If you’ve ever taken a course on screenwriting, Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s 1977 masterpiece, is an example of what not to do. Screenwriting experts tell you: Show, don’t tell. Don’t break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience. Maintain the tone without wild shifts—especially something as outlandish as adding a cartoon. Make the protagonist likable. Keep the timeline and story arc straight, and stay away from religion.
Annie Hall smashed all of these conventions, giving the world not only an Oscar-Winning picture, but a movie that only seems to get richer and bolder with each passing year as new films get more conservative and conventional.
Annie Hall opens with five minutes of Woody Allen, playing comic writer Alvie Singer, talking directly to the camera. He says that life is full of loneliness yet “is over much too quickly.” He then explains that he and his girlfriend Annie Hall (played by Diane Keaton) have broken up. He’s not sure why, but thinks it has something to do with himself. “I would never belong to a club that would have someone like me as a member,” he says, citing both Groucho Marx and Freud’s Wit and Relation to the Unconscious.
The first scene with Alvie and Annie occurs when the relationship is already going sour. The reason why is obvious—Alvie Singer is a neurotic. He’s been married twice. He can’t go into a movie if he’s even a few minutes late, among other many annoying tics. “I’m comparatively normal for a guy raised in Brooklyn,” Alvie claims.
Rather than meeting cute and building towards the breakup, Annie Hall starts close to the breakup, when Alvie is at his worst, and then moves backwards. As it does, the characters are also able to observe themselves when they were younger and comment on family and former lovers. In one brilliant scene, Alvie goes to dinner with Annie’s family. Annie’s grandmother is “a classic Jew hater,” and during the dinner the screen splits, revealing Alvie’s family having dinner in Brooklyn. The two families then interact with each other, revealing a funny cultural divide – Annie’s tidy WASP clan and Alvie’s urban Jewish relatives. It’s a scene that would probably not be attempted today for fear of a media backlash.
In a Hollywood pitch meeting, Annie Hall would quickly be rejected by producers as a mess. But Annie Hall works, and viewing it forty years later is still a thrill. A big part of the enjoyment is that the film is so fearlessly literate. The screenplay includes references to Freud, Sylvia Plath, Lee Harvey Oswald, Balzac, photography, politics, Rolling Stone, Leopold and Loeb, and William F. Buckley. And yet, Alvie disdains pretentious intellectuals, preferring a basketball game to a snooty cocktail party.
Alvie readily admits his many contradictions. “I’m a bigot—but for the left,” he says, but then openly mocks hippies and rock music. He also refuses to shower at his health club because “I never like to show my body to a man of my gender.” But the film is also honest and brilliant in its depiction of a relationship in decline. It is Alvie Singer’s insecurities that slowly crippled a romantic relationship with a woman who is kind, sensitive and caring. Alvie, an obvious stand in for Allen, tries to control Annie, who wants to be a singer. He tells her what books to read, and from there gradually tries to take over her life. He tells her to take adult education courses, then becomes furious when she actually does. Then, most painfully, he prevents her from catching a big break because he doesn’t want Annie hanging out with music industry people. When she insists on going to California to follow her dream, the relationship falls apart because Alvie is allergic to Los Angeles.
Woody Allen has made some questionable decisions in his personal life, and his recent films have not been great. But I know of no modern filmmaker who would be so willing to indict himself as thoroughly as Allen does in Annie Hall. It’s not a surprise that in 2015, the Writers Guild voted Annie Hall the funniest screenplay of the past 100 years. Today, we have a seemingly infinite number of choices in film, from the multiplex to streaming video and YouTube. Yet Annie Hall still stirs the mind, intoxicates the senses, and brings the funny in way that is completely unique. It’s not only one of the best films ever made, but one of the bravest.