EDITOR'S NOTE: This will now be a recurring feature where we will take a look at films that have a major anniversary this year and how they have stood the test of time.
If you ask someone to name the first Woody Allen film that comes to mind, there’s a good chance they’ll say Annie Hall before any other of his forty-two movies. A further dozen distinguished films that Allen has shot will come to mind almost as quickly, but when he’s remembered in fifty or a hundred years, it will be Annie Hall that first appears beside his name. This is not without good reason. His famous romantic comedy, released in 1977, won four Academy Awards, including best feature, beating out Star Wars and three others. Annie Hall sticks with people. It is a brutal acid test for romantic comedies to match up against, for not only is it extraordinarily funny, and not only is it extraordinarily well written, but it is also an intelligent picture—a quality the romantic comedy genre criminally underrates—and it is smart in ways that it does not receive enough credit for.
I will say that, watching it after viewing some of Allen’s other standout pictures, Annie Hall comes across as something of a utilitarian work, at least in the way it was shot. The film is so well constructed and so typical of Woody Allen that we might be tricked into thinking it was one of his later works; in fact, it was only his sixth movie, and he credits it as being the one in which he broke from traditional comedy in favor of his recognized style—films that are intellectually meaningful as well as funny. Annie Hall is visually simpler than the likes of Manhattan, Stardust Memories, or even the earlier Love and Death, but this is very much a strength and not a weakness. The energy that might have been spent engineering a more visually adroit film is instead channeled into the narrative and the characters, and to great effect.
Among the interesting things that Allen does is to dispense of the biggest rom-com cliché, the happy ending. This in itself is not a huge revelation (though we rarely see a romantic comedy that ends in tears), but it is the way in which Allen breaks from the genre that is most compelling. Allen editorializes a great deal in Annie Hall, actively playing with reality, something that doesn’t fully become apparent until the film’s conclusion. Annie Hall is narrated (essentially presented, like a documentary film) by Alvy Singer, played by Allen himself. Singer, a comedian, recounts time spent with the love of his life, the film’s titular character Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). The story does not end on a joyous note; Alvy can’t manage to hold on to the fiercely independent Annie. Curiously, the film’s penultimate scene has Singer reviewing auditions for a play he wrote. The play appears to be a verbatim copy of the film, save for one thing: in the play, Alvy does win Annie’s heart. Singer explains his revisionism: “You’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it’s real difficult in life.”
Singer’s revisionism, the ‘editorializing,’ is not limited to the play—it runs through the entire film, as becomes clear to the audience upon subsequent viewings. His interjections and small narrations aren’t merely a form of storytelling; Allen has his protagonist reshape the past and explain away old memories. Singer takes us through a carousel of moments from his childhood, giving a running commentary as he literally traipses through each event, extrapolating the past into the future. He visits a classroom where he wonders what became of his old classmates, and he has the six-year-old kids explain their lot in life in adult terms: one child runs a profitable dress company, the other was once a heroin (now methadone) addict, and a girl explains simply that she’s now “into leather.” In one of the film’s most famous scenes, Singer confronts a pretentious academic who decided the line at a movie theater would be the best place to pontificate about the work of Federico Fellini and Marshall McLuhan. Singer inexplicably summons McLuhan out from behind a poster stand, and he watches joyously as McLuhan tells the academic that all his assertions are incorrect.
Annie Hall is, for all intents and purposes, an extended non-linear montage, with Singer revising the past while apparently living the present. Allen helps this construct along by having his protagonist break the fourth wall whenever a scene could use external punctuation. For instance, after watching McLuhan deflate the academic, Singer turns to the camera and exclaims, “Boy, if life were only like this!” Alvy is the sole character that addresses the audience because he’s the storyteller—it’s his perceptions and experiences that we’re watching. But if Alvy is free to editorialize as he communicates his story to us, free to imagineer Marshall McLuhan out of thin air, then why doesn’t he change the outcome of his relationship with Annie in ‘reality’? Why does he leave it to the play; why isn’t there a happily-ever-after ending?
One of Annie Hall’s behind-the-scenes ironies is that Allen had a relationship with Diane Keaton that didn’t pan out. Allen and Keaton remained on very good terms after the split, and she went on to star in a number of his films, including the part as Annie in Annie Hall. As Allen observed in his own failed relationship with Keaton, and as he knows the audience has surely observed with relationships in their own lives, sometimes a couple just doesn’t work out. Allen knows this as fact, but his character Alvy can only begrudgingly accept it. As Singer himself says, it’s too difficult to get things perfect in life—perfection is the domain of art. But isn’t a happily-ever-after ending perfect? Not for Allen. Happily-ever-after endings are, in fact, imperfect. Nothing ever works out that smoothly; it’s too sugary, too fake. It’s not believable, and the audience knows better than to swallow an outlandish twist where the girl sees the light and finally falls for the forty-something neurotic putz. Rather, Alvy and Annie separate on good terms, just like Allen and Keaton did—and that is a perfect ending, because it is a forthright reflection of reality. It is real. It may not be satisfying in a traditional romantic comedy sense, but as Allen’s movies attest to, how often does real life satisfy us anyway? Certainly, not every ending is rosy.
Woody Allen’s greatest triumph here is that he treats his audience as equals. It may be peculiar to call it a triumph because it seems like the kind of thing a decent filmmaker would do, but as Roger Ebert opined in his “Great Movies” essay on Annie Hall, how many films after this have openly referenced filmmakers like Fellini and media scholars like McLuhan, or their equals today? Such a feat is rare if not completely nonexistent, especially in American films—the fear being that the audience ‘won’t get the reference.’ Watching films from the last thirty years, Ebert writes, “One becomes aware of a subtle censorship being imposed, in which the characters cannot talk about anything the audience might not be familiar with.” But even despite that, Allen works on a much simpler level by offering us an ending that makes sense, and by talking to us through the fourth wall. He is aware that we have all been in either Alvy or Annie’s shoes at one time, so he doesn’t hide from the audience, and he doesn’t pretend that we’ll swallow any leap of faith or uncanny twist. He gives a story that we can buy as real because, crucially, we’ve all been there too.
No matter how one chooses to consume Annie Hall—on a basic level as a traditional romantic comedy, or with some deeper reflection—it is surely a masterwork, not only of Allen’s films, but of cinema in its entirety. Debates about its place in Allen’s prolific career are interesting; it is one of my favorites, but I think it might give way to Manhattan, as well as Love and Death, simply because Love and Death is a comedic tour de force. (I’m also a secret fan of the much maligned Stardust Memories.) In their ranking of every film directed by Allen, The Projector’s Will Leitch and Tim Grierson placed it at 8th and 5th on their respective lists. Where would one rank Akira Kurosawa’s superb Throne of Blood in a career packed with the likes of Seven Samurai, Ikiru, High and Low, and Yojimbo? Annie Hall faces similar competition within the Allen domain. But its rank in Allen’s collection of pictures is ultimately arbitrary; this is a film that refuses to age, and that remains atop its genre. Its references to artists and psychology may date over time, but the story and the relationship within will not. In Annie Hall’s case, reality is its greatest strength.