Zelig was the first Woody Allen picture I saw. It’s an unusual choice, I guess—most people are exposed to either Annie Hall or Manhattan or Love and Death first—and certainly, many who weren’t around in the 1980s likely haven’t heard of Zelig. I was lucky: it happens that Zelig is my parents’ favorite Allen film, and so I happened to see it when I was a kid. But it’s unfortunate that it receives little recognition today compared to Allen’s other works. One doesn’t see many articles about Zelig, and rarely is it mentioned alongside the director. It shouldn’t be like that. Zelig is a masterpiece in the true sense of the word, and it is further distinguished by the fact that it is no ordinary Allen picture—it is a mockumentary. And it is, in fact, perhaps the best of its kind, even considering the superb This Is Spinal Tap.
Zelig chronicles the remarkable case of one Leonard Zelig (played by Allen), a man who changes his appearance to match those around him in an attempt to “fit in” with the crowd. He is literally able to morph into whatever personality he chooses. Ordinarily thin and short, he swells to morbid levels when surrounded by fat people. He transforms into a black trumpet player to fit with a Chicago jazz band, and later becomes a Chinese man. At a meeting of intellectuals, he is an intellectual. Upon finding himself in the company of psychologists, including Sigmund Freud, he suddenly happens to be a leader in the field, and promptly disagrees with Freud over the concept of penis envy, arguing that it should not be limited to women (a classic Allen joke). Newspapers lovingly dub him the “human chameleon.” It eventually falls to Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow) to repair Zelig’s social anxiety and various personality disorders.
The film never breaks from the documentary format, with Ken Burnsian narration throughout. As a matter of fact, we actually see little live acting by Allen. Most of the story is told through archival footage, photographs and newsreels, as well as interviews with “witnesses” to the life of Zelig—newspaper reporters that covered his story, a number of people who had contact with him, and people who witnessed his chameleon-like transformations in person. It’s very well done, and the result is an utterly convincing film. This may as well be a real documentary; in fact, if it wasn’t for the recognizable faces of Allen and Farrow, Zelig might very well have fooled everybody into thinking that Leonard Zelig was a real person. It is the use of archival footage that is most spectacular. Allen integrates himself into all manner of famous situations. In one scene he’s on deck at a Yankees game, ready to hit after Lou Gehrig; in another he appears as a cardinal seated next to the Pope during Holy Mass; later he is found beside Adolf Hitler at a Nazi Party rally. The special effects are done by hand and are, to my eye, indistinguishable from real footage. Allen and his editor actually used old cameras to shoot the movie, and they beat up old film stock to make it look aged (by scratching it, creasing it and the like). It all pays off, and I’d wager that it looks better than any digitally produced old-timey effects, even by today’s standards.
But Allen goes further in crafting the fake life of Leonard Zelig. We are exposed to “original” 1930s-style pop songs about Zelig (with great titles like “Chameleon Days” and “Reptile Eyes”), and are shown footage of a Zelig-inspired dance called the “Chameleon” that apparently swept the nation when Zelig became a celebrity. There is Zelig-related merchandise, and we’re even shown footage of film adaptations of Zelig’s story—there are fake movies about a fake character in a fake documentary. It’s not surprising that reviews of the film focused on the brilliant execution of apparently original sources. Indeed, the special effects and the filmmaking style actually overshadow the picture’s narrative—it’s all so incredibly well done that we forget that this is a work of fiction with characters, and that Allen is trying to tell us a story. Accordingly, Allen was reportedly disappointed that critics virtually ignored Zelig’s narrative. “To me, the technique was fine,” Allen said. “I mean, it was fun to do, and it was a small accomplishment, but it was the content of the film that interested me.” And that may very well be why Allen has not made a mockumentary since. He is incredibly good at it, but the technique is useless if it disarms your story and hides the message you’re trying to communicate.
Zelig is, as one may expect, about the nature of personal identity. It is interesting to see what Leonard Zelig eventually becomes: a hero, not because he performs a virtuous act, but because he fits in with everyone and is beloved by all. By fitting in he loses any individual character he might once have had. We define ourselves by our qualities and our respective differences from others—you may like techno, gourmet pizza, lacrosse and the color red, while I might like folk music, flossing, BMWs and chewing gum. We like different things, so therefore we are different people. But Zelig is everything to everybody so he is, in the end, nobody. When Allen talks about the “danger of abandoning one’s own true self . . . in an effort to be liked,” he is referring to losing the feel of who we are. We all perform to a certain extent, even on a daily basis—performance is required to maintain relationships with people—but Zelig elevates it to an extreme, resulting in a person whose mind has essentially been wiped. He is a shell, a dead man walking.
Critics have linked this desire to be liked by all with the Jewish experience in America. As with any Allen film, we might be moved to connect Allen’s life with the story he has written, and certainly in the case of Zelig there are ties to the director’s childhood: his upbringing, his human desire to be liked by everyone and the impact his own Jewishness had on that. A short retrospective in The Guardian suggested that Zelig might be further reflective of American society as a whole—though I would suggest that, as aforementioned, performance is a trait common to all humans across all cultures. And certainly, the idea that the Zelig syndrome applies to all society of seems valid today. We want our celebrities, our heroes, to fit in with everybody. There are no anti-heroes anymore. As a celebrity, you’re better off saying nothing. That way you won’t get into trouble and start an internet firestorm. Brad Pitt and Derek Jeter are beloved because they don’t really have anything to say—and I don’t mean that as a knock against them—whereas celebrities that do a lot more talking (increasingly comedians, it seems) will find themselves in hot water.
As The Guardian piece notes, it is ironic that Zelig achieves fame when the country finds out he can be anyone, and then slowly becomes a villain when he starts to heal and get his identity back. It is only when he becomes a chameleon again towards the end of the film that everybody loves him once more. Zelig is not allowed to be who he truly is. It’s an idea that must have been especially potent to Allen, and it helps this film transcend from just a technical and comedic marvel to an all-around masterpiece. When Woody Allen finally retires, we will see his usual marquee films bandied about; he has had a prolific career and has crafted many great pictures. But this one should not be forgotten. It is not only a great comedy, and not only one the best mockumentaries made to date, but it is one of his best films. The “Chameleon Days” dance song written about Zelig challenges everybody to “do the chameleon” and to “be a chameleon.” Allen would advise against that.