By John H. Foote
16. ANNIE HALL (1977)
Woody Allen has directed a film per year, sometimes two, since 1977, an extraordinary output of art, many of them critically acclaimed masterpieces, some very funny, some not, a couple of intense dramas, and a bounty of strong relationship films. His Annie Hall pushed Allen into the mainstream as a filmmaker and created a new type of romantic comedy. Filled with realism, Allen’s love stories were often bittersweet, the couple ending their relationship by the end of the film, usually outgrowing one another, and remaining friends. A fourth rule was added to the tried and true rules for Hollywood romantic comedies: before Annie Hall were “Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back.” Allen added a fourth component, “girl leaves boy forever, or couple ends relationship”.
Having had the immense courage to base the relationship in the film on his longtime relationship with actress Diane Keaton, and then asking her to be a part of the film, was staggeringly courageous for Allen and Keaton. So much of the film was based on events that took place in their relationship and eventual breakup and portraying that kind of truth on screen must have challenged them to the core. Keaton had by then a growing reputation as both a fine comedic actress and a dramatic talent, having knocked critics out in Love and Death (1975) with Allen, before that Play It Again Sam (1972), and dramatically she shone in The Godfather (1972), The Godfather Part II (1974) and in the same year as Annie Hall, she was explosive in Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977). After Annie Hall and Looking for Mr. Goodbar she had established herself as one of the most exciting actresses of her time, while the film turned Allen into one of the most respect directors and writers in film. To this day, Allen is the most nominated writer by the Academy with a staggering 17 nominations for original Screenplay, three Academy Awards and seven nominations for Best Director. People often forget he was nominated for Best Actor in Annie Hall for his lovely comedic performance!
This little, unassuming film out of New York explored the relationship between a writer, Alvy Singer (Allen), and a transplanted New Yorker, Annie (Keaton), and goes through the ups and downs of their relationship. He, an insecure man who doubts himself while putting on a brave exterior about everything, only Annie really sees his lack of confidence. Yet he is terrific at giving her confidence and helping her conquer her many insecurities, so much so that he boosts her right out of the relationship, as she outgrows him, realizing they are not good together, but end up terrific friends.
The film and his subsequent work were so very funny as Allen tapped into the truth of relationships. Making small talk for the first time, subtitles tell us what they are really thinking, as they make what they believe is profound statements while thinking things like “I wonder what she looks like naked”. Perfect and true. They fall in love, then fall out of it and then one night she calls him to help her in the middle of the night, he goes, despite having a woman in his bed, and they fall into bed and a relationship again. But nothing can really be the same again, can it, after a breakup? You break up for a reason and those reasons are not likely gone. With Annie and Alvy, Annie has become ambitious and sees a way to her dreams in L.A., which Alvy hates, and again they find themselves apart, only to meet years later and have lunch as friends, realizing they like each other very much, and could very likely (and should) be the best of friends. We get the sense Alvy will be a better partner to whoever comes along after Annie because he has learned so much about women in their time together.
The film is often bittersweet because Allen and Keaton were indeed together for many years and did break up and did remain the best of friends to this day. When Mia Farrow launched her vile (and untrue) attack on Allen, accusing of molesting their child, Keaton was among the first of the major Hollywood celebrities to come to his aid, not believing a word of her accusations.
Annie Hall was groundbreaking in so many ways, but chiefly in its sad conclusion that the lovers do not walk off into the sunset together. LIFE! LIFE AT LAST! They are better, smarter and stronger people for having known one another, but they do not end up together, a staple in Hollywood romantic comedies. Allen brought a hefty dose of realism to this love story, and we were better for seeing it! I dated a girl in high school and into college and we had talked marriage, the whole thing. But when she went off to university and I was studying acting, you could feel the chasm that had come between us. No one’s fault, it just happened. Years later we struck up a friendship and that has remained, and she is a lovely girl, happily married to a good guy I have known nearly all my life. I am thrilled for them. Together with her I learned so much and it led me to Sherri the love of my life. Allen seemed to be speaking to our generation and as the time has slipped past, he spoke to each subsequent generation with this timeless film.
Both Allen and Keaton are superb in the film, Keaton winning the Academy Award for Best Actress and forever known as the “la di da” girl, though she has proved so many times she is much deeper than that. Bouncy, deeply neurotic, matched only by his, they are a perfect pair, or so it seems. Naïve, almost to a fault, Annie absorbs what Alvy teaches her until she is his intellectual equal and he has nothing more to give her. Though they no longer work as lovers, they can exist as friends, and why should they not??
Nominated for five Academy Awards – Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay – the film won everything it was nominated with the exception of Best Actor. In the year of stunning blockbusters such as Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a small intimate film about relationships conquered Hollywood and made Allen a major filmmaker. In addition to its Oscar glory the picture won awards from the New York Film Critics Circle, Best Picture, Actress, Director and Screenplay as well as the Directors Guild of America Award for Allen.
Allen would go on to greatness of course, becoming one of the most exciting, vital directors in movies, and many critics feel he never surpassed Annie Hall. I am not among them, as I believe Manhattan (1979) to be his greatest work, and it is a little farther down the list.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.