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Review 100 Greatest 

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Annie Hall (1977)
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Background

Annie Hall (1977), from director-actor-co-writer Woody Allen, is a quintessential masterpiece of priceless, witty and quotable one-liners within a matured, focused and thoughtful film. It is a bittersweet romantic comedy of modern contemporary love and urban relationships (a great successor to classic Hollywood films such as The Awful Truth (1937) and The Philadelphia Story (1940)), that explores the interaction of past and present, and the rise and fall of Allen's own challenging, ambivalent New York romance with his opposite - an equally-insecure, shy, flighty Midwestern WASP female (who blossoms out in a Pygmalion-like story).

Annie Hall clearly has semi-autobiographical elements - it is the free-wheeling, stream-of-consciousness story of an inept, angst-ridden, pessimistic, Brooklyn-born and Jewish stand-up comedian - much like Allen himself (who started out as a joke writer for The Tonight Show) - who experiences crises related to his relationships and family. His unstable love affair with aspiring singer Annie Hall begins to disintegrate when she moves to Los Angeles and discovers herself - and a new life.

[A real-life relationship and breakup did occur in early 1970 between Allen and co-star Keaton. Keaton's birth name was Diane Hall, her nickname was Annie, and she did have a Grammy Hall. And Woody Allen played a similar role as mentor to Diane Keaton (about New York life, politics, philosophy, and books), as did best friend Tony Roberts to Allen.]

This breakthrough film came after Allen's five earlier light-hearted comedies (from 1969-1975) that were take-offs of various film genres or books, often similar to episodic Marx Brothers' films:

Allen's Previous Films
Genre/Work Satirized
Take the Money and Run (1969) Mockumentary of Crime/Prison or Gangster Films
Bananas (1971) War or 'South of the Border' Films
Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex * (* But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972) Self-Help Books
Sleeper (1973) Science-Fiction or Futuristic Films
Love and Death (1975) Classic Russian Literature, Culture, and History, the Napoleonic Wars

Allen's previous films might be characterized as a series of irreverent comic sketches with frequent instances of absurdist humor and slapstick. In contrast, this urban dramatic comedy, his best-loved work, marked a major transition. It was his most successful, deepest, self-reflexive, most elaborate and unified work to that time. However, the film could have been a disaster if it hadn't been edited down from its initial length of well over two hours to about 95 minutes by editor Ralph Rosenblum. Many scenes that were shot were eliminated, and others were severely truncated. And the film was originally a murder mystery, and might have been titled Anhedonia (a state of acute melancholia with an inability to experience pleasure and enjoy oneself), A Roller Coaster Named Desire, or even Me and My Gay, or It Had to Be Jew if one of its alternative titles had been chosen. [Allen later directed murder mysteries to satisfy that impulse: Shadows and Fog (1992), and Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) - retooled from this script.] In addition to Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), this was one of his most commercially-successful films (at a budget of $4 million, it brought in a box-office of $40 million).

Annie Hall capitalized on many of the ingredients that had been the content of his earlier films - the subjects of anti-Semitism, life, romantic angst, drugs and death, his obsessive love of New York, his dislike of California (mostly L.A.) fads and intellectual pomposity, his introspective neuroses and pessimism, his requisite jokes and psychosexual frustration about sex, numerous put-downs of his own appearance and personality, and distorted memories of his childhood. The film's more sensitive and realistic (still-comical) yet serious-minded tone about an intimate and emotional relationship appealed to all film-goers, not just Woody Allen cultists.

With five nominations, the film was a four-time Academy Award winner: Best Actress (Diane Keaton with her sole Oscar win), Best Picture (Charles H. Joffe, producer), Best Director (Woody Allen), and Best Original Screenplay (Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman). It defeated the science-fiction blockbuster Star Wars (1977) for Best Picture. It was the first comedy since Tom Jones (1963) to take the Best Picture Oscar - and before that Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934). A fifth nomination was for Woody Allen for Best Actor, who lost to Richard Dreyfuss for The Goodbye Girl (1977) - in another NY-based light romantic comedy. It was quite a feat that Allen was nominated for directing, writing, and acting for the same film - and won two of the three awards. [It was only the second time in Academy history, up to that time, that one person was simultaneously nominated for three Oscars, Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Original Screenplay - Orson Welles had received a previous similar honor for Citizen Kane (1941).]

The film influenced fashion designers (with the masculine, androgynous "Annie Hall" look) and made Diane Keaton a new leading lady. [The "look" was a mis-matched, eclectic conglomeration of men's costuming: 30's style baggy light brown chino pants, an oversized man's white shirt, a dark grey, wide necktie with shiny polka-dot spots, a black waistcoat vest, and a floppy bowler hat. Despite the film's influence on fashion in New York and elsewhere (Ruth Morley worked with Ralph Lauren, who designed Annie's outfit), there was no Best Costume Design nomination.]

And there are quick cameo glimpses of future stars (Shelley Hack, Beverly D'Angelo, John Glover, Sigourney Weaver, Christopher Walken, and Jeff Goldblum) and current celebrities (Dick Cavett, Truman Capote, Paul Simon, and Marshall McLuhan). Two later romantic comedies, director Rob Reiner's When Harry Met Sally...(1989) and Billy Crystal's Forget Paris (1995), paid homage to this film with a similar theme. Allen's own black comedy Deconstructing Harry (1997) twenty years later has been considered the 'dark' side of this film. Keaton's next film in the same year, Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977), was a radical departure from this film, in which she took on the role of a promiscuous Catholic girl who ended up murdered - the victim of the singles bar scene.

The major theme of the film is that there are severe limitations in life (death and loss are the two most prevalent), but that art forms (such as the printed word, films, and plays) have the power to reshape reality and provide some measure of control, thereby compensating for life's limitations.

There are a variety of innovative strategies and narrative techniques in the kaleidoscopic film that support the contention that Woody Allen is functioning as a self-conscious artist who evaluates his entire life (including romances) and uses the film medium to achieve greater control over reality. The stylistic strategies and cinematic techniques that support the fragmented nature of the film include:

Cinematic Technique
Comment
direct addresses to the camera Reminiscent of Ingmar Bergman films, and films such as Strange Interlude (1932), or Alfie (1966) with Michael Caine
memory-flashbacks and other flashbacks Influenced, in part, by Citizen Kane (1941)
adult time-travel back to childhood Reminiscent of Bergman's Wild Strawberries (1957)
interjections into the scene (unseen by others) Reminiscent of Bergman's Persona (1960)
vignettes  
the sudden production of a real-life character ( "Boy, if life were only like this") Author Marshall McLuhan appears, to conveniently settle an argument
split screens, and conversations across the two screens The dual psychiatrist scene, and the conversation between the two families
transformations Alvy becomes a bearded Hasidic Jew while visiting Annie's anti-Semitic family
double-exposed action Annie's ghost scene
subtitles that contradict the action The famous balcony scene
voice-over commentary and asides to the camera or to complete strangers about the events of the film  
dialogue between two introspective voice-overs  
animation The Snow White cartoon
fantasy  

The Story

After the silent opening credits (influenced by director Martin Ritt's film The Front (1976), starring Woody Allen), the opening scene has the main character (indistinguishable from Woody Allen himself, dressed in a tweed jacket, red plaid shirt, and his black-framed spectacles) speaking intimately and directly to the audience viewer in a full, stark closeup. He tells two key Jewish jokes in a stand-up, vaudeville-style monologue. In his first joke, he satirizes his own feelings about life and its miserable shortcomings:

Two elderly women are at a Catskill Mountain resort. And one of 'em says: 'Boy, the food in this place is really terrible.' The other one says: 'Yeah, I know. And such small portions.' Well, that's essentially how I feel about life. Full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it's all over much too quickly.

His second joke pays tribute to key individuals in his life - Groucho Marx and Sigmund Freud. From Groucho Marx, the comedian learned comedy. From Freud's writings on wit and jokes, the 'pleasure mechanism', neuroses, dreams, and psychopathology [the content of the film, in fact!], he delved into his unconscious:

The other important joke for me is one that's usually attributed to Groucho Marx but I think it appears originally in Freud's Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious - and it goes like this. I'm paraphrasing. I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member. That's the key joke of my adult life, in terms of my relationships with women.

The malcontented comic, later identified as Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) [the name bears some resemblance to the hedonistic, Cockney title character in Alfie (1966) - a similar film about the lead character's love life and his problems with commitment], has just turned forty (and already experienced two failures in his previous marriages to intellectual Jewish women) and is in the middle of a mid-life crisis, with aging bringing on signs of slight balding: "I think I'm gonna get better as I get older." He hopes to become the "balding virile type, you know, as opposed to, say, the distinguished gray, unless I'm neither of those two. Unless I'm one of those guys with saliva dribbling out of his mouth who wanders into a cafeteria with a shopping bag screaming about socialism."

The film, not a standard chronological narrative, presents the free-association memories of a one-year long romance with Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) that is already over. Devastated, the comedian switches from the chatter of his comedy act to melancholy. He also switches from the clearly delineated Woody Allen character to the fictional character of the film. The film searches for his answer to the question - Why did they break up? (and by implication, why does contemporary love die?) He confesses in a crest-fallen manner:

Annie and I broke up. And I still can't get my mind around that. You know, I keep sifting the pieces of the relationship through my mind, and examining my life and trying to figure out where did the screwup come, you know. A year ago, we were in love, you know.

As a successful, but neurotic Jewish New York comedian, he doesn't consider himself a "morose type." "I'm not a depressive character. I-I, uh, you know, I was a reasonably happy kid, I guess," he assures the audience and himself.

Fixated on his past as one possible answer to his question, Alvy looks back to his childhood, mixing a quasi-Freudian analysis with Groucho Marx-ian humor. He was raised in Brooklyn during World War II and his first childhood memories are of depression. His over-protective, over-achieving, and panicked Jewish mother (Joan Newman) has brought her young and insecure, but precocious, bespectacled 9 year old son Alvy Singer (Jonathan Munk) to a doctor. The boy, exhibiting the latent characteristics of his future adult personality, is pre-occupied with contemplating Death - he metaphysically despairs at the impending expansion of the universe and humankind's doom to the condescending and patronizing physician:

Alvy's mother: He's been depressed. All of a sudden, he can't do anything.
Doctor: Why are you depressed, Alvy?
Alvy's mother: Tell Dr. Flicker. (To the doctor) It's something he read.
Doctor: Something he read, huh?
Alvy: The universe is expanding...Well, the universe is everything, and if it's expanding, some day it will break apart and that will be the end of everything.
Alvy's mother: What is that your business? (To the doctor) He stopped doing his homework.
Alvy: What's the point?
Alvy's mother: What has the universe got to do with it? You're here in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is not expanding.
Doctor: It won't be expanding for billions of years, yet Alvy. And we've got to try to enjoy ourselves while we're here, huh, huh? Ha, ha, ha. (He gives an artificial laugh before taking another drag on his cigarette)

According to the voice-over account by an adult Alvy, he is trying to discover the reasons for his adult confusion by subjecting himself to Freudian analysis - and realizing that he has exaggerated his childhood memories. Flashbacks show his early childhood and grade schooling experience. His neurotic, nervous personality may be due to having been brought up in a trembling house underneath the roller coaster in the Coney Island section of Brooklyn. In the Singer home, the house was subjected to vicious shaking each time a roller-coaster car rode by that was filled with amusement park thrill-seekers. At the dinner table, Alvy suffers - struggling to ladle a quivering spoon-full of reddish tomato soup into his mouth. [Note: The roller-coaster was popularized with a cameo in the film. The real rollercoaster -- dubbed the Thunderbolt -- opened in 1925. The house in which young Alvy supposedly "lived" was the actual home of the ride's owners, the Moran family, who were interviewed in PBS's American Experience documentary Coney Island: A Documentary Film (2000). It was the first roller-coaster to use a steel frame. It lay abandoned for many years and was demolished in mid-November, 2000.]

With a "hyperactive imagination," he also experiences problems distinguishing between "fantasy and reality." His working-class father ran the bumper-car concession at Coney Island where he would compensate for feelings of aggression by taking it out on fellow bumper car drivers: "I used to get my aggression out through those cars all the time." The camera pans from left to right past three of Alvy's childhood teachers. On the blackboard behind the first teacher, the words "TUESDAY - DEC. 1 - " (1942) are written [Woody Allen's own birthday is Sunday, December 1, 1935]. The teachers at his school are mocked and castigated for their ignorance in the profession: "Those who can't do teach. And those who can't teach teach GYM. And, of course, those who couldn't do anything, I think, were assigned to our school." Alvy's classmates are called "idiots" and "jerks."

In the next scene, an adult Alvy no longer provides voice-over narration or an objective perspective - he physically interjects himself into the past - he visits his classroom and sits with the younger kids, clarifying his childhood actions to both his teacher and a classmate. [The scene was filmed on location at St. Bernard's School in the West Village area of New York.] As a sexually-confused adult - with little differentiation between fantasy and reality, he talks back to his teacher, defending himself over impulsively kissing one of the little girls:

Alvy (young): What did I do?
Teacher: You should be ashamed of yourself.
Alvy (adult): Why, I was just expressing a healthy sexual curiosity.
Teacher: Six year old boys don't have girls on their minds.
Alvy (adult): I did.
Girl: For god's sakes, Alvy, even Freud speaks of a latency period.
Alvy (adult): Well I never had a latency period. I can't help it.
Teacher: Why couldn't you have been more like Donald? Now there was a model boy.

Projections are made of what a few of his other classmates will be doing many years later - each of them stands up to prophetically foretell his/her future profession. In a scene which implies denial of free will, some of them admit their adult life's failures:

- "I run a profitable dress company."
- "I'm president of the Pinkus Plumbing Company."
- An orthodox boy: "I sell tallises."
- A normal-looking kid: "I used to be a heroin addict. Now I'm a methadone addict."
- A mousey-looking girl: "I'm into leather."
- Alvy grows up and becomes "a comedian."

A grainy, discolored TV clip shows comedian/writer 'Alvy' (and Allen himself) as a guest on the Dick Cavett talk show telling another self-deprecating joke:

They did not take me in the Army. I was, uhm, interestingly enough, I was 4-P. Yes. In the event of war, I'm a hostage.

Directly to the camera as she peels carrots, Alvy's mother chastises her neurotic, adult son: "You always only saw the worst in people. You never could get along with anyone in school. You were always out of step with the world. Even when you got famous, you still mistrusted the world."

The story flashes back about a year earlier to a time when Alvy was involved in a dating relationship with Annie. A stationary camera shoots down a quiet, urban sidewalk - way in the distance, two people approach closer and closer, engrossed in conversation. Their voices are heard off-screen. Insecure, sensitive and paranoid of ethnic and anti-Semitic remarks, an agitated Alvy explains to his calm friend Rob (Tony Roberts), that he thinks an acquaintance has made an anti-Semitic remark in a Jew-baiting incident:

You know, I was having lunch with some guys from NBC, so I said, 'Did you eat yet or what?' And Tom Christie said, 'No, JEW?' Not 'Did you?'...JEW eat? JEW? You get it? JEW eat?

Rob thinks that Alvy (often called 'Max' by Rob - and vice versa) "sees conspiracies in everything." [To avoid being recognized when booking hotel or restaurant reservations, Woody Allen would call himself 'Max'.]

For Alvy, life is relentlessly fearful and filled with paranoia - he must vigilantly combat all real (and imagined) fears with his intelligence and rationality. Rob suggests that Alvy move from crazy New York City to sunny Los Angeles where all of show business is located, and where he can escape such prejudices. Alvy clearly prefers Manhattan to living in Los Angeles:

I don't want to live in a city where the only cultural advantage is that you can make a right turn on a red light.

The next amusing sequence stereotypes interaction with a pushy, intrusive fan. While waiting outside the Beekman Theatre on Second Avenue to meet Annie (they are midway into their relationship), Alvy is recognized by an obnoxious male pedestrian (the gag speculates the guy is from the 'cast of The Godfather' (1972) - a film also featuring Diane Keaton!):

Pedestrian: Are you on television?
Alvy: No. (After a long pause, Alvy admits) Yeah, once in a while...
Pedestrian: What's your name?
Alvy: You wouldn't know. It doesn't matter. What's the difference?
Pedestrian: You're on, uh, the, uh, the Johnny Carson, right?
Alvy: Once in a while, you know...
Pedestrian: What's your name?
Alvy: I-m - I'm uh, I'm Robert Redford.
Pedestrian: Come on.
Alvy (extends his hand for a shake): Alvy Singer. It was nice. Thanks very much for everything.
Pedestrian: Hey (loudly beckoning a friend)! Dis is Alvy Singah!
Alvy (exasperated): Fellas, you know...
Pedestrian: Dis guy's on television!!! Alvy Singer. Right? Am I right?
Alvy: Gimme a break...
Pedestrian: Dis guy's on television!!!
Alvy: I need the large polo mallet.
2nd man: Who's on television?
Pedestrian: Dis guy - on the Johnny Carson Show.
Alvy: Fellas, what is this? A meeting of the Teamsters?
2nd man: What program?
Pedestrian: Kineye 'ave your ortograph?
Alvy: You don't want my autograph?
Pedestrian: No, I do. It's for my girlfriend. Make it out to Ralph.
Alvy: (after a double-take) Your girlfriend's name is Ralph?
Pedestrian: It's for my bruddah. (He is handed to autograph) ALVY SINGER!! HEY! THIS IS ALVY SINGER!!

In a brilliant introductory shot, Annie pulls up in a taxicab at the curb - and she is not apologetic but irritable:

Alvy: Jesus, what did ya do? Come by way of the Panama Canal?
Annie: I'm in a bad mood, OK?
Alvy: Bad mood? I'm standing with the cast of The Godfather. [A reference to a film in which Diane Keaton played the role of Michael Corleone's (Al Pacino) wife.]
Annie: You're gonna have to learn to deal with it.
Alvy: I'm dealin' with two guys named Cheech.


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