Woody Allen and his women

There was Diane Keaton. Mia Farrow. Even his forgotten first wife figured in his early work. Now they're gone, where does that leave Woody Allen? By Sheila Johnston

When Woody Allen's new filmpremiered in Venice this September, its men put up a poor show on the publicity beat. F Murray Abraham was orotund, actorly and thoroughly unilluminating. Peter Weller arrived an hour late without apology, treated his publicist like a skivvy and seemed much more interested in discussing a short film he had directed himself. Allen was also in town, but for nothing as vulgar as self-promotion: he was working on his next project and kept an invisible profile. It was left to the actresses to fly the flag valiantly for his movie.

This was, in some ways, as it should be - in the story, the men (except, naturally, Woody's character) were incidentals and the women stole the show. It's a pattern that marks most of his movies. He's famed for writing great, steaming, meaty roles for actresses, a plum part in each of his films for the woman - Louise Lasser, Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow - he was involved with. "I've always felt more sanguine about women than about men," he said in 1984. "They're more mature, less bellicose, most gentle. They're closer to what life's supposed to be about."

Not everyone was impressed. Already in the Seventies, feminists were viewing his films with suspicion, and the sceptical voices soon gathered force. Tim Carroll, in Woody and His Women, raised a question mark about his habit of casting gorgeous, accomplished actresses only to discard them on the cutting-room floor. As time went on, his brow seemed to darken. Critics were struck by how his female characters were so often either dithering and adorable or bossy viragos. "It's been a theme in Allen's films since at least Interiors that vitality in women is somehow grotesque," wrote Adam Mars-Jones of his last film, Bullets over Broadway, which contained no less than three shrill examples.

After the spectacular ding-dong with Mia Farrow, everyone wondered: how on earth will the man who has turned his intimate relationships into a hugely successful international career deal with this? When Allen's first marriage, to Harlene Rosen, ended acrimoniously, he built jokes about it into his stand-up routine ("It was my wife's birthday, so I bought her an electric chair. Told her it was a hairdryer") and was repaid with a $1m suit and a temporary gag order. Were he to try the same trick again, it's unlikely that superlawyers like Alan Dershowitz, one of Mia Farrow's attorneys in the court case, would let him off so lightly. It would be quite a feat to alchemise the base elements of that wretched business into the gold of comedy. And it would be even more impressive to get the public to embrace Woody once again as a romantic leading man.

In Mighty Aphrodite, Allen's latest bid to do all this, he plays a writer whose wife wants a baby but is much too absorbed in her own career as a successful art dealer to bother with pregnancy. They adopt a son, whom he adores. He also becomes obsessed with tracing the child's mother who, to his dismay, turns out to be a good-hearted but terminally dim prostitute and porn star. But, gradually warming to her in a paternal way, he takes the fallen woman under his wing.

When he split with Mia, Allen found himself without a constant muse for the first time in years. To begin with, he called on old friends when casting his movies - Diane Keaton for Manhattan Murder Mystery and Dianne Wiest for Bullets over Broadway (she was rewarded with an Oscar for her comic turn as an ageing diva). But for Mighty Aphrodite, he made some more unexpected choices - Helena Bonham Carter as the ambitious wife, and a relatively unknown actress, Mira Sorvino, as the hooker.

Few were more surprised than Bonham Carter, not least at her director's chutzpah. "I was amazed, when I read the script, that I was playing his wife," she says. "I thought, 'Well, you've got a fantasy and a half.' But then, on his scale, I'm geriatric and over the hill. Apparently, to give him credit, he did have a panic about whether I was too young, whereupon everyone said, 'Woody, why are you worrying?'

"It has always been a dream to work with him. But in my dream, I was playing the kooky, fun role rather than the serious, supporting, stooge role. I must say, the wife wasn't someone I could identify with or particularly like. But it was Woody Allen, so it didn't take very long to decide."

Bonham Carter's character, whom she plays with a New York accent (she was allowed to choose whether to make her an American or a Brit), is striking for one thing - how closely, in her pre-occupations, and especially her speech patterns, she resembles Allen's gallery of other self-obsessed, compulsively chatty Manhattanites. I wondered whether she was influenced by Keaton's and, particularly, Farrow's performances in similar roles.

"I did find myself thinking, 'I'm beginning to sound like her.' But that's partly him - he says, 'Improvise, fill the gaps'. You have to talk loudly and quickly because he loves overlapping dialogue; he will not have a moment of silence. In one scene, he was doing this [snaps fingers] to keep me going. Drove me up the wall. As a result, I kept doing lots of 'yeah, yeah' and 'I don't know.' It's very easy to pick up his mannerisms.

"When you meet him, he's quite monosyllabic. It's possible to go through working with Woody without actually exchanging a word except for what's on camera. I think he has great trouble talking to women. But a lot of his close friends are women rather than men."

Mira Sorvino has the film's fun role. But she also has a verbal tic of her own - that flat, squeaky, adenoidal whine Allen seems to think is just the thing for his lower-class females (see Jennifer Tilley in Bullets over Broadway and Mia Farrow in Radio Days). Sorvino recalls that he told her at the audition, "I might want you to do a bit of a voice because not only is she cheap, but she's stupid." (One hopes that those aren't his actual words, because they show a striking contempt for the character).

After working on her voice, she visited Allen to solicit his seal of approval. "I said, 'I think it should be kind of high.'If she spoke in a more normal range, she wouldn't seem as dumb, given the kind of things she says." But Sorvino was still enchanted by her character. "I was ecstatic because the script revealed it to be just about the greatest dumb- blonde role in the past 25 years, if not ever. You don't get this kind of role often and certainly not with this calibre of director or production."

Woody has always traded on his paradoxical self-image: schlemiel and stud, the unprepossessing wimp who is none the less a magnet for bright and beautiful women. But, at 59, isn't he pushing his luck just a little? To put it bluntly, did he still seem sexy to his two co-stars? "I do find him attractive," says Bonham Carter after a short pause. "He brings out the mother in people. He's very small and very vulnerable, and I do think he has a genius. That and a sense of humour are always aphrodisiacs."

Her reaction was shared by Sorvino, whose role required her to get physical with Woody. "We had to reshoot those scenes and, ultimately, I think they were better because I was so comfortable with him by that point. I didn't feel odd doing stuff; it was much more spontaneous and fun. We were kidding around between takes. Perhaps my proudest achievement on that film was to make Woody Allen laugh."

In some ways, Mighty Aphrodite has succeeded in translating Woody's latest crisis into comic art. "It starts off in a seed of reality," says Bonham Carter, "and then he manipulates it into how he would like it to go on. The whole adoption thing couldn't be more of a pointer, outrageously so. In private, he seems to be very generous about Mia, but desperate about his children. The film and his relationship with his son in it seems to be a message to everyone: 'I am a good father and I do love children.' "

She did chafe at the ending, where her character makes the first move towards a reconciliation. "I thought, 'Oh God, it has to be me, the woman, to come back and apologise. Frankly, it does take two for a relationship not to work. I resented that. But it's a fantasy. It's open hearted and romantic, and remarkably unbitter."

Asked whether she thinks that Woody really likes women, Bonham Carter replies, "I think he does. I don't think he could write quite so well for them if he didn't." Perhaps (but only perhaps) it proves that, if you really like women, you pay them the compliment of not sentimentalising them.

The very title of Mighty Aphrodite seems to reaffirm, even if ironically, some kind of stubborn belief in the redemptive power of love. But, in the context of Allen's career, these two new women are hardly a breakthrough. They're just another variant on the same old duo - neurotic toughie vs loveable, malleable flake. In the film, which begins as a Greek tragedy, matters are resolved by an outrageously contrived deus ex machina twist. If only it were as easy in the real world.

'Mighty Aphodite' is showing at the Odeon West End (0171-930 5252) on Wednesday, 3.45pm and 8.45pm, as part of the London Film Festival. It will be released in Britain early next spring


"I've always felt more sanguine about women than about men... They're more mature, less bellicose, more gentle. They're closer to what life's supposed to be about. They bring up kids. Men are stiffer, don't cry, die of heart attacks. Women are just more into nature. They know what sex should be. They never disassociate sex with love."


"I like little girls overwhelmingly better than little boys."


"I'm dating a girl who does homework."


"I like a girl who's arrogant and spoiled, but brilliant and beautiful."


"Meaningful relationships between men and women don't last. There's a chemical in our bodies that make it so we get on each other's nerves sooner or later."

'SLEEPER', 1973

"There's a certain warmth and poignance associated with young women I would never have seen without her. She's increased my affection for women in general."


"The business I'm in is full of beautiful women, but what good is it if they have nothing to say? I've never been a big believer in going to bed with a woman that I don't have some feeling for."


"I feel I've lucked out with Diane Keaton and Mia. I'm lucky that they've made this contribution to me. My contribution is relatively minimal; I can only provide the script, and then they bail me out."


Barbara: "Once the sex goes, it all goes."

Cliff: "It's true. The last time I was inside a woman was when I visited the Statue of Liberty."


"Regarding my love for Soon-Yi: it's real and happily all true... She's a lovely, intelligent, sensitive woman who has and continues to turn my life around in a positive way."


"It was women like my sister Letty, my friend Jean Doumanian, and Soon- Yi, who helped me get through this."



"When he got successful, he still wanted the women who were above his reach. He wanted Warren Beatty's girls. He would get them because they were interested in being with a rich and successful person who could put them on the screen. But once that happened they were doomed to walk out on him."


"Woody agrees with Camus that women are all we know of paradise on earth."


"The great thing Woody Allen has done for the image and creative women is to reverse the Hollywood stereotype and portray women as highly erotic, too."


Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Rupert Murdoch and Rebekah Brooks in 2011

Review: A panoramic account of the hacking scandal

Arts and Entertainment
Comedian Jack Dee has allegedly threatened to quit as chairman of long-running Radio 4 panel show 'I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue'

Edinburgh Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Adèle Exarchopoulos and Léa Seydoux play teeneage lovers in the French erotic drama 'Blue Is The Warmest Colour' - The survey found four times as many women admitting to same-sex experiences than 20 years ago

Arts and Entertainment
Director Paul Thomas Anderson (right) and his movie The Master featuring Joaquin Phoenix

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Carmichael- Lady Edith Crawley</strong></p>
<p>Carmichael currently stars as Sonya in the West End production of
Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Vaudeville Theatre. She made headlines this autumn
when Royal Shakespeare Company founder Sir Peter Hall shouted at her in a
half-sleepy state during her performance. </p>
<p>Carmichael made another appearance on the stage in 2011, playing
two characters in David Hare’s <em>Plent</em>y
at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. </p>
<p>Away from the stage she starred as receptionist Sal in the 2011
film <em>Tinker Tailor Solider Spy</em>. </p>

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Zoe Saldana admits she's

Arts and Entertainment
'Old Fashioned' will be a different kind of love story to '50 Shades'
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off contestants line-up behind Sue and Mel in the Bake Off tent

Arts and Entertainment
Mitch Winehouse is releasing a new album

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Beast would strip to his underpants and take to the stage with a slogan scrawled on his bare chest whilst fans shouted “you fat bastard” at him

Arts and Entertainment
On set of the Secret Cinema's Back to the Future event

Arts and Entertainment
Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman

Arts and Entertainment
Pedro Pascal gives a weird look at the camera in the blooper reel

Arts and Entertainment
Public vote: Art Everywhere poster in a bus shelter featuring John Hoyland
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode

Arts and Entertainment
Judd Apatow’s make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach is ideal for comedies about stoners and slackers slouching towards adulthood
filmWith comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
Arts and Entertainment
booksForget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Arts and Entertainment
Off set: Bab El Hara
tvTV series are being filmed outside the country, but the influence of the regime is still being felt
Arts and Entertainment
Red Bastard: Where self-realisation is delivered through monstrous clowning and audience interaction
Arts and Entertainment
O'Shaughnessy pictured at the Unicorn Theatre in London
tvFiona O'Shaughnessy explains where she ends and her strange and wonderful character begins
Arts and Entertainment
The new characters were announced yesterday at San Diego Comic Con

Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star