ANNIE HALL (1977)

  • Director: Woody Allen
  • Writers: Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman
  • Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, Carol Kane, Paul Simon, Janet Margolin, Shelley Duvall, and Christopher Walken
  • Accolades: 2007 AFI Top 100 list (#35), 4 Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director – Woody Allen, Best Actress – Diane Keaton, Best Original Screenplay), 1 additional Oscar nomination (Best Actor – Woody Allen)
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

I fell compelled to start with a disclaimer/caveat/trigger warning/whatever you want to call it. The writer, director, and star of Annie Hall, Woody Allen, has been accused of sexually abusing his young adopted daughter by his ex-wife, the actress Mia Farrow. This allegation was investigated by local prosecutors in New York prior to the charges being dropped, reportedly because Farrow decided it would not be good for her young daughter to have her testify regarding the allegations in court. Allen has strenuously denied these allegations. However, he is well known to have engaged in other relationships that, while perhaps not illegal, certainly appear improper. He is currently married to Soon-Yi Previn, Farrow’s adopted daughter from a previous marriage, to whom Allen was essentially a father when she was a little girl. He is forty-five years older than Previn. Some actors who recently worked with Allen have since chosen to give their salaries from his movies to anti-abuse charities, his autobiography was dropped by his publisher after mass protests of the publisher’s staff, and Amazon recently backed out of a multi-movie deal with him. This delayed the release of Allen’s most recent film, A Rainy Day in New York, which was released last year in Europe but not available in America until last month. His lawsuit against Amazon is ongoing.

So you might think that watching Annie Hall, considered by some to be Allen’s masterpiece, today would make one a bit a queasy. But it is so good, and such a part of my development as a cinephile, that I can’t help but still be in love with it, separate from any feelings I might have about Allen himself. This is a romance, and it’s a comedy, and if asked I will immediately respond that it’s my favorite romantic comedy. But this is very different in structure, pacing, and the kinds of jokes from your average romantic comedy. The movie is told all out of order, essentially starting at the lowest moment in the relationship between Allen’s character, Alvy Singer (he’s basically playing himself), and the titular Annie (Diane Keaton). They are trying to go to see the new Ingmar Bergman movie, but she arrives two minutes after the movie starts because she was at the therapist about “our sexual problem.” Allen refuses to go into a movie after it’s started, and suggests they see The Sorrow and the Pity again (for those unaware, the joke is that this is a 4-hour documentary about the Holocaust, and not exactly a great date movie). When she argues with him about this, he asks her if she’s on her period. She is not thrilled. In line for the other movie, Allen grows increasingly incensed at the wrong opinions of the man behind them in line, eventually turning to the audience to express his exasperation. The man behind them also talks to the audience in an attempt to defend himself, noting that he has taught a course on the work of Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan. Allen walks over to a nearby sign and pulls out McLuhan himself, who tells the man, “you know nothing of my work.”

Every scene in Annie Hall is like this. Allen is constantly pulling out different filmmaking gimmicks. Every time this movie turns a corner it’s a new surprise, from a stylistic standpoint. It is essentially the story of his character looking back at his relationship with Keaton’s character, trying to figure out why they were so in love and where it went wrong. Sometimes, as in the scene above, he talks to the camera, or starts having conversations with random strangers as he walks down the street. When he meets Annie’s very WASP-y Midwestern family, he brings in his own, very New York Jewish family in split screen. Then the two families start talking to each other over the split screen boundary (“What are your plans for the holidays?” “We’re fasting.” “Why?” “To atone for our sins.” “I don’t understand.” “To be honest, we don’t either.”). On Alvy and Annie’s first date, their conversation about photography and other topics is subtitled with each of their own, deeply insecure inner thoughts. Another scene is just a cartoon, with Keaton voicing the Wicked Witch from Snow White. Later, he accuses her of being “detached” during sex, at which point we see a ghostly version of Annie literally climb out of her body and ask Alvy where she left her knitting, while the two of them keep going.

All of this is in service of a brand of comedy that is extremely erudite, yet also sharp as to human interactions. It is a cliché that men want to have sex and women’s don’t. But never has that cliché been more amusingly expressed than in another split-screen scene, where we see Alvy and Annie at their respective therapists. How often do they have sex? Him: “Almost never, three times a week.” Her: “Constantly, three times a week.” So many movies have lampooned Los Angeles over the years, but never has the coastal divide been so deftly laid out in a relatively short amount of screen time. Told that LA is much cleaner than New York, Allen comments that’s because in LA they “make their garbage into television shows.” When they go to a Hollywood party, he gets nauseous and rushes out past Jeff Goldblum, who in a brief cameo calls his agent to confess that “I forgot my mantra.”

This was probably the first really “mature” movie Allen made, after a series of very funny and very silly comedies like Bananas and Sleeper. Many of his other movies are more easily dismissed, especially with all of his personal failings, but Annie Hall remains at the top of the film canon. One big reason for this is Keaton and her performance, which is maybe one of the great ones in movie history. She’s fun to be around, she’s ditzy, she’s smart, she believably falls into and out of love with this guy, then grows past him while he stays stuck in place, and she does it while cutting what became a signature silhouette. In the scene where Annie and Alvy first meet after playing tennis with friends, she wears a man’s vest and a wide men’s necktie, but it seems completely natural for her character. Annie Hall gave a whole new fashion sense to the world, basically. Perhaps more relevant to the movie itself, it’s really Annie’s movie. Alvy is a jerk a lot of the time, but he knows it, and hates himself for it, but can’t stop. Annie, on the other hand, escapes and finds herself. At the end of the movie, she’s in LA, pursuing her singing career and living with a producer played, somewhat randomly, by Paul Simon (in his first on-screen movie appearance). She seems happy. Allen’s character, meanwhile, is still rehashing things, over and over, to the point of writing the movie we’re watching and starting rehearsals. The different being that we see he’s changed the ending so they stay together.

Annie Hall has been deeply influential on the kinds of movies I like and want to see, and I’m not alone. Would Ferris Bueller have talked to the camera like he did, if Alvy hadn’t done it first? Noah Baumbach’s recent hit Marriage Story is basically this movie if Alvy and Annie were dumb enough to get married and have kids. This is also a movie that has not met a reference too high-brow for it. There are jokes in here about National Review and Sylvia Plath. I must confess, Allen’s off-screen problems are particularly a bugaboo for me from the perspective that I have always related heavily to the version of himself he plays in Annie Hall. In an opening monologue, he quotes Groucho Marx, who said that he wouldn’t belong to any club that would have him as a member, and notes that this a key to his own relationships. That attitude remains a problem in my own relationships to this day. I don’t think I’ve ever related to a movie character more than in a scene when young Alvy is brought by his mother to a doctor. He says that he’s depressed because he’s read that the universe is always expanding, and that eventually it will expand too far and “it will be the end of everything!” The doctor laughs and assures young Alvy this will not happen for billions of years. To Alvy, this is no comfort at all.

Allen’s original title for this movie was Anhedonia, a greek term meaning “the inability to experience pleasure.” The studio made him change it, and also rejected some of his alternate titles such as It Had to Be Jew and Me and My Goy. And the studio was probably right for a couple different reasons. For one, I don’t think that a movie with any of those titles wins Best Picture at the Oscars (Annie Hall’s place in history for non-cinephiles may always remain as the answer to the trivia question “what movie beat Star Wars for Best Picture?”). But more importantly, it’s because all of these are titles about Alvy. He’s the one with the “inability to experience pleasure.” But the emotional center of the movie is really Annie, and it’s because of Diane Keaton, just as much if not more than Allen, that Annie Hall endures as one of my favorites.

I have come this far and not mentioned many of the bits in this movie that I just love so much. Where Allen jokingly describes his insights into passerby from a Central Park bench, culminating in “the winner of the Truman Capote lookalike context,” who happens to actually be played by Truman Capote. Or where Allen is offered cocaine by Keaton’s friends and sneezes at the wrong moment, blowing a cloud of cocaine over everyone. But I think I’ll leave you with maybe my favorite scene, which doesn’t have any “gimmicks” but does have Christopher Walken (playing Annie’s brother) describing his innermost thoughts to Allen.

5 thoughts on “ANNIE HALL (1977)

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