Sunday, April 15, 2012



ANNIE HALL was the first comedy to win best picture since 1963's TOM JONES, and more importantly, it showed that America's greatest comedy movie star of the time could also be a great director, and that he could inject serious, bittersweet moments into one of his films and still be funny.  Although I imagine the Academy weren't too thrilled with the withering jokes the film aimed at Los Angeles and Hollywood, they managed to swallow their pride and award Woody Allen's classic film a deserved award.
Allen's career began when he started getting jokes published in local newspaper columns while still in high school. In the 1950's he graduated to writing for television, which included a stint with Sid Caesar's YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS, which Mel Brooks and Neil Simon also worked on.  After performing stand up for a while, he graduated to films.  In 1965 he wrote and starred in (but disowned) the disappointing comedy, WHAT'S NEW PUSSYCAT?.  In 1966 he made his first film as a director, WHAT'S UP TIGER LILY?, but that film mostly consisted of a bad Japanese spy film redubbed by Allen and some other voice actors.  His first proper credit as a director is 1969's hysterical TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, which he wrote and directed along with starring in. He managed to negotiate a deal for himself in which he got complete control over the content of his films as long as he remained within a certain budget, making his films more intensely personal than almost any other Hollywood director.  After TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, Allen would continue to write direct and star in movies for the next six years, making a  string of four more films that,  along with his first, would come to be known as "the funny ones": BANANAS (1971), EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK (1972), SLEEPER (1973), and LOVE AND DEATH (1975) . Each one of these films is bursting with big laughs and great comic ideas, even if the plots and characterizations are often thin. (EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX is really just a series of comic sketches with a central connecting theme).   As a comic performer, Allen was a true original; while influenced in his one liners by Groucho Marx and Bob Hope, Allen's neurotic intellectual persona was new to film.  While he wasn't  above slapstick silliness (1973's SLEEPER has him tripping over a giant banana peel), Allen's films were smart and filled with highbrow references (1975's LOVE AND DEATH is a parody of Leo Tolstoy's novels). 
After proving he could make us laugh, Allen dug deeper by taking a honest look at romantic relationships with ANNIE HALL.   Amazingly, his original conception for the film was quite different; working with cowriter Marshall Brickman and cinematographer Gordon Willis, (who taught Allen many of the more technical aspects of filmmaking) the film's original cut was over two hours long, and was described by co-editor Ralph Rosenblum as a "chaotic collection of bits and pieces that seemed to defy continuity".  It even featured a murder mystery!  Thankfully, Allen and Rosenblum wisely cut the film down until it focused almost exclusively on the relationship between Alvy Singer (Allen) and Annie Hall (Diane Keaton).   Another smart move was to not tell the story chronologically, so that different periods in the relationship could be compared and contrasted.  The result is one of the best romantic comedies ever made and one of Allen's most popular movies, grossing almost forty million dollars on a budget  of around three million.

Dianne Keaton and Woody Allen

The film opens with Allen directly addressing the camera;  after making a few jokes and comments about life and love, he admits that he has just broken up with his girlfriend Annie.  It's a bold stroke: here is Allen, still playing the funny kind of character  that he had in his earlier movies, admitting that the film you are about to see will not have a happy ending.  Speaking of his breakup with Annie, he says that he is "sifting the pieces of the relationship through my mind", perfectly establishing the jumbled chronology of the film that resembles the fractured nature of human memory.
This movie was really a turning point for Allen as a  visual filmmaker; while his early films are certainly funny, the camerawork in them is usually at the service of the jokes and nothing more.  Here, he and cinematographer Willis create beautiful long takes of his characters walking thorough New York that  enhance the  clever dialogue instead of just serving it.  As with his earlier films, Allen often plays with the boundaries of reality in the film: along with his occasional asides to the audience, he uses split screens, a moment where subtitles tell us what Annie and Alvy are really thinking when they talk,  and even a brief, highly amusing animated sequence.  But, all of these surreal moments are important to the story and the characters, so they fit into the overall film perfectly.

Alvy and Annie Animated

Keaton was Allen's on and off girlfriend offscreen, and this would be their third film together; although she had some nice moments in those earlier films,  this would be her first film with him where she really comes across as a full fledged character, and she would win a best actress Oscar for her work.  Her Annie is sweet and completely endearing, even if she's often lacking in confidence and bit scatterbrained (I love the way that she is so giggly when she first meets Alvy).  And the chemistry between her and Allen is wonderful, as mismatched as they might first seem.  We also get to see her grow as a person onscreen, becoming more confident and secure the more she is around Alvy.
As for Allen, he shows that he can still deliver a funny one liner ("Don't knock masturbation", he tells Annie, "it's sex with someone I love.") and also show the poignancy of the character behind the jokes.  While Alvy is a bundle of nerves, it's clear that he truly adores Annie and misses her when she's gone. Really, the sad irony of their relationship is that it is Alvy who convinces Annie to better herself through adult education and therapy that causes her personal growth to go beyond her need for him, despite his still strong desire for her.  I adore the last shot of  the film in which Alvy, saying goodbye to Annie on a New York street long after they've broken up but remain friends, watches her walk away for a long moment before turning and leaving himself; it's a subtle but moving piece of acting that shows romantic longing without resorting to tears or histrionics.
Along with the sharp relationship scenes, there are also many other funny moments in the film; Allen's jabs at LA (where they "don't throw their garbage away, they turn it into television shows") are great.  My personal favorite comedy moment in the film comes when Alvy, to shut up a pompous windbag who is pontificating about Marshal Mc Luhan, pulls out the real Mc Luhan to tell the windbag just how wrong he is. Along with being very funny, it illustrates something that so many of us wish we could do to certain people!


I think it's obvious that I'm crazy about this movie, and despite good movies like Steven Speilberg's CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND also coming out that year, I think ANNIE HALL was  definitely the  best choice.