Zelig (1983): Woody Allen’s brilliant Oscar-Nominated Comedy, Starring Himself

Zelig, the 1983 mockumentary from the prolific and versatile Woody Allen, is a small-scale but highly original and droll fable-comedy.

 

Replete with sharp observations about conformity, assimilation, and obsession with fame and celebrities, the black and white comedy was recognized by the Academy for its lavish production values.

Allen stars as Leonard Zelig, a man so self-effacing that he tends to swiftly change identities and to smoothly blend into whatever contexts and surroundings he is in.

In the course of a very short but poignant narrative, Zelig becomes a black musician, a baseball player, in the company of with Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, and even a Nazi supporter in a rally headed by Hitler.

He shows among William Randolph Hearst’s guests as San Simeon, side by side with Pope Pius at the Vatican, and peering anxiously over the shoulder of Adolf Hitler at the Nuremberg Rally. Acknowledge as a celeb in his own right, Zelig inspires, among many cultural artifacts, a song, a dance craze, and a solemn biopic (in the manner of Warner’s “great individuals” genre of the 1930s).

As director, Allen uses deliberately a pompous narrator, who chronicles Leonard Zelig’s life, connects the episodes, while also commenting on them.

In her second appearance in an Allen picture, Mia Farrow (Allen’s companion at the time) plays a psychiatrist who tries to cure him of his bizarre disorder. Needless to say, during his sessions with her, he assumes the persona of a professional psychiatrist. Farrow’s Dr. Eudora Fletcher, a psychiatrist who tries to “reach” Zelig, ultimately deviates from her professional code, and falls in love with him.

Mia Farrow’s scenes, which are in black-and-white, are taken from archive footage and thus approximate documentary style. Ellen Garrison, whose physical resemblance to Farrow is remarkable, plays the older Dr. Fletcher in the interview sequences.

It may or may not be a coincidence, as “Reds” was released two years earlier, that, in the mode of that Warren Beatty’s 1981 film, “Zelig” contains a segment in which we see the impact of the fictional Leonard Zelig on pop culture, discussed by real-life notables and intellectuals Susan Sontag, Irving Howe, Saul Bellow, and Dr. Bruno Bettenheim.

The newsreel clips are clever recreations, which look aged and scratched-up (evoking Orson Welles’ seminal “Citizen Kane”), are executed on a reportedly modest budget by special effects experts Joel Hynick, Stuart Robinson and R. Greenberg Associates. The cleverness in the conception is enhanced by Gordon Willis’ brilliant imagery, which integrates Zelig into old black and white photography

Arguably, the 1980s represent the most diverse and original decade in the career of Allen, who seems to have boundless imagination, with fascinating ideas and ambitions as both writer and director. Remarkably, his work in the 1980s, in terms of themes, characters, and sophistication, from “Stardust Memories” to “Zelig” to “Hannah and Her Sisters” to “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” runs aginat the grain of that conservative decade, which emphasized conformity, cultural assimilation, and traditional family values, defined by the Reagan ideology.

Oscar Nominations: 2

Cinematography: Gordon Willis

Costume design: Santo Loquasto

Oscar Awards: None

Oscar Context:

The winner of the Cinematography Oscar was Sven Nykvist for “Fanny and Alexander,” which also won the Art Direction Oscar for Anna Asp.

Inexplicably, this was the first Oscar nomination for Gordon Willis, who was passed over for his astounding work on the “Godfather” film series and other films for Allen, such as “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan.”