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In 1983 Woody Allen released his twelfth theatrical feature, Zelig, about a man who just wants to be liked. The trouble is, Leonard Zelig wants to be liked so much that he mentally and physically morphs to look like the people he wants to fit in with. Thus Zelig transforms effortlessly from a psychiatrist to a black jazz musician to an orthodox rabbi to a Chinese restaurant owner to a . . . well, you get the idea. Zelig also manages to find himself in the most implausible of scenarios such as next at bat behind Babe Ruth or rubbing elbows with Herbert Hoover and Calvin Coolidge. Zelig's life is a series of human impressions and historical sideswipes, a concept popularized eleven years later by Forrest Gump (1994). But unlike Gump, Zelig did not have the luxury of computerized digital technology; old footage of stars and celebrities were painstakingly melded with new footage to create the notion that Zelig was not just there, but everywhere.
Presented in pseudo-documentary style, the film alternates between flashbacks of Zelig in the twenties and thirties and modern-day "interviews" with such notables as social commentator Susan Sontag and Saul Bellows pontificating about his life. Not surprisingly, Allen plays Leonard Zelig and Mia Farrow plays his love interest, Dr. Eudora Fletcher. Incidentally, the word zelig means alternately "dear departed soul" or "blessed" in Yiddish; both interpretations work for different reasons, and Fletcher was reportedly named after one of Allen's schoolteachers. Allen and Farrow were also filming A Midsummer's Night Sex Comedy (1982) around the same time; production for the films overlapped. Derived from a short story by Allen, Zelig was originally intended to be a made-for-TV movie before plans for a theatrical release were finalized. Like the namesake character, the film went through some changes of its own; working titles ranged from The Chameleon Man, The Cat's Pajamas, The Changing Man (the name of the film within the film), and Identity Crisis and Its Relationship to Personality Disorder.
Although the shoot wrapped in twelve weeks, the postproduction took over a year, nine months of that time was for editing alone. Headed up by legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis, the visual effects team undertook the arduous task of marrying different types, ages, grains, and qualities of film footage together. To aid in the process, antique camera and sound equipment from the 20s and 30s were used where possible, and new film was made to look aged during production using flicker mattes. After a day of shooting, the crew would purportedly take the film into a shower area and step on it while the water was flowing; the result was footage that appeared fifty years older. Willis, of The Godfather trilogy fame, would later remark about his work on Zelig: "There was a point when I thought we were never going to finish, a point when I thought I was going to go nuts. I have never worked so hard at making something difficult look so simple." It was worth it: Willis was nominated for a 1984 Oscar for Best Cinematography, one of the only nominations for the film.
Dick Hyman, a regular collaborator with Allen, produced six original songs for the film, each hilariously named after Zelig with titles like "You May Be Six People But I Love You." Mae Questel sings one of his tunes, "Chameleon Days" -- she also provided the voice for Betty Boop. In a strange coincidence, she was also cast (through a completely random audition) as Allen's mother in Oedipus Wrecks, his offering in the three-part film, New York Stories (1989).
A number of the film's interiors were shot at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, which served as the East Coast office of Paramount during the silent and early sound era. Other locations included the John Jay College of Criminal Justice on West 51st St. in Manhattan and Teaneck, New Jersey where D. W. Griffith and the Biograph Company players had made films some 70 years earlier. Also adding a touch of authenticity to Zelig was the appearance of several famous "witnesses"; among them were Susan Sontag, Irving Howe, Saul Bellow, Bricktop and Bruno Bettelheim. "Among those whom Woody failed to fit into the film," according to Julian Fox in Woody: Movies From Manhattan, "were the then elderly Jack Dempsey, who was in poor health (though he does appear in the stock footage), and Greta Garbo, who didn't reply to Woody's letter. He did, though, manage to shoot an interview with Lillian Gish but 'I didn't use it, because I didn't like the way it came out."
Although Allen's films are known to be short in length, Zelig was the shortest at 79 minutes. A general success with critics and audiences, the film garnered good receipts but great reviews and was Allens first #1 film on Variety's Box Office chart. Zelig is admired by almost all as a masterful technical achievement in film except perhaps its creator who, as ever, maintains a unique perspective: "To me, the technique was fine. I mean, it was fun to do, and it was a small accomplishment, but it was the content of the film that interested me." Well, would we expect any less?
Producer: Robert Greenhut
Director: Woody Allen
Screenplay: Woody Allen
Production Design: Mel Bourne, Michael Molly
Cinematography: Kerry Hayes, Gordon Willis
Costume Design: Santo Loquasto
Film Editing: Susan E. Morse
Original Music: Dick Hyman
Cast: Woody Allen (Leonard Zelig), Mia Farrow (Dr. Eudora Fletcher), John Buckwalter (Dr. Sindell), Paul Nevens (Dr. Birsky), Deborah Rush (Lita Fox), Garrett Brown (Actor Zelig), Mary Louise Wilson (Sister Ruth), Sol Lomita (Martin Geist).
BW & C-80m. Letterboxed.
by Eleanor Quin