By: KJ Hamilton
Zelig – dir. Woody Allen – 1983
I am a big fan of documentaries. I watch them whenever I catch them on television, and I’m not usually picky about the topic. I’d never seen Zelig before, and I had to remind myself that this was a work of fiction, a mockumentary. Set in the late 1920’s and 1930’s, the film centers around the life of Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen); a man who has the ability to transform his appearance to match those around him. If he was in the company of Native Americans, he became one. If he was around overweight men, his body would enlarge itself to match their girth. No matter who he encountered, he could adapt his appearance to match theirs, seemingly without too much effort.
It’s an observation by renowned author F. Scott Fitzgerald that sets things off for Zelig. Fitzgerald observes him at a party. One moment, he’s surrounded by the social elite, agreeing with their ideals and even speaking with an “upper-crust Bostonian” accent. The next moment, Zelig is seen in the kitchen hanging around with the staff as though he’d been there the entire time. He is soon hospitalized, and gains notoriety when the medical team is completely baffled by his condition.
Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow) is the psychiatrist who is assigned to Zelig’s case. Other doctors conclude that the causes for Zelig’s unusual malady range from neurological and physiological disorders to brain tumors. Dr. Fletcher, however, is convinced that the cause is psychological. Zelig’s half-sister and her boyfriend turn up and removed him from the hospital half-way through his treatment. They turn him into a side-show, and sell chances to meet “The Chameleon” in person and watch him transform. He became a sensation, and sparked off a chain of merchandise that ranged from stuffed chameleon dolls to chameleon earmuffs. He inspired at least six songs and the Chameleon Dance. Zelig’s fame spread world-wide, yet he remained a quiet malcontented individual with no real identity of his own.
Scandal led to the death of his sister and her boyfriend, and Zelig was returned to the hospital to continue treatment. Fletcher decided that the hospital wasn’t the appropriate place for Zelig, so she fixed up a place for him in her country home and recorded their sessions. Through hypnosis, Fletcher learned that Zelig suffered greatly at the hands of his family and his neighbors, all of whom constantly beat him. She also learned that Zelig longed to be liked, and that when he was liked there was no need for him to transform.
A thought just occurred to the writer: Zelig never transformed himself to look like Dr. Fletcher. She was the only one that he never bothered to look like. This was probably because she gave him what no one else ever did: unconditional love and attention. The two fell in love and planned to marry. They were adored by the whole world, and then it all came to a screeching halt. Several women stepped forward and announced that Zelig had married them and fathered children. Fletcher claimed that he couldn’t be held responsible for things that he did while he operated under different personalities. Public outcry and dislike caused Zelig to relapse, and he disappeared. Fletcher found him in Nazi Germany (of all places) working for Hitler prior to the outbreak of World War II. They married and the malady completely disappeared.
What was most beautiful about this film was the use of ground breaking technology. Allen imprinted Zelig into old newsreels and photographs with infamous individuals like Al Capone and Charles Lindbergh; Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover and James Cagney. This was done via bluescreen technology, and by using vintage film cameras and lenses from the era. This was the predecessor to Forrest Gump, and was just as fascinating. Zelig is a fascinating journey though early twentieth century history through the eyes of a man who managed to adapt to the ever-changing world around him—“chameleon” or not.