Movies We Like
Husbands and Wives
If Annie Hall was Woody Allen’s ode to falling in love, 15 years later Husbands and Wives is an examination of falling out of love. Where the look and style of Annie Hall was clean and precise, Husbands and Wives is franticly shot handheld with herky-jerky editing and an almost improvised vibe to the performances. If Annie Hall marked the beginning of Allen’s great run of introspective masterpieces and near masterpieces, Husbands and Wives is the end of the streak. It’s his last really important Woody Allen film and definitely his last strong acting performance before he fell into a cliché of himself or brought in other actors to substitute, aping his own famous mannerisms. Husbands and Wives doesn’t have as many laughs as some of his earlier work but the insights into relationships can be utterly nerve striking. Made during his dramatic break up with his then wife Mia Farrow, it may be the last time Allen really had something he wanted to say or was worth hearing.
Besides the French New Wave camera work and cutting, there’s an occasional narrator and interviews with the characters; what was meant to give the film a documentary feel actually seems now to predate reality TV. Gabe (Allen), a writer and college professor, is in a stale marriage to Judy (Farrow); they are shocked when, before a dinner date, their good friends Jack (Sidney Pollack) and Sally (Judy Davis) announce their separation. Subconsciously it may expose their inner doubts about their own marriage. Jack quickly gets a much younger girlfriend, an aerobics trainer named Sam (Lysette Anthony), while Sally’s dating life is less successful until Judy introduces her to her coworker, the sweetly hunky Michael (Liam Neeson). Meanwhile Gabe and Judy argue about having a child and his indifference towards her writing aspirations. Gabe befriends a young writing student, Rain (Julliette Lewis replacing Emily Lloyd who was fired after shooting begun), with whom he finds a creative (and potentially sexual) bond that he doesn’t have with Judy. From there the couple’s relationships get worse, better, and worse.
One of Allen’s apparent great skills has been in the casting of his films and here he hits a homerun: Lewis, Farrow, and Neeson all deliver as expected (as do Blythe Danner and Brian McConnachie as Rain’s parents and Ron Rifkin as her analyst/ ex-boyfriend). Lysette Anthony, an actress I’ve never heard of before or since, is perfect as the younger lightweight counter to Sally. But it’s Pollack and especially Davis who steal the movie. Of course Pollack had been an acclaimed director for years (They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, etc.); he started out as a TV actor in the ‘50s and then went on a directing roll. He had a memorable little part in his own flick Tootsie, but here he tears into the role, being both charming and abusive to a strong degree. Australian actress Davis had always been a powerhouse in international art house fare (My Brilliant Career, A Passage to India). Her American career before Husbands and Wives included a little role in Allen’s dull Alice and appearances in the culty Barton Fink and Naked Lunch, but nothing can prepare you for what she brings to the Husbands and Wives. Some of the neurotic, manic intelligence that Davis infuses Sally with may have been on the page, but so much seems to come from the actress’s own soul, not Allen. She really puts her heart and humor on the screen; it’s a stunning piece of acting, if not one of the two or three best performances in a Woody Allen flick (and that’s saying a lot with the dozens of memorable performances he has gotten out of his casts).
There is a depressing quality to Husbands and Wives; the usually whimsical-about-love Allen seems to have soured on the subject. That’s not to say it doesn’t have Allen’s usual sharp wit and intelligent dialogue and besides the wonderful performance there is a truth that Allen is revealing, at least as he sees it. Relationships are full of manipulation and impossible to keep alive. In the film he tells the story of two neighbors—one single and free and one married with kids—that both envy each other. Perhaps Husbands and Wives is about not being content with what you have; love may be impossible knowing something better may be lurking out there. Though there have been a couple more Woody Allen films of interest since, none have matched the intellectual and creatively mature scope of Husbands and Wives and much of his work before it. It’s the last chance to see why Allen was one of the most important film artists of the 20th century.
Husbands and Wives was nominated for two Oscars: Best Supporting Actress (Judy Davis), and Best Original Screenplay (Woody Allen).