One of my favourite scenes in Annie Hall happens some time into the film, although chronologically it’s somewhere near the beginning. Annie drives Alvy to her house after a game of tennis. They seem to like each other, but Alvy’s so antagonistic and Annie is such a ‘dweeb’ they’re uncomfortable. Annie starts telling him about a relative of hers that had narcolepsy. Diane’s Annie is there telling the story in all her affable weirdness, and halfway through you get the distinct sense that Annie doesn’t know where the story is going – or why she started telling it in the first place. It’s a weird moment, but I often think if you’re not a fan of this scene you’re not a fan of Annie Hall. For me, Annie Hall is one of those films that has become so lauded that I often doubt people who claim to “love it to death”. It’s not that I doubt the possibility of anyone else finding it to be good. But Woody Allen, a man who is on his known is known for delighting in the off kilter, crafted with Annie Hall one of the most perversely atypical, deliciously satisfying and irrevocably original romantic comedies. Annie Hall is an anomaly – in more ways than one.
It opens with Allen breaking the fourth wall. It’s one of my favourite conceits of the film, and in a film I love so much that’s saying something. In its way, Annie Hall is akin to private conversations with a neurotic. It’s almost as if retelling his story is a cathartic way for Alvy Singer to deal with his issues – and there are so many of them. Few filmmakers are as comfortable in their idiosyncrasies as Allen. Each director I admire has their secret weapon – Kazan has a knack for sympathising with the disturbed and disturbing, Scorsese has a gift of finding the broken and making them heroic, Ivory has the flair for making the past seem so real and potent and Woody knows to make the audience identify with the idiosyncrasies in his characters. It’s a love or hate thing, if you don’t like one Woody film chances are you won’t like most of them, but I do (on both counts). It’s easy to miss the cues while we’re caught up in the hilarity of Alvy’s return to his elementary class, or the comedy of his romancing of Annie. There are little things, like his inability to say “I love you”, or just his natural tendency to find the worst in any situation. But Allen never lays it on too thick, he never creates villains – his characters are always, completely, human. It’s one of the reasons I’m surprised at Annie Hall’s success – it’s not exactly escapism. In the face of its irreverent humour, there’s a mire of uneasiness to make you ponder…
Annie Hall hinges, completely, on the performance of the leads. Sure, the role was written for her – but that doesn’t make her contribution any less valuable. Like Woody, it’s her knack for being pleasant while being annoying that makes the performance such a treasure. Return to the earlier scene I cited, Diane gives one of my favourite quotes when she tells Alvy, “You’re what Grammy Hall would call a real Jew”. It’s a moment that I love not only for Alvy’s excellent reaction (more on that later) but for Diane’s ability to say so much while in reality saying so little. Acting is not just knowing what to do, but it’s knowing what not to do. Diane’s Annie is completely real (and she probably is) because she gives us those weird tics and the moments we’d least expect it, and at the moments that we’d typically expect it she holds back. (She reminds me of another deserving Best Actress winner in that way.) Annie isn’t a particularly nice person, but she has a quality that’s definitely inviting. It’s the same with Woody, though he’s not as understated as Keaton (but nonetheless excellent). I don’t know what it is about Oscar not wanting to give actors Oscar for acting and directing in tandem (Beatty and Olivier both had split decisions). His performance is just brilliant to me. He’s gifted with that brilliant dialogue, but it’s those smaller moments where he completely sells his emotions through his face that always get me. There’s a truthful whimsy that’s incomparable. He’s never been so in touch with his character.
I’m always surprised that Annie Hall won those Oscar. It’s one of those moments of lucidity (becoming rarer and rarer) where they give in to the less obvious. I suppose that Woody Allen is not for everyone. Just like all who gangster films won’t like Scorsese, or those who like epics won’t like David Lean and on and on. But I am in awe of the man, and I adore Annie Hall.