While Woody Allen is best known as a filmmaker, writer, performer, playwright, comedian and as of the past decade, a tabloid
favorite. Yet among all these great, and not-so-great, achievements for which Allen is noted, few realize how the Woodman has helped make a stunning amount of performers very famous people. Whether it’s directing their breakout performance, or casting them when they were still just another nobody, appearing in a Woody Allen film is a tried and true method to becoming a household name
at the movies.
Obviously the biggest example of this would be Diane Keaton who was cast in the 1969 Broadway production of Allen’s play Play It Again, Sam and went on to star in the 1972 movie of the same name. She continued to appear in Allen’s films, yet none of her performances was as well loved as her Academy Award winning performance as the title character in Allen’s Annie Hall which made her the superstar she continues to be today. She was not the first, but certainly the most famous of Woody Allen's women who had off-screen and on-screen romances with Allen. Annie Hall also gave Sigourney Weaver her very first film role, she is seen in a wide shot towards the end of the film as Allen’s character's date. Jeff Goldblum also appeared in Annie Hall, only his 4th credited role in the movies, with one of the most memorable one-line performances in the history of cinema.
Allen’s 1979 film Manhattan was the film debut of Wallace Shawn, who played Keaton’s ex-husband. Today Shawn is one of the most recognizable character actors in film. He continues to appear in Woody’s films and is best known for his performances as Vizzini in the cult-classic The Princess Bride and as the voice of Rex the Green Dinosaur in both Toy Story films. He also wrote the independent-smash My Dinner with Andre. While Jeff Daniels received exposure in Terms of Endearment, it was Allen’s 1985 film The Purple Rose of Cairo, in which he played the dual role of Tom Baxter and Gil Shepherd that Daniels received a Golden Globe nomination and really got his career rolling. The Purple Rose of Cairo is one of Allen’s personal favorite movies he’s ever made, which I assume he judges by his experience making his movies, as he never watches his own films. It’s also worth noting that Allen had cast Viggo Mortensen for a role and shot scenes with him, but they were cut from the film. The performance would have been Viggo’s feature film debut. And while Dianne Wiest had been widely seen on-screen in Footloose a year before The Purple Rose of Cairo saw her on her way to being the two-time Academy Award winning actress she is today, not to mention both Oscar-winning performances were in Woody Allen films.
Allen’s 1986 movie Hannah and Her Sisters helped get the ball rolling for a couple of performers who would go on to be big name actors. The film marked the second on-screen appearance by future Seinfeld star Julia Louis-Dreyfus Her first movie was Troll, so I think it’s safe to say she considers this performance her first. John Turturro was still working his way up to being the Sundance and Cannes award winner he is today. Julie Kavner was well known for her performance as Brenda Morgenstern on the 70s television show Rhoda, but Hannah and Her Sisters gave her a much needed juicy movie role and she has since been cast in multiple other Allen movies, although she’s still best known as the voice of Marge Simpson on The Simpsons. Hannah and Her Sisters also gave very early work to Lewis Black, seen briefly in the movie as Paul. Black is now one of the most popular stand-up comedians in the biz. J.T Walsh’s performance in Hannah and Her Sisters was his 6th on-screen appearance, thus relatively early in his sixty-six film career that ended with his death in 1998. Best remembered for his roles in Sling Blade, A Few Good Men, Nixon and many many dumb action movies.
Allen’s 1987 film Radio Days laid a good amount of carpet down for performers. People took notice when 12-year-old Seth Green gave a great performance as the film’s main character, Joe, in Radio Days. Seinfeld co-creator and Curb Your Enthusiasm star Larry David saw his first major film work in Radio Days, as well as Todd Field, who made his feature film debut in the film got the ball rolling for Field to take more acting work, which eventually led to him getting Academy Award nods for writing and directing the 2001 film In The Bedroom. William H. Macy was still looking for juicy work in movies when he signed on to play a radio actor in Radio Days and it marks one of his first on-screen performances.
Allen’s underrated 1992 film Shadows and Fog was one of the first times John C. Reilly was ever seen on-screen. Zach Braff, who exploded this past year with Garden State, has always considered Allen a great influence. Yet unlike many others who cite him as an influence, he would actually know, having appeared in 1993s Manhattan Murder Mystery, which marked the first on-screen performance from Braff. Allen’s more acclaimed 1993 film Bullets Over Broadway gave Chazz Palminteri a solid one-two punch with A Bronx Tale and his Academy Award nominated performance in Bullets Over Broadway, which were released only months apart. He continues to be a recognizable face and has won acclaim in The Usual Suspects, Analyze This and the film version of Hurlyburly, although Bullets Over Broadway continues to be his most acclaimed performance. Edie Falco was still paying her dues when she took a small part in Bullets Over Broadway. Today her role of Carmela Soprano on The Sopranos along with her under-seen performance in the 2002 film Sunshine State have made her one of the most notable female performers working today.
Mira Sorvino had done over half a dozen film roles when she was cast to play Linda Ash in Allen’s 1995 film Mighty Aphrodite. Yet her Academy Award winning performance as Linda Ash, one of Allen’s great female characters out of a career of writing many great female characters. Since that role she’s given notable performances in the cult-favorite Romy and Michele's High School Reunion and an Emmy and Golden Globe nominated performance as Marilyn Monroe in the TV-movie Norma Jean & Marilyn. The film also features a small performance from a pre dual-Academy Award snubbie Paul Giamatti as the Extras Guild Researcher.
Almost Famous star Billy Crudup gave a nice one-two punch in 1996, when he made his film debut in Sleepers and a couple months later was seen in Woody Allen’s musical Everyone Says I Love You. The next year, Tobey Maguire got a solid one-two punch of his own, with The Ice Storm showing his darker side and Allen’s ’97 film Deconstructing Harry showing his comedic side as his role involved an Asian prostitute and the Grim Reaper. That film also marked the feature film debut of ALIAS star Jennifer Garner, briefly heard (but barely seen) as Girl in the Elevator. The next year Debra Messing appeared in a small role in Allen’s Celebrity, right before she started getting huge with Will & Grace. And perhaps one of the most fascinating Allen performances was Samantha Morton, who turned heads a couple years earlier in Under The Skin yet earned her breakout with her Academy Award nominated performance in Allen’s 1999 film Sweet and Lowdown. What makes the performance so fascinating is that Morton played a deaf mute in the film, thus marking an incredibly rare nomination for an actress without a line.
Time has yet to tell if any performances from Allen’s recent work will breakout as well and continue his run of casting performers before they hit it huge. While Allen’s recent work gets a bad rap, I tend to side with an opinion Roger Ebert stated in a review of one of Allen’s recent underappreciated films:
"I cannot escape the suspicion that if Woody had never made a previous film, if each new one was Woody's Sundance debut, it would get a better reception."
I personally wouldn’t rule out the possibility of seeing performers from Allen’s films break out further down the line.