1986-1992: Cries and Whispers

A look back at Woody Allen's most serious and austere period of film making.

Woody Allen

Trevor Gilks

1986 - 1992

1986-1992 represents a time period in which Woody Allen was almost as thematically consistent as he was from 1965-1975. With almost every film, Allen was trying to seriously look at relationships and human nature. He mostly abandoned the tricks and gimmicks of the past in favor of literal depictions of typical human stories. When he stumbled, this austerity made for dry, humorless films, but his successes are engaging, sophisticated, insightful classics.

The films of this era were also incredibly consistent in terms of content. Every single movie Allen directed featured someone committing adultery, and the nature of infidelity is a key theme in most of them. Two films took place in the past, and the rest were about rich white people in present-day New York. Each one also had an artist or writer who speaks about their craft at some point. Five of them featured a key protagonist who opined at length about artistic hurdles.

Ironically, as Allen’s budgets shrank, his movies’ star power grew. From acclaimed acting legends (Gena Rowlands, Martin Landau), to then-up-and-comers (Liam Neeson, John Malkovich), to some of the most famous people in the world (Madonna, Alec Baldwin), to obscure but beloved character actors (Lily Tomlin, Denholm Elliot), Allen demonstrated an incredible eye for acting talent. Most impressively, the previously unknown actors that Allen picked from relative obscurity (i.e. Dianne Wiest, Julie Kavner) were uniformly excellent, and proved worthy of stardom.

When it came to Allen’s own acting, he remained convincing within his limited range, but with Scenes From a Mall and King Lear he demonstrated a poor (or perhaps undiscerning) eye for choosing films to lend himself out to as an actor.

Allen’s movies in this era are a lot like the women they depicted — brilliant, cerebral, eloquent, challenging, and distant, but ultimately rewarding. It was not the funniest or most inventive, but this has definitely been the most confident and thoughtful period of his career so far.

Who was Woody Allen in 1992?

Contrasting this period with the rest of Allen’s career demonstrates a universal truism when it comes to the difference between comedy and drama. Critics and award-givers are far more tolerant of middling drama than of middling comedy — Woody Allen wrote eight full-length movies in this period, and received a Best Screenplay Oscar nomination for five of them (plus two more for directing). Ticket-buying audiences, on the other hand, will propel a so-so comedy to box-office glory, but have no patience for a ponderous drama unless it’s really good (or really lurid). With the exception of Hannah and her Sisters, even the disposable sex comedy Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask managed to out-gross every single movie from this period by a sizable margin.

Woody Allen was once a man who would once do just about anything for a laugh, but after 1986’s Hannah and her Sisters, he seemed to turn his back on mainstream success. In 1987 he made two movies (Radio Days, September) that carried the personal, indulgent air of a man who no longer cared if you liked his work or not. Woody Allen was now a serious artist, making exactly the kind of movies he felt like making.

1986-1992: Top 5 Favorite Scenes

  1. “It’s over and we both know it” — Husbands and Wives
    Mia Farrow and Woody Allen in Husbands and Wives

    A vivid break-up that also serves as Woody Allen and Mia Farrow’s final moments together on screen, the scene is lent urgency by the film’s naturalistic writing and documentary-style cinematography. Of course, I don’t know anything about Allen/Farrow as people or what their relationship was like (or when it really ended), but you can’t help but fill your head with narratives and assumptions based on the few real details that do trickle out, and that emotional investment combined with the movie’s unfettered realism makes this one of the most quietly devastating scenes in any Woody Allen movie.

  2. Dream Sequence — Another Woman
    Dream Sequence from Another Woman

    The prolonged dream of Marion Post (Gena Rowlands), just like the movie it’s in, benefits from the expectations formed based on Allen’s previous movies. Visual depictions of the non-literal (memories, dreams, etc) are usually just a trick for Allen, or a momentary interlude. Marion’s dream, however, is prolonged, and its thrilling length digs deeper and deeper into her subconscious until her entire psyche has been unfurled in front of her.

  3. “Can you imagine the level of a mind that watches wrestling?” — Hannah and her Sisters
    Max Von Sydow in Hannah and her Sisters

    Hannah and her Sisters is a movie whose strength lies more in characters and themes rather than individual scenes, so I guess it’s fitting that one of the most memorable is one with only a loose connection to the rest of the movie. In it, we finally meet Lee’s (Barbara Hershey’s) partner, and he’s an even more fearsomely cold intellectual than we imagined. His lecture on the state of the world starts off as merely curmudgeonly, but slowly elevates all the way up to seething anger until a final line (“If Jesus came back and saw what’s going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up”) and a reaction from Hershey so over-the-top it’s one of the darkest, funniest moments in an otherwise sunny movie.

  4. “With each passing New Year’s Eve, those voices seem to grow dimmer and dimmer” — Radio Days
    Ending of Radio Days

    Radio Days is a movie that I described as feeling like an inside joke that I wasn’t a part of, but the ending is the one moment when the movie seems to know the feeling. The stars of the radio era — the glamorous, the hackneyed, the legends, and the soon-to-be forgotten — assemble on a nightclub rooftop and contemplate the notion that one day their fame will fade and no one will talk about them. As they head back inside, Woody Allen’s voiceover confirms that, yes, their memories have faded over time, and all that’s left is the half-remembered, romanticized notions that make up movies like Radio Days.

  5. “If it bends, it’s funny. If it breaks... it’s not funny!” — Crimes and Misdemeanors
    Alan Alda in Crimes and Misdemeanors

    The writing and performance that make up the character of Lester are perfect and precise. Lester is an amalgamation of every phony entertainment industry big-shot stereotype, yet he’s depicted in such a way that he somehow also seems like a real person. His true shallowness becomes clear in this scene, in which he has a number of lines (“tragedy equals comedy plus time”) that are hilariously inane yet delivered with smug, oblivious pride.

1986-1992: Top 5 Favorite Performances by People That Are Neither Woody Allen nor Mia Farrow

  1. Gena Rowlands, Another Woman
    Gena Rowlands in Another Woman

    Gena Rowlands is known for her ability to command attention on screen, but as the centerpiece of the character study Another Woman, she drains the emotion — all the emotion — and plays a woman who’s slowly realizing that her coldness has alienated her from all of her friends and family. As she turns 50, she looks back on her life and the opportunities she missed and the signs she never saw. Rowlands’ performance is quite daring; it had the potential to be simply boring, but she effectively conveys a deep sense of sadness and longing that her self-seriousness has never allowed her to express overtly.

  2. Michael Caine, Hannah and her Sisters
    Michael Caine in Hannah and her Sisters

    Michael Caine’s is definitely the most iconic male performance in a Woody Allen movie, and he’s the only man to have ever won on Oscar in one. Caine’s Elliot is a hopelessly deluded man, and Michael Caine’s brilliance, which is a large part of Hannah and her Sisters’ success, is in creating a character that is a full-of-shit philanderer but also a man smart enough to know, deep down, even if he can’t say it out-right, what a full-of-shit philanderer he is. As his problems with Hannah grow, he convinces himself it’s more than commitment anxiety and neediness that are pushing them apart, and lusts after her sister. His self-deluding emotion after their kiss (“I have my answer!”) is his most brilliant moment.

  3. Dianne Wiest, Hannah and her Sisters
    Dianne Wiest in Hannah and her Sisters

    Dianne Wiest plays a familiar character in Hannah and her Sisters — a passionate woman with great talent and a desire to please, but almost no self-esteem. Her character (Holly) is almost like a de-romanticized Annie Hall, although Wiest does not play her as cutesy or funny, just as an emotionally unstable middle-aged woman who has no idea what to do with her life.

  4. Judy Davis, Husbands and Wives
    Judy Davis in Hannah and her Sisters

    In a performance that actually does make Wiest’s look a little cutesy by comparison, Judy Davis takes the cold female archetype than Allen is so fascinated by to its extreme. Davis is never shown demonstrating any sort of affection, although she’s capable of terrifying anger and maddening deflection. It’s to Davis’ credit that, despite being a walking case of Castration Anxiety, she still seems like a person worthy of happiness.

  5. Alan Alda, Crimes and Misdemeanors
    Alan Alda in Crimes and Misdemeanors

    Martin Landau’s performance is more daring and more crucial to Crimes and Misdemeanors’ success, but, as I mentioned above, Alan Alda’s performance pulls off a more delicate balancing act. It must have been a role that was tremendously funny to play (especially considering that it’s rumored to be based on a writer/producer that both Alda and Allen know and dislike), but Alda never lets on — he throws himself into the role and very convincingly plays a guy that has no idea why anyone wouldn’t like him.

1986-1992: Top 5+ Overall Movies

  1. Hannah and her Sisters
    Hannah and her Sisters is Allen’s most cohesive movie of this period, one in which a wide array of seemingly unrelated puzzle pieces fall thrillingly into place. It paints a picture of people whose lives are often messy and sad, but convinces us that it’s that turmoil that makes them interesting, beautiful people worth caring about.
  2. Crimes and Misdemeanors
    A grimmer, more philosophical cousin to Hannah and her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors spends a lot of time showing characters trying to understand the moral barometer of the universe, and generally discovering that there is not one. Not Woody Allen’s happiest movie, but it’s one of his smartest and deepest.
  3. Husbands and Wives
    Contrasting with the stately, stagey feel of Allen’s movies of this period, Husbands and Wives is an unhinged, documentary-style look at relationships. It’s a flawed masterpiece whose flaws contribute to its unpredictability and unfiltered take on the way people treat each other, and the lengths that people will go to find their own happiness.
  4. Another Woman
    Another Woman is Allen’s only movie that focuses on a single person. It has an outstanding cast (that includes Rowlands, Gene Hackman, and Ian Holm) and bold cinematography, but it really shines as a result of Allen’s skill as a writer and director. Allen mixes suspense, drama and uses a wide variety of narrative tools to paint a deep, haunting portrait of a lonely woman.
  5. Shadows and Fog
    There are many criticisms of this movie — that it’s uneven, it’s aimless, Allen is self-plagiarizing, it wastes talent — and many of them are true, to a certain degree, but even if it doesn’t add up to much, it’s still a funny, enchanting, visually stunning movie from beginning to end.
  6. Honorable Mention: Oedipus Wrecks (part of New York Stories)
    At only 30 minutes in length, it doesn’t seem fair to rank this among Allen’s full-length opuses, but I feel like I can’t give this movie enough credit for being so funny and high-spirited. “It pays to be a sprite among dirges,” as they say, and that sentiment probably helps explain my hyperbolic reaction to this film — squeezed in between humorless character studies of emotionally disconnected people comes a lively comedy about quirky, likable characters. Woody Allen, Julie Kavner and Mae Questel are all hilarious.

Fun Facts

  • Woody Allen directed four movies during this period in which he did not appear, something he’d done only twice ever prior to 1986.
  • As of 2011, 1988 represented the half-way point of Woody Allen’s film career.
  • I’ve recently been spending a lot of time tracking down Woody Allen’s more obscure ‘90s catalogue. He apparantly made two tv-movies (Don’t Drink the Water, The Sunshine Boys), had an acting role in two movies I’ve never heard of (The Imposters, Picking Up the Pieces), and he even had a Lifetime bio-pic made about him and Farrow (Love and Betrayal: The Mia Farrow Story). All this and more: coming up!