''Please Give'' director Nicole Nicole Holefcener and star Catherine Keener, Woody Allen and Scarlett Johansson, Pedro Almodovar and Penelope Cruz, and other auteur/actress creative relationships

By Lisa Schwarzbaum
Updated April 30, 2010 at 04:00 AM EDT

Kate, the Manhattanite wife and mother played by Catherine Keener in Nicole Holofcener’s marvelously observed new domestic drama, Please Give (R, 90 mins.) is a vivid catalog of ambivalences familiar to millions of women of a certain boomer age and socioeconomic level. She’s married to an amiable man (Oliver Platt) with whom she shares a successful business, but she’s prone to jags of dissatisfaction. She’s the loving mother of a spunky teenage daughter (Sarah Steele), but she’s given to flare-ups of insensitivity. She enjoys her city comforts, but she’s afflicted with guilt for being a have while have-nots sleep on the street outside her door.

Kate is a close relative of the complicated women who regularly populate Holofcener’s smart, articulate, female-centric movies — women previously played by Keener in the filmmaker’s Walking and Talking (1996); Lovely & Amazing (2001); and Friends With Money (2006). Indeed, with Keener’s unique ability to portray characters who are simultaneously blunt (and even abrasive) but also soft and vulnerable, the actress has become the embodiment of a Holofcener woman. More than that, with their shared characteristics of sex, age, motherhood, and brunet hair, Keener has become Holofcener’s artistic alter ego.

Offhand, I can’t think of any male director who regularly employs a female alter ego. (Their loss!) But plenty have benefited from actresses who qualify as muses — a whole different category of feminine encouragement, and the inspiration for some of their best work. In his 1999 comedy The Muse, Albert Brooks got a very funny performance out of Sharon Stone as a blowsy modern incarnation of one of those classical Greek spirits legendary for inspiring creativity. It’s no surprise that Stone’s wacky enchantress was high-maintenance, since directors’ best muses often serve as feminine avatars of the men who dream them up. Who but Quentin Tarantino could have conjured a Bride in his Kill Bill saga with quite the combination of pedigree, pedicure, and martial-arts interests as the kick-ass Amazonian specimen played by Uma Thurman? And who but an actress of such distinctive beauty and manner could express QT’s fantasy of feminine power?

Similarly, there’s something tender and revealing in Pedro Almodóvar’s choice of Penélope Cruz as the Spanish filmmaker’s main muse, most recently in last year’s Broken Embraces. Cruz is as capable as any spitfire of flashing outsize emotions, but it’s her dark-eyed liquidity of movement and her small-boned, hothouse daintiness, I like to think, that represent the secret, sexy girl inside the man.

Sometimes a director looks to his muse as his ideal desirable woman. Other times, he molds a simpatico, stylistically flexible actress to suit his artistic vision — and romances her, too. Just ask Tim Burton, who has found, in his companion Helena Bonham Carter, the perfect feminine interpreter of his fantastical notions, from Corpse Bride to Sweeney Todd to Alice in Wonderland. And then there’s Woody Allen, an auteur with a history of entwining the personal and the professional. Through the Louise Lasser years, the Diane Keaton years, and the many Mia Farrow years, Allen bent the talents of his favored actresses to suit his romantic-comedy taste for wide-eyed, trusting, slightly kooky (or full-blown charmingly neurotic) ladies.

Which is why the emergence of Scarlett Johansson as Allen’s most recent leading lady is noteworthy: Both her persona and the characters she plays (in movies such as Match Point and Vicky Cristina Barcelona) are tougher and more confidently sexual than any Allen-ish female character we’ve seen before. Is this the 2.0 version of the Allen woman? Whatever works! Myself, I’d like to see what the aging Svengali could do with Catherine Keener’s performance style, her combination of warmth and unmannered authenticity. To him, she’d be an alien from a feminist planet, while to Holofcener she’s a sister under the skin. Please Give: A?