Maria Elena is one of the most enigmatic of Allen’s many diverse heroines. She is the ex-wife of a lothario played by Javier Bardem, and despite the fact that she tried to kill him, he is still under her sway. “I didn’t want to treat Maria Elena as a crazy person,” Cruz explained, “but one of the amazing things about Woody is that he can laugh at human pain and confusion. Often, you feel guilty about laughing at those characters. When I saw the movie with an audience in Cannes, I said, ‘Why are they laughing? This is not funny. All these characters are suffering so much.’”
Cruz, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Maria Elena (Woody’s women have received a staggering 11 Academy Award nominations and five Oscars), will be working with Allen again this summer in Rome. “I had so much confidence in Penélope,” Allen continued, “that I let her and Javier Bardem improvise in Spanish in Vicky Cristina. To this day, I have no idea what they were saying.” Allen paused. “But I knew it was okay—I had her speak in character. The women, especially, in my films have to be real. And yet it’s also very important to me to present the women with the enthusiasm and eroticism and awe that I feel about them. I’m very concerned with how they look, that they match my image of them. In Match Point, I reshot the scene where the audience first sees Scarlett four different ways. I wanted it just right: the hair, the color and style of her clothes, everything. I wanted the audience to feel what I felt about her.”
Allen will fixate on an actress for years, imagining her in different scenarios, before he casts her. He longs to work with Cate Blanchett (“so funny in The Talented Mr. Ripley”) and Reese Witherspoon (“but it has to be a great part to be worthy of her”). “I wanted to work with Naomi Watts for a long time,” he said, “and then I cast her in You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger as the discontented wife of a philandering husband. And she was very funny and very sexy. For years, I loved Téa Leoni from Flirting With Disaster. I’m very critical of my own work, but Hollywood Ending did not get the audience it deserved.” In that film, Allen plays a director who suffers from hysterical blindness, and Leoni is his Hepburn-esque studio-executive ex-wife who guides him through the making of his film. Along the way, they fall back in love.
Like many Allen heroines, Leoni is quite tall. Historically, a leading lady would never be taller than her opposite: Allen’s casting of himself forever altered the image of what constitutes a romantic lead. He made nerdiness and a kind of twitchy intelligence sexy. “Keaton and I are actually the same height, but I don’t really mind when they’re taller than I am,” Allen said, shrugging off any notion of male vanity. “But in Manhattan Murder Mystery, I did make certain that Anjelica Huston was sitting on the sofa for our kissing scene. She’s at least a head taller than me, and if we were standing I’d be kissing her navel.”