed with overwhelming pretensions she is an elitist snob who must be the centre of attention, and if she is not creates a crisis to be such. A brilliant performance that deserved the nomination it did not get.
5. DIANNE WIEST IN HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986)
Dianne Wiest is seen in flashbacks as the cocaine addled sister Holly, a struggling actress, who gets clean and looks for love in all the wrong places. She finally bumps into her sister’s ex-husband Mickey (Woody Allen) and the two fall in love, against all odds. They are true soulmates and Holly blooms under his attention. Her character is like a Jekyll and Hyde, monstrous while on cocaine, a sweet loving woman when not. Wiest made her first clean sweep of the supporting actresses awards with this wonderful performance. Eight years later she did it again.
6. MIRA SORVINO IN MIGHTY APHRODITE (1995)
Mira Sorvino is hysterically funny as the knockout porn star seeking love who becomes good friends with Allen in this often profane comedy. Tall, leggy, with a helium sounding voice, she is not terribly bright and speaks with no censor about the things she does on various porn sets. Sorvino won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress, richly deserved, and another clean sweep.
7. MIA FARROW IN BROADWAY DANNY ROSE (1984)
Though I am not a fan of Farrow, especially in the days after her attacks of Allen, her superb performance as the brash, blonde gal in this film is exquisite and a complete transformation for the wispy actress. Often brittle and frigid onscreen, she exudes absolute confidence here and walks away with the film. Denied an Oscar nomination that without a doubt should have come. A remarkably brave performance from an actress I once believed was limited in range. I was dead wrong.
8. ALAN ALDA IN CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (1989)
The only male on the list which tells you how terrific Alda was as Cliff, the preening, self-obsessed brother-in-law to Allen’s small-time documentary filmmaker. A high-powered TV executive, Alan throws his brother-in-law a bone in asking him to make a documentary about himself, and then engineers how it will be shot, everything Allen does not permit. “If it bends it’s funny … if it breaks, it’s not funny” is the comedy mantra Cliff lives by, which also appalls his brother in law. Alda won the Supporting Actor prize from the New York Film Critics, only to be snubbed by the Academy.
9. MARIEL HEMINGWAY IN MANHATTAN (1979)
As shy, sweet 17-year old Tracy, the high school senior dating 42-year old Allen’s TV writer, Hemingway walked away with every scene she had in this wonderful film. Tall, awkward, and so very young, it feels alarming watching this child cavort with this older man, and people might be uncomfortable, but Allen always wrote from his life. Hemingway is wise beyond her years, completely winning and has that classic last line, asking her former lover to have a little faith in people. She earned an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress.
10. SCARLETT JOHANSSON IN MATCH POINT (1986)
She is unlike any character Allen has ever wrote, a ball of sexual fury who will not be ignored. Social climbing Nora casts off men like clothing but when she hooks up with a married man who will never leave his wealthy wife to be with her, her temper explodes, and she is about to make his life a living hell. Sexual, with a walk that will stop traffic, Johansson is superb, and thinking of her lifeless, murdered by her lover, is heart stopping. Johansson very briefly became Allen’s muse growing substantially as an actress while working for the filmmaker.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.