Annie Hall (1977)

Director: Woody Allen

Producers: Charles H. Joffe, Jack Rollins

Writers: Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman (screenplay)

Photography: Gordon Willis

Music: Diane Keaton, Tim Weisberg, Tommy Dorsey, Mozart

Cast: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, Carol Kane, Paul Simon, Shelley Duvall, Christopher Walken, Janet Margolin, Colleen Dewhurst, Donald Symington, Helen Ludlam, Mordecai Lawner, Joan Neuman, Jonathan Munk, Ruth Volner, Beverly D’Angelo, Sigourney Weaver, Jeff Goldblum

Fans of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm should thank their lucky stars every day for Woody Allen. The phenomenon of Larry David would not have existed without the Wood Man, who deserves full credit for making neurotic, balding, opinionated, Jewish intellectuals cool. This was in part thanks to his real-life fling with the gorgeous Diane Keaton and a black-rimmed persona developed in both stand-up comedy routines and early film farces like What’s Up, Tiger Lily? (1966), Take the Money and Run (1969), Bananas (1971), Play it Again, Sam (Herbert Ross, 1972), Sleeper (1973) and Love and Death (1975). Who can forget images like Woody playing a cello amid a marching band, having to pick up his chair and move forward every few seconds? This was the zany period he later spoofed in Stardust Memories (1980), as characters routinely came up to him and said, “We like your movies, particularly the early, funny ones.”

Yet beneath this early incarnation laid one of cinema’s strongest auteurs just waiting to break out. It finally did with Annie Hall, the birth of the modern romantic comedy, the high-brow Oscar answer to the year’s blockbuster smash Star Wars (1977), one of only a handful of comedies ever to win Best Picture. Annie Hall is his seminal work, his apotheosis, his shift from a series of slapstick gags to a fully realized comedy of manners. It marked his graduation into the realm of filmmaker, boasting an unrivaled synergy between Allen the director and Allen the screenwriter, beginning the very minute the film opens with Allen speaking directly to the camera.

The plot centers around neurotic New York comedian Alvy Singer (Allen) and his yearning for lost love Annie Hall (Keaton), who was named after Allen’s real-life nickname for Keaton (“Annie”) and her birth name (Diane Hall). It would be the most iconic role of Keaton’s career, winning her only Oscar and starting a fashion craze with her wardrobe of tan, baggy pants and black vest over a polka-dot tie. It would also provide an important launchpad for Christopher Walken, Beverly D’Angelo, Sigourney Weaver, Shelley Duvall, Jeff Goldblum and a 13-year-old Brooke Shields, whose scenes were ultimately cut. (A)

The film unfolds as if a collection of Alvy’s memories, trying to discover where the couple lost its way, taking us through Alvy’s lackluster prior relationship with Alison (Carole Kane); his existential contemplations with best friend Rob (Tony Roberts); and his awkward first meeting with Annie at a tennis club, where Annie delivers one of the AFI’s Top 100 Movie Quotes: “La di da, la di da.”

Their relationship grows with a number of unforgettable moments, whether it’s steaming lobsters or swatting spiders as “big as a Buick.”

Their relationship begins to crumble with Annie’s growth into a singer who grabs the attention of record producer Tony Lacey (Paul Simon); and finally Annie’s move to the West Coast, exploring both the differences between New York and Los Angeles and the pains of lost love. Alvy ultimately relates relationships to a joke he once heard:

“This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, ‘Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.’ And, uh, the doctor says, ‘Well, why don’t you turn him in?’ The guy says, ‘I would, but I need the eggs.’ Well, I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships; y’know, they’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, and… but, uh, I guess we keep goin’ through it because, uh, most of us… need the eggs.”

Such a philosophical joke is but the final touch on one of the smartest screenplays in history, voted #6 all time by the Writers Guilds. Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman had first worked together on Sleeper (1973) and earned their first Oscars with Annie Hall. It’s easy to see why. The script feeds Alvy some genuinely golden zingers: “I would never want to belong to any club that would have me for a member;” “Those who can’t do, teach, and those who can’t teach, teach gym;” “Relationships are like sharks. They’ve got to constantly keep swimming forward or they die;” and “Grammy Hall? Grammy? What did you do, grow up in a Norman Rockwell painting?” The lines were instantly quotable, particularly Allen’s profession of love for Keaton by the Brooklyn Bridge: “Love is too weak a word for the way I feel. I lurve you. I loave you. I luff you, with two F’s.”

In addition to sophisticated dialogue jokes, Allen and Brickman also create a whirlwind of post-modern pop culture homages, referencing Keaton’s own work in The Godfather (1972) and featuring famous cameos, including Truman Capote as the “winner of the Truman Capote lookalike contest,” and film scholar Marshall MacLuhan, who arrives from off-screen to settle a debate between Allen and a pretentious theater goer (it was supposed to be Federico Fellini in this scene, and MacLuhan had to step in at the last minute).

The above theater scene is just one of the many groundbreaking post-modern techniques. They can be as simple as an extreme long shot of a group of people who approach the camera, as one turns to the camera and makes a face as she walks by. Or, they can be as overt as Adult Alvy appearing in an elementary school desk to defend his first-grade self.

Alvy and Annie later take a stroll, Ebeneezer Scrooge style, through Annie’s past relationships. Annie literally has an out-of-body experience during sex, as she feels detached emotionally from Alvy. And, perhaps the most revolutionary idea, Alvy and Annie hold a balcony conversation while subtitles show their true inner thoughts.

Note also his use of split-screens, first to compare their families.

Then, he again uses split-screen to compare their competing therapy sessions. When asked by their respective therapists how often they have sex, Alvy answers, “Hardly ever, three times a week,” while Annie answers, “Constantly, three times a week.” Note how Annie sits up straight in a room that is much brighter and more modern than Alvy’s, and in which viewers cannot see her analyst. Alvy, on the other hand, lies down in his office, we can see the therapist, and his portion of the split-screen is twice as big as Annie’s. All this works towards Allen’s theme that Annie is the more independent of the two, and that Alvy is actually suffocating her, seeming to thrive off her lowest points and resenting her highest.

He even makes use of an animated sequence.

Allen no doubt pulls out all the stops of reinventing visual storytelling, but the film is more than just a collection of these insanely creative narrative tricks. What separates Allen from others — and what earned him the director Oscar — is that he also demonstrates, for the first time in his career, a deeper understanding of the film medium. Take, for instance, the static single-take of an empty city street early in the film, where one can hear the conversation between Alvy and Rob but cannot see them, as they remain way too far in the distance to see. It’s at this moment that Allen leaves his usual comedian on the screen pattern and demonstrates that he is making a movie, using his visual space and depth to create perceptual anxiety, frustrating viewers as we wonder why we aren’t seeing anything, but subliminally aligning them with the anxiety of Alvy’s character.

For continued insight into Allen’s directorial mastery, compare the two scenes where Annie gives her nightclub performances. During her first untalented gig, Allen has her positioned off-center in the frame, his shot is semi-blocked by a pole, waiters walk right in front of her, blocking her from the camera, and the noises of ringing phones and shattering dishes distract the audience.

But in her much improved second gig, Allen gives us a tighter shot on Annie, now centered in the frame and free of all distractions. Perhaps this is why Alvy’s character has the last name “Singer,” as this becomes the downfall of his relationship with Annie Hall. As this scene continues into their conversation at the club’s bar, Alvy is backdropped by empty darkness and Annie is backed by people and lights, showing his resistance of new experience and her welcoming of it.

From lighting to blocking to framing, every directorial choice marks a big leap for Allen. It also marks a very self-critical look at his own persona, which is embodied in the fictional Alvy. Alvy is clearly cast in a negative light, orally with his self-righteous put-downs of Annie, and visually, with the camera often panning to follow her and leaving Alvy rushing to catch-up and reenter the frame. The peak moment of Allen’s self-criticism of his own real-life flaws comes as Annie says to Alvy, “You’re incapable of enjoying life, you know that? I mean you’re like New York City. You’re just this person. You’re like this island unto yourself.”

Fittingly, Allen didn’t attend the Oscar ceremony that year (nor any year). He didn’t even watch it on TV. He was instead out playing clarinet at a New York City pub and didn’t find out about the success of Annie Hall until he read about it the next morning in The New York Times. (B) He was an island unto himself, indeed, and Manhattan was his island. And if I were trapped on an island and could only bring one Woody Allen movie, it would have to be Annie Hall.


CITE A: 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die 
CITE B: Robert Osbourne, Turner Classic Movies outro

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