Playing Against Type

Midnight in Paris and the Many Wives of Woody Allen

In 1933’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein, inhabiting the voice of her partner, laments Toklas’ role tending to the perpetual cocktail chatter in their Paris salon:

I had often said that I would write the wives of geniuses I have sat with. I have sat with so many. I have sat with wives who were not wives, of geniuses who were not real geniuses. I have sat with the real wives of geniuses who were not real geniuses. I have sat with wives of geniuses, of near geniuses, of would be geniuses, in short I have sat very often and very long with many wives and wives of many geniuses.

The boozy parties of these mistresses and wives of geniuses and not- geniuses is the setting of Woody Allen’s time warping Midnight in Paris. It is Toklas who greets Owen Wilson at the door of 27 Rue de Fleurus, ferrying the flaxen-haired goofball into the bastion of luminaries: Picasso, Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds. Toklas is on-screen for only a moment before Gertrude Stein, played by Kathy Bates, whisks Wilson away to discuss his novel. Toklas, in a supporting role to Stein, embodies the dilemma of women in Allen’s films: they must dazzle an audience subtly, while men who suffer from the gnawing suspicion that they too might be geniuses dominate the conversation.

Over his half-century career and forty-plus films, Allen has often been called a misogynist. This charge finds superficial support in the love triangle that frequently inhabits his cinematic landscape — particularly his romantic comedies. The male lead is some permutation of the nebbish, nervous, tweedy, middle-aged guy with a misguided libido: he writes for television or for Hollywood, but yearns to write a serious novel; he wants to watch the Knicks game, but worries about his progress in analysis; he always has a crush on a pretty yet unattainable woman, sometimes a girl. She is off-limits because she’s married, or engaged, or crazy, or a prostitute, or in high school. This pretty young thing is the antidote to the third archetypal character: the educated, career-minded, coldly rational wife, or ex. The man, who could be pegged “the Woody Allen character,” (despite his insistence that his films are fictional) finds himself torn between obligation and desire, triangulating a tidy equation of self-absorbed people, all united by the deep belief that they deserve to be happy.

Still, “misogyny” doesn’t quite fit Allen. Everyone in his ensemble casts suffers their human foibles and stereotypes, but his attitude towards women doesn’t express itself from a place of hate. He loves them all in a crushy, schoolboy way, or, in recent years, like a horny peeping tom. Women are almost always at the center of Allen’s films, where they become the objects of the male gaze. Men are the seers, and women are seen. The audience experiences Allen’s world and women through the male protagonist’s eyes. As a result, the men are virtually interchangeable, a perception only increased by the fact that Allen himself plays most of them, while the weight of the plot falls onto the women’s shoulders. Given this burden (or honor) or portraying the nagging wife or the sexual plaything, actresses in his most successful films complicate the archetype.

Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Hannah and Her Sisters compete for top billing as the director’s best. These films share certain Allen elements—existential philosophizing, bittersweet narratives, money shots of the Manhattan skyline—but the most critical element of their greatness is their actresses. On the page, the roles fall into one of his dichotomous categories for women, but these actresses turn them on their head. Diane Keaton’s Oscar-winning Annie Hall exuded quiet intelligence and wit beyond the ditzy dialogue written for the aspiring singer. As Mary in Manhattan, Keaton conveyed tragedy, complexity and failure, rather than confining her to the caricature of a high-strung, pretentious intellectual. Barbara Hershey played out the conjugal entanglements of Hannah and Her Sisters as Lee, the illicit object of Michael Cain’s desire and the wife of a “genius” painter. Cain won for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. But as he lit up with giddy puppy love, Hershey quaked and hesitated with authentic fragility. Cain would not have been able to melt had he been cast opposite an actress of lesser ability. In all three films, the female leads were played by seasoned thespians in their late twenties or thirties, at least a decade younger than their romantic counterparts.

Even on the flipside of the virgin-whore dichotomy, strong actresses improve the film by manipulating the tone of Allen’s writing. Penelope Cruz’s Maria Elena in Vicky Christina Barcelona is written as a hysterical, scorned woman, but her over-the-top smoldering performance elevated the role to telenovela irony. Mira Sorvino’s Linda Ash, the hooker with a heart of gold in Mighty Aphrodite, gets the Pygmalion treatment from Lenny (Allen) when he learns she’s the biological mother of his adopted child. Sorvino towers over Allen — he only reaches her nipples when they stand face-to-face — and deadpans raunchy, ridiculous dialogue (“You didn’t want a blowjob so the least I could do is get you a tie”) in a nasal intonation she invented for the character. She won an Academy Award for Supporting Actress. Lucy Punch’s sneering acrylic and silicone call girl Charmaine Foxx provided the only bright spot in 2010’s stony You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, which she achieved by rewording many of Allen’s lines to actually suit a chavvy Londoner. Cruz, Sorvino, and Punch humanized the role, tinkered with the script, and succeeded in transcending mere sex symbol. But Evan Rachel Wood, playing Melody in the universally panned Whatever Works, despite having a similar Pygmalion role as Sorvino, lacked this transcendence. She played the bouncy 21-year-old runaway stiffly and literally, giggling in short shorts and pigtails while Larry David lobbed insults at her, making the fact that they get married the film’s only real punch line.

Allen’s casting process is notoriously based on gut instinct. His casting director, Juliet Taylor, auditions potential actresses first, and then brings them before the director so he can eye them for about two minutes, while he sizes up what he calls their “thrill capacity.” Actress casting in the string of films prior to Midnight in Paris hasn’t been up to par with his earlier classics, and this has much to do with their poor critical reception. Scarlett Johansson, Allen’s muse in Scoop (in which she does her best Woody Allen impersonation for 90 minutes), Match Point, and Vicky Christina Barcelona locks into her characters’ clichéd temperament and doesn’t veer away: plucky in Scoop, seductive in Match Point, navel-gazey in Vicky Christina Barcelona. Frieda Pinto was costumed in red in every scene of You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger, perhaps to suggest the passion absent in her performance. The younger starlets cast in Allen’s recent films just haven’t achieved the emotional depth of Keaton, Farrow, or Hershey.

What sets Midnight in Paris so dazzlingly apart is that Woody Allen, for perhaps the first time in his oeuvre, shifts the focus to the leading man. Owen Wilson’s Gil Pender is the center of the film. The whirlwind time travel narrative hinges on Gil, as he traipses through the moveable feast of Post-War Paris and back even further to the Moulin Rouge. He is chasing adventure, something the whole audience can connect with, rather than indulging in a Petrarchan level of lust for an unattainable woman.

But what makes Wilson’s performance so compelling is that he interpreted his role in the manner of the great female leads, like Hershey, Keaton, and Sorvino. On the page, Gil Pender is another Allen mimeograph: a successful Hollywood screenwriter who yearns to write a serious novel, acknowledging that deep down he might indeed be a genius. We’ve seen him before: the frustrated writer torn between artistic integrity and a swollen pocketbook stars in Play It Again, Sam, Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hollywood EndingYou Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, and several others. But Wilson, resisting the urge to impersonate Allen, as actors in this role typically have (even Kenneth Branagh put on his best Brooklyn accent in Celebrity), bumbles with the scatterbrained affect of a spacey surfer dude rather than the anxious self-deprecation of a neurotic New Yorker. Pender is, as usual, saddled with a nagging, distant wife and a pretty young thing, but Wilson plays to both women with a respect and affection that Allen characters aren’t typically known for.

The women, all recognizable Allen constructions, orbit Wilson, rather than the other way around. There is Inez, his browbeating Republican wife, played with Mean Girls petulance by Rachel McAdams. But even Inez gets a bump up in the gender-equality department, as she at least has the wherewithal to be having an affair. Marion Cotillard plays Adriana, the gimlet-eyed flapper of Gil’s desires. Adriana contains shades of another archetype of modern cinema, the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, as she flits into the film, introducing Gil to boozy jazz parties and exiting as soon as his champagne bubble bursts. Neither McAdams nor Cotillard transforms their archetype, but they don’t need to, because they are not the objects of the film.
Allen has always concerned himself with the impossibility of romantic love, and usually it’s the people themselves who get in the way. But in Midnight in Paris, time and space are the obstacles. “You are in love with a fantasy,” Adriana tells Gil, and he is, both literally and figuratively, but the audience knows she might as well be talking to Allen. Fortunately for Gil, a gorgeous Parisian woman (played by Léa Seydoux) exists in real time and shares his reverence of Cole Porter and the gilded past. Gil is ultimately able to live in the present because the perfect woman appears to fulfill him. Of course, we don’t learn much about her beyond her dewy beauty. Like so many of Alice B. Toklas and Gertrude Stein’s dinner party guests, she is just another not-wife of a would-be genius.