Zelig

The profound story of a man blessed and cursed with the ability to blend seamlessly into any environment.

Woody Allen

Trevor Gilks

1983

Unlike many of his inspirations and peers, Woody Allen tends not to make cryptic films. The themes and motifs of his movies are quite clearly laid-out — self-narration and over-explanation are traits of both Woody Allen and the characters he writes. Zelig has long struck me as a rare exception to this rule. Beneath the surface of an eminently likable but off-beat romantic comedy are powerful reflections on identity, mental illness, and the universal human need to be liked.

Zelig is a “documentary” about a man named Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen), a 1920s bookkeeper and a social chameleon in the most profound sense. Without trying, he blends in seamlessly to whatever group of people he is with. Surrounded by fat people, he becomes fat. Surrounded by Frenchmen, a tiny mustache appears on his face and he begins to speak in French. His transformations are seemingly limitless — over the course of the film, he also becomes Asian, Native-American, Aryan, Indian, Hasidic and even black.

Woody Allen as a fat man in Zelig
Woody Allen as a black man in Zelig
Out of context, this is a very awkward photo.

His social transformations, however, while less scientifically baffling (and law-of-conservation-of-mass-defying) than his physical changes, are equally astounding and far more meaningful. Surrounded by doctors, he immediately begins to speak in medical jargon, and inexplicably demonstrates a wide range of medical knowledge. At a dinner party, he speaks in stoic support of the Republican party in a perfect upper-class Boston accent when mingling with the party guests, but rages against the “spoiled fat cats” in a proletariat brogue when conversing with the house staff.

At first, the film’s premise seems like little more than a cute idea — exaggerating relatable human folly has always been a key part of Woody Allen’s comic repertoire, and here he takes on the way people compromise their identity in order to be liked by others. However, once Leonard Zelig’s unique condition is discovered by Manhattan doctors and spun into a media sensation, people all over the world start to read special meaning into what he represents. Everyone from psychoanalysts to the KKK to the Communist Party weigh in on what Zelig means to modern society.

Communists in a scene from Zelig

Zelig also captures the public imagination in a more conventional way, and, upon release from the hospital, ends up as a sideshow act in his brother-in-law’s circus. People are confused, afraid and discomforted by what he represents, but ultimately, they’re mostly just curious.

Communists in a scene from Zelig

In a move that deftly reflects the way patients of mental illness are often treated, it’s not until nearly halfway through the film that we actually get to know anything about Zelig himself. The medical and psychiatric community squabble over how to diagnose his condition, and people debate the sociological meaning of his existence, but no one gives the man himself a second thought. The film’s first of many profound ironies is that Zelig’s skill at fitting in is what singles him out and leaves him isolated and alone.

This doesn’t change until he comes under the care of the sensitive Dr. Fletcher, played by Mia Farrow. As I mentioned in the review, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy was an unfortunate debut for the Allen/Farrow partnership, partly because it’s a forgettable movie, but also because Farrow was last minute replacement for a role that didn’t really suit her. Here, Farrow is playing a part that was written specifically for her, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in it. This is the first example (and a very good one) of Allen using Farrow’s warm, nurturing, slightly anxious presence to create an indelible and sympathetic character.

Fletcher’s theory is that Zelig’s condition is psychological, rather than medical — that his strange behavior is a manifestation of his inability to express himself. Of course, the male-dominated medical establishment (this is still the 1930s) doesn’t take her claim seriously, and insists that his is a condition to be treated the same way as cancer or polio. Their many theories include glandular problems, poor alignment, and a mysterious, as-of-yet-undiscovered brain tumor. This is yet another one of Allen’s subtle satirical references — Zelig’s disease is mistreated the same way psychological impairments such as depression and bipolar disorder have been throughout the history of modern science, right up until the ‘80s and ‘90s.

Mia Farrow in a scene from Zelig
“I believe it is Zelig’s unstable psyche that accounts for his metamorphoses”

All conventional treatments fail, however, and as a last resort, Dr. Fletcher is asked to try and treat the patient using her newfangled psychodynamics. Her approach is to get to know the real Zelig, the man he is when he’s not transforming into someone else. What she finds is an incredibly shy, kind man with a rough childhood, who has developed a great lack of confidence and an even greater desire to fit in and be liked.

Mia Farrow and Woody Allen in a scene from Zelig
“My brother beat me. My sister beat my brother. My father beat my sister and my brother and me. My mother beat my father and my sister and me and my brother. The neighbors beat our family. The people down the block beat the neighbors and our family.”

With her help, Zelig is seemingly “cured” and turned back into a normal man with the ability to stand out in a crowd, and even disagree with people — things his “condition” had previously prevented him from doing. Meanwhile, Fletcher and Zelig fall in love, and Zelig returns to fame — except this time, he’s not a sideshow attraction, but a national hero; a spokesperson for the power of Believing In Yourself.

Essentially, he becomes the world’s first motivational speaker. He gets keys to cities, hangs out with the celebrities of the time (we’re still in the late 1930s) and teaches the world all about how nothing is impossible, as long as you’re not afraid to Be Yourself.

Woody Allen in a scene from Zelig
“And always remember, you have to be your own person, and make your own choices, even if those might be difficult.”

His adoration comes to a crashing halt when it’s revealed that his condition still exists — he’s just been hiding it from the public (and from his now-wife, Dr. Fletcher). While impersonating others, Zelig commits a series of crimes and offenses that end up deluging him with lawsuits and criminal charges. In the words of the narrator: “He is sued for bigamy, adultery, automobile accidents, plagiarism, household damages, negligence, property damages, and performing unnecessary dental extractions.”

Woody Allen in a scene from Zelig
“I would like to apologize to everyone. I’m awfully sorry for marrying all those women. It just, I don’t know, it just seemed like the thing to do. And to the gentleman who’s appendix I took out, I don’t know what to say. If it’s any consolation, I may still have it somewhere around the house.”

America turns on him, and he disappears (an easy task for him). When he is first spotted again, in what is a fairly shocking scene in an otherwise light-hearted movie, the former spokesperson for the importance of uniqueness has joined history’s ultimate conformists — the National Socialist Party of Germany (the Nazis). Wanting nothing more than to disappear, Zelig becomes a part of the faceless masses of a vast movement.

Woody Allen and Hitler in a scene from Zelig
Out of context, this is a very awkward photo.

Meanwhile, Dr. Fletcher hasn’t given up on Zelig, and still sees him as an innocent victim of his disease. After spotting him in newsreel footage, Fletcher travels to Germany, and the two reunite at the Munich rally in the film’s most famous scene.

Woody Allen and Hitler in a scene from Zelig
Dr. Fletcher stands on a box and waves at Zelig...
Mia Farrow at the Munich rally
... and he spots her (lower right corner)...
Woody Allen and Hitler in a scene from Zelig
... and Hitler demonstrates surprisingly deft comic timing.

After reuniting with Dr. Fletcher, Zelig’s identity is revealed. Not thrilled about having had a well-known American Jew infiltrate their ranks, the Nazis seize on them, although the pair are able to steal a plane and fly back to America. Dr. Fletcher is a trained pilot, but when she is knocked unconscious, Zelig is able to use his skills of mimicry to mimic her flying ability, which is ultimately what returns them to New York. Zelig is now a war hero, and for the third time, and for the third reason, he’s a celebrity in America. He was famous for his condition, then famous for overcoming it, then famous for using it in the service of freedom. Such is the fickle, forgetful nature of celebrity.

Woody Allen and Mia Farrow in a scene from Zelig
“You are a great inspiration to the young of this nation, who will one day grow up to be great doctors and great pilots!”
“But I’ve never flown before in my life, and it shows exactly what you can do if you’re a total psychotic!”

Zelig is Allen’s second entry into the “mockumentary” genre, after pioneering it with Take The Money And Run. Unlike Take the Money, or most other entries into the genre since, Zelig adheres quite strictly to the documentary format. Typically, the mockumentary strains credibility by “capturing” moments uncannily, with the cast often, conveniently, forgetting they’re on camera. In reality, people act very differently when they’re being filmed, which, combined with various legal and practical reasons, means that the intimate, candid, well-shot, “spontaneous” moments that make up The Office or Best In Show would, in reality, rarely be captured by a real documentary crew. But Zelig seems to realize this, and adjusts accordingly.

The subject matter is obviously fantastical, but the way the film plays and feels borders on realistic. The film is told through narration, newsreel footage, still photographs, “interviews,” and the counseling sessions between Zelig and Dr. Fletcher, which Fletcher was filming for posterity. The newsreel footage and photographs are sometimes genuine historical documents altered to include Woody Allen and/or Mia Farrow (such as the scene at the Nazi Munich rally), or sometimes completely fabricated (such as the broadcast advertising “The Lizard,” a new hit album inspired by Leonard Zelig) — but the fabricated material strives for, and achieves, authenticity (in terms of look and feel, if not content).

Allen has said that apart from himself and Farrow, there are no professional actors in the movie. He felt that real actors, no matter how talented, could not convincingly portray regular people doing interviews. Therefore, the people being “interviewed” for the purposes of the “documentary” were played by his friends, family members, and the film’s crew. The exception, of course, is people who play themselves — like Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow, who show up to offer their opinions on the philosophical meaning of Zelig’s existence.

Susan Sontag in a scene from Zelig
“Leonard Zelig, and his case, really represents the birth of modern psychotherapy.”

Reviews of Woody Allen films tend not to dwell much on special effects because, generally, there aren’t any. Zelig, however, is filled with them, and they are as brilliant and impressive, in their own way, as those of Return of the Jedi, which came out the same year. Aging and manipulating images is no big deal today (I Photoshop myself into historic photos all the time), but Zelig’s tricks were all analog. Filming the scenes of Allen and Farrow to be interspersed had to be done under absolutely precise conditions, and the two had to be manually removed from the film, frame by frame, and then added to the historic reels.

Woody Allen and Eugene O’Neil in a scene from Zelig
Leonard Zelig with Eugene O’Neil

The aging and discoloring of the film was also a manual process, and film reels were crumpled, left in the sun, scratched, overexposed and heated to make them match the grainy, de-saturated footage from the 1920s and 1930s. Considering the seemingly clumsy methods used, the precision is incredible. There are one or two scenes in which Allen seems to be floating on a different plane from the action, but for the most part, it’s so seamless, it’s imperceptible to the naked eye that you’re looking at two films shot 50 years apart and then spliced together. 1994’s Forrest Gump, a film that probably made more money than every Woody Allen movie combined, used vast resources and digital technology to do the same trick, but no more convincingly.

Woody Allen and Eugene O’Neil in a scene from Zelig
Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow) with James Cagney
Forrest Gump and Richard Nixon
Forrest Gump with Richard Nixon

Zelig has great intelligence and great technical prowess, but as I mentioned at the beginning, these things lie mostly under the surface — present throughout, but only occasionally drawing attention to themselves. The viewing experience itself is notable for being Allen’s sweetest, most kind-hearted so far. Miles away from the harshness of Stardust Memories, and making even the relatively good-natured Annie Hall look like an exercise in realist miserablism, Zelig is an incredibly likable movie about a nice guy who just wants to fit in. Its humor comes early and often, but it’s gentle and easy-going.

Woody Allen’s performance revisits a persona we haven’t seen from him in a while. From 1977 onwards, the characters he’s played have been more detailed, realistic and nuanced, but also cynical, depressive and mopey. In simpler times (the best example still being Take the Money and Run), he typically portrayed a kind, incompetent, down-on-his-luck everyman. Here, he returns triumphantly to that general persona, and what he lacks in detail, he makes up for in sympathy. Typically, when Allen plays these types of people, it’s the only time he gives himself a happy ending, and Zelig is no exception. The film’s conclusion tells us that Zelig and Dr. Fletcher lived the rest of their lives together quietly and happily in their cabin, and such a warm conclusion feels richly deserved.

Mia Farrow and Woody Allen in a scene from Zelig

Classifying Zelig is a difficult task. It’s primarily a comedy, but also finds time for satire, social commentary, romance, fantasy, narrative gimmicks, whimsy, and visual spectacle within its 78-minute running time. It seems like it should suffer from its sprawling scope, but its ambition does not prevent it from being incredibly entertaining. Zelig might not cohere as a classic, and it doesn’t challenge viewers in the way great art is supposed to, but more so than any other Woody Allen movie so far, it’s a film which is impossible to dislike.

Memorable Woodyisms

  • “I’m 12 years old. I run into a Synagogue. I ask the Rabbi the meaning of life. He tells me the meaning of life... But, he tells it to me in Hebrew. I don’t understand Hebrew. Then he wants to charge me six hundred dollars for Hebrew lessons.”
  • [Impersonating a psychiatrist]
    “If you’ll excuse, I’m wanted back at the University. I teach a course in advanced masturbation. If I’m not there, they start without me.”
  • “I have an interesting case. I’m treating two sets of Siamese twins with split personalities. I’m getting paid by eight people.”

Fun Facts

  • British actor John Gielgund (Gandhi, The Elephant Man) was originally hired to do the narration, but he was replaced by the more ordinary-sounding Patrick Horgan (an unknown soap-opera star).
  • Allen got the idea for the movie after seeing a Time Life TV special that inserted Dick Cavett into historical footage.
  • Mae Questel, the voice of Betty Boop, is the one who sings the novelty, Zelig-inspired jazz hit “The Chameleon.”
  • Academy Award nominations: Best Costume Design and Best Cinematography. The latter is somewhat bizarre, as there’s not much “cinematography” in stitching Woody Allen and Mia Farrow into stock footage and photographs. It was perhaps the best way the Academy could think of to to honor the film’s significant technical achievement — after all, there was, at that point, no Special Effects category yet.
  • This film lost both of its Academy Awards to Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (even if Woody Allen did give a shit about Oscars, he’d presumably be honored to lose to Mr. Bergman).
  • Woody Allen got a Golden Globe nomination for “Best Actor in a Musical or Comedy.” I’m pretty sure this is the only time (outside of Annie Hall) that Allen has gotten any awards recognition for his acting.

  • The house Dr. Fletcher and Leonard Zelig spend their time at is the same house where A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy was filmed (as I mentioned earlier, the two were filmed concurrently).
  • The filmed footage of F. Scott Fitzgerald is, in fact, the only filmed footage of F. Scott Fitzgerald in existence.
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