Monday, April 20, 2015

Nothing But the Best: "Annie Hall" (1977)

Left to right: Diane Keaton and Woody Allen
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

Annie Hall
Release Date: April 20, 1977
Director: Woody Allen
Written By: Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman
Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
Running Time: 93 minutes

Oscar Wins: 4
-Best Picture
-Best Actress (Diane Keaton)
-Best Original Screenplay
-Best Director

Oscar Nominations: 1
-Best Actor (Woody Allen)

Other Best Picture Nominees

-The Goodbye Girl
-Star Wars
-The Turning Point

And the winner is...

A lot would come to be known about Woody Allen in the decades following his initial string of hits. However, there isn't anything that was quite as striking as Annie Hall in his career. Yes, he could do more mature and moodier films (the following year's Interiors), but this was the one where he went from the slapstick artist that made Bananas and Take the Money and Run and turned into an Ingmar Bergman protege and sought to make films that were far more complicated than witty jokes. Speaking as he was 42 at the time, his transition made sense and inevitably lead to one of the funniest and mature films that he made. The only catch is that it wasn't initially meant to be a deliberate comedy.

Along with co-writer Marshall Brickman, the initial script was dealing with the concept of time and the various women that protagonist Alvy Singer dated. It evolved into a murder mystery with only the famous Marshall McLuhan cameo making the final cut. While it would later be the inspiration for his film Manhattan Murder Mystery, this film slowly evolved to focus heavily on an otherwise insignificant character named Annie Hall, whose dress sense was odd for its time and created the iconic look for stylish yet offbeat women everywhere. Ralph Loren tried to claim that he invented the look, but it was mostly Diane Keaton. Her style has inspired many outfits, including a character on a recent episode of Mad Men. It makes sense now why Hall became a central character, though it is bizarre to know that this is one definitive example of the film being made in the editing room.

It seems like an odd choice considering its legacy. It not only won Best Picture, but became the prototype for romantic comedies since. Its downbeat ending and various metaphors that were clearly written for a more Bergman-esque film ended up taking on deeper meanings. Even the study of time, which evolved into Singer's obsession with death and frailty, became a study of the self. It was an artist coming to terms with his life and having to accept that maybe he is a faulty human. As the film explores, it is a study of how Singer became neurotic and how this relationship was both perfect and doomed all along. Its love letter to New York style was a signature of Allen's films, but thanks to cinematographer Gordon Willis (who was one of many people to work on this film that also worked on The Godfather), it took on naturalism and felt human. Even the impressive fact that an average shot lasted 14 seconds in a time where most films were half of that adds what essentially feels like an indie sensibility by allowing the moments to play out instead of abruptly ending. There's a few artistic flourishes, such as an animated sequence, but they all compliment an artist's existential crisis.

The film inevitably has an unfortunate legacy of also being "that film that beat Star Wars" for Best Picture. As one can tell, Star Wars has a far more noteworthy legacy. Its characters have been ingrained more into pop culture and the fact that there's now six sequels implies that it was way more successful. Yes, Allen has released many more films since 1977, but has always loathed making sequels, which he felt were done solely for cash grabs. Still, it seems like an odd comparison because both are respective milestones in their genre. Of course, as evident in years to follow, the Academy doesn't have a strong reputation of rewarding sci-fi blockbusters, even if Star Wars inevitably won more Oscars (six total in technical fields). Of course, much like 2014's Boyhood vs. Birdman competition, one must simply look at the other awards that serve as a general consensus leading up to the Oscars to understand why Star Wars lost. Yes, it was important, but it hadn't won any Best Picture-type awards. There's a chance that it could upset, but that is rarely the case.

Annie Hall won Best Picture at the 50th Academy Awards, which itself was a milestone year. The Academy was approaching half a century and the ceremony became famous for a politically charged speech by Vanessa Redgrave. For Allen, the film won 4/5 of its nominations and was the last Best Picture winner to only have that many until The Departed. It also is the only year that the two lead acting categories were given to opposing comedy films. There was Diane Keaton for Best Actress (Annie Hall) and Richard Dreyfuss for Best Actor (The Goodbye Girl). It is hard to understand the important of Annie Hall in Allen's career, but it was regaled as a turning point that was financially successful and earned critical praise. The director, who made his debut in 1966, had a solid reputation that would only continue to grow with many more Oscar nominations, most recently with Blue Jasmine in 2013. It was the start of his love affair with the Oscars, which he rarely attended except in 2002 when he gave a rousing speech following the events of September 11, 2001. 

Most of all, Annie Hall was a film that reflected a growth in understanding of sexual politics with its characters. It would become the inspiration for films like (500) Days of Summer and When Harry Met Sally. It may have a downbeat ending, of which isn't common with romantic comedies, but it also has a vulnerability and complicated protagonist that may become the Allen stereotypical male, but was also his most realized. With a panel of cameos from the likes of Shelley Duvall, Christopher Walken, Paul Simon and Jeff Goldblum, the film is surprisingly well cast in the small roles and makes for one of the strongest ensembles that he has ever brought together. It could also be that at the time Keaton and Allen were still a couple and managed to translate their chemistry to the screen.

Which makes it odd that this film has a strange reputation in Allen's eyes. He considers it a mess. Of course, considering that it was originally a murder mystery, this makes sense. However, when critics like Roger Ebert call it "immediately familiar" decades later, it is hard to find anyone who faults the film, even if they begrudge it for beating Star Wars. There's chances that Allen has made better movies. There's odds that he has gone more ambitious. However, there's a centralized focus in the film that despite its sporadic style manages to bring a humanity to its characters. It is a study of a relationship, an ego, a career and Allen's growth into more than a comedic director. He would go moodier and less commercial in the 80's. However, this is the moment where he bridged the gap from his silly youthful exploits to his existential golden years. Thankfully, it also features some of his funniest jokes and smartest commentaries. It's only a shame that it is the last romantic comedy to win Best Picture in the 38 years that followed.

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