Woody Allen

It’s been pointed out before in this feature that many pop-culture blind spots aren’t caused by choice so much as by our environment. Such is the case with my distance from the films of Woody Allen. Save for a study of a few scenes from The Purple Rose of Cairo in a college film course, I’d somehow made it into my early thirties without ever having seen a film from one of America’s most celebrated writer/directors. It wasn’t that I had anything against Allen; it’s just that it was more difficult to get exposed to his work growing up in Huntsville, Alabama, a city whose army base and aerospace history—Space Camp is there and parts of Space Camp were filmed there—meant I grew up in a part of the country where the highways were named after astronauts and NASCAR drivers. 

During my most impressionable adolescent phase, what I knew about Woody Allen could be boiled down to three facts:

  1. He was synonymous with New York City.
  2. He had a controversial break-up with Mia Farrow and subsequently married Soon-Yi Previn, one of Farrow’s adopted children.
  3. Annie Hall beat out Star Wars for the 1977 Best Picture Oscar.

Once my fellow A.V. Club staffers got over their shock that I had never seen a single Allen film in its entirety, we settled on three films: Bananas, Annie Hall, and Hannah And Her Sisters. This would mean some his better-known works—such as Manhattan and The Purple Rose of Cairo—would have to wait for another time, but my co-workers assured me this would give me a good cross-section. I decided to tackle them in chronological order, starting with 1971’s Bananas. 

From the film’s opening moments, Bananas presents itself as a slapstick satire, using Howard Cosell as a play-by-play analyst for the assassination of the unpopular dictator of the fictional country of San Marcos. From there, we follow the misadventures of hapless product tester Fielding Mellish (Allen) as, in an attempt to woo back his leftist ex-girlfriend Nancy (Louise Lasser), he heads to San Marcos to participate in the revolution, only to find himself, as the film careens from one development to the next with lightning speed, the country’s new president.

Bananas is considered one of the strongest of Allen’s early-period, anarchic comedies, a film that our own Primer on Allen calls, “the zaniest and most purely pleasurable of his early-period laughers.” Bananas alternates verbal gags (“I once stole a pornographic book that was printed in Braille. I used to rub the dirty parts”) with broad physical shtick (Fielding exiting his car and immediately falling down an open manhole), and the two converge nicely in the climactic courtroom scene in which Allen, acting as his own attorney, questions himself. And bringing back Cosell to interview Fielding and Nancy after they’ve consummated their marriage gives the film an appropriately clever framing. 

So why, then, does the film ultimately fall flat for me? Part of it is no fault of Allen’s, but rather my own for having seen it at this stage in my life. Allen’s script, co-written with collaborator Mickey Rose, has its sharp moments, and Allen himself pulls off the nebbish schlub of Fielding Mellish with self-deprecation and a wry self-loathing that makes it fun to watch him getting yanked around like marionette. But so much of the film’s physical humor doesn’t seem any different than the Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker films that dominated my youth: Top Secret!, the Naked Gun series, and Airplane! Because of this, some of the visual bits, like the large black woman who testifies as J. Edgar Hoover or an interpreter being chased by two soldiers with a giant butterfly net, feel stale to me. 

But I also have problems with the lead characters. Allen’s Fielding is an exaggerated version of the archetypal Allen character that would become a bit more refined in the later films I watched. Watching him fail upwards provides some funny moments, especially considering his original motives for the insanity that ensues in his life. Even as he flails from one scenario to the next, he’s getting closer to being Nancy’s ideal mate while expressing his (many) worries and insecurities about the situations in which he continues to find himself. And yet I found Fielding too over-the-top, so perturbing in his faux-beleaguered state that it undermines the irony and humor. Allen playing a romantic lead is an intentionally jarring juxtaposition that can work well, but here, with the nebbishness cranked so high, it’s more irritating than endearing. Not helping matters is Louise Lasser. Also an exaggeration of an archetype—in this case, the student-radical—whiny Nancy comes off almost as grating as Fielding. At least Fielding is occasionally amusing in his misery. While emotional investment is not the film’s main purpose, I found it difficult to connect to characters I couldn’t stand.

Far better: Annie Hall, which is remarkable foremost for its unvarnished look at the life-cycle of a relationship, from beginning to end, warts and all. Given that the film provided the blueprint for the modern romantic comedy and achieved a status as one of the most beloved films of Allen’s career, if not all time, I went into the viewing with rather high expectations. Perhaps understandably, I was initially underwhelmed, wondering how the film beat out the special effects-laden visual spectacle (not to mention blockbuster breakthrough) Star Wars. But after digesting the film in the coming days and revisiting certain scenes, I come to appreciate it more, particularly its clever dialogue and the innovative way in which Allen tells us the story of Alvy Singer and Annie Hall (Diane Keaton). 

Presented in a non-linear fashion, the film begins with Allen’s Alvy breaking the fourth wall and addressing the camera. Throughout the film, there are random asides and flashbacks that provide context, a tool that’s since become a staple on television comedies like The Simpsons and 30 Rock. Likewise, the technique of using faux-documentary interviews can be seen on The Office, Parks & Recreation, and Modern Family. There are also moments when the characters step into and interact with their own pasts, like a prolonged run-down of Alvy’s childhood schoolmates in which he describes where they ended up as adults (perfectly completed by a little girl saying, “I’m into leather”). Allen also uses tricks to explore the characters’ emotions, showing their thoughts via subtitles or revealing Annie’s consciousness (or spirit) rising from the bed where the two are having sex and sitting, bored, in a chair. Where other films have misfired trying to employ similar gimmicks, Allen’s unusual techniques never feel forced, giving depth and complexity to these already fleshed-out characters and their interactions. As a director, Allen uses technique to enhance the experience rather than detract from it; they’re devices, not crutches.

Though far more refined than Bananas’ Fielding, Alvy carries with him a similar self-deprecation and self-loathing, but with an added layer of distaste for the people around him. Whether it’s directed at the Italian goons who harass him in front of a Cineplex while he waits for Annie or a know-it-all standing behind them in line, Alvy’s contempt for, well, everyone is palpable even at his more subtle moments. It makes him realistic, yes, but still a hard guy to root for. As pointed out in our Inventory entry, “24 Romantic-Comedy Characters Who Don’t Deserve Love”: 

…nobody is more responsible for turning neurotic, paternalistic, essentially self-centered men into supposedly smart, sensitive, even sexy objects of affection for women foolish enough to accept personality traits that would [rightly] seem obnoxious coming from much better-looking guys.

It’s a fine line to walk, and there are times when Alvy teeters on the brink of becoming as agitating as Fielding. Granted, such a complaint puts me at the risk of sounding too much like Ned Flanders: “You know, I like his films except for that nervous fellow who’s always in them.” But Annie’s exasperation helped vent my own, as did the fact that Alvy, unlike Fielding, is self-aware. The chemistry between the two works even as it sours: A perfect foil to Alvy’s pessimistic worldview, Annie’s charming awkwardness during the romance’s early stages gives way to resentment and anger as she grows (and as the two grow apart). Alvy is more believable as a character than both Fielding and the idealized versions of mates we see so often in modern romantic comedies. No one is perfect and, consequently, the characters’ faults and foibles make them that much more believable. 

Delving further into the intricacies of relationships and human interactions, Hannah And Her Sisters finds Allen yielding to an outstanding ensemble cast and casting himself as something akin to comic relief (though still with the same kinetic neuroses) as the hypochondriac TV writer Mickey, ex-husband of the title character. Much like Annie Hall, Hannah And Her Sisters is notable for its honest take on the cycles of love and relationships, from new love to disintegration to reconciliation, through the course of two years framed by three Thanksgiving holidays.  

Again, Allen employs an atypical structure to tell his story, using vignettes and several perspectives to weave the tales of intertwining relationships. Introducing segments for each character with title cards, the film has an episodic nature, an approach that aids its multiple storylines: The affair between Elliot (Michael Caine) and Lee (Barbara Hershey), the sister of his wife, Hannah (Mia Farrow); Lee and Hannah’s complicated relationship with their troubled sister Holly (Dianne Wiest); the relationship between Mickey and Hannah; and several others. Allen’s deftness and growth as a storyteller is evident as he juggles the threads and characters as they spin out into their own personal crises. 

There’s much to admire in the way Allen deftly handles the multiple plots and even more characters. Lesser writers would get bogged down in particular storylines, causing the film’s emotional balance to tip either toward maudlin or incongruous humor. But Allen uses a light touch to keep the film’s tone balanced, alternating moments of humor and drama to keep things from getting off track emotionally. 

Additionally, the characters he creates and the way he positions them are worthy of the Academy Award he won for the film’s screenplay. The characters are more nuanced, subtler; gone are the over-the-top stereotypes that so bugged me in Bananas. (Though, to be fair, both Annie Hall and Hannah are very different films than Bananas.) Even the archetypal Allen character is used in smaller doses, relegating him to an ensemble member. These well-drawn characters only help to serve the film’s two major romantic storylines. When Holly and her friend April (Carrie Fisher) both have designs on the same man (Sam Waterson), it’s not played up for comic or dramatic effect; rather, Allen nails the awkward passivity that arises in those situations as, after a night on the town, the three discuss which of the two women Waterson should drop off first, knowing that whoever gets dropped off first loses out on the first pass at the man they both want. Likewise, Michael Caine’s Elliot is dogged by guilt even as he pursues a romantic liaison with Lee. His wife is never far from his mind, and his guilt over cheating on Hannah, whom he perceives to be faultless, pushes him to eventually resent her. It’s a credit to both Allen’s script and Caine’s performance (for which he won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar) that Elliot never tips too far one way or the other toward either villainous or spineless. 

Of the three films I watched, what set the latter two ahead of the first was their heart. Again, it’s unfair to compare the more dramatic films to Bananas. But Annie Hall and Hannah and Her Sisters elicited emotional reactions, whereas Bananas simply left me shrugging. And that heart never feels forced or cloying, and comes partnered with humor; one never overpowers the other. When, post-break up, Alvy leaves a date with another woman (Shelley Duvall) to heed the call of a troubled Annie, he’s annoyed to discover it’s because of a spider in her bathroom. The scene leads to a good rant and even some physical humor, but despite his frustrations, Alvy’s affection is real. Likewise, in Hannah, the hypochondriac Mickey’s descent into what could be a very real illness is played for laughs, but they’re not cheap; that he faces real danger makes the comedy surrounding his relief and spiritual quest all the more genuine. 

For me, this is Allen’s greatest strength: his ability to not only communicate these universal feelings, but to do it using realistic characters and situations. Through these three movies, Allen shows the lengths we go to for love, the pain we’re willing to put ourselves through over and over despite—or because of—the lasting impressions relationships leave on us. As I grow older and learn from my own life, it’s nice to be reminded that, as personal as each experience feels, there’s still that universal element, that idea that as individuals suffer their own setbacks, they’re certainly not alone in their thinking, their growth, and their failures. 

And yet, even as we repeat the same cycle over and over, there’s reason for hope, something Allen clings to amongst these failures. They may not be the most ingratiating couple, but Fielding gets Nancy at the end of Bananas; Annie and Alvy end Annie Hall apart yet with an appreciation for what their relationship brought them; and Hannah concludes with Mickey expressing his love for Holly, the sister of his ex-wife, saying, “…I never thought that I could love anybody else. And here it is years later and I'm married to you and completely in love with you. The heart is a very, very resilient little muscle, it really is.”