Diane Keaton's turn as the titular main character made the film into a classic

By Chris Willman
Updated July 26, 2007 at 04:00 AM EDT
  • Movie

The old maxim that ”dying is easy — comedy is hard” has never been truer than at the Oscars, which traditionally favor mortality over mirth. Don’t believe it? This year’s Best Picture win by Shakespeare in Love marked the first time a nominal yukfest has won in 21 years. To find the last comedy the Academy found worthy, you have to go back to the most celebrated example of the Woodman in love — Annie Hall, released on the la-dee-date of April 20, 1977.

As with Shakespeare’s upset over Saving Private Ryan, Hall beat out a Hollywood blockbuster — Star Wars. But what Woody Allen’s picture lacked in box office receipts (it grossed just over $27 million), it made up for in cultural currency — from its est-era psychoanalytical preoccupations to the fashion trendlet spawned by Diane Keaton’s baggy pants and neckties.

It was only through major editing, however, that the film came to resemble the classic we know. Allen and cowriter Marshall Brickman had originally penned a sprawling, surreal script called Anhedonia (named after the psychological term for the inability to experience pleasure) exploring protagonist Alvy Singer’s serial relationship failures. Just one problem with this epic: Anyone who saw dailies of the nearly three-hour rough cut fell hard for Keaton’s borderline-supporting character.

The original film was ”much more of a psychological story of him,” says Tony Roberts, who played Alvy’s best friend, Rob, in Hall. ”But the Annie character became central the more he saw how flexible and wonderful Diane was.” This was no infatuation at first sight for the pair. Allen and Keaton had worked together on stage and screen through the ’70s — even lived together for a year — but, Roberts notes, ”I think he discovered her during the course of this picture, and that’s what you see on screen.”

At the following year’s Academy Awards, Keaton showed up to claim her Best Actress Oscar; not so Best Director winner Allen, claiming, as usual, that he couldn’t miss his jazz combo’s Monday-night gig in Manhattan. Allen would be nominated for Oscars 17 more times over the years, winning just once — a screenplay award for 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters. And after Hall, Allen and Keaton would work together four more times, most recently in 1993’s Manhattan Murder Mystery.

Of all Allen’s films, Hall still resonates most, suggests Roberts, because the budding auteur ”found something very sad and sweet about love affairs. He touched a nerve, because everybody has loved somebody they couldn’t live with and had to say goodbye to.” Notes cowriter Brickman: Someone once said, ”’If you go for the universal, you get nothing; if you go for the specific, you get the universal.’ The setting was very parochial in a way — that whole Upper East Side New York sensibility. It’s as though you’d made a movie about a cult somewhere. But it just clicked.”

Time Capsule – April 20, 1977

ON BROADWAY, the musical Annie, based on Harold Gray’s comic strip Little Orphan Annie, opens the day after Annie Hall hits theaters. The production would continue for a total of 2,377 performances. ON TV, Charlie’s Angels finishes the season at No. 5, the most popular new show of the year…. IN MUSIC, disco queen Thelma Houston is at the top of the pops with ”Don’t Leave Me This Way.” AND IN THE NEWS, President Carter presents a plan to wean America from dependence on oil in favor of alternatives like coal and solar power.

Annie Hall

  • Movie
  • PG
  • 93 minutes
  • Woody Allen