I suppose I should do a better job of trying to write for my audience with my next movie pick, but I instinctively gravitate towards my favorites when asked about the arts. Annie Hall is my favorite movie. I don’t know how many times I’ve watched it since I first gave it a go when I was a teen-ager and did not really understand it or find it funny.
Growing up in Miami, Florida in a semi-Jewish part of town you get a feeling for the whole New York sensibility of things and are aware of Philip Roth, Henny Youngman, Simon & Garfunkel, and in movies, Woody Allen. I loved the early films like Bananas, Take the Money and Run, and Sleeper. So naturally I was interested in trying out Annie Hall too, and knew that it had fairly recently won Best Picture at the Oscars.
I watched it and got a few laughs. Enjoyed the breaking of the fourth wall, when Woody’s character Alvy Singer speaks to the audience, the ethnic jokes, the cartoon interlude, and the references to sex that I only understood through reading and movies. But all in all it didn’t do that much for me. The Woody character was a pretty mild everyman, without any outrageous gags or real silliness.
It was only with getting older and having a girlfriend, and a break-up, and then another girlfriend, that Annie Hall not only started to make sense, but really felt like the only movie that understood what relationships were all about to me. It is sort of a romantic comedy taking place in the real world, if Woody Allen’s imagination can be said to inhabit the real world at all.
I realize that Woody Allen will always be associated with the entire “marrying his step-daughter” episode of 20+ years ago. He is also a Jewish secular humanist. I have not heard him describe himself in these terms, but it is what I gather. He did not marry his step-daughter, nor do I think he molested his real daughter. I just mention these issues because I know people simply do not like him based on news headlines.
I am a practicing Roman Catholic, but I feel like I often have the sensibilities of a New York secular Jew. I enjoy humanism in the arts because I feel like these are the artists who are trying to figure out what makes people tick – whether it is literature, or art, or music, or movies, they always seem to me to have a very deep feeling for human nature. Perhaps the lack of real religion in their lives makes them more desperate to find their own answers.
I just re-watched Annie Hall so it would be fresh in my mind for this essay. I didn’t feel like I was in the mood, didn’t know that I would stay awake, didn’t really want to, figured I could just wing it without watching if need be. But I am always astounded at how enjoyable, fun, interesting, and quotable Annie Hall is. The movie is (to me) a perfect little 93 minutes of people trying to understand each other, wondering why it is so hard, and trying to simply learn from each relationship.
It seems a little racy when I think of the Light on Dark Water group, but watching it today I also thought how racy it is not compared to the standards of today’s movies, television, and internet options which young people have access to. Yes, pre-marital sex is a big part of the story line; but there is no nudity and little cursing. It is mainly one of those “adult content due to theme” types of movies.
It is a small miracle that Annie Hall won Best Picture. I am a big Academy Awards buff, and I cannot think of another comedy off the top of my head that won the big prize. Musicals, yes. Movies like Forrest Gump which have funny moments but also intense dramatic themes, yes. But not too many (if any others) that can be compared with Annie Hall. It is enjoyable to watch a young and beautiful Diane Keaton, who won Best Actress; and Woody himself, who somehow writes all of these movies he makes, as a perfect characterization of himself at the right age playing along a woman who is also the correct age for him. Paul Simon has a small part, perhaps because he is the only man Woody could find who is shorter than himself. Carol Kane, Shelley Duvall, and Christopher Walken all have small roles. Jeff Goldblum has one that is even smaller (but he does have a short line of dialogue). I just looked for fun to see the other movies nominated for Best Picture that year, and Star Wars was one of them.
Now that I have apologized and defended the movie I will say a little about plot and structure just in case there is someone out there who has not seen it and might be interested. Though it is hard to really lose a 93 minute bet.
Woody looks into the camera at the very beginning and is just randomly sort of talking and half-joking about things, in his stand-up comic persona. You as the audience are simply laughing and enjoying his riff, and then he says, “Annie and I broke up” and he gets a real pensive and thoughtful look on his face and you know right then that this movie is different from all of his previous ones. Watching it for maybe the 30th or so time I was struck how that one little sentence fragment made sense and is what the movie is all about, and why it is titled Annie Hall. I’m not sure I ever got it before.
Because then for the rest of the movie you sort of jump back and forth between comic interludes with Alvy Singer (the Woody character) and friends; Alvy with Annie; Alvy with previous wives and girlfriends; Alvy as a young boy (I love the red-headed kid he cast as himself!); Woody on the Dick Cavett show; Woody as a cartoon character. Then at the end for the final five minutes or so, probably less, there is a wonderful New York City shot with voice-over by Woody and his take on relationships. You get to that point and after the previous 90 minutes, it is just wonderful and sweet and you sort of want to cry over people, and who they are, and how they are not happy until they have found that right person. So they keep looking until they do.
Alvy as a rabbi in Annie’s grandmother’s imagination.
[My only other comment is that if you like this and want more, the second best Woody Allen movie to me is Hannah and Her Sisters. Which has a bravura Oscar winning performance by Michael Caine.]
—Stu Moore inexplicably moved from New Mexico to Mobile, Alabama thirteen years ago. He remains there surrounded by books, which concerns his wife.