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Widely recognized as the film which marked Woody Allen's transition from irreverent funny man to "serious" screen artist, Annie Hall (1977) represents more than a shift from comedy to drama.
The 1977 Best Picture-winner continued a number of themes that Allen had approached in previous films such as Bananas (1971), Sleeper (1973) and Love and Death (1975), wry explorations of romantic angst buoyed by his emphasis on the comic pitfalls that crop up on the path to happiness. In Annie Hall it was not the content that had changed, as much as the form. Allen's earlier films bounce like a pinball between silent-movie slapstick, the Marx Brothers' absurdism and modern self-referentiality as they pay homage to, poke fun at and playfully explore such diverse subjects as television news, old movies, Russian literature, science fiction, religion and, of course, sexual frustration. Annie Hall marks the point at which Allen reined in the unchecked impulses of these delightfully chaotic comedies and began to aim his directorial gaze with greater focus and clarity.
The change, however, was not a simple one. Originally, Annie Hall was a light-hearted murder mystery, then a comedy set in Victorian England (Allen later returned to these impulses with Manhattan Murder Mystery (1993) and Shadows and Fog, 1992). Allen and co-screenwriter Marshall Brickman then transformed their ideas into a reckless comedy of romantic errors entitled Anhedonia. Defined as a form of melancholia under which a person is incapable of enjoying happiness, no matter what the circumstances, Anhedonia was a free-association romp through the perpetually frustrated mind of Alvy Singer (Allen). An early cut of the film ran more than three hours and was no doubt comparable to the episodic comedies that Allen had previously directed.
But when Allen decided to structure the film around Alvy's relationship with Annie (Diane Keaton), the film suddenly cohered into something more than a comedy and more than a romance. Inspired by Allen's own romance with Keaton (whose real name is Hall), Annie Hall charts the rise and fall of Singer's relationship with the titular character, punctuated with bits of unrestrained comedy, celebrity cameos (Marshall McLuhan, Dick Cavett, Paul Simon, etc) and moments of poignant truth. It was a bittersweet blend that was to become Allen's trademark, even as he has tried to escape it with such introspective dramas as Interiors (1978), Another Woman (1988) and September (1987).
The ending of Annie Hall proved to be highly problematic for Allen. He wanted to end the film with the jailhouse scene where he is desperate to be reunited with Annie in Hollywood. Rosenblum urged him to reconsider and Allen eventually shot new footage for the final segment. In his biography, Woody: Movies From Manhattan, Julian Fox wrote "One sequence, where Alvy and Annie meet awkwardly outside the Thalia, again showing The Sorrow and the Pity, was, said Rosenblum, 'a real downer,' and was eventually confined to a single long shot, reducing Sigourney Weaver's cameo as Alvy's date to an imperceptible walk-on...Another sequence, shot on the last day of filming, had Alvy in Times Square wondering what to do about Annie, when he looks up at a flashing sign which reads, 'What are you doing, Alvy? Go to California. It's OK. She loves you.' Viewing the scene in dailies, Woody hated it so much he went to the nearest reservoir and threw the reels in. It was Rosenblum, prompted by Woody's chance remark on the denouement of the original murder script, who finally suggested ending the film on a continuation of Alvy's opening monologue - with a brief series of flashbacks to the Annie affair, accompanied by Alvy's final voice-over."
In addition to winning the Best Picture Oscar of 1977, Annie Hall also won Academy Awards for Best Actress (Diane Keaton), Best Director, Best Original Screenplay. Woody Allen was also nominated for Best Actor but lost to Richard Dreyfuss for The Goodbye Girl. Other filmmakers have since filled the void with thinly-veiled clones of Allen's distinctive comedies (such as Rob Reiner's When Harry Met Sally (1989) and Billy Crystal's Forget Paris, 1995), but Annie Hall stands as a romantic-comedy original upon which there can be no improvement.
Producer: Charles H. Joffe
Director: Woody Allen
Screenplay: Woody Allen
Cinematography: Gordon Willis
Costume Design: Ralph Lauren; Nancy McArdle; Ruth Morley
Film Editing: Ralph Rosenblum
Original Music: Gus Kahn
Principal Cast: Woody Allen (Alvy Singer), Diane Keaton (Annie Hall), Tony Roberts (Rob), Carol Kane (Allison), Paul Simon (Tony Lacey), Janet Margolin (Robin), Colleen Dewhurst (mom Hall), Christopher Walken (Duane Hall), Shelley Duvall (Pam), Helen Ludlam (Grammy Hall), Mordecai Lawner (Alvy's Dad), Joan Neuman (Alvy's Mom).
C-94m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Bret Wood