ANNIE HALL is a gift from the gods, one of those untouchables bestowed on moviegoers every once in a while. I cringed when I heard the absurd idea that a planned sequel is being considered. Perfection cannot be improved upon and ANNIE HALL is a perfect film, no doubt about it.
It came to be created when comic actor/director, Woody Allen, and his working sidekick, Marshall Brickman, decided to fictionalize Allen’s then-romance with actress, Diane Keaton. The rest is movie history as together, cast and crew made what turned out to be the penultimate story of a love affair and its disintegration.
Yes, there are jokes a-plenty (that still make us laugh nearly forty years later) but ANNIE HALL, at its heart, is a bittersweet telling of how even a perfect-seeming love can go horribly wrong.
ANNIE HALL was a breakthrough film for Allen; prior to it, he had drawn up a series of zany human cartoons: TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, BANANAS, SLEEPER—funny but one-dimensional romps with joke after joke popping off the screen at you—rat-a-tat-tat. Watched today, they remain anarchic, unfettered fun. But with ANNIE HALL, Allen arrives at a three-dimensional depiction of his characters and his plots—Alvy and Annie are real people with real emotions, real needs—the jokes that spill out of them embellish their characters, complement who they are—their humor is a solid part of them, not separate from them, spoken just to get a yuk out of an audience like you would see in a Mel Brooks’ movie or, as I say, in early Woody comedies.
In ANNIE HALL, we delight in Annie’s and Alvy’s awkward courtship, watch as they fall in love and then watch as that same love falls apart. The dissolution of them is heartbreaking because not only during the course of 120 minutes do we grow to like and care about them as individuals, but also as a couple. We want so badly for love to work for them, for them to iron out their differences, we shout at the screen to “Smarten up!” “Don’t be so ambivalent, Annie!” “Stop acting so stupid, Alvy!”
They don’t, or can’t comply. If opposites attract, they also repel. The traits that draw Annie and Alvy together are the very same traits that tear them apart. And because we knew this sweet screen love was mirrored by the affair Keaton and Allen were having in private (Boy, does it ever show!), it is an absolute disaster when their relationship begins to crack apart, goes haywire like the cocktail party chatter scene, like the lobster running amok in the famously symbolic, surreal kitchen scene.
Alvy, Annie and friends are all people life is getting to, in the worst way, and they discover right in front of us that smart, cocktail talk and reading all of Proust in the original French does not a human connection sustain, for long. It is the differences between us that cause us to retreat from one another, for Annie and Alvy are sexually lit fireflies but compatibly dim. Compatibility-wise, they are in the dark, and as they come to realize this, we are sad with them, for them.
It is here, in his close-up dissection of a relationship, that Allen turns ANNIE HALL into a near-masterpiece of analysis and introspection, as searing as any film his idol, Ingmar Bergman, made. The budding, the blossoming, and then the withering and dying of Annie and Alvy as a couple are as exhilarating and then as painful to watch as any birth-to-death story can be.
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The film earned Oscar wins for Best Picture of 1977, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay (Allen and Brickman) and Best Actress for, of course, the magnificent Diane Keaton.
I love Diane Keaton. She will do a standard look, give a standard line reading but then add to it at the end whatever is uniquely hers. It’s that Keaton thing she does. For 50 years, she has been making us fall in love with her. There is that disarming, ditzy quality, an honesty to her every performance (comedy or drama) that you don’t find in a lot of other actors. Her performances are a winning mix of part character, part her. To me, she seems unusually real. And I could be wrong and it could all be her shtick, her “act” but I don’t think so. With Keaton, what you see is what you get. She is always the way you want her to be which is to say—wonderful!
And can she ever wear clothes! Ruth Morley’s costumes (esp. the gender-bender ties and suits and hats) impacted the cultural landscape of the 1970s, as did Keaton’s signature “Lah-di-dah Lah-di-dah” which fit her Annie character to a T and which people went around saying for years after.
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Oh! I forgot to mention that one of the most memorable movie moments ever has to be the scene when Christopher Walken, as Annie’s crazy brother, Duane, confesses to Alvy what he would like to do whenever he is driving his car down the road at night. His “desire” and Allen’s response to it are priceless.
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There is something magical, for me, about a Woody Allen movie. I love how every year, we see glimpses and teases of “the new untitled Woody Allen Project” with its closed sets and secret “to-be-announced” casts. I love it when (usually in June or July), a new Woody movie appears to let me know that all is still a little bit right with the world.
Allen made it okay to be a smart moviegoer. He brought intelligence and sophistication, a certain Manhattan urbanity to his stories and his characters, much like Ernst Lubitsch did. Allen captured the gestalt of the intellectual and cultured New York City of the 70s and 80s, that very real set of neurotic, Nietsche-loving, Existentialist cocktail tossbacks who gathered at each others’ apartments to dissect and discuss the latest foreign film, the new Pauline Kael review, the current government blunder, to pay homage to the fabled European salons of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Gertrude Stein set.
And Allen makes an engaging performer; he has a nice, easy-going way about him (witness his song stylings in one of my very favorite movies, EVERYONE SAY I LOVE YOU where the normal reaction of an audience to someone with his looks and temperament would be to laugh, esp. when it is Woody Allen who is singing. And yet you don’t laugh; he brings to his vocals such an ease, an off-the-cuff quality, a quietness, a whisper, that you are drawn in closer just to hear what he is saying.)
Yeah, sure, as a human being, Woody Allen’s moral engine might be two cylinders short of a Volvo. But, as a director, he is better than the best. Even the least of his efforts rides high above probably anything else that’s out there in Movieland. With ANNIE HALL, he rides even higher than that. With ANNIE HALL, he took American cinema to a new plateau. Come to The Brattle and enjoy the view!