Annie Hall is far and away the best movie Woody Allen has made. Much more importantly, it's good and rich and satisfying in terms that, heretofore, have had only negative reference to Allen's film career, demarcating the limits of his scope as a writer-director-star.
The picture was called Woody Allen Film throughout its two-year conception and realization—a title that made all-too-perfect sense with regard to the trajectory his filmmaking has been describing. With the qualified exception of Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex..., all Allen's films have flaunted his personal centrality as pretender to the throne of Chaplin, Keaton, or whomever you happen to uphold as the comic star-auteur par excellence. Their cast lists abound in interesting players whose actual participation often amounts to nothing more than a walk-on; very few—Gene Wilder in Sex, Jessica Harper in the weird Persona parody just before the end of Love and Death—have managed to register decisively enough to be retained on the retina of memory the next day or, indeed, as long as the film itself lasts.
It's not so much that Allen hogs the show. Where a Streisand wantonly upstages her fellow performers, co-opts directorial prerogatives, and even doctors the soundtrack and the final cut to ensure her primacy, Allen is scrupulously generous in some respects. Every last anonymous peasant, usher, and street passerby is identified in the voluminous end credits. Yet this generosity is tinged with a kind of embarrassed perversity: who, after all, are all these people, and who were they when the film was on? If anything, their corporeal presence tended only to interfere with their effective screen-life—as photographable analogs of verbal conceits in a standup Allen patter.
Nowhere was this failing more conspicuous than in the cinematic treatment of those actresses/characters officially designated as Allen's lights-of-love: Louise Lasser in Bananas, Diane Keaton in Sleeper and Love and Death (but not Play It Again, Sam, the one "Woody Allen movie" not actually directed by Woody Allen). I can recall one near-sublime moment of independent existence in Keaton's performance in Love and Death: having just announced her selection of a fiancé among the many suitors assembled for a fete, and then watched the doddering old gent drop dead with joy, she leaned forward with a desperate only-kidding gesture and said, "Right!—I meant—Boris!" In that instant, both character and actress were privileged to order time and space just as they and they alone liked. Then Allen took over again and Keaton went back to alternating between ninny and fickle deceiver.
Woody Allen Film ended up being named after the character Keaton plays in it. There's nothing cosmetic about the gesture, even though the film opens with Allen delivering a long monologue straight into the camera, and even though, as always, we are hard put to say just where—or whether—Woody Allen leaves off and the character Alvy Singer, begins. Either or both are casting back over a broken love affair and trying, in the process, to make aphoristic sense of the personal, socio-historical and metaphysical mélange that has added up to a human life. Annie Hall—and the emotional and intellectual values reposed in her—appears to have assumed a crucial role in all this, even if "all this" remains Alvy Singer's autobiography.
Allen's movie shuffles chronology almost as freely as it violates conventional narrative levels to permit Alvy to address the audience, elicit—and get—informed commentary from passersby, or superimpose stream-of-consciousness subtitles over dialogue and action that is frantically leading in another direction. We first glimpse Annie comparatively late in her relationship with Alvy (rendezvousing at a movie theater where they hope to get in to Face to Face, they find the show has started already and so fall back on The Sorrow and the Pity); by now she has become an uneasy satellite of her lover, assimilated into his lifestyle but chafing against it, too.
Shortly thereafter, we observe their first encounter, and experience cultural shock: Diane Keaton is playing the Woody Allen role! Happening upon him after a casual double-date set of tennis, she blithers and flails, talking up a whirlwind from behind a manic smile and forcing their non-encounter to continue. Alvy, of all people, comes on as close to self-possessed as a Woody Allen character can expect to get; only an all but subliminally graceless move with an erect racquet handle gives away his own emotional derangement.
Physical gesture, and physicality in general, has a lot to do with Annie Hall's superiority to its predecessors. In an earlier Allen film, that surrogate erection would have operated more like the raison-d'être of the sequence, an exercise in shtickmanship wherein our Woody strutted his near-pathological grotesquerie to provoke our knowing yoks.
The yoks have usually come for, schlemihl or no, Allen's goodwill has always been unmistakable, and in comedy that counts for a good deal. But physical grace has never been the performer's long suit, and even when this was the comic point of an event, the joke usually seemed a little off-key; lacking the superb physical command of a Chaplin or a (Buster) Keaton, Allen could never shake free of the faintly compromising sense of turning himself into a routine rather than rediscovering his personal sublimity through mystically beautiful movement.
Annie Hall is full of marvelous behavioral business, none of it gratuitous; it's entirely integrated with character and the evolution of character from scene to scene. Not only Alvy Singer but, for the first time, Woody Allen actually possesses a sexual being. The actor whom Roger Downey once described as appearing to be "in the last stages of terminal seborrhea" hasn't submitted to glamour treatments. He has simply, with his own connivance as writer and director, put himself on the line in a one-to-one relationship with another creature endowed with independent being. And in so doing he has become, cinematically speaking, a whole artist and an important human being himself for the first time.
If it seems odd to speak of "another creature endowed with independent being" while also observing that Diane Keaton is playing the Woody Allen role, I can only invoke a long and glorious tradition of privileged creative bonding between certain male directors and their female stars. "Marlene is playing me," Josef von Sternberg used to say, even as the viewer couldn't help sensing that every male onscreen with Dietrich also represented a displaced atom of the director's sensibility, desperately trying to keep her from leaving his orbit. Sternberg's instructions often amounted to "Look at the door, count slowly to three, then glance right bellows the lens and smooth your shawl," yet the luminous legacy of this behavioral engineering remains endlessly mysterious, impenetrably private.
Allen grants Keaton something like the Dietrich treatment at one point in Annie Hall (although as a matter of fact it more precisely recalls Blake Edwards's rapt contemplation of Julie Andrews at the beginning and ending of Darling Lili). Alvy's and Annie's affair starts the night she botches a singing debut—"It Had to Be You"—in the world's worst music bar, the most cluttered mise-en-scène this side of Altmanville. It's on the way to ending the night she performs "Seems Like Old Times" as if musing out loud, swathed in Gordon Willis's lushest shadows and endorsed by the sort of long take customarily reserved for star monologues. Annie can handle a show of her own and Alvy knows it; and from the summing-up vantage of his narrative, he now knows he's missing something.
Very nice, you may say, but where are the jokes? Not to worry—they're there, in abundance. But like the behavioral business they exist first and foremost to tell us about these two people. Indeed, humor is the most dependable vehicle of romance, the only sacrament for a marriage of true minds that makes sense in Allen country. Alvy Singer can buy Annie every treatise on death ever published, but he gets custody when they're dividing their possessions ("That's a load off my back," she says breezily); on the other hand, the day they improvised a whole routine around some live lobsters scuttling across the kitchen floor becomes a talisman for checking the viability of subsequent relationships with other girls ("Is this a joke or what?").
Relationships with other costars is yet another question. Although Keaton is permitted to complete her self-creation in Annie Hall, Allen is still frustratingly incapable of finding as much use for nifty people like Christopher Walken (seen briefly as Annie's mad brother), Shelley Duvall (a Rolling Stone head), and Carol Kane (Alvy's first wife) as we might like.
But he might make it. After all, here is an Allen movie with a final frame from which Woody Allen is absent—for a comic actor, something akin to death, and well we know that Woody doesn't take his death lightly. We hear him, though, mulling over the joke about the man with a brother who thinks he's a chicken. "Why don't you have him committed?" asks the psychiatrist. "I would—but I need the eggs." Onscreen, the traffic flows by. The rest of the world may yet get a chance to star in a Woody Allen film because, even in the spotlight at a standup mike, he needs the eggs.
Originally published in The Weekly (Seattle), May 1977
Jack Rollins–Charles H. Joffe–United Artists, 1977. Directed by Woody Allen. Screenplay by Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman. Cinematography: Gordon Willis. Production design: Mel Bourne. Costumes: Ruth Morley. Editing: Ralph Rosenblum. Produced by Charles H. Joffe; executive producer, Robert Greenhut. (93 minutes)
The players: Woody Allen (Alvy Singer), Diane Keaton (Annie Hall), Tony Roberts (Rob), Carol Kane (Allison Portchnik), Janet Margolin (Robin), Colleen Dewhurst (Mrs. Hall), Donald Symington (Mr. Hall), Christopher Walken (Duane Hall), Helen Ludlam (Grammy Hall), Shelley Duvall (Pam of Rolling Stone), Paul Simon (Tony Lacey), Mordecai Lawner (Alvy's father), Joan Newman (Alvy's mother), Jonathan Munk (Alvy at 9), Marshall McLuhan (himself), Dick Cavett (himself), John Glover (Jerry the actor), Johnny Hamer (comic), Laurie Bird (Tony's L.A. girl), Jeff Goldblum (party guest), Shelly Hack (shallow)
Copyright © 1977 by Richard T. Jameson