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Woody Allen - Brilliant Director or Not?

Updated on March 29, 2018
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I have worked as a writer in France for ten years, writing professionally for primarily film publications.

Woody Allen’s easy recourse to caricature is one of his greatest failings as a writer and director.

In the script notes for Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, the character of Paul, described by Owen Wilson's protagonist as a ”pseudo-intellectual*, is introduced thusly: "EXT. VERSAILLES - DAY. Next day. Two couples are there and Paul waxes pedantically as they tour the grounds or inside.” This is followed by a paragraph of dialogue in which Paul repeatedly prefaces his statements with “I believe” and “if I’m not mistaken*, apparent hallmarks of his insuperability.

Moments later, he interrupts and argues with a museum guide, taking issue with an obscure historical fact about which he is quickly proven wrong. This is not characterisation ~ it is caricature. Midnight in Paris is Allen’s 41st feature film. Does it not seem odd that, after nearly 50 years of writing and directing for the screen. Allen still feels it necessary to populate his films with such obvious parodies of snobbery and pretension?

It is likewise for John (Kurt Fuller), another secondary Midnight cartoon, who is oafish, obnoxious, and also, naturally, a Tea Party Republican — a fact at which Allen once again proves all too happy to sneer. This is hardly surprising. His filmography is a catalogue of stock types and snide cliches: he has attacked airhead SoHo artists (Hannah and Her Sisters). Depression-era laborers AKA The Purple Rose of Cairo, pompous television producers (Crimes and Misdemeanors), clueless studio heads (Hollywood Ending), and even fans of his work (Stardust Memories), rendering each in turn as onedimensional and unworthy of depth.


  • 10. Bananas
  • 9. Broadway Danny Rose
  • 8. The Purple Rose of Cairo
  • 7. Take the Money and Run
  • 6. Crimes and Misdemeanors
  • 5. Love and Death
  • 4. Radio Days
  • 3. Hannah and her Sisters
  • 2. Annie Hall
  • 1. Manhattan

There is also this Hubpage listing the Top 10 Woody movies.

Click thumbnail to view full-size

The women in Allen’s films rarely fare much better.

Because his romances require believably realised co-leads, the women in Allen's films are often granted the luxury of more than one dimension, and his fruitful collaborations with Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow yielded a handful of characters which at least suggested genuine substance. But these are the exceptions, and they are rare even among his most well-regarded films: Manhattan poses its female leads as either cold, intimidating intellectuals (Mary), winsome and impressionable ingenues (Tracy), or embittered, vindictive exes (Jill), leaving it to Allen’s more balanced lead to ping-pong from one to the next before settling on the one best-suited to sate his desires.

Crimes and Misdemeanors proposes that women are desperate, clingy things who must be disposed of once their pleasures have been exhausted, a notion reiterated almost identically years later in Match Point. Vicky Cristina Barcelona regards women as voracious and foreign women as exotic and voracious. Hannah and Her Sisters, despite ostensibly focusing on three women, is in fact about the men whose lives are shaped by them, as if a woman’s capacity to affect the narrative of a man's life were her only function and value.

Allen seems incapable of writing for characters fundamentally unlike himself

Refusing to bestow them with dignity, poise, humor, or anything like psychological or emotional shading. This limited perspective begets a more disconcerting problem: it makes it next to impossible for his films to deal with issues of class, race, and gender with any kind of nuance or sensitivity. His inability to write for people unlike himself is a problem precisely because of the privilege inherent in who he is: people ‘unlike Allen’ are people who are uneducated, people who are working class, people of a different ethnicity, and above all women.

Think of the crude Italian heavies who accost him for an autograph in Annie Hall, or the family of Southern doofuses that pop up throughout Whatever Works (if a character in an Allen film has an accent that originates from outside of New York there is a good chance they are there for comic relief).

Until he cast Chiwotel Kjiofor as an exaggeratedly benevolent romantic lead and thinly-veiled race corrective in Melinda and Melinda, Allen’s filmography featured only two prominent black characters, in Deconstructing Harry and Pullets Over Broadway. One was a prostitute. The other was a maid.

The list goes on.

The most egregious examples — Christina Ricci in Anything Else is perhaps the worst case, but Rachel McAdams in Midnight in Paris is a close second — seem to reflect an acute, deep-seated misogyny, informing narratives which, at their core, are each about the need for a well-rounded and sympathetic man to finally leave the intolerable, perennially shrill woman whose presence is inevitably ruining his life. And yet the sympathetic view is that Allen is not so much a misogynist as he is a slave to his own worst impulses as a writer — namely that same tendency to rely on caricature as a shortcut to pleasing and flattering a like minded audience.

The women in Allen’s films, though they remain for the most part badly written, are not necessarily products of malice on the part of their author, but rather are products of a sensibility which favors cliche. They reflect the desire of their creator to see the world as constructed of archetypes that are more easily understood and, in the end, more easily dismissed.


© 2018 Bruce Donners


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