Reel/Real Imact: Annie Hall–Woody Allen’s Oscar Winning Comedy

Oscar at 80

This year, Oscar celebrates its 80th anniversary. To commemorate the event, we will run various pieces about the most coveted award in the international film world. In 1977, “Annie Hall” won Best Picture, Director, and other Oscars. Thirty years later, Woody Allen’s New York comedy has retained much of its appeal.

As a result of the success of “Annie Hall,” Woody Allen became an unlikely sex symbol. After the film swept the Oscars, many female fans started showing up at Michael’s Pub on Monday nights. They would give Allen presents and ask for dates and autographs. When a very young female fan approached Allen, Newsweek reported that he prophetically commented: “If my moral sense ever sinks as low as my other senses, but it wouldn’t look good for me to hang around the Dalton school with my coat collar turned up.”

Becoming Auteur

The lionization of Woody Allen after “Annie Hall” also meant that he was treated as an auteur, not just as a brilliant comic or talented director.  His body of work leading up to “Annie Hall” suddenly achieved the status of an oeuvre. “Take the Money and Run” (1969), “Bananas” (1971), “Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Sex, but Were Afraid to Ask” (1972), “Play it Again, Sam” (1972), “Sleeper” (1973), and “Love and Death” (1975) were all reexamined–and elevated artistically–while becoming staples on television.

Diane Keaton

Annie Hall also made Diane Keaton into a major star. Her role as Annie was crucial to the film’s mass appeal. Before “Annie Hall,” Keaton had appeared only in Allen comedies, as his sidekick, and the Godfather pictures in a background role. Audiences fell in love with Keaton, and identified with her in Annie Hall, as if they were discovering a newcomer.

Her best line in the film was simply, “La-de-dah, la-de-dah.” Crowds began cheering in theaters during the scene where Annie becomes flustered with her communication abilities, and resignedly murmurs “La-de-dah, la-de-dah.” Time magazine asked, “Does anyone doubt that young women across the country are looking into their mirrors and trying to find just the right intonation with which to murmur `La-de-dah'”

“Annie Hall” is certainly as much a film about Annie as it is about Alvy. A great part of the film’s appeal for female viewers was how it included feminist issues pertinent to the late 1970s, as represented by Annie’s point of view. Douglas Brode writes: “Certainly, the question of feminism and its impact on the traditional male-female relationships was a significant one for people surviving the era when the sexual and social revolutionary changes of the 1960s lost their flower-power idealism and came crashing up against the brick wall of reality.”

Impact on Women’s Films

The narrative is progressive from a feminist point of view, in that Annie actually surpasses Alvy and happily goes on her own way without him. Annie Hall also started a fashion craze based on Diane Keaton’s tramp-like outfits in the film, which suggest the mannish fashions of Katharine Hepburn. Keaton’s outfit consisted of men’s brown pants, an unpressed white shirt, a black vest, and a ridiculously long polka-dot tie. This outfit was imitated and adapted by women in all major American cities.

The release of “Annie Hall” coincided with the release of several other films about women, including “The Turning Point” (1977), “Julia” (1977), “The Goodbye Girl” (1977) and “An Unmarried Woman” (1978). All these films opened the way for better women’s roles in Hollywood. The decline of quality women’s roles has long been associated with the increase of gratuitous sex and violence on the screen. In 1977, with the release of such films as “Annie Hall,” there was an atmosphere in Hollywood that the gratuitous trend was being bucked.

“Annie Hall” was primarily influential in terms of the great characters it contributed to America culture, but the film also articulated many viewers’ general dissatisfaction with American society. Allen criticized American culture by contrasting different elements within it. The result was a touching portrayal of a culture at war with itself.

Jewish and Gentile

Part of Allen’s critique, for instance, is a poignant contrast between the Jewish and Gentile ways of life. Alvy Singer’s family is Jewish and Annie Hall’s family is Gentile. As Douglas Brode writes, Annie’s family is depicted as: “Those genteel Gentiles who at one moment seem so superior to the sloppier, Jewish characters, then a second later look cold and uninviting compared to the loving (if less than sophisticated) Jews. The contrast between the lovers’ backgrounds is appropriately one of the main factors that lead to their break-up.

While the film bemoans the state of things in America, it celebrates Allen’s lower-class Jewish background. “Annie Hall” introduced many viewers to a Jewish perspective, which they might not have experienced before in a Hollywood film. The beginning of the film concentrates on Alvy’s childhood, suggesting that one of the major concerns of the film is the dislocation of being an urban Jew in America.

In one of the film’s funniest scenes there is a flashback to Alvy’s childhood home, which Allen places directly under the Coney Island roller coaster. When the actual house used in the film burned down in 1991, fourteen years after the film’s initial release, public interest in the tragedy proved the long-term appeal of the film. The New York Times even ran a story about the fire with the headline “Fire guts house on Coney I was in ’77 Woody Allen Film.”

In Allen’s view of the America an adult Jew must face, our culture is nothing but junk. It is the culture of narcissism. California, especially, becomes a metaphor for American decadence in Annie Hall. In one hilarious scene, Alvy visits California and reluctantly eats alfalfa sprouts and mashed yeast with a mellow California friend. This scene suggests the incompatibility of the New York and Los Angeles lifestyles, and a country tearing apart. The breakup of Alvy and Annie is not only over mutual foibles, but involves Annie’s acceptance of the California lifestyle over New York. Richard Schickel wrote that in Allen’s view California “is actively malevolent – the biggest clogged drain of them all.” This is perhaps an understatement.

Bashing La La Land

At the same time that the film bashes Los Angeles, it unconditionally embraces New York City. “Annie Hall” is the beginning of Allen’s selective depiction of New York City. Allen’s tendency to romanticize New York continues in films such as “Manhattan” and “Hannah and her Sisters.” “Annie Hall” was also influential as a “self-reflexive entertainment,” a film about films, predating movies like “Gremlins,” which tried to do similar things. Allen often refers to television and the legacy of world cinema in “Annie Hall.” While he had done this previously in films like “Play it Again, Sam” and “Love and Death,” here the references are more pronounced and ingenious.

The film thus draws attention to how the media operates in our lives. For instance, Alvy and Annie often go to the movies together and have some of their best arguments about films. An animated sequence in “Annie Hall” is a send-up of Disney’s “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.” In addition to animation, there are subtitles, direct-to-the-audience asides, visitations into the past, split screens, films within a film, plays within a film, Marshall McCluhan within a film.

In 1977, “Annie Hall” was a refreshing new entertainment in many ways, including the way in which it drew attention to the media’s great influence on American culture.