As far as American romantic comedies go, Annie hall is a true classic. Directed by multi-talented Woody Allen and based on a screenplay which he co-wrote with Marshall Brickman, this film was first screened in March 1977 at the Los Angeles Film Festival before its public release in April of the same year. It has earned widespread critical acclaim and has won multiple awards including a Golden Globe, the Academy Award for Best Picture, three Oscars and four BAFTA awards.
That being said, it wasn't exactly a shoo-in. The rough cut had over two hours of content with a mess of gags and ramblings that were edited out by Ralph Rosenblum, an editorial consultant. The result was still quirky, with its nonlinear storytelling and somewhat cartoonish delivery, but it worked well. It was an unprecedented and positively charming success.
The Recurring Theme
The tone set by its prolonged opening sequence is a recurring theme throughout the film. With a multitude of opening scenes, it relays the events of Alvy Singer's (Woody Allen himself) relationship with Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) according to Alvy's memories. There is never a shortage of prologues whenever the sequences move back and forth across time but the surreal quality this imparts ensures there is never a dull moment. Even the prolonged introduction is an essential part of the narrative as it coincides with Alvy and Annie's breakup.
Now this wouldn't work if the actors did poorly in portraying the characters’ odd idiosyncrasies. Alvy's past is littered with clues that somehow explain his self-deprecating, fatalistic, yet amusing personality. He grew up in Coney Island and lived in a house underneath a roller coaster. His depressive view in life came from reading about the universe with the realization that things will go down the drain in a few billion years. Convinced that everyone's existence was pointless, he eventually becomes a famous television comedian. In a way, it was his jokes were his way of rebelling against life, which was all a big joke.
Made for the Role
Annie Hall's personality, written specifically for actress Diane Keaton, has no shortage of eccentricities as well. She is a wonderful singer with plenty of insecurities. Though it is not specifically mentioned where she got them, it is easy enough to assume that those probably come from guilt fostered by her parents, as is the common practice at the time. Her lack of confidence is made more obvious in the bedroom as she is shown to rely on smoking to calm her nerves prior to the act.
With their personalities setting commitment boundaries and preventing the relationship from progressing, it's no wonder that it ended by the end of the introduction. Alvy Singer summarizes this beautifully with the lines “A relationship, I think, is like a shark. You know? It has to constantly move forward or it dies. And I think what we got on our hands is a dead shark.”
It may seem like their oddball personalities left little room for character development but the audience impact was priceless. It was actually the continuous push and pull between the two that made their relationship, and ultimately the story, relatable. Well, as relatable as can be despite the appearance of wild lobsters, sun masks and the mention of dead sharks.
A Formula that Works
Bottom line is, the movie was fresh then and it is still fresh now. Annie Hall was hilarious, yet insightful. It defies a number of movie making standards yet it is this very same bravado that keeps it realistic. It has the perfect balance of humor and honesty that keeps it relatable -- especially so for many adults who are also trying to make sense of the messes of life.
With the relentless delivery of jokes, its lines are memorable and witty too. What gives this an edge over Woody Allen’s other works is that Alvy and Annie’s journeys are insightful and real. The main theme which revolves around American romantic relationships is conveyed in a way that really immerses the viewers. While the characters go in their roundabout ways towards a more meaningful romance, the audience shares in their shortcomings. It’s the bold decision to challenge that makes the film unique and immortalizes it.