What is it about Woody Allen?
The filmmaker, who celebrates his 80th birthday today, has been making movies for 50 years at a singularly prolific pace and—though he's arguably had more critical misses than hits during the past couple of decades—he still has the crème de la crème of Hollywood lining up to work with him. And young Hollywood at that.
Not just the likes of Jesse Eisenberg, a graduate of the Allen school of neurotic renaissance men, either. Though the New York native has had certain coteries of male stars whom he was known for working with over the years (Alan Alda, Sam Waterston, etc.), it's the actresses who famously can't get enough of him.
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When Keaton presented Allen with the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes in 2014, he wasn't there (nor did he accept any of his four Oscars in person) but Keaton—who has appeared in eight Allen-directed films—sat with fellow muses past and present, including Wiest, Mariel Hemingway, Cate Blanchett and Emma Stone, whose current Allen film tally is at two.
"It's kind of hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that 179 of the world's most captivating actresses have appeared in Woody Allen's films," Keaton, who won the Best Actress Oscar for her titular role in Best Picture winner Annie Hall in 1978, said at the Globes. "And there's a reason for this. And the reason is, they wanted to.
"They wanted to because Woody's women can't be compartmentalized. They struggle, they love, they fall apart, they dominate, they're flawed. They are, in fact, the hallmark of Woody's work. But what's even more remarkable is absolutely nothing links these unforgettable characters from the fact that they came from the mind of Woody Allen."
And less than two years later, that tally is only climbing. Further proving Keaton's point, Jennifer Lawrence told Vanity Fair in October 2014 in classic J.Law fashion, "I worship Woody Allen, but I don't feel it below the belt the way I do for Larry David." (Sounds like yet another bucket list with "act in Woody Allen film" on it. As for the rest, David got wind of it and lamented the 40-year age gap like a gentleman.)
Of course, while Allen remains revered by many, the woman who appeared in more of his films—13—than any other leading lady wants nothing to do with him.
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Mia Farrow last worked with Allen in 1992's Husbands and Wives, the same year their on- and off-screen partnership ended when he took up with her adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn, 35 years his junior. Allen and Previn, his third wife, have now been married since 1997 and have two children together.
The no-two-ways-about-it creepiness factor put a damper on public opinion of Allen, but in more of a tireless punchline way. He has never been everybody's cup of tea.
However, it was the re-emergence in a 2013 Vanity Fair article of Farrow's two-decade-old accusation that Allen molested their adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, that recently put his legacy into question once again, this time in the digital age. An open letter penned by Dylan about the alleged abuse was then printed by The New York Times on Feb. 1, 2014.
The headlines, including Allen's detailed denial in another Times op-ed, co-mingled with the glorious awards season Cate Blanchett was having as she hoovered her way to the Best Actress Oscar for Blue Jasmine in 2014.
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"It's been a long and painful situation for the family, and I hope they find some resolution and peace," Blanchett said in a brief statement in response to Dylan's letter, which called her out by name along with her Blue Jasmine co-stars Alec Baldwin, Louis C.K., as well as Stone and Scarlett Johansson.
"I'm accepting an award for an extraordinary screenplay by Woody Allen. Thank you so much, Woody, for casting me. I truly appreciate it," the Australian star said while accepting her Academy Award a month later, answering the question of whether she'd mention the film's writer-director at all.
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"I don't know anything about it," Johansson, a star of three Allen films, told The Guardian in March 2014 when asked if the recent headlines had affected her perception of him. "It would be ridiculous for me to make any kind of assumption one way or the other."
Anyone who is a fan of Allen's work wants to believe that his sordid family squabbles are more squabble than actually sordid. And in this case, audiences have the luxury of not having to decide whether to support Allen until after a movie is made. Since he's never been a maker of standard-issue blockbusters, it's difficult to track whether anyone purposely stayed away from his last couple of films more so than they would have with any Allen movie that didn't immediately merit Oscar buzz.
But actors have to want to work with him and his quirky, ingenious creativity and the promise of wordy, witty, intelligent dialogue still appeals. His issues that led him to be a polarizing filmmaker even without the cloud of scandal have been evident in the scripts he has penned all along, from the neurotic-relationship comedy of Annie Hall to showbiz satires such as Bullets Over Broadway and Deconstructing Harry, to the cheerful confections like Everyone Says I Love You and Midnight in Paris and the darker morality plays of Match Point, Cassandra's Dream and Blue Jasmine.
Ultimately, the ensuing opinion pieces about why perfectly decent, sane-seeming actresses continued to line up to work with Allen didn't slow down his production schedule or make it any tougher for him to cast huge stars.
His 47th feature directorial effort, as-yet untitled and due out next year, stars Kristen Stewart, Blake Lively, Eisenberg, Bruce Willis, Steve Carell and oeuvre returnees Judy Davis, Corey Stoll and Parker Posey.
These actors could just want a shot at an Oscar. Allen-directed casts have received 18 acting nominations to date (including his own for Annie Hall) and Keaton and Blanchett won Best Actress, Wiest has been named Best Supporting Actress twice (Hannah and Her Sisters and Bullets Over Broadway), and both Penélope Cruz (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) and Mira Sorvino (Mighty Aphrodite) won Supporting Actress statues.
But there's no guarantee these days that an Allen film is going to be a gem. For every Blue Jasmine, there's a Scoop. The plum roles that instantly make an actress such as Blanchett an unstoppable force are too few and far between to explain why he remains at the top of so many "Directors I Want to Work With" lists.
More likely, as Diane Keaton has noted time and again, Allen—for all his admitted and speculated-upon failings—remains one of the premier directors and writers of meaty female characters.
"Girls have always liked him and had crushes on him because he's so funny and talented," Keaton, who dated him for about three years in the 1970s, told The New Yorker in 1996.
Added Wiest for the same profile, "It's more of an affinity with women. There's some kind of relish, some kind of cherishing. It's complicated, really. He comes alive when he talks about Diane Keaton or when he talks about Soon-Yi. His whole affect changes. I've seen it with Keaton, especially. The way he listens to her. The way he makes fun of her. The way he has pride in her."
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Allen told the magazine that he started writing from a woman's point of view when he met Keaton.
"It became fun for me to write from the female point of view," he said. "I had never done it before, so it was fresh. It also didn't carry with it the burden of a central comic persona that had to see everything the way a wit sees everything."
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Blanchett told Vanity Fair in July 2013 that, before she was offered Blue Jasmine, "I had given up hope that he was ever going to ask me to be in one of his films, so I was thrilled when I heard he was interested."
So the appeal wasn't just epochal.
"I would tend to just disagree," Stone protested to E! News this past summer while promoting the dark comedy Irrational Man, her second film with Allen, when asked if she thought of herself as his new muse.
A fair enough question, though. "I think Woody would laugh that off in a second," she told Australia's News.com.au. But Stone added, "I can certainly tick it off on my bucket list and the experience of working with him couldn't have gone better."
Allen, meanwhile, told the Wall Street Journal in June that, before he cast her in Miracle in the Moonlight, he had first caught Stone in "one of those young people's movies" and thought to himself, "My God, this girl is remarkable." (Sounds pretty muse-worthy.)
He said that, while he didn't envision Joaquin Phoenix as the star of Irrational Man right away, "once I was 10 pages in [writing the script], I thought, Oh God, who else would play this so perfectly? A beautiful young college student, an intellectual philosophy major? Emma could phone this in and be great."
Allen extolling the virtues and physical beauty of actresses decades his junior is never going to not sound strange thanks to his personal baggage that, in the age of viral op-eds and Twitter, is going to shadow the now 80-year-old filmmaker, actor and comedian for the rest of his life. Whether you reside in the camp that finds that perfectly fair or the one that thinks it sucks (or the much larger camp that would rather not think about it), the disturbing picture painted by Mia and Dylan Farrow's accusations doesn't need to be true to make hindsight awfully blurry.
But the actresses in his films—whether they'd consider themselves muses or not—continue to have nothing but appreciation for his seasoned approach to movie-making and the method in his madness.
"He's made a movie every year for 40 years," Irrational Man star Parker Posey said during a Q&A after a screening of the film in July. "He's a maestro, a master at the craft. He's the progenitor of the writer-director-actor of film. He really wants to go to dinner so his expectation to get it right on the first take is unreal."
Stone, agreeing with Posey that the type of roles for women that Allen is known for are sadly few and far between, added, "I think it's pretty rare that there's well-drawn female characters, period. So it's definitely a rarity."
Kristen Stewart, sworn to secrecy about the plot of Allen's next film, told The Hollywood Reporter in September that the director is "exactly what you expect him to be" on set. "Woody's an interesting guy. He's gentle, which I didn't necessarily expect because he's quite dom-like and can be sarcastic, but he's so cut-and-dried, too. He minces no words."
And ultimately it's the words that keeps the actors coming back for more.