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Annie Hall: Best Picture, 1977

The Host: The 50th Annual Academy Awards were hosted, for the 18th and last time, by Bob Hope.

The Nominations: Annie Hall was nominated for an exceptionally-low but exceptionally-prestigious 5 awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Actress.

The Competition: Other nominees included The Goodbye Girl (5 nominations, mostly overlapped with Annie Hall, 1 win), Julia (11 nominations, 3 wins), The Turning Point (11 nominations, no wins, an astounding and unprecedented shut-out), and, of course, Star Wars (10 nominations, 6 wins, all in technical categories). For what it’s worth, how many of those movies have you heard of? How many have you seen? If you’re the average American moviegoer, the answer is “1.”

The Results: Had Annie Hall swept all 5 awards, it would be 1 of 4 motion pictures to score a grand slam. However, Woody Allen’s acting nomination (certainly the weakest link of Allen’s writer-director-star credits) went to Richard Dreyfuss for The Goodbye Girl instead.

The Film: Allen explores the turbulence of relationships through the romance between his standard comedic persona, here named Alvy Singer, a neurotic stand-up comedian whose self-awareness and propensity for addressing the audience makes the film feel autobiographical, and Annie Hall (Keaton), a lively, eccentric, insecure woman he meets through mutual friends. The movie meanders non-linearly through Alvy’s life and relationships, often with heretofore uncharacteristic seriousness for an Allen film, unearthing both wisdom and humor in its examination of Alvy’s and Annie’s often tempestuous life together.

The Experience: I have to admit up-front that I walked into this movie with a lot of baggage. Like so many people, I have been an avid fan of Star Wars since I was a kid. Whenever it was that I first heard that Star Wars lost recognition as the absolute best film of 1977 to some movie called Annie Hall that I and my peers had never even heard of, I didn’t even need to hear any more to know right away that a dreadful mistake had been made. This was, of course, before I had ever seen any Woody Allen films, with the exception of 1998’s Antz, if that counts . . . no, no it doesn’t.

I’m fairly certain that the first Allen film that I actually saw (and saw in theaters) was Scoop (2006), so hardly an auspicious beginning, but as a dedicated student of film, I sought out more. Allen, the most prolific American director working today, has directed over 40 films in his career, and I have seen over half of them, but I have been halfway avoiding Annie Hall all this time because I was afraid that I would hate it, and then I’d just be another disgruntled Star Wars fan.

Because I do like Allen’s films, on the whole. I’ve seen some really lousy ones, and some that hardly seemed worth the trouble of committing to film, but when Allen gets everything right, as he does every several years or so, there’s almost nothing more enjoyable than just basking in the glow of it. So after I recently re-watched Star Wars for the first time in several years, I realized that the time had come.

And now the dreadful irony: I waited too long. Perhaps I should have tried to watch Allen’s films in the order that he released them, rather than jumping around so haphazardly. This was his first attempt to mix drama with his particular brand of silliness. It was a major departure for him, in a bold new artistic direction. But watching Annie Hall after seeing much of Allen’s later work robbed it of that freshness, and of any sort of subtlety. Alvy spends most of the movie explaining what’s happening in the movie, and for all his annoyance with the windbags around him, he’s almost insufferably pedantic.

I could not wipe my mind clean and see this movie in a vacuum. So many of Allen’s admittedly inventive devices (the use of animation, the hilarious scene in the movie line, the split-screen therapy session, the conversations between Alvy and people he is remembering) feel ostentatiously self-indulgent. The movie grinds to a dead halt around them in order to draw attention to Allen’s cleverness. While it is something of a flaw and a draw that Allen always allows his own character at least a few painfully-stagy one-liners, here his asides practically overwhelm everything else in a way that they do not in my favorite Allen films.

But at the same time, I get it. This is all part of the point. Alvy is Allen, and he is an emasculated character who feels very conflicted about his life, especially his love life, and he compensates by exercising the writer’s prerogative to wrest control of the narrative and appeal directly to the audience for support and understanding. It works, sporadically, but it bothers me. It feels clumsier than Allen’s later attempts to address these same themes, which I suppose is how it should be for an artist with such a lengthy career.

The saving grace of the whole film is Diane Keaton’s performance as Annie. She breathes such incredible life into a character that Allen has also brilliantly written as a whole, complete, independent person. I began the film expecting to see a 1970s analogue of the recent “manic pixie dream girl” trope, but Annie is not just some mildly-quirky muse who helps the male lead to grow. She isn’t a strong, take-charge feminist, or a mousy sidekick, or any of a thousand other stereotypes and cliches. She is just herself, and it is her character that really grows during the film, partially because of Alvy and partially despite him. Meanwhile, he is left wondering what happened to this woman he thought himself totally superior to, pulling strings that are now connected to a figment of his own imagination. She has moved on to a more fulfilling future, leaving him to replay the trajectory of their relationship in his own favor through his writing, the one thing he can really control.

During its best and most insightful moments, Annie Hall reminded me of two other films: When Harry Met Sally (1989) and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004). Both forego a traditional narrative structure to peel apart the complex layers of serious adult relationships, with varying degrees of profundity. Annie Hall plays like an uncomfortable marriage between When Harry Met Sally‘s comic cutesiness and Eternal Sunshine‘s grim pessimism towards those who do not learn from history. Given a choice, I’d watch either of those films, or Allen’s masterful Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) over a repeat viewing of Annie Hall.

The Verdict: I’ve seen a handful of films from 1977, but I’m missing most of the major awards contenders. There are a few that missed out on most of the attention at the time, like Dario Argento’s fascinating-but-flawed thriller Suspiria, Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which isn’t among my favorites, and Disney’s The Rescuers. There are also several films, like Equus and The Duellists, Killer of Sheep, and Scorsese’s New York, New York, that I remain anxious to see. However, I find myself arriving at what now feels like the inevitable conclusion. Star Wars should have been recognized as the Best Picture of 1977. And, if history is any judge, it has been.

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~ by Jared on August 11, 2012.

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