On Woody Allen’s Another Woman (1988)

“They said I’d be traumatized when I hit fifty. They were right. I’ll tell you the truth. I haven’t recovered my balance since turning fifty … You suddenly look up and see where you are.” – Marion in “Another Woman”

Time has been very kind to “Another Woman,” Woody Allen’s 17th feature, and his third “serious” film. Greeted by critics upon its release in 1988 with a mixture of frustration and disappointment (as well as a couple of outliers, Roger Ebert giving it 4 stars), “Another Woman” now seems totally successful in what it set out to do, and the film includes a couple of stand-out scenes that rank among Allen’s best. “Another Woman” is not a story so much as it is a meditation on death, a contemplation of living with regret, and a probing emotional X-ray of the character at the center of the film, the chilly intellectual Marion, played by the great Gena Rowlands, known mostly for the blazing supernova performances she gave in the films directed by her maverick husband, John Cassavetes. What interested Allen was the idea of a woman’s long-ignored emotional life manifesting itself as a voice coming through a grate.

Allen told biographer Eric Lax, “I put all I felt about turning fifty into Marion. It took me at least a year to get over it.” Philosophy professor Marion, ostensibly happily married to her second husband, successful surgeon Ken (Ian Holm), “looks up”, and what she sees in her life destabilizes her entire foundation. Allen told filmmaker and journalist Stig Bjorkman, “… she has kept everything personal in her life totally blocked out. And finally she reaches a point in her life, where she can no longer block out things in this way. They literally start to come through the walls, the sounds of her inner turbulence start to come through the walls to speak to her.”

Similar to the grasping arms plunging out of the hallway walls to grab Catherine Deneuve’s Carol in Roman Polanski’s 1965 film “Repulsion,” the sounds of Mia Farrow’s anguish coming through the grate of Marion’s rented apartment/workspace, plunges Marion into a fugue state of increasing panic that unravels her personality from within. The unraveling is so total that after repeat viewings the ending of “Another Woman,” with Marion trying to connect in meaningful ways with the people in her life, feels like whistling in the dark rather than something more salutary.

“Another Woman” wears its Ingmar Bergman influence on its sleeve, including the fact that Allen chose Bergman cinematographer Sven Nykvist to shoot the film instead of his regular cinematographer Carlo DiPalma. (Nyqvist would go on to shoot three other Allen films, “Oedipus Wrecks” in “New York Stories”, “Crimes and Misdemeanors” and “Celebrity.”) Allen admired Nyqvist’s extraordinary work on “Persona” “Cries and Whispers”, and “Fanny and Alexander” in particular. Despite its extremely verbal atmosphere, the guts of “Another Woman”, its harrowing essence, is told entirely in the series of unforgettable closeups of Rowlands’ face (as Vincent Canby put it in his New York Times review, her face with its “ravaged beauty and genuine pathos she allows the camera to find…”) After Bergman died, Allen observed in his 2007 New York Times remembrance essay: “Bergman would put the camera on Liv Ullmann’s face or Bibi Andersson’s face and leave it there and it wouldn’t budge and time passed and more time and an odd and wonderful thing unique to his brilliance would happen. One would get sucked into the character and one was not bored but thrilled”. Allen, with his love of the master-shot, has never been a “close up” director; he uses them extremely sparingly. Most of the close ups in his career occur in “Another Woman.”

Many have mentioned Bergman’s 1957 “Wild Strawberries” as a clear inspiration for “Another Woman,” with its story of an elderly man on a road trip confronted with memories of his past so intense that they stroll into the corporeal plane. The device is inherently theatrical, calling to mind two of the great mid-century American plays, Tennessee Williams’ “Glass Menagerie” and Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” where the line between the present and the past is porous. In “Salesman,” Willy Loman becomes lost in reveries of his mostly painful memories, and he is so “back there” that his family has to snap him back to the present moment.

“Wild Strawberries”

So, too, with Marion in “Another Woman,” who has been so in control of herself from a very young age that nobody knows what to do with this new distracted Marion, “another woman” emerging from behind the cool and perfect mask. As the memories crowd upon her, the perfect Marion is revealed as a woman so driven she has trod upon many people in her life, unaware of the damage she has done. She has left a trail of wreckage in her wake, her brother, her childhood friend, her first husband, her former lover. When confronted with how much she has hurt them, Marion shows complete confusion. She had no idea.

Leading her down the rabbit hole into her past, is the white rabbit of Mia Farrow’s Hope, who sobs out suicidal anguish or flat-affect apathy to her psychiatrist, unaware that Marion crouches by the grate on the other side. Is Hope even real? Or is she just a manifestation of Marion’s psyche, the deepest subconscious part of Marion screaming to be expressed, pulling out all the stops (dreams, flashbacks, hallucinations) to get Marion’s attention?

And what better actress to plunge into the bottomless pit of regret – regret so acute it is close to actual madness – than Gena Rowlands? Through the late 60s, into the 70s and 80s, in a series of performances in her husband’s films that still astonish today, Rowlands gave us characters so on the edge that she redefined what “on the edge” actually looked like, and how deep it was possible to go. She set the bar. Actresses of her raw emotional calibre are rare (Anna Magnani, Liv Ullmann, and Isabelle Huppert the first three that come to mind). When Rowlands goes deep, as she does in those brutally long close-ups in “Another Woman” it appears that she will never come back from that pit. As Nietzsche wrote, “If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.” That’s what’s on her face.

What is most extraordinary about Rowlands’ performance is the difference between Marion and the characters she played in her husband’s films, lonely outsider Minnie in “Minnie & Moskowitz,” Mabel, shattering into a psychotic break, in “A Woman Under the Influence,” tough-talking gun moll Gloria in “Gloria,” the desperate abandoned Sarah in “Love Streams,” and nutty alcoholic actress Myrtle in “Opening Night” (Worthwhile noting that in “Opening Night”, a film about a woman confronted by perhaps hallucinatory former and future selves, Myrtle is in the process of rehearsing a play for its Broadway opening, a play called “The Second Woman”.)

“A Woman Under the Influence”

Roger Ebert, in his review of “Another Woman”, clocks the magnitude of Rowlands’ performance with an observation very few other critics even noticed. Ebert wrote: “Cassavetes is a wild, passionate spirit, emotionally disorganized, insecure and tumultuous, and Rowlands has reflected that personality in her characters for him…Allen is introspective, considerate, apologetic, formidably intelligent, and… Rowlands now mirrors that personality, revealing in the process how the Cassavetes performances were indeed “acting” and not some kind of ersatz documentary reality. To see “Another Woman” is to get an insight into how good an actress Rowlands has been all along.”

Meeting Rowlands in intensity (no small task) are all of the actors playing secondary roles, some of whom have only one scene. Betty Buckley, quivering with devastation and rage, plays Lydia, Ken’s first wife, whose marriage was ruined when Ken began an affair with Marion. Buckley’s unforgettable performance lasts less than 5 minutes and nearly overturns the entire movie. It is impossible to view Marion as an oblivious innocent after seeing the damage her behavior has wrought in Lydia’s life.

Sandy Dennis plays Claire, Marion’s childhood friend who became an actress, and has one of the best scenes in the film when she confronts Marion about what happened in their past. Gene Hackman plays Larry, a successful novelist, who shared a brief passionate relationship with Marion (from the looks of it, very brief: an afternoon together and one kiss in the rain) and begs her to choose him over his cold and judgmental friend Ken. Hackman has made a career playing slightly dangerous, wild, or morally compromised characters, and here he is at his very best as a transparently sexy romantic leading man. (Casting Hackman in this particular role, like casting Rowlands as the elegant and “together” Marion, is an example of Allen’s often brilliant and intuitive casting choices.) Martha Plimpton, John Houseman, Blythe Danner, and Philip Bosco play other characters who provide the texture and fabric of Marion’s life, its past, its present.

Over the years, Allen has expressed mild dissatisfaction with “Another Woman,” wondering to such interviewers as Stig Bjorkman and Eric Lax, if Marion was too cold and unpleasant a person to be the emotional center of a film. American audiences expected comedies from him, and many critics bemoaned the fact that Allen did not appear in “Another Woman” at all. They thought the ironic comic sensibility of his persona would have at least lightened the mood. Watching “Another Woman” now, it is difficult to understand what on earth those critics were complaining about. Yes, “Another Woman” is slow-paced, with a wintry grandeur to its mood and style. However, these qualities are descriptive of the film, rather than negative criticisms. Not every film is meant to be a comedy.

Allen’s idea – eavesdropping on a psychiatrist’s sessions – initially did have a comedic bent (and he would re-visit it almost 10 years later in his musical “Everyone Says I Love You”). But drawn as he always was to the weighty existential films of the European masters, Allen yearned to explore his pet themes in a serious manner, most of all his fear of encroaching death. Angelina Jolie’s beautiful meditative film “By the Sea,” (ignored and dismissed by critics) is a “nod” to “Another Woman,” with its tale of a deeply unhappy woman (Jolie) who is titillated, disturbed, and unnerved when she discovers that a hole in the wall of her hotel room gives a clear view of everything that happens with the happy couple in the next room.

Eavesdropping and spying through the hole in the wall becomes an obsession, and Jolie’s character – like Rowlands’ character – is not entirely sure of what is being stirred up and unleashed within her by all that she sees and hears. “Another Woman” is not usually on the list of Allen’s most commonly imitated films, but Jolie’s use of it shows a deep understanding of the potential in Allen’s original idea.

One of the patron saints of “Another Woman” is German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, a poet Marion loves, a poet whose obsession with death rivals Allen’s own. Two poems are referenced in the film. First, “Panther”, with its image of a black cat pacing in a cage, doing “a ritual dance around a center in which a mighty will stands paralyzed.” And then “Archaic Torso of Apollo” with its urgent final lines: “For here there is no place that does not see you. You must change your life,” words that rock Marion to her core. Rilke’s poem “Memory” is not mentioned, but it may very well be the perfect expression of what “Another Woman” is all about:

And still you wait, expecting one thing alone
that your life could endlessly renew,
some great and singular thing to be shown,
something like the awakening of a stone,
some secret depth, returning to you.

Your books shine upon their stands
in volumes of brown and gold,
and you think of all the traveled lands,
the images and tattered strands
of all the women you could not hold.

And suddenly you realize: there’s nothing there.
You rise to your feet, and before you appear
the fear and form and empty prayer
of the absence of another year.

This essay is included in Arrow Film’s 1986-1991 Woody Allen box set.

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6 Responses to On Woody Allen’s Another Woman (1988)

  1. Simon Boccanegra says:

    You’ve done justice to one of Allen’s great and underrated films. I also want to speak up for Harris Yulin as the brother, Paul. In his quiet way, he makes as devastating a case against Marion as Buckley’s Lydia or Dennis’s Claire does. Paul remembers every word of Marion’s withering criticism of his writing, and Yulin’s reading makes it obvious that Paul has been hearing those words in his head ever since. Marion cannot even remember reading a story by him, let alone what exactly she said — only that she must have been trying to be honest. I find it a little heartbreaking when he concludes with “So I try not to ’embarrass’ you anymore.”

    • sheila says:

      Oh my gosh, Simon, yes – wonderful performance and the moment you describe is heartbreaking. It’s also heartbreaking because, like you say, Marion doesn’t even remember any of this. The moment wasn’t a big deal to her – she hasn’t retained it – and yet it has impacted his life in such a profound and painful way. Ugh!!

      • sheila says:

        and thank you for your comment!

        • Simon Boccanegra says:

          My pleasure. I found your site this morning and look forward to exploring more.

          Now I see we both made a small error on a name, though. Lydia is Blythe Danner’s character, the friend who talks about sex on the floor. Ken’s first wife, played by Betty Buckley, is Kathy. I had not seen it in a while, so that got by me too. But now I remember Ken/Holm telling Marion that his latest affair was “utterly foolish of Lydia and myself.”

  2. Stephen Shefferman says:

    This is one of the finest pieces of film commentary I have read. Thank you so much for such an intelligent, insightful essay. A brilliant complement to a brilliant film.

    • sheila says:

      Stephen – wow, thank you so much! It was an honor to get the assignment – had been wanting to write something on the film for years. I think it’s one of Allen’s best – and it doesn’t get nearly enough chatter as it should.

      Thanks again for reading and for the nice words.

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