Annie Hall is the one Woody Allen movie that everyone has seen, and probably the most discussed, analyzed, talked about, and imitated romantic comedy of all time. There is almost nothing I could hope to say about a film like Annie Hall that hasn’t already been said a thousand different times, a thousand different ways, in a thousand different languages. But, I am reminded of the reason I started this blog: “I’ve always wanted to be able to legitimately describe myself as an ‘expert’ in something. Anything.” So, if for no other reason than for me to log another entry in my Woody Allen mental encyclopedia, I’m going to walk down pop culture’s most traveled road and ride its sluttiest bike.
Annie Hall opens with white, Windsor Light credits rolling over a solid black background. This, of course, is pretty much how all Woody Allen movies will open from now on, but it’s a stark contrast to his movies so far. His ‘70s output typically featured upbeat jazz music, animated text, bright colors, or a scene from the film. In the ‘60s, we often got an animated Woody Allen dancing around Technicolor block letters.
The starkness continues with the film’s opening, in which Woody Allen stands in front of a solid background and addresses the audience directly. This scene, like the rest of the movie, has a misleading simplicity to it. A rough description makes it seem straightforward and benign, but there’s incredible density beneath the surface. The opening monologue contains so many lines that have ingrained themselves into the pop-culture consciousness, and in just under two minutes he fleshes out his popular persona and brings it into the real world. This is the first time that we’ve seen Woody Allen playing a believable person in a modern world setting (although Play It Again, Sam tried), and it’s amazing how well he transitions. Instead of being fodder for jokes in, say, the future or 19th-Century Russia, his anxieties are that of a real character. And he’s not Bob Hope schticking it up through a movie, he’s a real-world comedian whose humor is his defense, his profession, and a large part of what endears him to women.
Woody Allen’s character is Alvy Singer, although I think it’s typically assumed he might as well be named “Woody Allen.” Annie Hall was co-written by Allen’s friend Marshall Brickman, who also co-wrote three other Woody Allen movies (Sleeper, Manhattan, 1993’s Manhattan Murder Mystery), and Allen has claimed that Alvy Singer is based just as much, if not more so, on Brickman than on himself. Allen has long waged a war on the public perception that he only ever plays himself — a war he’s doomed to forever lose, as he’s not exactly a chameleonic actor. It’s hard to mentally separate Alvy from Woody when they have the same appearance, wardrobe, interests, voice and mannerisms. They also share a number of notable biographical details — Woody and Alvy are both comedians, they were both born and raised in working-class Brooklyn, they have both since relocated to Manhattan, and they both got married early and often, which has left them as 40-year-old men still getting used to the dating scene (Annie Hall also has a meta-commentary moment when Alvy is casting a play, which is a literal re-telling of his own life). Alvy and Allen also have similar taste in women — Diane Keaton and Annie Hall (Allen’s real-life and movie-world love interests, respectively) also bear heavy resemblances to each other — Diane/Annie share wardrobes, mannerisms, outlooks and even names (Diane Keaton’s birth name is Diane Hall).
After introducing himself, Alvy Singer takes us on a whirlwind trip through his childhood that is simultaneously whimsical, nostalgic, funny and touching. In Love and Death I complained a lot about the awkward straddling of silly and serious, but Annie Hall is a great example (one of the best ever) of effortlessly balancing the two. Allen’s 1965-1975 movies were about being funny — that is, their ultimate purpose, be it through jokes, situations or plots, was to generate laughter. In Annie Hall, the goal is to tell a story about characters, and the humor emerges as a by-product. The childhood sequence is the first example. Take the Money and Run and Love and Death also began by showing us Woody Allen as a kid (a skinny read-haired boy with glasses in all three situations), but Annie Hall is a more sincere attempt at developing a character from childhood onwards (a very neurotic character).
During the childhood reminisce, grown-up Alvy circumvents the time-space continuum and interacts with his childhood self, and his grade-school classmates address the camera as the adults they’ll grow up to be. These are the first of many fantastical interludes in a film that also includes an animated sequence, a moment when Annie’s “spirit” removes itself and watches her from across the room, a conversation between Annie and Alvy in which their true thoughts are revealed in subtitles, non-linear jumps back and forth through time and a relaxed, fluid relationship with the Fourth Wall. It’s ironic, then, that Annie Hall is an innovative movie for its unadulterated look at the seemingly mundane, but relatable and integral, parts of relationships. Annie Hall is more interested in awkward first conversations, unsatisfying sexual encounters, jealousy and irrational arguments than it is in being a remake of Love Story. I’ve always thought that the one modern filmmaker most influenced by this film is Charlie Kaufman. Movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Synecdoche, New York are, by some technical definitions, science-fiction films, but they’re more about the small details of human existence than almost any other “straight” romantic dramas, and the same is true of Annie Hall.
For evidence of this, look no further than the first on-screen meeting between Alvy Singer and Annie Hall. The first time the audience sees them, it’s not a romantic moment, a thrilling chivalrous gesture, or even a Meet Cute. They meet up at a movie theatre to watch Bergman’s Face to Face, and they’re comfortable, casual and annoyed with each other. Alvy is upset that she’s late, forcing them to miss the first two minutes of the movie, and Annie is upset because her analyst has cancelled on her and because of Alvy’s suggestion that her bad-mood is period-based. This is not the first time Annie and Alvy have met, though, it’s just the first time we, the audience, see them together. Their actual introduction comes later in the film, but Allen has once again used an unconventional technique (non-linear storytelling) as a tool for more effective character development. In this case, it’s throwing us headfirst into the neuroses that are chipping away at their relationship.
The scene that precedes that is our first glimpse of Alvy as a grown-up in present-day, having a conversation with the film’s third important character — his friend Rob (played by Tony Roberts in his second of six appearances in Woody Allen movies). Rob is essentially the Jerry Seinfeld to Alvy’s George Costanza — collected, successful, confident, and maybe a little arrogant. Seinfeld and Rob are eccentric too, but comfortable with their eccentricities, unlike Alvy and George, who let their neuroses consume them. As Rob and Alvy walk down the street having what seems to be a typical conversation for them, we get an expansion on the character we met in the opening monologue. Alvy frantically shares with Rob an assortment of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories (for example, that an NBC executive had, instead of saying “did you eat,” said “Jew eat?”), and fretful ruminations on the state of his career and relationship (this is probably an appropriate time to point out the fact that this film’s original title was Anhedonia — the Psychological condition in which the sufferer is incapable of feeling happiness).
This shot also establishes a photographic technique used throughout the film, which Allen claimed was suggested by the cinematographer, Gordon Willis, who had previously shot the The Godfather 1 and 2, and who Allen continued to work with on all his movies until 1985. The camera essentially exists as an extra character, loosely following the action, but not zooming around a room to find it, and not cutting or moving in anticipation of dialogue (as is seen in most films). When this scene opens, we can hear Alvy and Rob talking, but we can’t see them. As they talk, they’re walking towards the camera, and before long they end up in the foreground of the frame. The camera turns and follows them as they walk past it, but it’s reactionary, not anticipatory. It’s thanks to this technique that we get the famous lobster scene, in which Annie and Alvy bring home a bag of lobsters, only to have them escape and wreak mayhem. Their dialogue, and their laughter, is unscripted and spontaneous, which is made possible by an equally spontaneous camera which is mostly still, casually following the action, and rarely cutting. Both scenes described above, and many others in this movie, are single unbroken shots, which might be a nightmare for more tightly-scripted, delicately timed films, but for Allen’s, it allows incredible freedom to improvise and gives the audience a greater sense of intimacy. Since Annie Hall, improv-heavy directors Christopher Guest, Judd Apatow and Kevin Smith have all borrowed this approach.
This technique is also effective in the film’s other most famous scene, where Alvy and Annie are in line at a movie theatre as a blow-hard behind them starts pontificating loudly about Fellini (“saw Fellini’s latest... not one of his best”) and Marshall McLuhan. As you may remember, this scene involves Alvy’s growing frustration with the guy, until it boils over and he addresses the audience directly, griping about these types of assholes, and setting the guy straight with Marshall McLuhan himself (one of cinema’s greatest cameos). The filming does not anticipate Allen’s Fourth Wall breakage, it just reacts to it, and in the audience, we feel like we’ve been there all along — now we’re just being talked to directly.
This scene greatly increases Alvy Singer’s empathy as a character, something he is in occasional need of. It’s take-away message, with regard to the character, is that he hates snobs, and he hates loud-mouths. Sympathetic for sure, although it’s somewhat undone when it’s later revealed that Alvy, himself, is both of those things. During a conversation with a girl he’s dating (after breaking up with Annie for the first time) she describes her love of Bob Dylan, a figure who Alvy condescendingly dismisses with sarcasm and eye-rolling. The girl is played by Shelley Duvall — she was most famous at this time for playing the air-headed hippie in Robert Altman’s Nashville, and she seems to be playing the same character here (she describes Dylan as “transplendant”). Alvy makes it obnoxiously clear that he has no respect for music that isn’t jazz or classical, so it might as well be The Monkees she’s talking about.
The same warts-and-all approach Annie Hall takes to relationships is also taken with Alvy himself. There is no attempt to romaticize him as a character, he’s just a realistic, self-centered, smart, needy, funny, anxious and ultimately relatable man living in a messy, modern America. Instead of the John Waynes, Gary Coopers and Carey Grants that men would watch and hope to be like, he’s the man they are like. In fact, he’s essentially the anti-John Wayne, the absolute antithesis of the “strong, silent type” — the expressive, vulnerable type.
One moment that exemplifies his offbeat romantic appeal comes in a bookstore with Annie. He reveals, without trying, his staggering, well-read intellect, but undermines his appeal, somewhat, by buying Annie a bunch of books about death while outlining his paralyzingly morbid world-view:
"I feel that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. That’s the two categories. The horrible are like, I don’t know, terminal cases, you know, and blind people, crippled. I don’t know how they get through life. It’s amazing to me. And the miserable is everyone else. So you should be thankful that you’re miserable, because that’s very lucky, to be miserable."
This movie is called Annie Hall but it’s not about Annie Hall, so much as it is about Alvy Singer and his relationship with her. Everything is told through his perspective. Re-watching the movie recently, I realized that Diane Keaton actually has relatively little screen-time, and she literally doesn’t have a single scene without Allen. Even in the flashbacks to her childhood and adolescence, Alvy goes along with her, providing a running commentary. This kind of surprised me, because in my memory she had always played a bigger role, and it’s always seemed to me like Annie is remembered and cherished as a character at least as much as Alvy.
Perhaps it’s because Alvy’s appeal is diluted, as even a casual cinema fan has seen Allen perform countless subtle variations on him, whereas Diane Keaton’s other famous roles (Kay Corleone in The Godfather, Louise Bryant in Reds) are more demonstrably acting, meaning Annie Hall is the singular moment in which Annie Hall was burned into our collective consciousness.
Woody Allen described leading women in comedies as falling into two common archetypes: the Buster Keaton type, and the Charlie Chaplin type. The latter are pristine objects of beauty that get idolized by Chaplin’s tramp character, whereas the former are clumsy ditzes that the hero gets stuck with (for example, on a train). Diane Keaton has been Allen’s Chaplinesque love (Love and Death) and Keatonesque love (Sleeper), but in Annie Hall she steps outside of common archetypes and creates a new type of frequently imitated comedy heroine.
Annie is a bubbly, effervescent presence, but we get the sense she’s as nervous and insecure as Alvy. Annie is the likely inspiration for the modern cinematic phenomenon of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl — bubbly, girly girls who exist solely to help sensitive, brooding writer-directors embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures — but the many imitations miss half the equation. Yes, Annie’s scatterbrained whimsy and strong affection for Alvy helps him see the warmth in himself, but she is a real person with needs too. Even if we never see her life outside of her relationship with Alvy, it’s clear that she has one.
Diane Keaton also won an Academy Award for her performance, which is probably the closest anyone’s ever come to winning an Oscar for playing themselves. Woody Allen also became the second person since Orson Welles (for Citizen Kane) to get nominations for acting, writing and directing in the same year, and the move also won Best Picture, beating out Star Wars (which apparently people were/are upset about).
The Academy’s love for Woody Allen, which is ongoing (he’s been nominated 20+ times, including as recently as 2006), is incredibly, hilariously unrequited. In Annie Hall, his character Alvy offers his opinion on Hollywood’s award-centric society: “More awards? What’s with all these awards? All they do is give out awards here. Best Fascist Dictator: Adolf Hitler.” Woody Allen has also never actually shown up to receive any of his trophies either, although he did make one appearance in 2002, and heroically provided probably the single funniest moment in the history of the otherwise dreary annual ceremony.
It might seem pointless to even mention Academy Awards, given their wavering artistic merit and long history of bad decisions, but they still mean a lot within the movie industry. Especially in the 1970s, when there were fewer outlets for people to find out about movies, and literally 1/3 of Americans watched the Oscars, a Best Picture win is pretty much a guarantee of blockbuster status. Annie Hall was no exception, and ended up as Woody Allen’s biggest hit, making over $40 million dollars, enough to easily beat out all of 1977’s comedies. Even if you don’t adjust for inflation, that’s more than any of Allen’s recent movies pull in, and if you do adjust, it’s about $140 million, an amount that a romantic comedy can’t make today unless it involves Adam Sandler, or Fockers. The 1970s were an adventurous time in American cinema, but there’s still something awesome about an unapologetically cerebral hero and his socially awkward love interest taking over the mainstream cinema world.
I’ve seen Annie Hall many times, but every time I see it, I find parts that I had forgotten that would be the stand-outs in almost any other romantic comedy. I mentioned the lobster scene, one of my (and everyone’s) favorites, but what I (and, again, everyone) forget about so often is its callback later on in the movie, when Alvy, who has just broken up with Annie, tries to re-create the magic with a new girl. It’s forced and incredibly awkward — she doesn’t understand why he can’t just pick up the lobster, and doesn’t get any of his jokes. In a scene that’s only about a minute, we see Alvy make a profound realization that someone he’s at ease around is a rare find.
Also, Alvy’s visit to Annie’s family in Wisconsin is a concentrated explosion of angst and humor that I had never properly appreciated. Maybe I’ve only recently come to understand how stifling a squeaky-clean, affluent, WASP family can seem to outsiders, or maybe I had forgotten how amazingly, awesomely weird Christopher Walken (playing Annie’s brother Dwayne) is, but this has definitely emerged as one of my favorite scenes. The more I think about it, the more I think the scene in which Alvy’s bickering Brooklyn parents interacts with Annie’s blue-bood Wisconsin family via split-screen is one of the most quintessential Allen moments ever — neurotic, self-deprecating, paranoid, Freudian, clever, and funny.
I was also surprised by how much of the movie seems familiar, and not just because I’ve seen Annie Hall multiple times. On one of their early dates, the moments when Annie and Alvy sit on a park bench and jokingly make up stories about the people they see (“that guy’s the President of the Truman Capote lookalike club”) are often imitated, as is the part when Alvy sneezes into a tray of expensive cocaine and it bursts into a dust cloud around the party guests. The films non-sequiturism — darting off for a quick scene, or flashing a quick visual joke (i.e. showing Woody Allen dressed as a Hasidic Jew, to quickly show us how he’s viewed by Annie’s anti-semitic grandmother) — is another staple of modern comedies, particularly on television.
Allen filled his previous movies with winking references (or satirical shots) at the films that have influenced him — the dinner scene in Take the Money and Run mirrored Chaplin’s in The Gold Rush, in Love and Death he jokingly threw in a Bergman visual allusion, etc. — but Annie Hall develops tremendously by not just pointing out classic moments in other movies, but demonstrating understanding of how effective they can be, and incorporating aspects of them into his own, unique vision. In Ignmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, the protagonist interacts with his childhood self, as Alvy does in the opening of Annie Hall, but Allen is not merely mimicking, he’s transforming it to something unique, and making it work for his movie. Entire essays could be written about the similarities between Annie Hall and Citizen Kane (which Allen has cited as his favorite American movie) and the the way they both tell the story of one man (Charles Foster Kane; Alvy Singer) by jumping back and forth through his life, and “interviewing” important people along the way. Yet, when you watch it, there’s never any feeling that you’re watching anything other than a very uniquely Woody Allen movie.
Of all Annie Hall’s great moments, I think the ending is its pinnacle. Annie and Alvy have broken up for good, but the movie’s final scene shows them reuniting, meeting briefly while on dates with other people (dates to see the depressing war documentary The Sorrow and The Pity — which Alvy considers a personal victory). Stumbling across this movie’s final ten minutes a few years ago, I was amazed how, even out of context, it’s such a vivid mix of longing, nostalgia and regret. Woody Allen is famous for his downbeat endings, but this is a movie ending that would seem wrong done any other way. Knowing the birth and the life of a relationship means that much more when you understand the death as well. One of the movie’s most famous lines is also the movie’s last:
"After that it got pretty late, and we both had to go, but it was great seeing Annie again. I realized what a terrific person she was, and how much fun it was just knowing her; and I thought of that old joke, y’know, this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, ‘Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy... he thinks he’s a chicken.’ And 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, but I guess we keep goin’ through it because, uh, most of us... need the eggs."
I’ve devoted a lot less space in this review to recounting scenes and plot-points as compared to other reviews, but I think that’s probably okay — if you’ve come here, I assume you’ve seen at least one Woody Allen movie, and if you’ve seen at least one Woody Allen movie, you’ve seen Annie Hall. Also, describing the best moments in Annie Hall is a Herculean task. As I said earlier, it’s an astoundingly dense 93 minutes; almost every scene is so funny and inspired, watching it is an act of being caught perpetually off-guard. All the parts I’ve discussed above — lobsters in the kitchen, Marshall McLuhan in the theatre, dinner in Wisconsin — last less than a couple minutes, and the only thing that makes up for their brevity is the fact that something just as good comes right after. Annie Hall is the most talked-about comedy for a reason: it’s playfully obtuse but painfully direct, and one of the best movies ever made.
- “You’re like New York, Jewish, left-wing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University, the socialist summer camps and the father with the Ben Shahn drawings, right, and the really, y’know, strike-oriented kind of, red diaper... stop me before I make a complete imbecile of myself.”
"No, that was wonderful. I love being reduced to a cultural stereotype.”
"Right, I’m a bigot, I know, but for the left.”
- “Don’t knock masturbation, it’s sex with someone I love.”
- “One thing intellectuals have proven is that you can be absolutely brilliant and have no idea what’s going on. On the other hand, the body never lies.”
"No, it’ll be great. Those PhDs will all be in there discussing ‘modes of alienation’ and we’ll be in here quietly humping."
- “It’s a gift from Grammy Hall.”
"My ‘grammy’ never gave gifts. She was too busy getting raped by Cossacks.”
- “That sex was the most fun I’ve ever had without laughing.”
- “Alvy, you’re using sex as a way of expressing hostility.”
“Why do you always reduce my animal urges to psychoanalytic categories? *cough* He said, as he removed her brassiere."
- “Don’t you see the rest of the country looks upon New York like we’re left-wing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers? I think of us that way sometimes and I live here.”
- [in Los Angeles]
“It’s so clean out here.”
“That’s because they don’t throw their garbage away, they turn it into television shows.”
- “A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.”
- “I was thrown out of N.Y.U. my freshman year for cheating on my metaphysics final. I looked within the soul of the boy sitting next to me.”
- “[My therapist] mentioned penis envy. Do you know about that?”
“Me? I’m, I’m one of the few males who suffers from that.”
- “Annie, there’s a spider in your bathroom the size of a Buick.”
- “I can’t enjoy anything unless everybody is. If one guy is starving someplace, that puts a crimp in my evening.”
- “Sun is bad for you. Everything our parents said was good is bad. Sun, milk, red meat... college.”
- The wardrobe lady apparently begged Woody Allen to not Diane Keaton wear her own clothes, telling him she would look “ridiculous.” Allen disagreed, saying he liked her style and that it worked for her character.
- Contrary to popular belief, Diane Keaton and Woody Allen were not dating during the making of this movie. They had been together previously, but they had broken up a few years prior.
- This movie originally had a murder-mystery subplot, which was thankfully cut out. That subplot was later used in 1993’s Manhattan Murder Mystery, which reunited Diane Keaton and Woody Allen and can therefore, I guess, in some small way, be considered a sequel to this movie.
- Allen wanted Fellini to make the cameo instead of Marshall McLuhan, but Fellini turned him down.
- According to the American Film Institute this is the second best romantic comedy of all time (after Chaplin’s City Lights), and fourth best comedy overall. Also of note, Adolf Hitler was ranked #1 on their ABC Special “Top 10 Fascist Dictators.”
- Danny Aiello (star of last week’s The Front, Do the Right Thing and Allen’s 1985 movie Purple Rose of Cairo) and Harvey Fierstein had small parts but were cut out.
- In addition to Anhedonia, other possible titles suggested at one point included It Had to Be Jew, A Rollercoaster Named Desire, and Me and My Goy (seriously, those are all amazing titles).
- Allen’s first wife is played by Janet Margolin, his wife in Take the Money and Run.
- Future celebrities in small roles: Christopher Walken, as already mentioned; Jeff Goldblum is a guest at an L.A. party; Sigourney Weaver is Alvy’s date when he runs into Annie during the film’s conclusion; Beverly D’Angelo (Chevy Chase’s wife in the Vacation movies) is Rob’s co-star on his L.A. sitcom.
- The animated Alvy Singer looks uncannily like the “Inside Woody Allen” cartoon I posted here, which was running in syndication at the time.
- For the Best Director Oscar, Allen beat out his Play It Again, Sam director, Herbert Ross (in addition to George Lucas and Steven Spielberg). For Best Actor, though, he lost to Richard Dreyfuss for The Goodbye Girl which was, also, directed by Ross.
- At one point, Alvy points out a man walking and says “that’s the President of the Truman Capote look-alike society.” That guy, actually, is Truman Capote.
- Casting for this movie was done by Juliet Taylor, who has cast every Woody Allen movie since.