The Best Picture Project – Annie Hall (1977)

Annie Hall

Written and Directed by Woody Allen

Starring Woody Allen and Diane Keaton

Woody Allen has had one hell of an eventful life. He started as a TV writer for Sid Ceasar, transitioned successfully to the stage and then the screen. He won three Oscars, toured with a jazz band, made some fairly interesting movies and, notoriously, married the adopted daughter of his former wife.

Give all the drama in his life, and based on the movies he’s made lately, it’s tempting to forget that Allen actually used to make comedies. Not comedies in the same way he does now, those flaccid little things that should just die. No, irreverent movie featuring Gene Wilder having an affair with a sheep (Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex*But Were Afraid To Ask), an orgasmatron (Sleeper) and himself as a revolutionary (Bananas). These early films, all rough edges, were filled with actual jokes, cleaver wordplay, sight gags and better, weren’t laden with the self-conscious nebbishness that Allen lately brings to the party.

But like every clown at some point Allen decided he didn’t want to just make people laugh, he wanted to make them cry, too. By the late-70s he was turning out deadly serious films in the vein of his favorite filmmakers, Ingmar Bergman – see Interiors – and after that he just wasn’t quite the same anymore. But before the change happened he made one film that straddled both sides of the divide, the serious and the comic, and where, for maybe the last time, he got the balance of comedy, pathos, nostalgia and everything else perfectly right. That film, of course, was Annie Hall.

For those who haven’t seen it, Annie Hall is a vaguely biographical film about the rise and fall of a relationship between a comic, Alvy, who closely resembles Woody Allen, and his relationship with a young woman, who vaguely resembles Diane Keaton.

Unlike his later films, Annie Hall is at once incredibly charming and not the least infected by the self-seriousness that clouds those later films. Sure, he takes the usual potshots at ‘intellectuals’, but he does so with a wink to the fact that he’s one of them himself, and unlike later films is full of classic moments. There’s Annie talking about how Alvy is what Grammy Hall would call ‘a real Jew’ – which has a nice callback later on when Annie takes Alvy to Easter dinner and Grammy Hall does not look impressed. There’s Tony Roberts in full-on creep mode, sort of like a pre-Family Guy Quagmire. There’s Annie inappropriate laughter during a story about a narcoleptic dying while waiting in line at the VFW. Hell, there’s even Laurie Bird (Two-Lane Blacktop) gabbling on about est at the California party, the same party where Jeff Goldblum apparently forgot his mantra. And if you look quick at the end, outside the theater showing the Sorrow and the Pity, you’ll see Sigourney Weaver on Allen’s arm.

But of course, of all the great moments, there is one that is clearly the most famous:

The Mcluhan scene is great but personally my favorite involves the brief appearance of Christopher Walken as Annie’s brother at the Easter dinner with Annie’s family. Woody’s look of terror in the car after the story is classic:

As great as it is the movie, as seen, almost didn’t happen. Originally the movie started out as Anhedonia and was to be a murder-mystery with a romantic subplot – sounds a bit like Crimes and Misdemeanors to me – but in editing the murder-mystery was abandoned and the straightforward romantic comedy came out.

Only, it wasn’t exactly straightforward. Unlike your romantic comedies of today the film is beautifully nonlinear, jumbling up events from here to there with no real warning. Plus, it breaks the fourth wall with the audience regularly, and even breaks the wall with itself, with characters wandering through their own past as observers and commenting upon it. Plus there is the subtitles used to express what the characters are thinking, not saying, and the great use of irony throughout. It’s amazing to think that, if the film was something of an accident, just how pitch-perfect an accident it was.

And even though it may be heresy to say so, in some quarters, clearly Annie Hall was the best picture of 1977, even if a little movie named Star Wars was also on the ballot.

Aside:

Shelley Duvall has a small appearance as a one-night stand that Allen runs out on. Sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one who finds Duvall attractive. Sure, she’s not the usual, classic beauty, what with those teeth, but clearly there’s something about her, how else to explain that she’s worked with Robert Altman, Stanley Kubrick, Jane Campion, Steven Soderbergh, Tim Burton and Terry Gilliam.

Trivia:

What’s the best way to guarantee you will lose best picture? Make a comedy. Annie Hall is one of a small handful of films that have won best picture as a comedy.

Annie Hall is from Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, the same hometown of Jack Dawson.

The extra who walks through as the winner of the Truman Capote lookalike contest? Truman Capote.

Here’s the list of winners, in case you’re keeping tack of progress.

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