With all the Oscar buzz surrounding Midnight in Paris, it is quite jarring to realize that it’s been twenty-five years since a Woody Allen film got nominated for Best Picture. The movie I’m referring to is my favorite of his, 1986’s “Hannah and Her Sisters”. This was Allen’s highest-grossing film up until recently when “Midnight” beat its record, and it scored Oscars for Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest for their supporting performances. Wiest would be the first in a line of actresses under Allen’s direction to bring home the Best Supporting Actress statue, and she herself would win another one eight years later for “Bullets Over Broadway”.
Most people automatically think of Dianne Keaton and Mia Farrow as Allen’s favorite leading ladies, but the Wiest-Allen pair has been one of the more underappreciated collaborations. In the 80’s, Wiest was part of Allen’s stable of actors, the two of them working together in three other movies — The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Radio Days (1987) and September (1987). Allen knew how to make use of the subtle power in Wiest’s frail, ethereal demeanor, and she in turn has brought to life some of the most memorable female characters in his oeuvre.
Dianne Wiest’s roles in her two Oscar-winning performances are polar opposites of each other. In “Hannah and Her Sisters”, she plays a struggling theater actress named Holly, a ball of nerves and anxieties who doesn’t quite know what to do with her life as she goes from audition to audition without achieving any real success. Wiest handled this character very delicately, playing her role with subtlety and restraint. Holly was the most wounded of the three sisters, and Wiest communicated this through the nuances of her expressions and the subtext of her dialogue. She was never openly hostile to her friend Alice (Carrie Fisher) who she constantly competed with for jobs and the attention of men, but you can always feel Holly’s insecurity and the tension in their tenuous friendship. By the end of the film, she has the most satisfying and complete transformation of all the characters.
On the other hand, she plays the fabulous Helen Sinclair in “Bullets Over Broadway”, an aging, histrionic Broadway legend whose star is slowly fading. Wiest is able to steal every scene she is in because of her over-the-top and campy depiction of the diva. She is acting out of type, and what makes her believable as Helen Sinclair is the calculated but comedic gravitas she imbues into her character. She plays off John Cusack quite well, and her best moments come every time he tries to profess his love for her – she passionately presses her hand on his lips and says, “Don’t speak, don’t speak.” She is unexpectedly funny and refreshing in this role, and even if Helen is a bit child-like in her demands and need for attention, this is one of Wiest’s most confident and mature performances.
Both these roles are tied intimately to the stage, and Wiest brings a different balance of fragility and fortitude to each character as they weather their own rejections and celebrate their fleeting successes. They epitomize what a winning supporting role should be: clever, well-crafted performances that stick with you despite the limited screen time the characters get. She certainly ranks as one of the most deserving recipients of the award.
Woody Allen found a gem in Dianne Wiest, with her versatility and commitment complementing his sharp writing. She has had wonderful appearances in recent movies, like last year’s “Rabbit Hole” and 2008’s “Synecdoche, New York”, but she still hasn’t replicated the success she had under his direction (she has won an Emmy though for her role in “In Treatment”). These two performances of hers are certainly worth revisiting because like her, they have aged gracefully.