#7 — Annie Hall (Woody Allen, 1977)
I’ve loved Annie Hall for a long time, but I don’t think I understood the extent of its specialness until I saw the Woody Allen directorial effort that directly preceded it, 1975’s Love and Death. Despite its artier pretensions, manifested most clearly in the spoofing of heady fare such as Russian novels and Ingmar Bergman films, the movie is a modest, proudly simple comedy, reveling in an absurdity that dated back at least to the Marx Brothers and persists today is every brash punchline extravaganza featuring a Saturday Night Live alumnus. It’s not a stepping stone, as I had long assumed, from the straightforward gag-fests from earlier in Allen’s career. Instead, it is right in line with them. He didn’t evolve into Annie Hall gradually. He just suddenly landed there, intertwining a uniquely sophisticated and modern look at romantic relationships with extraordinarily free and casual experimentation (Annie Hall is so brisk, approachable and polished that the multitude of structural risks Allen engages in are easy to overlook or at least undervalue). Aside from perhaps Charlie Chaplin, I don’t know if there’s another example in cinematic history of a clown turning into full-fledged artist with the snap of a clapboard.
Annie Hall is, of course, about a romance, that of Alvy Singer, played by Allen, and the title character, played by Diane Keaton. Given the years of supporting evidence provided by Keaton is every interview and public appearance she’s ever done, it’s clear that the character she plays is a modified version of herself (Hall was the last name the actress was born with, and Annie was a common nickname for her at the time). That doesn’t diminish the value of her performance, which brims with invention, energy and daffy charm like few other comic turns given a home on screen. She won the Oscar for it, and it stands as one of the finest choices the Academy made across a decade when they had an abundance of great Hollywood films to celebrate. Effortless as the film plays, Allen had an exceedingly tough time finding his way to the final version that endures. There was an original cut that was almost two-and-a-half hours long and an early pass at the script (written by Allen with Marshall Brickman) focused more on a murder mystery with any relationship material crammed into a subplot (the whodunit plotline reemerged years later in 1993’s Manhattan Murder Mystery, which fittingly reunited Allen with Keaton). Watching Keaton “Lah-de-dah” her way through this endlessly winning performance, it’s no wonder that Allen figured out that Alvy may be the central figure of the film, but he was orbiting around Annie Hall.
Great as that relationship is–and there are remarkably few romantic comedies in the decade since that don’t sport at least a little DNA inherited from Annie Hall–the film is elevated by the vestiges of everything else that it almost was. It is about Alvy’s childhood, his overstuffed quiver of insecurities and his prior attempts to forge meaningful relationships with women that amounted to little more than fender benders of the heart. Much of this was reportedly relegated to the trash bins in the editing room, but enough remains to give the film greater depth and insight. Before a shark dies, there are presumably symptoms of illness present for anyone brave enough to look. Annie Hall, for all its structural playfulness, is about people, and Allen sagely, subtly conveys the ways that those individuals carry their histories with them, letting the shadows they cast obscure what can be seen in the present. It’s remarkable that Allen retained his ingenious sense of humor (among other attributes, the argument could be made that Annie Hall is his funniest overall film) while still developing full-fledged characters rather than the easier comic figures he’d relied on before. He wasn’t a comedian making movies any longer; he was now clearly a filmmaker, with many masterworks to come.