We all love Annie Hall 40 years on

It's everyone's favourite Woody Allen film, voted funniest screenplay ever. Forty years after Annie Hall was released, Nathan Abrams considers its lasting appeal.


In Annie Hall, Alvy Singer, played by Woody Allen, tells a joke about two elderly women at a Catskills mountain resort.

“And one of ’em says: ‘Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.’ The other one says: ‘Yeah, I know, and such small portions.’ Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life. Full of loneliness and misery and suffering and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly.”

Annie Hall was released 40 years ago, on April 27 1977. Since then it has established itself as an iconic film in the history of the genre of romantic comedy. It is regularly cited as one of the greatest film comedies of all time. It has also become a key movie of Woody Allen’s career.

At the 1978 Academy Awards, it won Oscars for Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, and Best Actress. In 2015, it was voted the funniest screenplay ever by the Writers Guild of America. As film critic Roger Ebert said, it is “just about everyone’s favourite Woody Allen movie.”

Why has Annie Hall proved so popular? Part of the answer lies in what we know about Woody Allen. Annie Hall emerged from what is considered the richest period of Allen’s career, sandwiched between the madcap Diane Keaton days, typified by such fare as Bananas and the more melancholic, darker and depressive era following his break up with Mia Farrow.

The revelations concerning Allen’s personal life, his relationship with Farrow’s adopted daughter, tarnished his reputation irrevocably for many. His reputation as an auteur has declined, given that so many of his films post-1992 have been received so poorly. Annie Hall, though, stands apart. It hails from the richest period in Allen’s film-making career that has spanned decades. It is also untainted by scandal.

But the main answer lies in its intrinsic value. Annie Hall pioneered what Nora Ephron called a “Jewish” tradition of romantic comedy. In the “Christian” tradition there are genuine obstacles in the path of true love, but in the Jewish one there are no built-in external obstacles. Rather it is the internal neuroses of the (male) protagonist that stand in the way, and create the Sturm und Drang of the relationship.

Annie Hall combines humour with serious commentary on life. Allen provides lofty philosophical speculation about love and relationships. At the same time, he reminds us of immediate physical sensations and instinctual urges.

Emotional and psychological hunger reaffirm the vitality of life and provide a foil to the more sterile and futile intellectual philosophising.

And, typically, his frame of reference, as befitting a good Jewish boy, is food and eating.

In another joke he tells us how, “This guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, ‘Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy. He thinks he’s a chicken.’ And the doctor says, ‘Well, why don’t you turn him in?’ And the guy says, ‘I would, but I need the eggs.’ Well, I guess that’s pretty much how I feel about relationships. You know, they’re totally irrational and crazy and absurd . . . but, I guess we keep going through it because, most of us need the eggs.”

Allen puts Jews up on screen in a way that held a mirror up to our worst and best natures. In the classic Grammy Hall sequence, Allen compared Jewish behaviour with goyish genteel manners.

Starting a trope that is often replicated in contemporary cinema, Alvy is invited to the house of Annie’s WASP parents for an Easter meal.

Everything there conspires to remind him that he is a Jew of low status, both in the Halls’ and in his own eyes.

Annie’s family sit around a brightly-lit dining room table, each politely listening to each other in turn, as they talk about boating and swap-meets (flea markets).

Dominating the table is an enormous ham. Desperate to fit in, to pass, Alvy has mimicked what he believes to be the correct attire of WASP gentiles: a sports jacket and checked shirt. The opening line spoken by Annie’s mother (Colleen Dewhurst) to Grammy Hall (Helen Ludlam) captures the milieu and values of the Halls’ all-American suburban home and the family’s latent social, class, ethnic, and psychological discomfort over Alvy’s Jewishness: “It’s a nice ham, this year, Mom.”

Feeling like a fish out of water and desperate to fit in, Alvy compliments Grammy Hall on her “dynamite ham.” Of course, as the quintessential treif meat dish, he has probably never tried it.

The utter failure of this gesture, as well as of his sartorial mimicry, is underlined when Allen imagines Alvy imagining Grammy (whom he describes as “a classic Jewish hater”) imagining Alvy dressed in the long black coat and hat of a Charedi Jew, complete with beard and peyot.

He then attempts to make a joke in response to Mom’s reference to his 15 years in psychoanalysis: “Yes, I’m making excellent progress. Pretty soon when I lie down on his couch, I won’t have to wear the lobster bib.” The (similarly treif) joke falls flat, compounding Alvy’s ambivalent feelings of alienation from, yet envy of, Annie’s über-WASP Midwestern family, which he sees as stereotypically healthy and American, solid and wholesome, but also as bland as “white bread.”

Alvy’s direct address to the camera to describe the family not only violates Hollywood convention but also conveys his distance from this hostile and gentile social setting.

We then see Alvy’s family in a split screen which serves to emphasise the differences. The Singers literally dominate as they squeeze the Halls into one-third of the screen. The lower-middle-class Singer family home is warm, full of menshlikeit, affectionate, loving, exuberant, animated, verbose, and indelicate.

Ordinary conversations are conducted in loud voices, body language lacks reserve. Everyone is talking at once and they continually interrupt each other. They argue heatedly, usually with food in their mouths. His mother doesn’t even sit down!

In contrast, the all-American Halls are tight-lipped, slightly inebriated, sedate and polite. While the Halls speak of swap-meets and boating, the Singers discuss failure and disease.

Alvy’s awkward, nebbish Jewishness is reinforced when he and Annie prepare a lobster dinner at a beach house in the Hamptons. The crustaceans crawl on the kitchen floor as, fearful, Alvy attempts to avoid them. “Maybe we should just call the police. Dial 911. It’s the lobster squad,” he pleads.

When he realises that one big lobster has crawled behind the refrigerator, he’s scared. “It’ll turn up in our bed at night. Talk to him. You speak shellfish…Annie, there’s a big lobster behind the refrigerator. I can’t get it out…Maybe if I put a little dish of butter sauce here with a nutcracker, it will run out the other side?… We should have gotten steaks, ’cause they don’t have legs. They don’t run around.”

In a reversal of the Easter dinner and lobster debacle, Alvy takes Annie to a Jewish delicatessen. With no idea of how to order “properly” in such an establishment, she requests pastrami on white bread “with mayonnaise, tomatoes, and lettuce.”

The joke works on two levels. By asking to have it with mayonnaise on white bread Annie has violated the New York Jewish minhag, which prescribes that pastrami must be eaten on rye bread with mustard. As comic Milton Berle quipped: “Anytime a person goes to a delicatessen and orders a pastrami on white bread, somewhere a Jew dies.” Alvy visibly winces as she orders, and Annie’s sandwich symbolises the cultural rift between them, hinting at the problems that their relationship will face in attempting to merge “oil and water”.

Jewish comedy on film would not be the same without Annie Hall. Any number of films which feature gentile-Jewish romances from Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally to Meet the Parents, or any other Ben Stiller film for that matter, to Knocked Up, draw upon Annie Hall.

It set up the conventions to be endlessly copied over the years. Its classic scenes have entered the pop cultural lexicon. Lobsters, “dynamite ham” and, above all, how Allen plays with stereotypes of Jews and goys.

Nathan Abrams is Professor of Film Studies at Bangor University

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