The 20 Greatest Female Performances in The Films of Woody Allen

14. Olive Neal – Jennifer Tilly in ‘Bullets Over Broadway’

Jennifer Tilly in ‘Bullets Over Broadway’

It’s a real close call here, since this film is nearly dominated by two powerhouse female performances, and surely some flack will be given for not having chosen Dianne Wiest for this list in her Oscar winning role as the hard drinking, smoothly manipulative Broadway legend Helen Sinclair – so consider this honorable mention.

She has been given kudos galore for her hilarious, out-of-comfort-zone portrayal, a deep bellowing voice rendering her almost unrecognizable from the usually soft spoken Wiest. Jennifer Tilly’s Oscar-nominated turn – as a nightclub dancer, gun moll and riotously inept actress – is a performance that should be recognized a little more for what it’s bringing to the table, one that could be easily dismissed.

Yes, she’s almost intolerably shrill. Yes, she’s obnoxious and dumb. Yes, she makes you want to, as Helen Sinclair puts it, ‘sneak up behind her with a pillow and suffocate her’. But don’t dismiss how fearless a performance it is, hitting all the right notes and exposing, at the same time, the needs and desires of this girl to make something of herself, to prove her mettle amongst a crew of seasoned professionals. It’s not always easy to play dumb with such intelligence, to play untalented with such aptitude, and Tilly does a fine job.


13. Linda Ash – Mira Sorvino in ‘Mighty Aphrodite’


An endearing portrayal of a hooker with a heart of gold, Sorvino’s Oscar winning performance shines in this Greek-themed tale of second-chances. Allen plays a sports writer who adopts a son and when he realizes how sharp the boy is, it leads him to investigate the original mother. That’s where he finds Linda, a leggy porn actress, prostitute and one of Woody’s best written dim-bulbs.

With a high-pitched warble of a voice that betrays her formidable attributes, she ‘eats like a lumberjack’ and has no qualms about getting down to business in bed. On the one hand she is a lightweight sketch of a character designed for comedic purposes within a ‘Pygmalion’ story, but underneath is a sad depiction of a woman who had to give up her child and has strayed into a life she no longer wants to be living. Her journey back from that darkness makes for one of Allen’s most heartwarming character arcs.


12. Tina Vitale – Mia Farrow in ‘Broadway Danny Rose’

Mia Farrow in ‘Broadway Danny Rose’

She played many roles for Woody, and many of them were admittedly safe bets: usually pleasant, stable love interests or occasionally sharing the trademark existential despair with a lighter shade of neurosis than her counterpart.

She was tremendously moving as the hopelessly movie-obsessed Cecilia in ‘The Purple Rose of Cairo’, engaging and relatable as a pampered upper-class housewife who goes on a journey of self-re-alignment in ‘Alice’ and acutely unsettling as the calculatedly passive-aggressive Judy in ‘Husbands and Wives’ (a film that in all aspects of Woody and Mia stabbed close to the bone).

But it is here, in this seemingly slight but hugely underrated gem, that she went nearly unrecognizable as a would-be gun moll caught between gangsters and a nightclub singer.

With her bleach blonde hair, huge sunglasses and New York accent that cuts like a machete, she asserts herself as the voice of reason and the object of obsession in what seems like a coy semi-homage to fellow NYC filmmaker Martin Scorsese, whose gritty, crime-ridden take on the boroughs is like a skewed mirror-image to Allen’s usual romanticism, nostalgia and melancholia.

Tina is another one of Woody’s unmoored characters uncertain of what it is they truly want out of life and open to whatever comes their way. Employing the soothsayings of a psychic bedridden Italian woman, she struggles to make right choices, and perhaps sees herself going into interior design, specializing in jungle themes.


11. Diane – Elaine Stritch in ‘September’

Elaine Stritch in ‘September’

A perfect example of Woody Allen’s ability to create a multi-faceted character, Diane at one moment can be seen as a self-absorbed monster, serenely unaware of the resulting mayhem her actions cause, and in another she can be seen as a true survivor, strong-willed and absolutely finished with making compromises in life.

Elaine Stritch lends brassy humor and quiet nuance to this affecting portrait of an aging movie star, a woman who has relied on her looks all her life and who is now trading on her legend. She knows she’s lucky to have someone in her life and doesn’t take that for granted.

As she says: “Its hell getting older, especially when you feel twenty-one inside. All the strengths that have sustained you all your life just vanish, one by one. And you study your face in the mirror and you notice something’s missing. And then you realize it’s your future.”

But she does gloss over, almost confrontationally, her relationship with her daughter, Lane, played by Mia Farrow in a challenging turn as a woman facing almost constant pain and refusal. The dark secret they share from a violent past creates an immense divide between them that plays out in the film’s claustrophobic setting, and Stritch proves to be the perfect embodiment of that outward resilience, which masks great susceptibility and shame.


10. Dorrie – Charlotte Rampling in ‘Stardust Memories’

Charlotte Rampling in ‘Stardust Memories’

‘Stardust Memories’ found Woody Allen at a crossroads, between comedy and drama, between muses Diane Keaton and Mia Farrow, and caught up in a bittersweet relationship with his own artistic success. Right in the midst of expanding his sensibilities, branching out from simply comedic films with gags a minute, he made his ‘8 ½’, his first real failure with critics and audiences at the time, and one of his increasingly well-aged films.

Everything in this film stands as a comment on or amalgamation of everything he’d done before, a bitter-toned assessment of his achievements and what he saw as more looming failures. The film features a triptych of women who create for the protagonist, filmmaker Sandy Bates, various avenues of complication or happiness. Marie-Christine Barrault plays Isobel, a mother of two children and a hint at a life of responsibility and familial comfort. Jessica Harper plays intellectual and artistic Daisy, who hints at deep seated neuroses and tempestuousness.

And then, most prominently, there is Dorrie, played by the inimitable Charlotte Rampling, who flickers through the film like a ghostly presence and seems like an echo of darker themes addressed with ‘Interiors’, another disturbing character in a struggle for perfection and sanity.

In a haunting sequence of rapid, jarring jump-cuts she speaks directly into the camera, institutionalized and alone, charting a map of her disassociation and delusion. She becomes a deep psychological presence for Sandy Bates, the damaged woman he will always be comparing others to, and the ambiguity of their relationship remains a disquieting question the film merely hints at.

It’s one of Allen’s most densely layered films, certainly one of his most personal no matter how much he denies it, and Dorrie is one of his most starkly disconcerting depictions. Her authenticity is alarming and her source a mystery. Many of Allen’s films mirror his own life, making his filmography one of the most personal to ever emerge in American film, and if each film acts as a kind of weather report on his inner life, than ‘Stardust’ is worrisome indeed.


9. Dolores Paley – Anjelica Huston in ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’

Anjelica Huston in ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’

As the zenith of Woody Allen’s stark 80’s period, films looking deep into the maw of existence with a cold pragmatist’s eye and unafraid to point out that there may be nothing there, ‘Crimes and Misdemeanors’ closes the book on what was turning into one of the most impressive extended soul-searching crusades made by any auteur.

He’d go on to tackle deep issues again, but the films made in this period seem to be of a shared interest and echo within each other, standing out from the rest of the filmography as an especially personal discourse with complex questions. Dolores Paley, the sacrificial lamb of the film, stands out as well, becoming a ceaseless cry of anguish, need and pain that is cruelly stifled in the course of the film by a man’s self-preserving shame and cowardice.

A flight attendant in love with a married man, Judah Rosenthal (an echo of Marion Post in ‘Another Woman’, of a somewhat blithely successful person on the outside coming to terms with deep inner dysfunction), she vacillates back and forth between desperate need and furious retribution, threatening to expose truths she knows about Judah and therefore ruin his reputation. She puts Judah in an impossible situation, of course, and comes off as more than a little unstable but Allen and Huston make us understand why.

As a vision of a woman who’s been promised to, led-on and essentially abandoned for posterity, it’s as tremblingly agonized a performance we’re likely to see and a key element to what stands as not only one of Allen’s most important films, but one of the most subversively nihilistic films ever made.


8. Marion Post – Gena Rowlands in ‘Another Woman’

Gena Rowlands in ‘Another Woman’

As the focus of what has to be Allen’s most underrated film, Gena Rowlands delivered a performance of such controlled poise that she seemed to be a completely different actor than the one who’d generated such maelstroms of human energy and anguish in the films of her husband, John Cassavetes.

Over the course of the film, which stands as one of the most probing dissections of an internal psyche ever committed to film, she comes to learn that she has alienated and pushed away people who are, or should be, closest to her and that she long ago cut off emotional responses in order to maintain an image of formality and achievement, leaving her inner life rather barren.

Old friendships have abandoned her, family bonds have frayed. In short, she is not who she so vehemently thinks she is. It is all the more painful to witness these realizations due to the fact that Marion seems, outwardly, to be a most accomplished and respected woman who has gone out of her way to be a beacon of politesse in life.

Rowlands embraces every shock her character goes through with remarkable self-possession and then eventual implosion, as we can almost tangibly see the layers of armor long ago erected around her slowly chipping away, revealing a person coming to terms with the notion that she has no perception at all, and is floundering.