Sunday, February 26, 2012

Annie Hall

Back when I was an usher at the Alpha 3 Theater in Louisville, one of my favorite parts of the job was changing the marquee. The Alpha 3 was tucked away in one corner of the Holiday Manor shopping center, but it had a free-standing marquee out in the parking lot that could be easily seen from the road. I had to climb a ladder to the catwalk beneath the marquee while hauling up a canvas bag filled with foot-high wooden letters. I always tried to reuse as many letters from the old movie's title as possible, because the bag could get pretty cumbersome.

I loved being up there by myself at night in the light of the big sign, rearranging the letters to spell out the new title. The marquee was like a beacon, sending out an important message that could be seen from far and wide. And I was the beacon master. I'll never forget the night I put up the title of the latest Woody Allen movie. I felt so cool, like I was taking part in something historic. The movie was Annie Hall.

I have always been a big fan of Woody Allen movies, especially the early, funny ones. I learned much of what I know about comedy from Woody. And his recurring theme of the short, scrawny nebbish who consistently winds up with amazing, beautiful women was very inspirational. I have used this theme as the basis for most of my screenplays.

Speaking of amazing, beautiful women, my most favorite part of working at Alpha 3 was being around Christy, who worked the box office. She and I had known each other for years -- we'd been in classes together all through high school -- but we never really spent much time together. We came from different sides of the social divide. Christy hung out with the preppies and I was one of the nerds. But, senior year we ended up working side by side at Alpha 3 and, just like in the movies, we fell in love.

The summer after senior year was idyllic. Christy and I went running together, we swam at her country club, we went to movies and parties. We watched fireworks, held hands, sat under shady trees, walked along the riverside. We worked together, played together, dreamed together. We saw Annie Hall together, and loved it.

That fall, we went our separate ways. She went to North Carolina and I went to Connecticut. Our relationship did not survive the distance. I made a grand and romantic gesture, hitchhiking down to North Carolina in an attempt to win her back, but it was a miserable diaster. I had lost her to a guy wearing plaid pants. I was a wreck.

At the end of Annie Hall, Woody tells an old joke about a guy who goes to a psychiatrist because his brother thinks he's a chicken. The doctor says, "why don't you turn him in?" The guy replies, "we need the eggs." Woody says that's how he feels about relationships: "They're totally irrational and crazy and absurd but, I guess we keep going through it because, most of us need the eggs."

Annie Hall is filled with moments like that. There's a joke, but at the same time there's a nugget of truth. It's funny and serious at the same time. Kind of like life. Woody breaks every rule in the book in Annie Hall, and invents some new ones in the process. Woody talks to the audience, he enters into his own flashbacks and interacts to the characters from his past, he lets takes roll for three to four times longer than in conventional movies, he uses subtitles, animation, voice-over, split screen. It's a tour-de-force of stylistic gimmicks. But it all works. And it's all funny.

Annie Hall won four Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay.  That's a pretty rare achievement, especially for a comedy. So many moments in the movie have become iconic: the scene with the duelling psychiatrists, the subtitle scene, the lobster scene, the coke sneeze, "I forgot my mantra." Woody's comparisons of New York and LA have been the basis for standup comics' routines for decades.

So what do you do after Annie Hall? Well, if you're Woody Allen, you make another movie. Then another, then another. Woody went on to make Manhattan two years later and Hannah and Her Sisters a few years after that. Hannah also won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Woody has made over 40 movies and received 23 Oscar nominations, 15 for screenwriting -- more than any other writer. This year he is nominated once again for Midnight in Paris, for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. And, at the age of 76, he is currently working on his next movie.

I recently saw a documentary on PBS about Woody that provided a fairly comprehensive overview of his long and highly productive career. Woody started out writing jokes for money when he was in high school and hasn't stopped working since. He still uses the same Olympia typewriter he bought when he was 16, and has written every one of his screenplays on it, along with several books, plays, and hundreds and hundreds of jokes.

Woody graduated from gag writing to writing for TV, working with Mel Brooks, Neil Simon, Larry Gelbart and Sid Ceasar. He then made the move to standup comedy at his manager's insistence -- to make him a household name. In furtherance of this strategy, Woody wrote a part for himself in his first screenplay, What's New Pussycat? But Woody didn't like the way the movie turned out, so on his next movie he asked for, and received, complete control. And he has maintained it ever since.

Woody's "early, funny" movies, like Bananas, Sleeper, and Love and Death, were broad comedies filled with slapstick and farce. But Annie Hall was a gamechanger. In addition the array of stylistic innovations, Woody infused the comedy with serious undertones and a startling sense of honesty. He raised the bar for all romantic comedies to come. He really showed us all how well it could be done.

Toward the end of my idyllic summer with Christy, we were coming out of the Alpha 3 one night and Christy asked me to join her in her car. It was an orange AMC Hornet, parked underneath the marquee out in the parking lot. I got into the passenger seat and she handed me a present. I didn't know what it was for. She just said, "open it." I unwrapped it, opened the box and found an egg inside. I must have looked confused, so she explained, "you know, 'cause we need the eggs." Maybe she was trying to tell me something, but I just thought it was really cool.

In one of the final scenes in Annie Hall, Woody is watching a rehearsal between two actors who look a lot like him and Diane Keaton. Their lines echo his final breakup with Diane from a previous scene, except for one major difference. In the play version the actress jumps up at the last minute and tells the actor that she loves him and doesn't want to leave him.

Woody turns to the camera and says, "you know how you're always trying to get things to come out perfect in art because, it's real difficult in life." I guess that's true. In almost all of my screenplays the nerdy guy ends up with the amazing girl at the end. In real life, though, they always seem to get away. I haven't seen Christy in years, but I'll never forget that idyllic summer, or watching Annie Hall with her, or her giving me that egg.

There's an old joke... two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of them 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.