Directed By: Woody Allen
Written By: Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman
Starring: Woody Allen. Diane Keaton
It’s difficult to know just how autobiographical Woody Allen’s magna carter Annie Hall is. Watching it, you sense it’s the sort of film that one could only make once, so complete and exhausting a portrait of self that it is. It appears as though Allen has merely given a cinematic treatment to his own real life, fly-on-the-wall recordings; that making this film is therapy for the writer/director/star where he can now see himself with a retrospective clarity, and exorcise his faults on screen with a painful honesty and joyous humour. There are affinities which are obvious between the real life Woody Allen and his neurotic, on-screen counterpart Alvy Singer; the Jewishness, the Brooklyn upbringing, even the relationship with Diane Keaton. But how much of the personalities are real? How much of the content is drawn from reality? Allen insists that the film isn’t particularly autobiographical, but it’s the fact that it feels so that’s the genius of 1978’s eventual Best Picture winner.
It’s a film shrouded in ironies. In the opening Alvy tells us the key joke to his adult life, a wonderfully ironic quote lifted from Groucho Marx, “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me as a member”. It’s this self sabotaging trajectory that Annie Hall rides. The “club”, in this case, is the title character played by Diane Keaton, and it details her inevitably fraught and frail relationship with the forever self-effacing Alvy; two characters who need each other’s friendship, but who are never able to love as they should. “A relationship… is like a shark” Alvy says. “It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And what we have here, is a dead shark.”
Another key irony comes late in the film, where Alvy, who’s just written an idyllic, fantasy relationship with Annie for the stage, turns to the camera and justifies his altering of reality; “you’re always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because it’s real difficult in life”. It’s an ironic line because the wonder of Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s real-life art, is how effortlessly it gets to the heart of life’s imperfections. Allen is so in touch with his fellow man’s faults, and he’s so willing to press them, that it’s at once brilliantly entertaining and awakening. So complete a portrait of the human ego is Annie Hall, that its characters have defined themselves over the years as some of Hollywood’s most recognisable. There must be something in their weaknesses which speaks to us each, whether it be the complacency of the central lovers, or Alvy’s feelings of the world being out to get him; the neuroticism, the stupidity or pretentiousness; the self-doubt, self-loathing or frustration. It’s as though Allen, along with co-writer Marshall Brickman, had access to an omnipotent wiretap in writing the film, so familiar and universal it is.
But it’s also a strikingly funny film. The film taps into a wealth of imagination in bringing Alvy’s insecurities to the surface; among them an obliteration of the fourth wall, animation, subtextual subtitles, and literalisations of Alvy’s inner workings. Allen brings the neurosis of his protagonist to life with a tremendous flair.
There’s a great moment early on, where Alvy and Annie wait in line at the movies, stuck in front of a pretentious lecturer who’s spewing his unwanted analysis of Marshall McLuhan. Fed up, Alvy produces the real Marshall McLuhan from behind a poster, who then proceeds to rebuff the lecturer; “how you got to teach a course in anything is totally amazing” McLuhan exclaims. “Boy, if life were only like this!” Alvy concludes. It’s a great moment because it’s distinctly Annie Hall in its humour, whilst also being so universally attuned. “YES!” you find yourself thinking before we’re collectively whipped back to reality.
If there’s something missing in Annie Hall, it’s that truly deep affect of the most wholly satisfying Hollywood films of the 70’s. Its concerns with being witty and insightful seem to get in the way of something more poignant. Regardless, it never fails to entertain. For this, much credit should finally be given to the two key performances. The writer/director plays that character he’s become so known for, that intelligent, anxious, squirrel of a man who has become inextricable from Allen himself. Diane Keaton would win the Academy Award for her performance, making Annie a woman of unwavering likeability. There’s so much personality in her performance, so much charm and loveliness and quiet frustration. Their’s is one of cinema’s great dynamics; it always rings true. In a way it’s this truthfulness, this innate familiarity we have with the characters, that’s the film’s greatest irony. It’s a film which seems to be so personal for Allen, so introspective; yet Annie Hall is accessible like few others.