The 1970’s were not a good time for romantic comedy, that is, until 1977 when Woody Allen, who had been making films since 1966 (What’s Up, Tiger Lily), released a little film called Annie Hall. Woody had been directing and writing films throughout the decade. They started off episodic and even visually sloppy; however, they all had one thing in common, they were funny. But with each film Woody’s visual style improved, he kept getting better and better. Then in 1977 came a giant leap.
The 1970’s, a decade that started off with independent young Turks like Martin Scorsese, Bob Rafleson, Francis Ford Coppola, Dennis Hopper and Brian DePalma, had turned Hollywood upside down. The youth market was in and the establishment out. One of the causalities of this movement was comedy. There wasn’t much of it except for two Jewish comedy writers, Woody and Mel Brooks, who both early in their careers worked for Sid Caesar. After Caesar, Mel Brooks would continue to write for television (Get Smart) eventually he turned to directing with his first feature film The Producers in 1968. Woody Allen would turn to stand-up, playing nightclubs across the country, producing three comedy albums during that time before getting the opportunity to write a screenplay. He managed to write in a part for himself in the cast of What’s New Pussycat? The comedy is somewhat of an entertaining mess but Woody’s screen persona, a carryover from his days in stand-up, was already there and would continue to develop over the years. With romantic comedies in short supply by 1977, the release and success of Annie Hall was a nice surprise. Allen’ earlier films had done well, especially on the East and West coast of the country; however, with the release of Annie Hall Woody hit the big time grossing something like 39 million dollars which in today’s inflated dollars would be the equivalent of well over 100 million dollars. This was his most successful film up to that point in time both artistically and financially.
It wasn’t the first time Woody and Diane Keaton teamed up on the screen but Annie Hall would solidify their coupling as one of the great screen couples. Neurotic lovers seemingly perfect for each yet destined not to last. What does last is Woody’s second lover in the film, not a person, but the city of New York. In Annie Hall, Allen for the first time puts on screen New York City, or at least his version of New York City, consisting of the Upper East and West Side, movie theaters, bookstores, museums and restaurants all populated with a closet full of pseudo intellectuals. New York is just as much a character in the film as its human counterparts. Sure, we did see New York in bits and pieces in earlier films like in Bananas when, for example, a then unknown Sylvester Stallone, as a punk mugger, goes after Woody on the subway. However, in Annie Hall New York for the first time became part of Woody’s cinematic palette.
The story itself revolves around Alvy Singer (Woody) a popular stand-up comedian looking back at his relationship with a hopeful singer named Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). Both are quirky neurotics but from opposite ends of the world. Alvy is Jewish and from Brooklyn, born literally right under Coney Island’s famed roller coaster ride. When Alvy leaves Manhattan he is like a fish out of water. Annie on the other hand, is from the Midwest, pure white bread Americana. While Alvy is a bowl full of insecurities and anxieties who has been in therapy for something like 16 years. Annie has never been to a shrink, that is, until she meets Alvy and he encourages her to go. Though they seem like opposites they are a match made in cinema heaven, a Tracy and Hepburn for the 70’s and beyond. The romance hits bumps along the way, the highs and the lows in all relationships. In the end, it’s all bitter sweet. There is no happy ending, they go their separate ways, Alvy realizing he lost what may be the love of his life.
For the first time in his career Woody, while managing to continue he self depreciating bookish pseudo intellectual laughs, blends in or rather introduces new colors onto his palette; passion, romance, love and regret. In Annie Hall, Woody gives us the many colors making up the romantic rainbow. Even if you lose in the end, it was great to have had made the trip.
With Annie Hall, Woody Allen found his voice. The film is not the innovative masterpiece some claim. Voice-overs go way back long before the 70’s as does breaking the fourth wall (Groucho did this many times as did Laurel and Hardy) and the split screen is as old as cinema. What Woody does is he used these cinematic tools to reflect new depths of poignancy and introspection.
Today, Annie Hall remains a brilliant romantic comedy that even some of the then topical jokes which have long since dated cannot dull.
This article is part of The Romantic Comedy Blogathon co-hosted by Backlots and Carol & Co. Check out out contributors here.http://backlots.net/2014/02/06/announcing-backlots-first-blogathon-collaboration-romantic-comedy-with-carole-co/