Greatest Film Scenes
and Moments

Zelig (1983)


Written by Tim Dirks

Title Screen
Movie Title/Year and Scene Descriptions

Zelig (1983)

Woody Allen's mock documentary demonstrated the technical accomplishment of laboriously matching and interweaving authentic and older period film (newsreels and documentary footage) from the 1920s and 30s with newer, flickering B/W film shot by Oscar-nominated cinematographer Gordon Willis, to make the film appear authentically 'historic'.

[Note: These same effects would be replicated 10 years later in Forrest Gump (1994).]

In addition, the Narrator's (Patrick Horgan) authentic BBC documentary-style narration, as well as the commentary (by radio or through interviews) of Zelig's friends, relatives, and associates, including literary personages, such as Susan Sontag, added to the film's believability. There were also movie reenactments of events in Leonard Zelig's life, including the biopic The Changing Man (1935), by Warner Bros.

Chameleon-like Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen) in the Jazz Era of the 1920s (and extending into the 1930s) became known as an individual who appeared to take on the characteristics of those he associated with - known as "the Zelig phenomenon":

  • Zelig awaited his turn at bat as "Lou Zelig" with baseball player Babe Ruth
  • he was seen a South Side of Chicago speakeasy gangster ("a tough-looking hombre")
  • he appeared as a "colored boy" playing trumpet in the band
  • Zelig was seen in a photograph with Eugene O'Neill, and in a second photo portraying Pagliacci
  • he became a "strange looking Oriental" in a Chinese establishment in NYC's Chinatown; but after engaging in a fight and being transported to a hospital in a strait-jacket, he emerged 20 minutes later as a "Caucasian," and claimed he was a learned doctor or psychiatrist who "studied and worked with Freud in Vienna"
  • Zelig was also identified as "the son of a Yiddish actor named Morris Zelig" who grew up "frequently bullied by anti-Semites," but adjusted well even though an alcoholic
  • various diagnoses were offered as reasons for the transformations: it was all "glandular in nature," or "due to secretions," or "picked up from eating Mexican food," or "neurological in origin," or was some kind of "psychological" disorder resulting from an unstable makeup that accounted for "his metamorphoses"; further notions included "poor alignment of the vertebrae," but nothing was conclusive regarding the nature of his "astonishing manifestation"
  • to demonstrate his remarkable personality changes, Zelig became obese next to two overweight men, and turned black in the presence of two Negro men
  • some Americans reacted with envy: "I wish I could be Lenny Zelig, the changing man. I'd be different people. Someday my wishes will come true"
  • finally, Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow) at the Manhattan Hospital placed Zelig under hypnosis and made a definitive diagnosis about his need for approval: (Narrator: "Dr. Fletcher describes Zelig as a human chameleon. Like the lizard that is endowed by nature with a marvelous protective device that enables it to change color and blend in with its immediate surrounding, Zelig, too protects himself by becoming whoever he is around"); apparently out of his desire to fit in and be liked, Zelig unwittingly took on the characteristics of strong personalities around him, although some felt Zelig had a "unique mental disorder"
"The Zelig Phenomenon"

With Eugene O'Neill

As Pagilacci

As a Psychiatrist

As a Young Jewish Male

"Adjusted to Life"

Zelig as a Chameleon with Two Negro Men
  • the Narrator stated: "To the Ku Klux Klan, Zelig a Jew who was able to transform himself into a Negro or lndian, was a triple threat"
  • Zelig was treated by Dr. Fletcher, who studied his answers to her question: "You recall the first time you began behaving like the people you were around?"; other doctors insisted on treatment with an experimental drug known as somadril hydrate, causing Zelig to undergo severe mood changes
  • shortly later, Zelig was removed from the hospital to be treated at home by his half-sister Ruth (Mary Louise Wilson) and her lover Martin Geist (Sol Lomita), a fraudulent businessman who made money off Zelig as a 'human chameleon' tourist attraction: (Narrator: "Overnight, he has become an attraction, a novelty, a freak"); dolls, pens, lucky charms, books, clocks, watches, etc. were sold, and many popular songs were inspired by Leonard Zelig ("You may be six people but I love you"), and commercial endorsements were also produced (a billboard declared - Leonard Zelig says... "We smoke Camels")
  • Zelig began to hob-knob with celebrities, including Clara Bow, Chicago heavyweight boxer Jack Dempsey, DC politicians Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover, French Folies Bergere dancer Josephine Baker, and Fanny Brice

With Boxer Jack Dempsey

With Coolidge and Herbert Hoover

With Josephine Baker
  • meanwhile, as Zelig had become "devoid of personality," Dr. Fletcher began to abandon her hope of helping Zelig to recover; Zelig's life was turned upside down when a deadly 'love triangle' resulted in the murders of Zelig's guardians Ruth Zelig and Martin Geist - and Zelig went missing (either he was lost or hiding) at the end of the 1920's; Dr. Fletcher regained custody of his psychotherapeutic treatment to be conducted in her country home, and recorded by photographer Paul Deghuee (John Rothman) in a series known as "The White Room Sessions"
  • Dr. Bruno Bettelheim (as Himself) (in a color insert segment) spoke about Zelig's condition: "The question whether Zelig was a psychotic or merely extremely neurotic was a question that was endlessly discussed among us doctors. Now I myself felt that his feelings were really not all that different from the normal, maybe what one would call the well-adjusted normal person only carried to an extreme degree, to an extreme extent. I myself felt that one could really think of him as the ultimate conformist"
  • during the "White Room Sessions," Leonard insisted he was the doctor (calling himself Dr. Zelig), causing Dr. Fletcher immense frustration; however, in a "breakthrough" strategy, she decided to reverse roles with him; she pretended he was now the doctor and asked for advice on how to deal with his problem: ("I want so badly to be liked, to be like other people so I don't stand out") - Zelig suffered a severe "identity disorder" when he admitted to her: "No, I'm nobody. I'm nothing"
  • as time went on over a three month period, Dr. Fletcher realized that she was falling in love with Zelig: ("And then I found I had very strong feelings for him"); his treatment was going well, but only under hypnosis were there signs of improvement; but then Dr. Fletcher feared that her cure to have him voice his own opinions had gone too far: (Narrator: "He has been molded too far in the other direction. He has become over-opinionated and cannot brook any disagreement with his own views"); Dr. Fletcher admitted: "I'd taken him too far in the other direction" - he had become intolerant
  • after being "cured," Leonard and Dr. Fletcher became a couple ("fast friends") and were the town's newest celebrities - it was a major "success story" for the psychiatrist; Eudora and Leonard were invited to San Simeon in California, to meet tycoon publisher William Randolph Hearst, his mistress/actress Marion Davies, and other stars such as Charles Chaplin and Marie Dressler; Leonard met western actor Tom Mix and other stars, including golfer Bobby Jones

Leonard With Bathing Beauties

In Downtown NYC

On a Cruise Ship
Leonard and Dr. Fletcher - Famous and Popular In the 1930s
  • Leonard soon became famous, and was on a speakers' circuit, proclaiming he was no longer "a member of the reptile family" -- "You got to be yourself. You know you can’t act like anybody else just because you think that they have all the answers and you don't. You have to be your own man, and learn to speak up and say what's on your mind"; the Narrator summarized that Zelig was no longer a chameleon: "He is finally an individual, a human being. He no longer gives up his own identity to be a safe and invisible part of his surroundings"
  • essayist Susan Sontag (as Herself) congratulated Dr. Fletcher for her success with Zelig -- "a remarkable creative accomplishment"
  • inevitably, fame and their announcement of a spring marriage brought forth his downfall: "the roof fell in" -- numerous women claimed that Leonard was already married and had fathered children -- Zelig was shaken by the scandals, and admitted that he might have committed the accusations during one of his "spells" or changes in personality; his destructive fall from grace was immediate and marked by "dozens of lawsuits"; he was branded as a "criminal" (Narrator: "He is sued for bigamy, adultery, automobile accidents, plagiarism, household damages, negligence, property damages and performing unnecessary dental extractions"); Zelig's emotional condition deteriorated "under the weight of conservative moral opinion"
  • when Leonard's illness returned ("He longs desperately to be liked once again to be accepted, to fit in"), and he faced charges of polygamy and fraud, he vanished by fleeing the country, although there were various false sightings
  • eventually, Zelig was located in Berlin, Germany, presumably working with the Nazis before WWII; he was pictured with the Fascist Fuhrer Adolf Hitler himself; Dr. Fletcher sailed to Europe and after four weeks of searching, found him at a huge Nazi rally in Munich seated behind Hitler, and they were able to escape from the SS after disrupting the event
  • they flew back to America (Zelig transformed into a pilot and flew their plane non-stop and upside down to the US in record time), where they were now proclaimed heroes in a NYC ticker tape parade; Zelig was awarded the Medal of Valor by Carter Dean (Bernie Herold); Zelig admitted that his total psychosis could lead to amazing accomplishments ("it shows exactly what you can do if you're a total psychotic"); Saul Bellow noted: "It was his very disorder that made a hero of him"; they were soon married and "lived full and happy years together"

Ticker-Tape Parade in NYC

The Medal of Valor

Happily Married

In the Next-at-Bat Circle with Babe Ruth

As Gangster in Speakeasy

As Colored Trumpeter

Zelig Subjected to Physical and Psychological Tests by Doctors

Treated and Studied by Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow)

Zelig as a "Human Chameleon" Tourist Attraction

Zelig as a Native-American

Books ("The Little Chameleon Boy") and Zelig-Related Toys

Bruno Bettelheim - Psychoanalyst

White Room Sessions: Leonard Insisted He Was the Doctor

Dr. Fletcher's Frustration with Zelig

Dr. Fletcher and Zelig Falling in Love

Leonard Presented With Key to NYC

Zelig at San Simeon with western actor Tom Mix

Susan Sontag - Commentary on Zelig

Zelig Scandal

"Zelig Menace" - The Return of His Condition

Zelig in Adolf Hitler's Presence in Berlin, Germany

Zelig Behind Hitler at Munich Nazi Rally


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