You know, I’m taking this Woody Allen mini-project quite seriously. As I’ve said previously, I’ve set up a Lovefilm list and thrown on there all of the films by the writer-director-actor that I’ve not yet seen. I’m ploughing through them. I’m taking notes. Not the disjointed nonsense I jot down in the dark of the screening room - actual sentences, I swear. I’m planning an essay that ties together the first two films I saw - Anything Else and Interiors - as part of Allen’s sense of inferiority and self-doubt.
But, man, I recently watched Mighty Aphrodite. It is neither as embarrassingly-bad as Anything Else, or as misguidedly-flawed as Interiors. It’s in that dangerous mid-point between awful and awesome - the two poles that make a film stick with you. In fact, I’m already forgetting just what Mighty Aphrodite was about. Good job I noted down these four notable aspects. There’s, honestly, not much more to take from it.
After having quite a diverse stretch of films in the 1980s and early 1990s, where he mixed up Bergman/Fellini homages (Another Woman, Stardust Memories) with high concept fantasies (Zelig, Purple Rose of Cairo, Radio Days) alongside some of his best intellectual comedy-dramas/drama-comedies (Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanours, Husbands and Wives), Woody Allen thrust himself into the mid-90s with a run of films with more of a generic bent. While you could say that the brilliantly cheeky thriller of Manhattan Murder Mystery anticipated this, from the gangster period film Bullets Over Broadway onward, Allen was stepping into different stylistic shoes.
Mighty Aphrodite, as a pitch, is a spoof-y mash-up of modern, urban comedy and Classical Greek references. Somewhere in the conceptual stages, it must have occurred to Allen that most (especially romantic) comedies from Hollywood are inevitably tied to narrative conceits and structures from around 2500 years ago, and he decided to show this with Aphrodite. Along the way, however, he settled with just throwing into the otherwise straightforward movie some really incongruous sequences featuring a Greek Chorus performing in a ruined temple.
They comment on the plot, and discuss the characters and their moral choices, not unlike the Choruses in plenty of Athenian plays. Lots of cheap gags come from the collision of classical pomp and 20th century mundaneity. This is especially seen once members of the Chorus - such as F. Murray Abraham’s Chorus Leader - start popping up in the primary narrative, which concerns a sports writer (Lenny Weinrib, Allen) hunting down the mother of his adopted child (Linda Ash, Mira Sorvino).
At one point, Weinrib is stopped in the street by Tiresias, who in this case is a blind beggar, naturally. At another, a brash Chorus member turns up and foretells of future strife. The exchange goes:
‘You’re such a Cassandra!’
‘I’m not such a Cassandra, I am Cassandra. That’s who I am!’
Ugh. What is this? Why would a sports writer be experiencing visions of Greek Chorus members? They don’t directly affect the plot, and their appearances are baffling and half-baked. Neither truly meta-fictional or structurally justified.
The early Woody Allen play (and later film) Play It Again, Sam was based around a film-buff character who experienced visions of Humphrey Bogart. This was a rich concept: an exploration of character and masculinity. But in Mighty Aphrodite it's just stylistic silliness, as epitomised by the end credits sequence, where the Chorus go through a long dance number, anticipating the musical Everyone Says I Love You, backed by ‘When You’re Smiling (The Whole World Smiles At You)’. It’s torture.
The Chorus takes up too much of the film. So much, in fact, that the characters of the main narrative - Sorvino and Allen aside - are thinly drawn and barely used. Allen at his best assembles strong ensembles of nuanced characters. Here, his supporting cast is underused, and even credited performers get short-changed - Olympia Dukakis’ name is proudly displayed on the poster, but she only has a couple of lines, and Claire Bloom doesn’t have much more. Their characters are forgettable - in fact I’ve forgotten them already.
One cameo sticks out, however, even if his character - a slimy gallery owner who has his sights on Weinrib’s wife (Helena Bonham Carter, again underused). Why, it’s Robocop himself, Peter Weller.
It should be noted that Allen would follow Mighty Aphrodite with star-studded cameo fests for the rest of the decade. And, looking at the cast lists for his first two films in the 2010s, You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger and Midnight in Paris, he might be moving back in that direction.
Woody Allen used to pack some of his early comedies - Sleeper in particular - with a lot of sight gags. But, oh dear.
Mira Sorvino is the centre of Mighty Aphrodite. She carries the film’s heart, the root of its humour, and the bulk of its narrative. It’s a lot to ask, but she is more than up to the task. The thing is, Allen’s screenplay is atrocious. Not only is the central conceit fumbled, and the supporting characters rendered irrelevant, but there is a strong vein of smugness and elitism when it comes to the female lead.
She’s a hooker. She’s a porn actress. She’s also dumb, has no taste and is imbued with a stupid sense of humour. It is a lazy caricature, and this works to dilute the drama of the situation. Thankfully, Sorvino somehow finds the happy compromise - giving Linda a chirpy, forthright charm that has a little more depth than the cartoonish set design, costumes and anecdotes would suggest. For the majority of the film, she exists in two-shots with Allen, playing off the contrast between the small, middle-aged man and the tall, leggy bombshell. But there are some subtle moments where Carlo Di Palma’s camera holds on her in long takes. Her monologue when she finally describes giving up her baby for adoption, in particular, is powerful without breaking character. It's an emotionally pure moment - as naive as the rest of her performance.
Sorvino won an Oscar for the role, for Best Supporting Actress. I’d say it’s not a supporting character, but I don’t think it is an award-winning performance anyway. It is certainly memorable, though - a career highlight. And it doesn’t look like there was much competition that year - Mare Winningham in Georgia? Kate Winslet in Sense and Sensibility? Kathleen Quinlan in Apollo 13? Joan Allen in Nixon? Maybe Sorvino was a breath of fresh air against all of those period dramas.
Or maybe it was Academy momentum, running on from Dianne Wiest’s second Oscar for a Woody Allen film, in 1994’s Bullets Over Broadway (the first was Hannah and Her Sisters, in 1986). I wouldn’t be surprised, as Allen also received a nomination for Best Original Screenplay, and was nominated later in the decade again for Deconstructing Harry - suggesting that the Academy were still taken in by his stature as opposed to the immediate quality of his work. They were slow on the uptake, as Allen was on a downward slump.