An Appreciation – Annie Hall
Woody Allen begins his film Annie Hall (1977) with a monologue in which he addresses the audience directly. Within this speech, he describes a joke that he first attributes to Groucho Marx, saying that he would never want to be a part of a club that would have him as a member. This joke, with its classic Woody Allen self-deprecating humor and wit, is the theme that will run throughout the course of his romantic comedy classic. It will be the theme that he uses to deconstruct and analyze the course of his relationship with the woman he would come to find is the love of his life. But if she was “the one” to him, why did things turn out the way they did? If he had happiness in his grasp at one point, how could he have let that slip away? Would he have been satisfied allowing himself to be a part of a club that would have him as a member, or is he only happy when he is unhappy?
This film marks a turning point in the career of one of the most prolific filmmakers to ever live. Allen is one of the most consistent of all directors, averaging a film a year. This is surprising, given that none of his movies were enormous hits. This film would win the Oscar for best picture, beating out the likes of Star Wars (1977), and would go on to be one of the lowest grossing movies to ever receive the award. It marked a shift in the tone and style of his work. Allen started out as a stand up comedian and writer, and his early films were set in a way that merely tried to showcase his brand of humor. Films like Take the Money and Run (1969), Bananas (1971), Sleeper (1973), and Love and Death (1975) all incorporate a slapsticky, pie-in-the-face style of comedy. This is not to say that these films didn’t work; in fact, I find Take the Money and Run to be one of his funniest films. However, when Allen got to Annie Hall, he would be at a point professionally where he wanted to do something slightly more relevant, a little deeper, containing more insight into real world people and their relationships. It would be this style that would dominate the rest of his career, molding his aesthetic to how it is known today and creating some of the most interesting films of the time.
His character in Annie Hall, Alvy Singer, is the prototype New York neurotic who would reappear routinely in his other movies. Alvy is a comedian, a well-established one at that, as we see him interviewed on television shows and performing on stage at college campuses and political events. One scene I particularly like is when Alvy runs in to a couple of “fans” on the street, and how their hollering and loud demeanor makes him nervous about the unwanted attention. Alvy seems to be doing well for himself, but as he narrates the story of his life to us, he never appears to focus on his success as a stand-up. Instead, he tends to concentrate on the things that make him worry at an almost extreme level. Alvy is the classic neurotic, but with a comedic twist. He describes in his childhood how he used to live in a house underneath a roller coaster, and how the noise and shaking would disrupt him from eating his tomato soup. Or how his mother would take him to the doctor because he was so saddened by the fact that the universe is expanding, and how one day it will all fall apart. Intrinsically, that idea is no laughing matter, but when it’s coming from an eight-year-old, it’s anything but.
Alvy reexamines the relationships he had in hopes of understanding why he allowed the love of his life to slip away from him. Early on, he had a keen interest in women, and one of the funniest scenes in the movie is when the young Alvy gets caught kissing the cheek of one of his classmates. Getting caught red handed, Alvy (the grown up Alvy) defends himself for having an early interest in females, explaining that he never had a “latency period.” The scene continues with the children describing where they would end up in their adult lives, punctuated by a girl saying that she would one day be “into leather.” Throughout his life, Alvy always had a problem with maintaining normal and healthy relationships. He understands that it’s not the women he meets who are the cause of his problems, but it’s him. Alvy somehow manages to come up with a reason to not be with someone, some small detail that ruins the whole situation. One woman in particular, Allison (Carol Kane), seemed to be a perfect fit for him. She was funny, interesting, intelligent, and in love, which is why we find ourselves dumbfounded when Alvy refuses to sleep with her because she doesn’t believe that there was more than one shooter at the Kennedy Assassination. Maybe Alvy doesn’t allow himself to be happy because he doesn’t feel like he deserves it, that he can’t be like that knowing that someone else out there isn’t feeling the same way. This idea will be put to the ultimate test once he meets Annie (Diane Keaton).
Annie represents the perfect counterpoint to Alvy’s neurotic and nervous personality. Where Alvy tends to worry and think about things too much, Annie is more spontaneous and free-spirited. She lives her life through feeling and isn’t afraid to try something new and different. Annie has had a hand in photography, dresses in slacks and men’s ties, and often sings in various lounges. Their first conversation is one of the best Meet Cutes of any movie. After playing tennis with each other, Alvy asks Annie if she needs a ride home. She asks him if he has a car, he says no, and then she replies by saying she actually has a car and is willing to give him a ride. This sort of anxious, not-sure-what-to-say kind of dialogue works perfectly; have you ever first met someone and automatically known what to say and how to say it right then and there? That nervous energy certainly doesn’t last long amongst these two, because as their relationship develops into love, we come to find their discussions on everything from art to life to be interesting and entertaining. Annie is just as thoughtful and neurotic as Alvy is, and she attempts to bring him out of his shell. I’ve read other articles that describe Annie as scatterbrained, quirky, and less knowledgeable as Alvy. I believe this to be an unfair description of her. Yes, she may not have had the education that Alvy has, and may not know every reference he jokes about, but she is just as eloquent in her dialogue, just as aware of the world around them, and perhaps more open than Alvy with her self expression. They are—really—the perfect matches for each other.