My favorite best picture Oscar winner: Annie Hall

Continuing our series of Guardian writers’ all-time Academy picks, Jordan Hoffman explains why Woody Allen’s film deserved to triumph over Star Wars

“Awards! They do nothing but give out awards!” – Alvy Singer in Los Angeles.

What normally wins the best picture Oscar can usually be divided between miserable and horrible. Most of the time a typical Academy voter comes off like one of those guys with saliva dribbling down his mouth who wanders into a cafeteria with a shopping bag screaming about socialism. Tuning in each year is irrational and crazy and absurd, but we keep going, I guess, because we need the eggs.

But on rare occasions they actually get it right, and the award for 1977’s top prize is the most striking example. (Don’t worry, they also gave gun nut Charlton Heston a “humanitarian prize” that year, so feel free to maintain your jaundiced view.)

Not only is Annie Hall the most experimental best picture win – it also features an entire section dedicated to viciously roasting the shallowness of awards show culture. Before Annie Hall, Woody Allen was a joke-scribbler and standup and talkshow guest who made small, oddball comedies that, while brilliant, were hardly known for rich character development. His previous film, Love and Death, dumped his classic neurotic New Yorker persona into a plot to assassinate Napoleon. (If you haven’t seen it, you really must.) After Annie Hall he emerged as the lovechild of Chaplin and Bergman and Buñuel by way of Philip Roth, and one of the greatest artists in the history of cinema. (That title still fits, by the way. Even the Amazon show that no one paid any attention to is really good.)

Annie Hall had some birthing pains. Allen and his co-writer, Marshall Brickman (yes, occasionally Woody Allen works with co-writers), developed the story from conversations and walks around New York City. An initial draft included subplots that were eventually dropped. (Never one to waste a good idea, Allen later turned one of Annie Hall’s “lost chapters” into Manhattan Murder Mystery.) New scenes were written during production (the house under the rollercoaster, such a key element explaining Alvy Singer’s personality, was stumbled upon and added in) and when they got to the editing room they had a film nearly an hour longer than what we now know.

The relationship between Allen’s Alvy and Diane Keaton’s Annie, it was soon realized, was the spine of this comic-philosophical cri de coeur, and the movie began to take shape in the cutting. The result is a time-jumping, fourth-wall-shattering spasm through the mind of a man in midlife crisis, sifting through the wreckage of a failed romance. Allen’s nonstop joke-telling (he is playing a comic, after all) allows for dips into surrealism, and the result is one of the fastest movies ever made.

From its opening joke (literally, the first line is: “There’s an old joke …”), the swift synaptic transitions move at supersonic speed. (Only Raising Arizona, Goodfellas and Wong Kar-Wei’s Fallen Angels open with such narrative zoom.) We bounce to Alvy’s childhood, which includes a tracking shot across a chalkboard that’s so riddled with jokes you don’t realize its Terence Davies-level beauty.

The first scene to plant its feet is the very rehearsed “stuck on a movie line” bit in which Alvy and Annie bicker as a pretentious intellectual pontificates loudly about TV, media and culture. It concludes with Alvy pulling Marshall McLuhan out from behind a large placard to tell this dolt he knows nothing of his work, fulfilling a fantasy for everyone who’s ever wanted the guy behind him to shut the hell up. It’s one of the only lengthy scenes in the movie and it’s done in one take.

The off-the-wall comedy allows for other experimental moments, such as subtitles reading the thoughts of Alvy and Annie flirting (“I sound like FM radio!”), split-screens, temporary transformation into a Disney cartoon or Woody Allen just wandering around West 4th Street breaking into psychoanalysis with whomever is passing by, including a horse. One of the more touching conversations, in which Annie first says “La-di-dah”, is a voiceover to a shaky-cam first-person shot of walking along a marsh at sunset. I shall go to my grave convinced that this was just a random exposure taken between set-ups because it looked nice, and only during the groundbreaking editing sessions did it end up in the movie at all.

This fleet-of-foot silliness (and, hot damn, the wall-to-wall brilliant zings) wouldn’t mean that much, though, if there weren’t a substantial story underneath. Annie Hall is among the quintessential portraits of sophisticated womanhood in what we now call second-wave feminism. Importantly, it is also a fair critique of would-be progressive men adjusting their attitudes, and not always coming off so well. (Alvy pushes Annie to take adult education courses right up until the point where she starts showing a little too much independence.)

For all the angst and psychological chit-chat (a wry stew of Freud and I’m OK – You’re OK) there’s an awful lot of heart on the screen. The romance feels real, and the fact that Woody Allen and Diane Keaton were once an item and then remained close friends certainly doesn’t hurt. What’s so revolutionary is how Annie Hall makes falling out of love seem so romantic. One watches in hopes of one day having such complex and incompatible entanglements.

There lingers a whiff of controversy about the 1977 win. There was, of course, a very good science fiction film that came out that year. But I’ll take Annie Hall over Close Encounters of the Third Kind any day, and besides it wasn’t nominated. What was nominated, however, was a zippy and highly entertaining fantasy film set in space called Star Wars, and it has had some lingering influence.

But Annie Hall’s legacy, I think, is just as strong. Star Wars, a great movie, aped the serials George Lucas grew up on and slapped them with a new coat of visual effects paint. Annie Hall’s style (we haven’t even talked about her outfits yet!) was truly created from scratch, and every would-be urban intellectual (especially the leftwing, communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers in New York) have secretly been sizing up their day-to-day foibles against this masterpiece ever since.

Annie Hall is firmly rooted in late 1970s New York but its themes concerning human relationships are universal. To every couple facing up to their own dead shark, it seems like old times.


Jordan Hoffman

The GuardianTramp

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