The 20 Greatest Female Performances in The Films of Woody Allen

best female performances in woody allen films

Picture by Thomas Fluharty

When the dust settles and people look back on the career of Woody Allen, no doubt there will be more than a couple divides. On one hand there will be the people who renounce him unequivocally for what they have been led to believe about his personal life, tabloid shaming and questionable decisions. These events, truthful or not, will permanently shed him in a negative light and obscure his work for those certain individuals.

On the other hand will be people who don’t give a damn about his alleged scandals and only know him for a handful of famous films they’ve either loved or hated, or which lay in wait on that elusive list we all have, of films that ‘must be seen’, in good time. And then there will be the ones who know Woody Allen to be the astounding work horse that he is, a tireless force in American film that has been pounding the keys of his typewriter and fretting behind the lens in a career that spans over fifty years.

With Cate Blanchett’s stunning, Oscar-winning turn in 2013’s ‘Blue Jasmine’, a common theme running through Allen’s filmography returned to the spotlight: the variety of rich, varied and illuminating roles written for women. The subject has been much-written about before and will most likely pop up again if he is able to churn out more performances as he approaches the landmark of fifty films.

Allen, even though scorned by criticisms of chauvinism, has continuously given us women who outshine the male counterparts in his films, and have rarely played into stereotypical tropes. The criticisms don’t hold water when one witnesses the sheer bounty on display. From the luminous to the deeply disturbed, either worshipped or observed with a searching, critical eye, women are what make the world turn in Allen’s films. Here is a mere sampling, chronological and far from complete, of some indelible characters and performances.

“I’ve always felt more sanguine about women than about men. They’re more mature, less bellicose, most gentle. They’re closer to what life’s supposed to be about.”

-Woody Allen


20. Tess – Julie Kavner in ‘Radio Days’

Julie Kavner in ‘Radio Days’

In Woody’s homage to Fellini’s ‘Amarcord’, we get an anecdotal glimpse into his memories of youth, spent listening to music and shows from the radio and his various adventures within a cramped home in Rockaway, brimming with an endearing family.

It’s a film bursting with delightful performances, especially Dianne Wiest as Aunt Bea, on a seemingly endless quest to find love. The mother of the house, played by one of the great, classic TV mothers of all time, Marge Simpson, comes across as stern, hard-nosed, hard-working, supportive and warm all at the same time through Kavner’s meat and potatoes approach.

Woody doesn’t over-sentimentalize his childhood, and his memories include more than enough smacks in the head, but you never get the sense that there isn’t love in this family. Whether she’s bickering over oceans, threatening a spanking or watching the air raid spotlights through a snowstorm and fearing for the future, Kavner makes one remember their own mother, foibles and all.


19. May Sloane – Elaine May in ‘Small Time Crooks’

Elaine May in ‘Small Time Crooks’

Elaine May is a tremendously underrated comic genius. If you’re lucky enough to know that, then most likely you’re aware of her character-based sketches with Mike Nichols, her directorial gems such as ‘A New Leaf’ and ‘The Heartbreak Kid’, and her wicked screenplays for Nichols’ films ‘The Birdcage’ and ‘Primary Colors’.

Her hilarious turn as a divine dolt in this caper-cum-class dissection brought her back from wherever she’d been hiding and gave her a plum opportunity to strut her silly stuff.


18. Maria Elena – Penélope Cruz in ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’

Penélope Cruz in ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’

In a sun-dappled study of opposites, Scarlett Johansson and Rebecca Hall effectively portray two young women on very divergent paths of life and love, who learn about themselves and how they attain what they want in life through their encounters with painter Juan Antonio (Javier Bardem).

Well past the film’s mid-way point heralds the appearance of Maria Elena, Juan Antonio’s storied old flame, fellow painter and Woody Allen’s most volatile kamikaze woman (from ‘Husbands and Wives’: “See, I will always have this penchant for what I call kamikaze women. I call them kamikazes because they, you know, they crash their plane, they’re self-destructive. But they crash into you, and you die along with them.”).

An Oscar-winning performance, Cruz is subtle and nuanced as well as hot-blooded and wide-eyed; bringing to life a character that represents a common, tragic element in any romantic connection between passionate, artistic people: sometimes you can be so alike, or so in tune with the rhythm of another person, that the energy causes a self-destruction.


17. Nola Rice – Scarlett Johansson in ‘Match Point’

Scarlett Johansson in ‘Match Point'

Allen’s striking return to form after a rocky period of films lacking focus or drive, this was a dead serious companion piece to ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’, drawing out that film’s darker elements, which had been balanced by Allen’s signature humor, into a more penetrating, even Hitchcockian, dramatic thriller.

Nola Rice, the film’s Dolores Paley, hearkens back to that character’s heartbreaking need and desperation. Few filmmakers have had the temerity to depict two such women, representative of how men’s whims and desires turn them into toys, and how their masculinity renders these women completely, and terrifyingly, disposable once their needs have been met.

Johansson makes this woman’s predicament painfully real, from her initial scenes of low self-esteem buoyed by drink and her good looks, to her final scenes of gale-force wrath.


16. Hattie – Samantha Morton in ‘Sweet and Lowdown’


Without a word of spoken dialogue, Morton’s performance as a naive laundry worker who falls in with conceited guitarist Emmet Ray (Sean Penn) is a treasure.

As a studied look at a loutish male who cannot see the forest for the trees when it comes to human connection, yet who can mysteriously transcend with his music, Hattie becomes a glowing presence in the frame, a beacon of light in Emmet Ray’s life representing a conduit to sentiment and humanity.

As she smiles widely in spite of his harsh words, or dunks a donut into her coffee like a child, or as she drifts off to Ray’s music, her eyes widening like moons as she’s transported, she takes us back to a time when actresses utilized merely their faces to tell stories and break hearts.


15. Joan – Kirstie Alley in ‘Deconstructing Harry’

Kirstie Alley in ‘Deconstructing Harry’

‘Deconstructing Harry’ is one of Allen’s richest, most self-reflexive films. One is able to sense his anger at the harrowing public battles he’d experienced with Mia Farrow and the press being given full vent in this vitriolic look back at a life spent disappointing women.

With scant screen time in a film occupied by a formidable ensemble including Judy Davis, Billy Crystal, Robin Williams, Demi Moore, Tobey Maguire, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Hazelle Goodman (a truly underrated strength in the film as a supportive voice of reason), Elisabeth Shue, Mariel Hemingway, Stanley Tucci and more, Kirstie Alley’s role as one of the ex-wives of writer Harry Block (in her words: an ‘alcoholic, pill-popping, beaver-banging excuse of a father’) is particularly memorable.

A psychiatrist whipped up into a seething rage over his extended infidelities, she engages in a face-off with one of Allen’s most unsympathetic doubles, his usual wise-cracks striking a hollow note as his sarcasm wounds the woman deeper and deeper. We are able to completely understand her character’s hatred of this man, in another one of Woody’s self-deprecating moments (perhaps going too far in this film’s instance) in lieu of a great actress and a powerful performance.

Only in the world of Woody Allen could a woman’s anger be represented so fully, yet tempered by hilarious moments, such as Joan’s feeble attempts to attend to a patient in the midst of total emotional meltdown.