by Dennis Polifroni
(USA 1977 93m) DVD/Blu Ray
p. Jack Rollins, Charles H. Joffe d. Woody Allen w. Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman ed. Ralph Rosenblum ph. Gordon Willis art. Mel Bourne cos. Ruth Morley
Woody Allen (Alvie Singer), Diane Keaton (Annie Hall), Tony Robert (Rob), Paul Simon (Tony Lacey), Carol Kane (Allison Portchnick), Janet Margolin (Robin), Colleen Dewhurst (Mrs. Hall), Christopher Walken (Duane), John Glover (Annie’s Ex), Shelley Duvall (Pam), Marshall McLuhan (himself), Truman Capote (himself)
April 27, 1977
This was it. The date that would change the world in their perception of a comedian and film-maker named Woody Allen.
There is a moment, almost half way through ANNIE HALL, where the main character, one Alvie Singer, is sitting at a dinner table with his girlfriend and, for the first time, her family. Jewish, nervous, a bit of an intellectual and brought up on the streets of Brooklyn, Alvie sits quietly, observing the camaraderie of a very tight-knit, white-bread, WASP family. The family speaks of swap meets and familiar, local drunks that amuse them while they shopped in town. They praise Annie’s Grandmother on a wonderful dinner (“it’s a great sauce!”), but the old lady doesn’t respond. Grandma just keeps chewing and, regularly, eyes her grand-daughters new beau with looks of bewilderment and disdain.
It’s a seemingly ordinary moment with a family that resembles, as Alvie would comment on earlier in the film, a Norman Rockwell painting from the cover of an issue of THE SATURDAY EVENING POST.
While most of ANNIE HALL honestly recounts the very real moments of a great romance gone sour through the neurosis and whining of a massive contrarian and worry-wart, this inordinately ordinary moment suddenly turns surreal.
Annie’s mother states that “it’s a wonderful ham”. Annie chimes in, smiling, with “Grammy always does such a great job” and her brother, Duane, grins as he jams yet another forkful of pork into his mouth and nods in agreement.
Not wanting to be left out and desperately trying to fit in, Alvie washes down a mouthful of the taboo meat with a big gulp of white wine, gives the thumbs up sign and blurts out: “It’s dynamite ham!”
It’s right here, in the middle of something so ordinary, traditional, that a moment of very real concern for the central character flips on a dime. It’s here and now that, suddenly, Alvie, being eyed up by the old lady sitting next to him, a woman he commented on, calling her “a classic Jew hater”, turns into a Rabbi (complete with flowing locks, black hat and a beard and passing out Matzo to everyone at the table) all the while cutting back to the old lady, still staring him over and rolling her eyes.
It’s a tiny moment that you’d miss if you blinked. However, in the midst of so much truth and reality, it’s the kind of audacious and over-the-top detail that rockets ANNIE HALL into the stratosphere and adds to the details of the films claim as one of the true masterpieces of the comedy form on film and one of the directors most innovative and imaginative movies. It’s a moment that, though I have seen it hundreds of times, leaves me suffocating from aching laughter.
For me and many others seeing ANNIE HALL for the first time (I was 14 when I saw it, at a revival showing in 1981), it was a revelation and a sign-post stating that the path of comedy was taking a turn. ANNIE HALL was, at this point in his career, like no other film Woody Allen had ever made. Since his first directing effort, TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN (1969), Allen had been, so we thought, content in making spoofs (SLEEPER, LOVE AND DEATH) and farcical comedies that stab at, then, current problems that were plaguing the world (TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN dealt with rising petty crime, BANANAS dealt with communism and the revolutionary unrest in depraved foreign lands). All of his prior films were laugh riots and poked fun in bigger-than-life ways (robbing a pet shop and being chased away by a gorilla in TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN and ordering 3000 grilled-cheese sandwiches from a local take out joint to feed his starving troops in BANANAS are favorite gags of mine), and all of these films were reviewed as triumphs of the absurd. But, something must have been gnawing at Allen, for ANNIE HALL is as realistic as life and love ever get in film, yet never allows the hostage that is the absurd to wrestle itself away from him.
ANNIE HALL starts up on the simple premise that what we are seeing is a dissection of the events that see a great romance sputter and crash into a breakup. Alvie Singer, played by Allen, is a forty-year-old comedian living on ManhattanIsland in New York City. Twice married and divorced, Alvie is a neurotic worrier, 15 years on a psychiatric couch, and going through life looking for nothing. He likes movies, hanging out with his best friend, Rob, who he calls “Max” (played by a very dry and funny Tony Roberts), and just wandering through the city, playing his gigs, making the odd television appearance and avoiding stress. Simple stuff, real, or so it would seem. One would think, reading the premise of the film in a newspaper capsule review, that the introduction of the love interest that would eventually become his greatest romantic loss would be as simple as Alvie’s life on screen.
The opening shot dispels the myth that realism will take the entire film by the throat. Framed against a burnt orange background, Allen’s character pops onto the screen the moment the title credits dissolve and immediately lashes into a direct monologue to the audience. Like all good comedians, no monologue can open without a joke, and we definitely laugh at Alvies comparison of life to those little old Jewish ladies complaining about the portions of bad food at a restaurant they don’t like in the Catskill Mountains. But, something more serious in tone takes place with the severity of Allen talking directly to us. Here, in a flash, he informs the viewer that what we are about to see is a serious investigation of the faults of his lost relationship. Here, he informs us that he cannot understand “where the screw up came.”
The “screw up”, even in those few minutes of monologue, is immediately identified by the audience as Alvie himself. The monologue that opens the film is a stroke of brilliance by Allen as it illustrates the cause of the problem (Alvie and his neurosis) in a heart beat and because it allows us to settle into the story, and every off-shoot of it, without worrying about whether or not we can identify the problem at all. What Allen is doing is relieving the audience of a chore and causing us to set our sites on the character constructions and everything else that surrounds it. In ANNIE HALL, reality, something that had never been represented in his films prior, is the subject of investigation. Like his heroes (comics like W. C. Fields, Groucho and Bob Hope) had done before, it’s the commentary on real life that makes for the funniest moments in his art.
In explaining his side of the story, where he really sees no problems in himself as a human being, the film cuts almost immediately to a flashback sequence of Alvy’s life as a child growing up in Brooklyn during the onslaught of WWII. In what is one of the greatest moments of all film from the 1970’s, Allen jumps from the monologue and flashes the screen with quick, humorous moments of his life in the past. Here, we are further treated to conflicting representations of what Allen is actually saying. “I was a reasonably happy kid” is joined with a vision of Alvy as a 7 year-old (those enormous black rimmed glasses, perched on the nose of a little red-headed boy, give us the first giant laugh of the film), sitting slack on a sofa in the waiting room of a doctors office. Mother screaming, he’s berated by his old lady for being depressed.
MOTHER: “All of a sudden he can’t do anything.”
DR. FLICKER: “Why are you depressed, Alvy?”
MOTHER: “Tell Dr. Flicker. It’s something he read.”
DR. FLICKER: “Oh, uh huh, something he read?”
ALVY: “The universe is expanding.”
DR. FLICKER: “The universe is expanding?”
ALVY: “Well, the universe is EVERYTHING and, if it’s expanding, then one day it will break apart and that’ll be the end of everything!”
MOTHER: “What is that your business??!! He stopped doing his homework!!”
ALVY: “What’s the point?”
MOTHER: “What has the universe got to do with it? You’re here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is NOT expanding!!!”
DR. FLICKER: “It won’t be expanding for BILLIONS of years yet, Alvy. And, we’ve got to enjoy ourselves while we’re here, huh? Huh? Hahahahahahahaha!!!!”
It’s a wild moment and surely not what audiences were expecting from a romantic comedy film. Fast and furious, Allen and editor Ralph Rosenblum (who SHOULD have won the Oscar in 1977) cram the screen with one flashback joke after another and continuously fuel the commentary on Alvy’s actual nature as a contradiction to truth. Alvy speaks of getting his aggressions out through the bumper cars that his father ran in a concession on Coney Island where, really, we only see the poor kid getting smashed into again and again buy sailors on shore leave, laughing and groping their dates. Alvy lives in a house under the boardwalk rollercoaster and accounts that it was this environment that made him SLIGHTLY nervous. In fact, the slight nervous condition he speaks of is abnormally pronounced and, for the better part of the running time of the film, we hear and see Alvy consistently worrying about things that nobody in all of history would EVER worry about.
Kubrick might have had more of an influence on Allen than Allen would even admit. Like the enormous jump cut that Kubrick makes from the past to the present in 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY, so Allen does the same from his childhood memories to the present/past that represents the mid-section of his romance with the title character. This jump, though weirdly jarring, is absolutely necessary to the fractured flow of ANNIE HALL’s broken linear narrative structure (one that would inspire and influence film-makers to this day in varied forms. Quentin Tarantino’s PULP FICTION owes much of it’s brilliance in narrative to ANNIE HALL and the jumping Marc Webb does from one day in the present to another, that could be past or future, in the wonderful 500 DAYS OF SUMMER is a direct homage). We find ourselves and Alvy on a street in midtown Manhattan where Alvy is waiting for his lover in front of a movie theatre. He is almost immediately accosted by a group of thugs (“What is this, fellas, a meeting of the Teamsters?”) that recognize him from his appearances on The Tonight Show, and nervously bemoans the fact that he only has a few moments to get into the movie house before the film starts. Once arrived (“Whatcha do, come by way of the Panama Canal?”), Alvy immediately launches into attack mode settled on Annie. For all intensive purposes, Annie is a model of relaxed, subtle tact. Trying to convince him that the movie really hasn’t started because the title sequence is only running and they’re in Swedish (the film, ironically, is Bergman’s FACE TO FACE, and, for most of the scene, Allen and Keaton position themselves the same way the actors on the poster behind them are postioned: face to face?), Keaton portrays Annie in this moment as the straight thinker and the voice of reason (“aw, c’mon, I’m not in the mood to sit through a four hour documentary on Nazis”), but, and it’s hidden very well, its because of the giant jump from past to present that disguises Annie as she really is. Annie is quite the opposite of her first moments in the film.
What helps fuse the chemistry between Alvy and Annie is the way Allen has written the characters and the thoughtfulness of the performances of Keaton and himself. Keaton, no stranger to playing against strong personalities (she was Kay to Al Pacino’s Micheal in THE GODFATHER and THE GODFATHER PART II), has a field day with her turn as Annie. As described in the advertising for the film, ANNIE HALL was subtitled a “Nervous” romance and Keaton is just about as neurotic as Alvy in almost every scene she’s in. White bread fed, probably from a protestant family, Annie is a sub-plant from upper middle class values and parenting that hide their neurosis rather than announce them like the Jewish family Alvy springs from. Annie is a deeply scarred woman whose insecurities found firmament in parents more interested in after dinner cocktails, picture frames bought in town and a brother who has suicidal tendencies whilst speeding through red lights in a sports car at night (one of the funniest moments of the film has a young Christopher Walken, as Annie’s brother, Duane, admitting his psychosis to Alvy in a room that looks like Carrie White’s). Keaton plays the character as a constant, babbling talker, her thoughts not taking shape before she belts them out verbally, and a shy flirt desperate to find someone that will, finally, listen to her. I’m convinced that, the moment that Alvy finds himself sharing a bottle of wine with Annie on his first meeting with her, Keatons epic monologue about her Aunts friend, George, dying while waiting to pick up his free turkey at a local VFW hall, was the lynch pin that secured her the top line of the envelope when the Oscars winners were announced in 1978 (Keaton was voted BEST LEAD ACTRESS for her performance in this film). Keatons turn is a whirlwind of contradictions, breathless hyperactivity and shy fear of the unknown. To watch Keaton closely in ANNIE HALL is to allow yourself to be blown away by the hurricane she’s riding. Annie Hall IS Alvy, to a lesser extent, in female attire (although, this has always raised an interesting question regarding the costuming of Diane Keaton as intentional or accidental. In most of the film, she’s seen sporting mens ties, vests, pleated pants and hats. Would this, on a subconscious level, signify that Alvy is in love with a female version of himself?)
Simplicity is what starts the notion of ANNIE HALL, and it’s seen and felt in every conversation between the leads. The film does jump from the past and present, often at a breathless pace but, for the most part, the analysis of the relationship is kept truthful and familiar for anyone ever involved in a deep relationship with the wrong person. Sketched out on one of Allen’s famous yellow legal pads, the nucleus of the film is a simple outline of the rise and fall of a great romance. Boy meets girl, they find themselves deeply interested and attracted to one another, time wears their affections thin and, as all good things must come to an end, a break-up ensues. Pretty standard fare for a romance film.
However, what differentiates ANNIE HALL from all the other rom-com’s of its time, and before, is Allen hungry for change. Taking many of the comedic elements that had dotted films like TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, BANANAS, LOVE AND DEATH, EVERYTHING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX and SLEEPER, Allen unleashed a kind of “everything, including the kitchen sink” approach and ANNIE HALL is ripe with visual ingenuity. What starts off as, seemingly, simple, slowly but surely spins itself into a film filled with special effects shots, split screen presentations, moments with subtitles that tell us EXACTLY what a character is really thinking, animation and the main character breaking the fourth wall to talk directly to the audience. That ANNIE HALL is a brutally honest account of a couple realizing they are completely, neurotically alike and, therefore, totally mis-matched raises the bar for a film that is so chock full of slapstick comic devices.
The seeds for ANNIE HALL showed themselves to Allen as early as 1973. He had been dating his co-star, Diane Keaton, and his affair with the actress came to a hault after only a few short months. While remaining life-long friends with Keaton even after the break-up, Allen had thought the details of their romance and co-habitation were interesting enough to form a screenplay. However, this was only one part of the script. Allen had seen ANNIE HALL (then titled ANHEDONIA-meaning the “inability to feel pleasure”) being a romantic comedy fused with a murder mystery ala THE THIN MAN and was hoping to parallel the break-up of the protagonists with the solving of a crime. Ambitious, the film was originally slated to run for three and a half hours (the average Allen film barely breaks the hour and forty-five minute mark) and involve a large cast of characters and side stories. What kept the film from being realized the way Allen had originally intended was its massive scope and season tickets for the New York Knicks. Allen may be many things. He is a deep intellectual, a brilliantly skilled writer, an obsessed musician but, most of all, a creature of schedules and day-to-day habits. The size of his original concept for ANNIE HALL was, straight to the point, too big for him to juggle while maintaining any level of normalcy in his life.
So, what to do????
Keeping in mind that his days needed to end by late afternoon/early evening (after all, they WERE court-side seats for the basketball games), the editing down of ANNIE HALL’s script became inevitable and the murder/mystery sub-plot was chucked (only to resurface as MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY in 1993 and feature the much applauded return of Diane Keaton after years of absence from Allen’s work). With this down-sizing, Allen was now free to concentrate solely on the romance and, in turn, found himself peppering the script with the wild visual gags that he had put behind him after folding production on LOVE AND DEATH (his last, true slapstick comedy).
As is, ANNIE HALL is a juggernaut of a comedy film. One gag ends only to find another, wilder one take its place and the whole film becomes breathless to the audience first seeing it because nowhere in its plot description does anything hint at the invention and disregard to the set standards most had come to expect from romantic comedies. Frankly, the critics and audiences first viewing ANNIE HALL upon its release in 1977 must have been stunned, for no other film that year (well, maybe STAR WARS) was as daring and as visually jaw-dropping as this. ANNIE HALL is, without argument, the film that changed the trajectory of the auteur and the perception most serious students of the art form had of him up till this time. It ushered in, almost overnight, a whole different perspective of the comedy scribe as film-maker and swung open the door for a master of boundless creativity to plant his feet firmly in the ground with the likes of Chaplin, Keaton, Sturges and Lubitsch.
ANNIE HALL was one of only a few comedies to victor at the Academy Awards (the last time a “comedy” took the top prize was Billy Wilder’s THE APARTMENT in 1960 and no other comedy has gone to the top award since). However, knowing they had something special on their hands, the voters saw it fit to award the film with 4 of the top accolades. It took BEST SCREENPLAY in a heart beat (for Allen and his old pal, Marshall Brickman), BEST LEAD ACTRESS (for Keaton) and BEST PICTURE (beating out the predicted, epic STAR WARS). However, most interestingly, it also took the prize for Woody Allen as BEST DIRECTOR. While the prizes in each category, looking back at it, were absolutely justified, the award to Allen for his direction is telling and inspired. It’s telling that so many saw a massive change in the way comedies could present themselves, with realistic believability but without loosing the elements of slapstick and grand farce. It’s inspiring in that the major voices were validating Allen’s choices, as radical and free-wheeling as they might have seemed, and making it known that they wanted more. Since that fateful day in 1977, when ANNIE HALL first premiered, Allen has been seen as the cutting edge of the comic form. ANNIE HALL might not be considered everyone’s favorite Woody Allen film (actually, my favorite, and my vote for his best film, is the often neglected, but brilliantly probing, CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS), and some say it has been usurped, over the years as his best. However, no one paying attention to film will EVER say that it’s not the ground-shaker or the major game-changer of its respected genre. ANNIE HALL is, inarguably, the moment that cinefiles, deep thinkers, true lovers of film and fans of the form knew that the tides had changed and THE major voice in film comedy, to this day, had made his mark.
In my humble opinion, Woody Allen’s ANNIE HALL is the comedy by which all film comedies since 1977 measure themselves by.
And remember, Alvie’s Grandmother never gave him gifts like Annie’s did. She was “too busy getting raped by Cossacks!”
Cracks me up every time.
How Annie Hall made the Top 100: