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

WOODY ON WOMEN

"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."

TO ROGER EBERT, 'A KISS IS STILL A KISS', 1984

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

TO LYN TORNABENE, MCCALLS, 1969

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

MANHATTAN, 1979

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

TO PLAYBOY, 1967

"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."

OF DIANE KEATON, QUOTED IN DIANE KEATON: THE STORY OF THE REAL ANNIE HALL, 1989

"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."

TONY SCHWARTZ, NEW YORK TIMES, 1980

"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."

TO AMERICAN FILM, 1987

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."

'CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS', 1989

"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."

TO PEOPLE, 1993

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

OF THE SOON-YI AFFAIR, TO DENIS HAMILL, HELLO MAGAZINE, 1993

ON WOODY AND WOMEN

"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."

VICKY TIEL, AN EARLY GIRLFRIEND, QUOTED IN WOODY AND HIS WOMEN, 1993

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

JACK KROLL, NEWSWEEK, 1978

"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."

RON ROSENBAUM, MADEMOISELLE, 1986

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