With the release of Magic in the Moonlight last week, Woody Allen has now directed 50 films in slightly less than 50 years. Annie Hall was his eighth and, some suggest, best film. My own feeling is that this is the film with which Allen graduated from the standup comedian with illustrative imagery to a genuinely serious artist. To compare him with one of our shared gods, it was the equivalent (on a lower level, to be sure) of the Charlie Chaplin of the slapstick shorts emerging as the Charles Chaplin (later, Sir Charles) who became one of the greatest cultural icons of the 20th century. Annie Hall marked the point where feeling and intelligence transcended an “anything for a laugh” attitude, and Woody was rewarded with an Oscar.
Perhaps I overstress feeling because the film seems relatively free of the misanthropy that Stuart Klawans speaks of in his review of Allen’s 2013 film Blue Jasmine: “Allen is not overtly optimistic about anyone’s morality.” David Denby, in his review of Magic in the Moonlight, calls it “an accomplished, stately movie—unimpassioned but pleasing.” This is not the case with Annie Hall. His characters are all wacky in their own way, yet appealing; there is a sense of autobiography (which Allen strenuously denies) and urgency in their respective compulsions. And, although the throw-away humor of the early films is mostly gone, Annie Hall is very funny.
Part of this is attributable to Woody’s underappreciated gift as an actor. To Rome with Love (which he made just before Blue Jasmine) only comes alive for me in Woody’s few onscreen scenes as a failed music impresario. Of all his best films (and there are several), the only one that comes to mind in which he does not appear is Radio Days, which he narrates off-screen. Again, the comparison with Chaplin can be carried only so far, but A Woman of Paris and A Countess from Hong Kong suffer likewise from Chaplin’s absence, and there is always something charming about Allen’s delivery of lines he has written for himself, no matter how familiar his personality has become.
I tend to agree with Mark W. Estrin that the character Allen develops in Annie Hall and its many subsequent variations (“obsessive…perpetually and hilariously taking the mental temperature of everyone around him…comic victim and witty victimizer, a moral voice in an amoral age who repeatedly discovers that the only true gods in a godless universe are cultural and artistic”) is “indelible,” and, frankly, this is a role model to be aspired to—though perhaps a trifle less nebbishy, one hopes.
A well known and highly esteemed actress once complained to me that Allen had given her no proper direction in her work with him (although she later appeared in another of his films). Diane Keaton, who plays Annie and the lead in several of Allen’s most memorable films, seems so naturally neurotic—I met her, too, and she’s really not—that her Oscar here seems to have come so much more easily than Cate Blanchette’s (channeling Blanche DuBois, whom she had recently played on the stage) in Blue Jasmine. (One of the discarded titles for Annie Hall, incidentally, had been Rollercoaster Named Desire.) How much Allen contributed to Blanchette’s performance is debatable, but Keaton’s neuroses seem perfectly in synch with Woody’s in their work together. Again, to stretch things just a little, there are parallels here with Cary Grant and Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth, Grant and Katharine Hepburn in Bringing Up Baby, and, as Joseph McBride has suggested, Hepburn and Spencer Tracy—all romantic comedy royalty.