Non-fiction

Four Eyes for Talent

Casting Penelope Cruz means looking at Penelope Cruz a lot.

Now that we live in the foretold 15-minutes-of-fame future, we’ve realized fame just isn’t enough. The real trick today is sustaining and monetizing that fame, lest you end up penniless and unworthy of all but the lowest levels of talk and/or game shows. Reality TV is the fast track to nowhere, the only famous politicians are the ones no one could possibly love, and crime doesn’t pay, that is, if it also makes you famous. If you ever want to achieve Scrooge McDuck swimming-in-coinage levels of wealth, you’re going to need to suck the last vital juices from old media: I’m talking movie stardom.

And it won’t be easy to achieve, believe me! As William James via Tennessee Williams (via Bart Simpson and attributed to George Burns) noted, success is a “Bitch Goddess.” There is no magic formula to this bitch goddess. Until now.

There is but one secret side door to cinematic super stardom: a 15 second part in a Woody Allen movie.

While far from assuring you anything, the legendary American director’s most brief roles for bit players and stock characters leads to long and illustrious careers in cinema surprisingly often. The following is a list of then-unknown actors who made their big screen debut in Woody Allen movies, entering the deep, cool waters of cinema without much as a splash (Hence no Goldblum).

Observe:

Sylvester Stallone as Subway Tough Number One:

Subway Tough Number Two did not make quite the impact. From Bananas 1971

Before this Italian stallion punched his way into Adrian’s (and by extension, America’s) heart, Sly debuted in a non-speaking gag segment of 1971’s Bananas. Given his proclivity for reprising his old roles like Rambo and Rocky decades later, we can dream of a reboot of Subway Tough Number One in the near future.

Also note: while stereotypes for Italian Americans have changed, New York City subway designs haven’t.

Sigourney Weaver as Alvy Date Outside Theater:

"Which I took as a personal triumph" Annie Hall 1977

Although he’s known as much for being a writer as being a director, credit Allen for being able to improvise.
Allen was able to recognize that the heart of what would go on to become Annie Hall was the love story with Diane Keaton’s titular character. From the cutting room, Allen reworked the movie, in the process ditching the murder mystery angle and the title It Had to Be Jew.

One can speculate that Sigourney Weaver, a Yale-educated stage actress, at one point had lines, or at least was shot a little tighter than across the street. However, audiences in 1977 were treated to about 3 seconds of Weaver shaking hands with Keaton and dwarfing Allen.

According to Ridley Scott, Weaver beat out Meryl Streep for the role of Ripley in the Alien franchise, and Meryl Streep had a speaking part in Manhattan. So let that be a lesson.
And speaking of Manhattan…

Wallace Shawn as Keaton’s ex-beau, Jeremiah:

Did it just get short in here? From Manhattan 1979.

Born into wealth as son of the famous New Yorker editor William Shawn, Wally Shawn was already a successful playwright when he made his big-screen debut in Manhattan in 1979. Arguably he could’ve ended up a movie star anyway, but the notion of someone becoming a star with that voice and the looks of a “homunculus” (in Allen’s character’s estimation) seems fairly inconceivable.

Shawn is a returning short, neurotic New York muse for Allen, although he gets much more screen time in Melinda and Melinda, Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Radio Days. The real takeaway from Shawn’s success is that Allen’s Golden Touch overrides the traditional rules of star making. Lisping homunculi take note.

Jennifer Garner as Woman in Elevator:

Coming in at only a glance and the background of a panning shot, it took me several tries to even find Garner. Deconstructing Harry 1997

Of course, as in almost every arena of life, it doesn’t hurt to be a tall, beautiful woman. Jennifer Garner gets maybe the least screen time out of anyone on this list in 1997’s Deconstructing Harry; she turns her head in an elevator and is featured in a crowded tracking shot at the end. With a filmography as spotty as Garner’s—even if you’ll stick up for Daredevil, it seems like no one will go to bat for Elektra—the lesson might be to avoid too many television roles before getting the Woody Allen anointing, lest your best work forever be relegated to the small screen.

Zach Braff as Nick Lipton:

Far left. He also does the voice of the puppy in toilet paper commercials. Manhattan Murder Mystery 1993.

For younger readers, the ideal is of course being cast as Woody Allen’s character’s son. Sure you may not get more than a chance to slip in more lines than a quick “Ah, but they’re working us really hard at school,” show business is all who you know, it can’t hurt to be introduced to Anjelica Huston in your single scene. It worked for Zach Braff anyway.

The downside to being cast alongside the legendary screen couple is that they feel no obligation to the script, and mostly improvised the scene with the then-18-year old. Braff characterized the experience as “terrifying,” but look, man, you survived, you’re doing fine.

At this stage in Allen’s career, when his on screen appearances have become increasingly spaced out, it might not be totally plausible to be cast as his son, but East Coast natives who have the good fortune to be Jewish may as well go for it, right?

Courtesy of Etsy.

So there you have it. Even though Woody Allen is 11 years past retirement age, he still keeps churning out a movie a year. You may not need to even say a line, but if you do—even if it’s a fictitious line in a fictitious Woody Allen movie—there’s always the chance to launch your career and inspire cross stitches.

Today’s blog post had a lot of images from movies. I’m just Fair Using them, but if you work for United Artists and want me to do a better job of attribution or something, just let me know. This blog post is dedicated to house guest Mark Guinn, who gave an earnest and compelling existentialist interpretation of Rocky last night.

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