Eric D. Snider May 11, 2010
The world can be divided into two camps: those who like Woody Allen films and those who don’t, and even his admirers only like about half of them. But one thing nearly everyone agrees on is that Annie Hall is among Allen’s very best work. So what is the Big Deal, exactly? What makes this one superior to the other 4,758 movies he’s made in the last 40 years? Lie down on the analyst’s couch and we’ll discuss it.
The praise: Annie Hall won the Oscar for Best Picture, plus Director, Screenplay, and Actress (Diane Keaton, who also won the Golden Globe). Woody Allen’s lead performance was also nominated. It placed 31st on the American Film Institute’s 1998 list of the 100 best American movies of all time, and 35th on the 2007 revised list. It appears regularly on lists of best comedies. Oh, and that Best Picture Oscar? It beat Star Wars. Which probably accounts for some of the backlash.
The context: Woody Allen was a successful comedy writer in the 1950s, a successful stand-up comedian in the ’60s, and a successful filmmaker in the ’60s and ’70s. But for many viewers, Annie Hall — his seventh picture as a director and 12th as screenwriter — marks the birth of the “Woody Allen movie” as it’s known today. His earlier comedies, including Bananas (1971), Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask) (1972), and Sleeper (1973), were wackier. They drew inspiration from the Marx Brothers, and from the sketches Allen had written for various programs (including The Ed Sullivan Show, The Tonight Show) in the early days of TV.
With Annie Hall, Allen moved toward the more serious comedy. It had a realistic plot and characters, and it addressed deeper themes than the silly films of his early career had done. (His 1975 film Love and Death, also starring him and Diane Keaton, had been a bridge between the two styles.) He was still focused on comedy, only now the comedy had some weight to it. Comparable situations might be when Jim Carrey and Adam Sandler started doing serious comedies like The Truman Show and Punch-Drunk Love. Those are sometimes seen as attempts to win an Oscar, and while it hasn’t worked for Carrey or Sandler there is cause for hope: Annie Hall was the first Allen film to get any attention from the Academy.
Allen and Diane Keaton met in 1968, when she was cast in Play It Again, Sam, a Broadway play he’d written and was also starring in. The show opened in early 1969 and closed about a year later, by which time Allen and Keaton’s romantic relationship had begun and ended, too. But they remained friends and collaborators. They reprised their roles for the 1972 film version of the play (which for some reason Allen didn’t direct), and Keaton co-starred with Allen in Sleeper and Love and Death. Allen always denied that the title role in Annie Hall was written specifically for Keaton, or based on their relationship … but her real name is Diane Hall, and “Annie” was her nickname. So come on.
The movie: Allen plays Alvy Singer, a neurotic Jewish comedian telling us the story of his failed romance with Annie Hall (Keaton). They have already broken up when the film begins; Alvy hopscotches through time, showing us their first meeting and various key moments in the relationship, plus flashbacks to his previous relationships with other women.
What it influenced: Two things struck me during a recent re-viewing of Annie Hall. One, last year’s 500 Days of Summer is practically a remake of it: non-linear structure, telling of a failed romance, with numerous unusual filmmaking techniques employed (including characters going to Bergman movies), and eventually arriving at the conclusion that while love often sucks, we keep looking for it anyway.
The other thing that occurred to me was how much it reminds me of Seinfeld. There are scenes of Alvy walking down a New York City street, talking to his buddy, whining, rambling, in exactly the same fashion as Jerry and George. There’s also the semi-autobiographical nature of it, the fact that Alvy and Jerry are both stand-up comedians, both meeting with NBC to discuss possible projects, both considering a move to L.A. Seinfeld has made no secret of his admiration for Allen, of course (they also share a taste for younger women), but it was interesting to notice just how similar the sitcom and this movie are.
Annie Hall herself is reflected in the quirky, carefree characters who are now often played by Zooey Deschanel — the “manic pixie dream girl,” as film critic Nathan Rabin famously called them. Annie’s kooky manner of dress (which was Keaton’s own, and which inspired a brief fashion craze) and her general flightiness weren’t totally new — Goldie Hawn co-existed — but Annie was a fully realized character being appreciated by a new generation of moviegoers, many of whom became moviemakers. The women in Garden State, Almost Famous, and Elizabethtown, just to name a few, have a bit of Annie Hall in them, though usually not as nuanced.
The film’s style of humor is like the weather. If you don’t like it, wait a few minutes, and it’ll change. Some scenes, especially the ones in California, are flat-out parody, with characters serving as types rather than real, believable people. Other scenes are more down-to-earth and humane. A few scenes have Alvy speaking directly to the camera, or stopping passersby on the street to discuss what’s going on in the film. Some sequences add nothing to the story but are enjoyable as mini-sketches — the bit at the movie theater, for example, where the pretentious guy rambles about Fellini and Alvy brings out Marshall McLuhan. Still other scenes are pure fantasy. TV shows like Scrubs and 30 Rock, which also move freely between reality, imagination, subtlety, and broad farce, can trace their roots to the crazy mixture of styles evident in Annie Hall.
What to look for: As with any popular comedy, a big part of the Big Deal about Annie Hall is simply that a lot of people found it very funny. If you don’t think it’s funny, hearing other people tell you which parts they laughed at probably won’t help. I mean, you saw those parts, too.
For fans of comedy as an art form, it may be instructive to notice how the film is put together. As noted, Allen employs a variety of styles, yet the central characters remain grounded and three-dimensional. And despite all the laughs, there’s a feeling of melancholy over the story. This is not easily accomplished, and it’s especially rare for comedy characters to seem realistic without the film getting mushy. More than one critic compared it to Ingmar Bergman‘s dramatic Scenes from a Marriage, a comparison that surely delighted Allen, who is one of Bergman’s most ardent admirers. (His next film, Interiors, was a straight-up drama very much in the Bergman style.)
What’s the big deal: Annie Hall was raised to Big Deal status when it won the Oscar for Best Picture. Even at the time it was somewhat surprising, as it’s rare for a comedy to win that award, and Woody Allen had never even been nominated before. (At 93 minutes, it’s also the second-shortest Best Picture of all time, after Marty.) In hindsight, the win is even more surprising because it beat Star Wars, a film that, while not necessarily “better,” has clearly had a greater impact on the world than Annie Hall has. So you’ll get some people hatin’ on Annie Hall for being in the wrong place (the Oscars) at the wrong time (the same year as Star Wars), without regard to its actual merit.
The film is also significant because it marked a change in course for Woody Allen. This wasn’t a struggling filmmaker who was trying to find his voice. This was a successful writer, comedian, actor, and director who fixed something that wasn’t broken. By challenging himself, Allen gained the confidence to try even more unusual things with later films, making everything from mockumentaries to murder mysteries. In fact, among his most recent output, the serious films have been much, much better than the comedies. Without Annie Hall, he probably wouldn’t have had the guts to make them, what with being neurotic and self-doubting and all.
Critics at the time noticed this shift. “The gags fly by in almost non-stop profusion, but there is an undercurrent of sadness and pain now, reflecting a maturation of style,” said Joseph McBride in Variety. In The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote that it “finally establishes Woody as one of our most audacious filmmakers, as well as the only American filmmaker who is able to work seriously in the comic mode without being the least bit ponderous.” Roger Ebert wrote: “There are two Woody Allens here: Our old pal the original Woody, who’s given to making asides directly into the camera, and a new Allen who creates Alvy Singer in his own image and then allows him to behave consistently, even sometimes at the cost of laughs.”
This 2005 Vanity Fair feature on Allen is juicy and insightful.
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Eric D. Snider (website) used to think Annie Hall was a sequel to Annie.
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