Friday, August 17, 2012


“I think what we’ve got here . . . is a dead shark.”

Annie Hall (1977), directed by Woody Allen; written by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman; produced by Charles H. Joffe; cinematography: Gordon Willis; editing: Ralph Rosenblum; distributed by United Artists; Awards: Won Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Leading Actress (Diane Keaton), Best Original Screenplay; nominated for Best Leading Actor (Woody Allen); for a full list of awards and nominations, go here.

This was Woody Allen’s breakthrough film.  He first came to my attention with Sleeper in 1973. I was in high school, saw it on HBO. Then came Love and Death in 1975 and I made sure I saw that in the movies, several times. I happened to be reading a lot of Dostoevsky in 1973-76 and Love and Death fit right in. That was my kind of humor in the mid-Seventies. It also happened to be the period when I first became aware of auteur cinema, catching films by Bergman, Antonioni, Fellini, Eisenstein, Truffaut on PBS and HBO. So it’s easy to see why Annie Hall, when it was released the spring I graduated high school, hit the right nerve for me all along the way. I believe it holds the record for “film most viewed in its original theatrical release” (this was in the era before VHS, kids).

In this film Woody more or less plays himself; and Diane Keaton plays some version of herself. Woody is Alvy Singer, a stand-up comedian (as Woody was for a time); Keaton is, of course, Annie Hall, a singer. One immediately likeable thing about the film is the way it naturalizes show-biz. These are just regular folks (albeit regular neurotic New York folks of the late Seventies) who live in the city like anyone else. Well, not quite. You and I both know that this period of New York was rife with punk and SoHo sleaze and the grime of bankrupt bad-city politics. But that’s not Woody’s New York. His is uptown all the way, even when it’s not. His idea of bohemia is a modest cottage on Long Island. But the great thing about the period of Annie Hall is that life was kinda like that. There was much less pretension in the late ‘70s, must less crap from the filthy rich. Even rock stars were sorta humble: the scene where Alvy goes to a Maharishi Yogi event and sees “God” coming out of the men’s room kinda says it all, while his date (a blithely rapturous Shelley Duvall) blathers about catching Dylan’s concert (Alvy missed it because his raccoon had hepatitis) and Mick’s birthday at Madison Square Garden (’74 and ’72, respectively); elsewhere Tony Lacy (Paul Simon in a great bit as a very mellow music producer) name-drops going for drinks with “Jack and Anjelica.” All this stuff is pitch perfect.

As is the male-centered egotism, bigotry (“for the Left”), cutesy misogyny, and self-effacing (not quite self-hating) Jewish humor of Allen’s Alvy. Alvy isn’t an intellectual because he disdains intellectuals (“oh, I heard Commentary and Dissent had merged and formed Dysentery"), and the last thing he wants to be is a man of the people (“hey fellas, I think you’re late for your teamsters’ meeting”). One of the great set-pieces is Alvy in line at the movies with a pontificating know-it-all behind him. The Columbia prof’s brag about his insights into Marshall MacLuhan is the last straw: Alvy pulls Mr. MacLuhan out from behind a cigarette machine to tell the wigged egghead, “you know nothing of my work.”

Alvy is the center of his world and only wants a woman who will make him center of her world, but only on his terms. The point of the story is that Alvy, after two marriages that he’s glad to get shut of because his and his wives’ libidos didn’t quite line up, finally meets his match. Annie—who he calls “polymorphously perverse”—is neurotic in ways that melt him rather than making him get all frantic and frustrated. Not that there aren’t great fights where it’s all a battle of words and timing (and no expletives—wording-wise, this film is PG); it’s just that no matter how the dust settles, Alvy ends up wanting her back. In other words, Annie Hall, not “smart enough” to be Alvy’s match, is a woman whose je ne sais quoi gets past most of Alvy’s obsessively maintained defenses.

Up to this point, Allen had specialized in the role of schlemiehl, often one (as in Love and Death) with the kind of success with women that would do James Bond proud. In Annie Hall, he gets beyond heroicizing or, as with Play It Again, Sam, romanticizing the single man on the make. This film is his first fully mature feature and the one-liners keep on coming, as does the fun with the possibilities of cinema: long shot of a street down which Alvy and his tall, good-looking second banana Rob (Tony Roberts) walk toward us from a distance, their voices fully audible before they become fully visible; a brief animation clip with Annie as the evil queen in Snow White; two songs performed nightclub style by Keaton (the second, “Seems Like Old Times,” gets a languid rendition that smolders, with Keaton, showing a great feel for the camera, in medium shot throughout—and then gets revived for a somewhat gratuitous replay of key fun moments in the film); a comic exchange during which Alvy and Annie attempt to make meaningful small talk while subtitles appear, letting us eavesdrop on their unspoken anxieties; Alvy/Woody speaking directly to the camera, stand-up style, at the opening and then “breaking the fourth wall” to tell the audience they heard Annie say what she denies saying; Alvy stopping strangers in the street to question them about their sex lives or to appeal for their advice; flashbacks to Alvy c. 1963, obsessing about the Kennedy assassination rather than making love to his young wife (a sweetly insecure Carol Kane), and to Annie, looking like “the wife of an astronaut,” as she meets some local teen at the movies in the latter Sixties.  Then there are split-screen comparisons of Annie’s homey Wisconsin family and Alvy’s noisy Jewish one (living beneath a roller-coaster on Coney Island), and visits to the old neighborhood that take us back to the past, including Alvy revisiting his childhood schoolroom. And then there are the great cameos by those who became names: Christopher Walken as Annie’s creepy brother, Duane; a one-liner (“I forgot my mantra”) from a rumpled Californian (Jeff Goldblum) on the phone.

Allen gets away with whatever he tries because the film never feels like it’s trying too hard. The rhythm of the film and its various tricks simply feel like the tempo and quality of Allen’s mind—a comedian with a brain, not afraid of obscure references, not afraid of Borsht-belt schtick when it serves his purpose, not afraid to namedrop Hitler, or to dress as a rabbi, or admit to suffering from penis envy, or to have a little girl say, with a leer, "I'm into leather." And Keaton?  Her Oscar-winning performance is a delight of completely believable mannerisms—endearing because never as ditzy as she seems to think she is. From a kind of “gosh O gee” (or, more properly, “lah-dee-dah”) cream puff she becomes a self-possessed career girl with the gumption to say what she means. It’s a bit of “Annie doesn’t live here any more” and that’s by far the most timely aspect of the film.

Granted, I tend to like films in which artsy types emblazon their imagos in memorable images, but the story here is a two-part tango: it’s Alvy’s story of the “one who got away” (humbling as that experience is for all of us, and, yeah, just begging to be told), and it’s Annie’s story of getting away from Alvy. As Woody says in a much later film: it’s always better to be the leave-er than the leave-ee, because the leave-er leaves while the leave-ee is left. And that’s the idea, in a nutshell.

The film changes because I first saw it before anyone in my life got away, and before any number of kiss-and-make-up scenes, to say nothing of the sense—Woody begins the film by saying he just turned 40—of how midlife kinda hits you when you least expect it.  It’s a wise wise-guy film, but with heart and an eye on the times—when Woody, called up in the middle of the night to kill a spider in Annie’s bathtub, finds her, after he accomplishes the task, crying on her bed and says “what did you want me to do, capture it and rehabilitate it,” we know he’s riffing off the terms of the times. Maybe some of it dates a bit—Alvy literally sneezing away a friend’s cocaine stash is unlikely to provide the visceral laugh it had then, and Annie sneering at the kind of frilly nothing that Victoria’s Secrets got rich marketing might seem quite prudish by today’s standards—but Annie Hall was the boy-meets-girl movie of the culturally aware, pseudo-intellectual, ultra-ironic set we all aspired to in those days. And even when you already know all the jokes, it’s still a fun movie to watch. It always seems like old times.

50 Since 1970

For a fun attempt to track down the actual locations in the film, as they are today, go here
and here.


Andrew Shields said...

This one is on my list. It's stuck with me over the years much more than other Allen films, all the fragments that are so worth remembering: the "anti-semitism is everywhere" dialogue between Roberts and Allen, and Christopher Walken's speech about driving in the rain followed by the drive in the rain being the two most memorable.

kate said...

can I use your picture for my blog header? thanks...