In the 1970’s, filmmakers like Martin Scorcese and Paul Mazursky explored the changing role of women in American society with films like Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) and An Unmarried Woman (1978). After a string of successful genre parodies in the first part of the decade, Woody Allen broke new ground as a filmmaker with the critically acclaimed Annie Hall (1977).
With Annie Hall, the nebbish character that Woody Allen portrayed in his early films became the well-rounded mature character that Allen would play in most of his later films. In Annie Hall, Allen is Alvy Singer, a stand-up comic who does material drawn from Woody Allen’s days as a stand-up comedian. Intellectually mature, but still a sexually motivated male, Alvy must cope with the changing world of male/female relationships. Annie Hall pokes fun at everything from spirituality to drug culture, but Alvy’s relationship challenges are Allen’s major theme. Allen introduces the topic in the film’s opening monologue:
“The other important joke for me is one that’s usually attributed to Groucho Marx but I think it appears originally in Freud’s Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious – and it goes like this. I’m paraphrasing. I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member. That’s the key joke of my adult life, in terms of my relationships with women.”
The stream of consciousness narrative bounces from scene to scene and theme to theme, cued by narrative, dialogue, and a free association of images and ideas. The working title of Annie Hall was Anhedonia which is a psychology term used to describe a person’s inability to experience pleasure. An early version of the film focused more on Alvy and less on Annie. Working with his editor, Ralph Rosenblum, Allen was able to reshape the available content into a film about Alvy’s relationship with Annie. Additional sequences were shot and the existing sequences became subservient to the new concept.
The women characters in Annie Hall are well drawn and well acted. Recognizing the changing role of women in society, Woody Allen and his co-writer Marshall Brickman offered Alvy a variety of illuminating relationship situations.
With few exceptions, Allen’s female characters are socially conscious women in pursuit of careers. Annie (Diane Keaton) is an actress and aspiring singer who Alvy tries to reform Pygmalion style. Suggesting books to read and classes to take, his Henry Higgins backfires on him and he becomes jealous of Annie’s teachers and her rapidly developing social awareness. Alvy is also wary of coke spoon toting record producer Tony Lacey (Paul Simon) whose tempting offer to produce a record album for Annie takes her to LA, far from Alvy and his beloved Manhattan.
Allison Portchnik (Carol Kane) is a political advocate who is working on her college thesis when she meets Alvy at a rally for Adlai Stevenson. Alvy Groucho Marxes himself into a corner by culturally stereotyping Allison. Instead of doing a Margaret Dumont, Allison meets him head on telling him how much she enjoys being reduced to a cultural stereotype. The relationship is doomed. Allison is analytical and Alvy has commitment issues.
Robin (Janet Margolin) is a writer who finds it hard to perform sexually with Alvy. We are shown two examples of their problem. In the first, Alvy wants to bed her during an isolated moment at a social gathering for New York’s literati. In the second, she finds it hard to concentrate because of the traffic noise heard in the privacy of their bedroom.
Pam (Shelley Duvall) is a Rolling Stone reporter who describes sex with Alvy as a Kafkaesque experience. She tends to ramble on with a wordy otherworldliness, waxing philosophical on rock and roll and spirituality.
Allen graphically illustrates dinner with the Hall and the Singer family using split screen portraits. The Halls look like a family in a Norman Rockwell painting. The Singers, even though they are Jewish, look like something out of a Fellini film. Ignoring the cinematic boundaries, the mothers, Mrs. Hall (Colleen Dewhurst) and Mrs. Singer (Joan Neuman), actually converse with one another. It is evident that the families, for all their differences, are both matriarchies.
Allen continues to offer women complex roles in his films. His female characters are often imbued with wisdom and strength, a quality still lacking in most films. Allen’s women are drawn and portrayed as unique individuals who challenge their male counterpart’s concept of womanhood. The actresses who play the roles in his films are challenged by the material. In his play Play It Again, Sam, and later in the movie of the same name, Allan Felix (played by Allen) paraphrased the final speech that Bogart makes to Bergman in Casablanca:
“Inside of us, we both know you belong with Victor. You’re part of his work, the thing that keeps him going.”
Thanks to films like Annie Hall, we have come to see a woman’s role in a film story as more than possession, more than accessory, and more than a masculine incentive. It took Woody Allen more than a decade to go from the burlesque of What’s New, Pussycat to the sophistication of Annie Hall. It is the first mature work of one of American’s few real auteurs.