Allen’s Captures Complexities of 1970’s Life Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Woody Allen’s film Annie Hall depicted important changes in American society, particularly in relationships between men and women as well as in social mores and women’s roles. The film won critical acclaim, large audiences, and a series of Academy Awards for its creator.

Summary of Event

By the mid-1970’s, Woody Allen had consolidated his position as one of the most popular comedic personas in American culture. Born Allen Stewart Konigsberg in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn in 1935, the son of Orthodox Jews, Allen imbibed the vibrant working-class culture of New York City even though he was something of a loner. An indifferent student—he would eventually be expelled from the City College of New York for his poor performance—the future comedian nevertheless showed an early aptitude for writing and a fascination with the stage shows he attended at a local theater. At age fifteen, he began sending humorous quips to newspaper gossip columnists under the name Woody Allen and soon found more regular work writing jokes, most notably as a staff member of Sid Caesar’s television show Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Woody Allen[Allen] Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Woody Allen[Allen] Allen, Woody Brickman, Marshall Joffe, Charles Keaton, Diane Rosenblum, Ralph Willis, Gordon

Allen began the next phase of his career in the early 1960’s, when he left television to begin working on his own as a stand-up comedian and writer. It was during this time that he began to cultivate an image as a neurotic, easily depressed, but always funny “schlemiel”—a personality he has insisted is not really like his own but was adopted for comedic purposes. During this time, too, he first became involved in the film business, writing and acting in What’s New Pussycat? (1965), What’s Up Tiger Lily? (1966), and the James Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967). He also made his debut as a playwright with Don’t Drink the Water (1967), followed by Play It Again Sam (1969), which would be made into a film in 1972. Allen also gained some repute as a writer of humorous articles and books, including Getting Even (1971), Without Feathers (1975), and Side Effects (1980).

It was as a screenwriter (with longtime partner Marshall Brickman), actor, and director for his own movies that Allen would finally come into his own. The first such film was Take the Money and Run (1969), Take the Money and Run (film) a mock documentary about a bumbling, would-be criminal. Allen followed it with Bananas (1971), Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex but Were Afraid to Ask (1972), Sleeper (1973), and Love and Death (1975). These works had varied themes ranging from science fiction to a satire of Leo Tolstoy by way of Sigmund Freud, but all were topical, humorous, and eagerly embraced by sophisticated urban audiences. In something of a departure, Allen also acted in Martin Ritt’s The Front (1976), Front, The (film) a politically charged statement about the impact on Hollywood of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s communist witch hunt.

Woody Allen in April, 1977.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

Allen was feeling restless, however. He was tired of making movies in places far from his beloved New York (Love and Death was shot in Yugoslavia), and he was increasingly interested in making more serious statements, even if they were laced with comedy. It was with this mind-set that he began working on a project he called “Anhedonia”—a psychiatric term connoting the inability to experience pleasure.

Originally, “Anhedonia” was supposed to be a murder mystery that would star Allen and his companion at the time, Diane Keaton. However, consultations with cinematographer Gordon Willis, editor Ralph Rosenblum, cowriter Brickman, and producer Charles Joffe led Allen to conclude that the focus should really be on Allen’s character, Alvy Singer, and Keaton’s character, Annie Hall (Keaton’s actual surname was Hall, one of many instances of a blurring of the line between art and life in Allen’s films). Under pressure from United Artists, the studio releasing the film, Allen consented to change the title to Annie Hall—thus a murder mystery with an arcane title completed its transformation into a contemporary romance.

Annie Hall opened on April 20, 1977, to excellent reviews that signaled a willingness on the part of critics and audiences to regard Allen with a new level of seriousness. The film’s critical and commercial momentum was so strong, in fact, that it was nominated for a host of Academy Awards, including in the categories of Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. Suddenly, Allen was catapulted into the ranks of Orson Welles and Charles Chaplin, auteurs who decisively shaped their own personas and their work into distinctive cinematic art.

Allen, however, was deeply uncomfortable with the hype that surrounded Hollywood in general and the Oscars in particular, and he resisted conventional efforts to promote the film (such as the quoting of rave reviews in advertisements). On the night of the Academy Awards ceremony in Southern California, he remained in New York, playing clarinet with the Dixieland band he had performed with every Monday night for many years. It was only the next morning that he learned that Annie Hall had swept the Oscars, taking not only the Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay awards but also capturing Best Actress honors for Diane Keaton. Academy Awards;Best Actress Academy Awards;Best Picture Academy Awards;Best Director Academy Awards;Best Screenplay

Significance

Annie Hall was a turning point in Allen’s career, bringing him to new heights of prestige and giving him opportunities to pursue his highly personal vision. He followed that vision in 1978 with Interiors, Interiors (film) a serious (to the point of humorless) drama that paid homage to the work of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman; Manhattan (1979), Manhattan (film) widely viewed as one of his best films; and Stardust Memories (1980), Stardust Memories (film) another dark comedy with dour overtones. His work in the 1980’s was more varied, reaching high points in the comically moving The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), Purple Rose of Cairo, The (film) the emotionally rich Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), Hannah and Her Sisters (film) and the morally compelling Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989). Crimes and Misdemeanors (film)

As many contemporaries recognized, Annie Hall was, in some hard-to-define but very real way, a quintessential film of its time. This perception only grew stronger in the decades that followed the film’s release. In its use of unconventional narrative strategies in storytelling; in its drawing on psychoanalytic (especially Freudian) theory, in its depiction of New York and attitudes toward Middle America and California, and in its attitudes about contemporary romance, the film embraces and challenges a series of assumptions and prevalent beliefs distinctive to the late 1970’s and the years that followed.

The 1970’s, especially the early 1970’s, were a time in film history when many Hollywood conventions were reconfigured and even subverted. Although Woody Allen did not overtly challenge dominant assumptions the way iconoclastic directors such as Robert Altman Altman, Robert and Martin Scorsese Scorsese, Martin did, Annie Hall is characterized by a series of techniques (borrowed from filmmakers such as Federico Fellini and Jean-Luc Godard) that mark it as an unconventional film: split screens, subtitles to reveal what characters are thinking, cartoons, asides to the audience, and a nonchronological plot line. Indeed, by the standards of many Hollywood films, Annie Hall has hardly any plot at all. In telling the story of a contemporary romance between two relatively ordinary people, the film has a kind of willfully small-scale, even antiheroic cast that was consonant with many films of the time.

This antiheroic dimension (typified by hilarious sequences in which Keaton and Allen struggle to master lobsters and insects) is augmented by the theme of psychoanalysis that hovers over the film as a whole. Although Allen plays a far more assured character in Annie Hall than he does in Take the Money and Run or Sleeper, he seems to imply that any normal person in the 1970’s had to be a little neurotic. And people who think of themselves as well adjusted—especially midwestern WASPs and fun-loving Californians—are particularly singled out for ridicule.

Such scenes underline the degree to which Annie Hall is a film about and for New York. Although many critics agree that this theme in Allen’s work reaches its fullest expression in Manhattan, in Annie Hall, too, the city is a virtual character, especially in shots of the waterfront, Coney Island, and the Manhattan skyline. New York’s fiscal crisis is referred to in a scene with the irate Max (Tony Roberts), who wants to leave the city for Los Angeles, and is a metaphor for the decay decried by a number of the characters. If Allen’s Los Angeles is sunny and comfortable, however, it is also superficial. (The film marks perhaps one of the last times Los Angeles could be depicted as an alternative to a city such as New York instead of as a financially troubled, fractious, and crime-ridden metropolis in its own right.) Annie Hall is meant to show that New York has a sense of richness and sophistication that the homogeneous Midwest—savagely depicted in a sequence with Annie’s family—and the vacuous West can never match. This cleverly presented cinematic argument is one of the most striking impressions the film makes.

Annie Hall is also useful as a lasting document of changing social mores in the United States. Many Americans responded to the movie because it captures the awkwardness and uncertainty of a nation in transition from the post-World War II traditional family to the alternative arrangements that were becoming increasingly common in American life. Alvy and Annie’s matter-of-fact rejection of marriage and casual embrace of sexuality makes for a striking contrast from movies of the previous generation. The film also embodies values that would provoke bitter opposition from conservatives in the 1980’s and 1990’s.

In retrospect, Annie Hall appears to mark the high-water point of Allen’s popularity. His subsequent work’s failure to reach the same commercial heights, however, may be the result of conscious choice as much as of public taste. In any case, it is clear that Annie Hall represents a landmark in the artistic development of a major cultural figure in the late twentieth century United States. Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Woody Allen[Allen]

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Allen, Woody. Four Films of Woody Allen. New York: Random House, 1982. Offers readers direct access to Allen’s genius through the complete screenplays for Annie Hall, Interiors, Manhattan, and Stardust Memories.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brode, Douglas. The Films of Woody Allen. Rev. ed. Sacramento, Calif.: Citadel Press, 1999. Offers a scholarly film-by-film analysis of Allen’s work from the 1960’s through the late 1990’s. One of the best sources on Allen’s work; comprehensive, intelligent, and lavishly illustrated.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hirsch, Foster. Love, Sex, Death, and the Meaning of Life: The Films of Woody Allen. Rev. ed. Cambridge, Mass.: Da Capo Press, 2001. Biographical critique of Allen’s career. Readable but, like many books on the subject, lacks critical distance. Perhaps most useful for helping readers understand Allen’s fans’ relationship with his work. Includes filmography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kapsis, Robert E., and Kathie Coblentz, eds. Woody Allen: Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2006. Collection of interviews Allen gave to various reporters and others from 1974 onward provides insights into his views on filmmaking, comedy, and life. Includes chronology, filmography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lax, Eric. Woody Allen: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991. Best-selling biography received a good deal of media attention when it was published and may well remain the standard study of Allen’s life. What it lacks in detachment is compensated for by the access Lax gained to his normally reticent subject.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McCann, Graham. Woody Allen: New Yorker. Cambridge, England: Polity Press, 1990. Offers a British perspective on the filmmaker. Scholarly work blends biography and textual analysis; a good point of departure for students who wish to place Allen’s work in a larger theoretical and historical perspective.

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