Annie Hall (1977)

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Annie Hall
Dir. Woody Allen
Premiered April 20, 1977

Few filmmakers are as ripe for parody as Woody Allen. The famously nebbishy, pessimistic New York Jewish intellectual (and anti-intellectual) has been affectionately jabbed in entertainments as diverse as The Simpsons, Saturday Night Live, and The Ben Stiller Show. From such a remove, it may seem odd that a person so frequently mocked is so lauded and so prolific– even during creative ebbs, he’s managed to make a new film almost every year– but his work speaks for itself, none moreso than Annie Hall.

Comedian Alvy Singer (Allen) has always struggled to embrace happiness, and he knows it. He loves being on TV, but hates being recognized on the street. He’s undergone psychoanalysis for sixteen years, to no effect, but is enamored of the practice and encourages others to do it. He’s ashamed of his heavily working-class, heavily Jewish upbringing in a house under Coney Island’s Cyclone roller coaster, but is suspicious and disdainful of the cheerful outlook of his All-American gentile ex-girlfriend, Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). A year after their breakup and entering middle age, Alvy looks back on their relationship, frequently digressing to explore his past marriages (first to a political activist played by Carol Kane, then to a stuffy intellectual played by Janet Margolin) and his disdain for both high and low cultures that seem to be passing him by.

The majority of Annie Hall’s humor comes from Alvy’s persistent breaking of the fourth wall (and occasionally others doing the same) to comment on his past and personality. When taking the film’s troubled production into consideration, it’s a miracle that the film is a comedy at all– originally a murder mystery about a married couple, the script went through numerous revisions and at least six working titles, mostly emphasizing the culture clash within Alvy and Annie’s relationship. The resulting film is an anarchic deconstruction akin to later films like A Cock and Bull Story, Sleepwalk with Me, and even Pulp Fiction. And whereas other critical darlings of the time like Eraserhead and Stroszek delight in obtuseness, Annie Hall, much like Allen at his best, is straightforward, which is why the film still resonates today.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
Alvy is a semi-regular on the Johnny Carson Show (then the colloquial term for NBC’s The Tonight Show). Middle-class people can afford cocaine. The rent at Annie’s Manhattan apartment is $400/month, which even factoring inflation is low for New York or even Brooklyn today. What’s more, middle-aged white people complain that New York has become too dirty and dangerous, whereas today they complain that it isn’t dirty or dangerous enough. Liberal stalwart Alvy owns buttons that read “Impeach Eisenhower,” “Impeach Johnson,” “Impeach Nixon,” and “Impeach Reagan”– the joke being that Reagan had never been President at the time, but Alvy was ready just in case.

Additional Notes
Not one, but two bit players from The Sentinel are also bit players in Annie Hall. Christopher Walken has the first of many, many career One-Scene Wonders as Annie’s possibly psychotic brother Duane, while Jeff Goldblum cameos as a guest at a posh Beverly Hills house party who’s forgotten his mantra. Marshall McLuhan appears as himself to defend Alvy in an argument about himself, and Truman Capote comes on for a couple of seconds as a stranger in the park who Alvy thinks looks like Truman Capote.

How Did It Do?
The tenth highest-grossing film of 1977, Annie Hall earned $38.3 million against a $4 million budget. What’s more, it won the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress in a Leading Role, and Best Original Screenplay; the rare comedy to do so, even in the pre-Oscar Bait era. Critics also went nuts for it, garnering a 99% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes. It’s frequently ranks among lists of the funniest films of all time, and was entered into the Library of Congress in 1992 for its significance in the history of film.

In a way, Annie Hall is a victim of its own success. Previously, Woody Allen’s films had been much more farcical; the success of Annie Hall, and Allen’s maturing as a filmmaker through a difficult production, led the director in a more serious– and more egocentric– direction. Allen has never abandoned comedy entirely, but the direction taken since Annie Hall has been very Annie Hall-esque, and resulted in a handful of classic films, as well as a mountain of inessential or downright bad ones. Most of those– as well as myriad other films since– follow a similar format to Annie Hall, which can make the original less engaging of a watch today, especially on first viewing.

Next Time: The Late Show

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