Top 15 Performances in a Woody Allen Film

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Originally Posted in Creative Loafing Tampa.

Very few filmmakers are known for their casting power. Woody Allen may be one of the best. He is always great at getting Hollywood’s biggest movie stars and the latest indie up and comers into his films (and with perfect timing). He worked with Sally Hawkins and Samantha Morton right when they were about to hit it big. His latest, Whatever Works, has some of the most coveted actors around (Evan Rachel Wood, Larry David, and Patricia Clarkson). Here are my 15 favorite performances in a Woody Allen film:

15) Rebecca HallVicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

Hall is reminiscent of Kate Winslet in that she can convey multiple emotions with astounding subtlety. Many consider Vicky to be the first female Woody Allen character. On paper maybe, but Hall turns the role into so much more, perfectly relating the character’s fears and her longing to make life exciting and meaningful. Her emotions are written on her face, so much so that I didn’t need to hear that goddamn narrator telling me what she was going through.

14) Gena RowlandsAnother Woman (1988)

Rowlands plays a woman on the verge of a breakdown. The head of a department of philosophy in a major university, she is seemingly in control, with a good marriage, a no nonsense demeanor and ambitions to write a book. But she begins a midlife crisis and everything unravels. She stars to become self conscious, and begins to realize what everyone thinks of her and the more fulfilling directions she could have gone in her life. Rowlands conveys all this perfectly, and this is one of her most underrated performances.

13) Mia FarrowBroadway Danny Rose (1984)

Farrow is barely recognizable in her role as a character inspired by Robert Deniro’s in Raging Bull. She’s the tough talking brassy blond girlfriend of a has-been crooner. And you just have to see her to believe it.

12) Samantha MortonSweet and Lowdown (1999)

In a career making performance, Morton plays a mute and nearly steals the movie from love interest Sean Penn.

11) Gene WilderEverything you’ve Ever Wanted to Know about Sex *but were Afraid to Ask (1972)

If you’ve seen the movie you know why. It’s just genius!

10) Judy DavisHusbands and Wives (1992)

Davis’ scenes are as uncomfortable as they get. The scene with her out on a date and shouting over the phone at Sidney Pollack is insanely tense. Davis’ performance is an absolute Tour de Force.

9) Barbara HersheyHannah and Her Sisters (1986)

Hershey’s character is by far the least neurotic in Hannah and Her Sisters. Unfortunately, that leaves her surrounded by neurotics. She lives with her boyfriend, a reclusive artist who lectures her about the doom of humanity and treats her like an apprentice. To escape she embarks on an affair with her sister’s husband. Through it all you see her guilt, her sexual awakening and her search for meaning. Hershey is the glue that holds the film together.

8 ) Javier BardemVicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

The tall, dark and handsome caricature Allen always mocked in his films finally gets a three dimensional treatment, and Bardem brings it to stunning life. The actor makes you believe that he could seduce two women in one weekend, and makes it look so damn easy in the process.

7) Dianne WiestBullets over Broadway (1994)

Dianne Wiest’s Helen Sinclair is one of the great all-time screen divas. I can watch her fabulous tantrums for hours, and I still crack up every time she says “Don’t Speak.”

6) Diane KeatonAnnie Hall (1977)

Keaton’s character was something of a sensation when the film was released, as no one had seen anything quite like her. Keaton finds a perfect balance between motherly care, genuine charm, love and just a pinch of kookiness. A true original.

5) Julie KavnerRadio Days (1987)

She is one of the most loving mothers in all of cinema. She has no big scenes, and instead displays tact, common sense and an undying love for her family. In quite possibly the most moving scene in the film, Kavner describes a Christmas dinner where she remembers the only time she ever saw his parents kiss. It’s only a few seconds but the expression on Kavner’s face is so genuine it’s heartbreaking. Kavner’s performance must have been good practice for her the iconic role as the voice of Marge Simpson.

4) Mariel HemingwayManhattan (1979)

Hemingway was only 18 when she made Manhattan. It was her first major role, and she was given an Oscar nomination for her trouble. Hemingway is genuinely young and innocent, yet somehow the most mature character in the film. They scene where her heart is finally broken feels so real, I almost have to look away.

3) Martin LandauCrimes and Misdemeanors (1989)

Landau plays a man with vast self importance. He is willing to commit the most heinous acts and maintain a mechanical clam about it all. Yes, he is appalled by his actions, but he examines himself with a kind of cold fascination. Landau was never better.

2) Sean PennSweet and Lowdown (1999)

What makes this Penn’s greatest performance (OK, maybe his second-greatest after Milk) is that it is absolutely uncompromising. He plays Emmet Ray, the world’s second-greatest Jazz guitar player (Django Reinhardt being the greatest). He is an absolute jerk and lowlife, but when he plays her guitar he’s and absolute genius.

1) Woody Allen and Diane KeatonLove and Death (1975)

I cannot think of one performance without the other. What makes Keaton so great in this movie is the hilarious way her character develops. She always wants it both ways, and Keaton was never better as a comic foil to Allen. The timing, the delivery and the physical comedy displayed here are some of the best in film history. Love and Death is my favorite comedy of all time.

11 Comments
  1. Colin Hall says

    I liked Max von Sydow in Hannah, reminds me of myself ;-)

  2. moi says

    I need your help guys! :)
    and what to know about you opinion.. ! :D
    “women” have a special and important role in woody allens films. How do you think do the charakters appear in his movies? how does he characterize them?
    (example: emancipated, strong or… ) and why are they so important for his movies?

    1. moi says

      I need your help guys!
      what is your opinion.. ?!
      “women” have a special and important role in woody allens films. How do you think do the charakters appear in his movies? how does he characterize them?
      (example: emancipated, strong or… ) and why are they so important for his movies?

  3. Ryan Clark says

    Very good list, but I think Gena and Judy should be higher up. And I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment of Mariel Hemingway’s performance in Manhattan. That scene in the diner is incredibly moving.

    I haven’t seen all the films yet so I can’t say whether your entire list is good, but if I were to make a list like this I would also definitely include (in no particular order):

    Geraldine Page – Interiors
    Maureen Stapleton – Interiors
    Jessica Harper – Stardust Memories
    Charlotte Rampling – Stardust Memories
    Betty Buckley – Another Woman
    Sandy Dennis – Another Woman
    Anjelica Huston – Manhattan Murder Mystery
    Kirstie Alley – Deconstructing Harry
    John Carradine – Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex
    Hazelle Goodman – Deconstructing Harry

  4. JDrocks says

    Judy Davis should be Number 1. She is the only actor Woody has worked with who he considers to be a genius.

  5. Marc-David Jacobs says

    Any list with this title that does not include one character from Stardust Memories-which is, incidentally, Allen’s greatest masterpiece, and one of the great undiscovered masterpieces of all cinema-must be inherently flawed. Charlotte Rampling, Marie-Christine Barrault, Jessica Harper and even, to a lighter extent, Woody himself are all, in this film, some of the very finest portrayals of character and character development in any film he has ever put on screen. The notion that Vicky Christina Barcelona’s Vicky is the first female Woody Allen character would be immediately put asunder by a single viewing of this film. The women are its strongest element, and the performances superb bar none. Even supporting roles (Helen Hanft or John Rothman, for instance) stand out in a way unlike the characters in any of Woody’s other works.

    A revision is clearly in order.

  6. Fred says

    Samantha Morton did steal the show from Sean Penn and should definitely be higher up your list.

  7. Dan James

    Jazz fans: » Blog Archive » Top 15 Performances in a Woody Allen Film http://bit.ly/Liv7Q

  8. Keach says

    Charlotte Rampling as Dorrie in Stardust Memories should definitely be on that list.

  9. Zed says

    Penelope Cruz in Vicky C B should be on this list! Also Hershey rocks – place her number one.

    1. Anthony Nicholas says

      Cruz was good but Bardem and Hall were the real stars.

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