Where Forgotten Films Dwell

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Monday, November 23, 2009


Directed by Woody Allen
The United States of America

Leonard Zelig: I've never flown before in my life, and it shows exactly what you can do, if you're a total psychotic!

I wonder, at times, what it would be like to be Woody Allen. It must be nice to be one of the greatest comedic geniuses of the 20th century. But in earning his accolades he has become his own punch line. He consistently plays one character in his movies: himself. His comedy is always about two things: himself and how messed up he is. His movies are always about three things: himself, how messed up he is, and how hard it is for him to fit into society. Notice a pattern? Certainly, many comedians rose to fame with self-deprecating humor. But whereas comedians like Rodney Dangerfield and Richard Pryor end their shows with a smile and a bow, Allen always seemed to frown and shuffle offstage. It makes one think, “How much is he actually joking?” The man has been in psychotherapy for over thirty years. He has had several turbulent relationships that always result in scandal. When he says, “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering – and it's all over much too soon,” we get a feeling that he truly believes it. Maybe Woody Allen is not a great comedian. Maybe he is the world's funniest nutjob.

But that is what makes the Woody Allen persona so endearing: we want to know what makes him tick. Thankfully, as I have already mentioned, he has been most gracious in diving into his own psyche in most of his movies. Many fans will point to Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979) as some of his most autobiographical work. They are both fine films, to be sure. But neither one of them explains his motivations for what he does. Oh, Annie Hall explains that he is neurotic because he fears relationships and so on and so on, but why? A bizarre childhood is mentioned, but it never seems to justify the destruction of his relationship with Diane Keaton. No, if you truly want to understand Woody Allen, I would recommend watching Zelig, one of his best and most under-appreciated masterpieces. Even though the film isn't about Woody Allen being Woody Allen, it explores his motivations as a person better than any other film he ever made.

The plot concerns a man named Leonard Zelig who has the great (mis)fortune to live in the United States in the 1920s and 30s. He becomes somewhat of an overnight celebrity for a talent that he picked up during his youth. Well, it's not so much a talent as a disorder. He has a strange ability to completely change his appearance to match those around him. I don't mean to imply that he is a master of disguise. He literally changes. When surrounded by two overweight men, he suddenly gains over a hundred pounds. When confronted by black men (or “Negroes” as the movie refers to them) his skin literally changes color. When he is around “Chinamen” his features become pale, his eyes stretch out, and he begins to act like one of them.

Zelig as a fat man, a "Negro", and a Scotsman.

These are not just physical changes. It affects his speech patterns and thought processes as well. While at a party hosted by F. Scott Fitzgerald, he begins to adopt upper class mannerisms and a Boston accent. When he is confronted by doctors, he assumes the identity of a doctor. During a session with a psychiatrist Dr. Eudora Fletcher, he actually begins to speak of mental diseases and patients that he must get back to (“I worked with Freud in Vienna. We broke over the concept of penis envy. Freud felt that it should be limited to women.”). Leonard Zelig is dubbed a “human chameleon.”

Zelig as a Native American

The remaining plot is fairly simple to work out: he is sent to a mental hospital where Dr. Fletcher tries to cure him (“I have an interesting case. I'm treating two sets of Siamese twins with split personalities. I'm getting paid by eight people.”). Money-hungry relatives spirit him away to Europe where they turn him into a high society freak show. They are tragically killed and Zelig is sent back to the States where he undergoes more therapy with Dr. Fletcher. They fall in love, Zelig is cured, and they get married. But people come forward to accuse him of crimes that he committed when he was still a “chameleon.” He tries to apologize and set things straight (“My deepest apology goes to the Trochman family in Detroit. I... I never delivered a baby before in my life, and I... I just thought that ice tongs was the way to do it.”) The pressure makes him relapse. He disappears. A nationwide manhunt is started for him. But he eventually shows up in the Vatican as one of the Pope's protégées, then as a high-ranking member of the Nazi Party. Dr. Fletcher goes to Germany, attends a rally, and finds Zelig seated next to Hitler. He recognizes her, they escape to a plane, and try to fly away. Unfortunately, Dr. Fletcher is knocked out, so Zelig transforms into an airplane pilot. He escapes from Germany and flies all the way back to the States while setting the world record for fastest trans-Atlantic flight made while upside down. Zelig is named a hero, and the two live happily ever after.

Zelig is a marked departure from much of Allen's other work. It is filmed as a documentary with a narrator giving us the details of Zelig's life. Interspersed throughout are interviews with people that Zelig “knew” back in the Twenties and Thirties. Most of the time we see Zelig it is in old newsreel footage, tattered pictures, and grainy voice recordings. Instead of re-staging historical events, Allen used state of the art technology to insert him into historical footage. The scene with Hitler was especially well executed as Hitler pauses during a speech and appears to look right at him. This was all done with old-fashioned blue-screen technology that took so long to complete, that Allen was able to film A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982) and Broadway Danny Rose (1984) while the effects were still being finished. But it paid off magnificently. Allen was so perfectly inserted into historical films and pictures that not once did it seem fake or phony. For the scenes that were not based in historical footage, Allen used real cameras, lenses, and sound equipment from the 1920s to mimic the eras films. In order to properly age the film, the negatives were showered, stomped on, and even scrunched up. The result is a documentary that is so convincing that we frequently forget that we are watching Woody Allen. Well, almost.

Zelig with Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover

The one-liners are classic Woody Allen. And, of course, there are psychotherapy scenes. It is during these scenes that Dr. Fletcher is able to discover why Zelig transforms the way he does. “I want to be liked,” he moans during a hypnotherapy session. Therein is the key to Zelig, he transforms so that people will accept him and simultaneously leave him alone. Quite a paradox, to be sure, but as the sessions continue, it becomes clearer and clearer why Zelig is so desperate to fit in. During his childhood, he was a constant recipient of abuse (“As a boy, Leonard Zelig is frequently bullied by anti-Semites. His parents, who never take his part and blame him for everything, side with the anti-Semites.”). Never able to get the attention or support that he craved, his body developed the ability to transform so that people will no longer abuse him and instead accept him into the fold.

Now, consider the case of Woody Allen. He had a difficult childhood marred by a temperamental mother who frequently fought with his father. He grew up speaking Yiddish and going to Hebrew School before transferring to the public system. He earned the attention of his peers with magic tricks and comedic routines. His comedy began to reflect his pain. He once joked that at an inter-faith summer camp, he was “sadistically beaten by boys of all races and creeds.” At 19 he began to write for The Ed Sulliven Show, The Tonight Show, and even Caesar's Hour. After further developing his standup talents, he began writing for Candid Camera, then moving on to writing for The New Yorker, and finally penning Broadway plays. He starred in his first film, What's New, Pussycat (1965) and the rest is history.

Woody Allen developed comedy as a means to escape his scarred past and get ahead in life. He turned himself into a giant joke and in the process gained wealth and success. He could disappear into films and created characters where people would pay to see him. By embracing fantasy, he was able to conquer reality. Or did he? After all, he's still in therapy. He still has issues. Unlike Zelig, he cannot disappear from the public eye. But like Zelig, he can tolerate the public eye by transforming. Zelig can transform. Allen can crack a joke. But really, it's all a front. As Allen once said, “My one regret in life is that I am not someone else.



  1. I remember a Twilight Zone episode with a very similar plot. Maybe the occasional desire to be someone else (a specific someone or not) is part of being human.

  2. Possibly. But I feel like the Woody Allen character is supposed to represent Woody Allen. He denies it, of course, but we don't believe him.

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