Annie Hall is one of the few examples of a romantic comedy being taken very seriously by film critics and scholars. So seriously was Annie Hall taken at the time of its release that it even managed to pull off that rarest of feats for a romantic comedy: taking home the Oscar for Best Picture. All other things being equal, would Annie Hall stand a chance of winning the hearts of Academy Awards voters today if instead of being one of the all-time classic comedy movies it was instead a recently discovered never-before-seen “lost” Woody Allen film?
Probably not. Almost certainly not, actually.
Annie Hall was just as much a product of its era as other films as diverse in style and content as Chinatown, Taxi Driver or All the President’s Men. Where other filmmakers soaked in the post-1960s countercultural revolution letdown marked by Watergate, assassinations conspiracies and the never-ending war in Vietnam and created a cinema of paranoia and disillusionment characterized by fragmented relationships erupting in violence, Woody looked to the exact same zeitgeist to subvert just about every established convention of the romantic comedy in a way that reflected the 1970s every bit as accurately as the more overtly political films of his peers.
The very first flat-out, non-hybrid romantic comedy to win the Oscar for Best Picture—and the last until Annie Hall—was 1934’s It Happened One Night. Even after the transformation into the romantic comedy genre from the ashes of the Depression-era screwball comedy genre to which is belonged, the conventions the older film instituted remained relatively unchallenged within the mainstream throughout the 1960s and well into the 1970s. Those black & white screwball romances of the 1930s followed a trajectory that was repeated essentially unchanged except for alterations and modifications imposed by the passage of time. Whether played by actors named Gable or Hudson, Doris or Goldie, Burt or Barbra, the romantic comedy was designed to raise and fulfill certain audience expectations. Among other things, the couple would travel a rocky road toward falling in love, an obstacle would arise to pose a serious threat to their future together and that obstacle would be overcome. Overcoming the obstacle would enable the film to supply the quintessential and effectively inviolate requirement of the genre: the happily-ever-after guarantee implicit in the ending which brought the couple back together forever, regardless of the obstacle.
Until Star Wars brought back into vogue the good ol’ dependable dualistic universe of good and evil delineated in starkly unambiguous tones of black and white, 1970s cinema had been a revolution against easy answers, fulfillment of expectations and strict adherence to generic conventions. The 1970s offered revisionist examples of the Western, the War Movie, the Musical, Film Noir, Women’s Melodrama and just about every beloved type of movie. The romantic comedy had been subject to that that revisionist tendency before Alvy and Annie showed up, to be sure, but none had dared to confront the conventions head-on in quite the same way. Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice had, for instance, introduced the element of wife-swapping and free love (though admittedly in a rather tame Doris Day/Rock Hudson-ish sort of way) but is most notable for ending with each original pair of couples intact in isolation from the other couple. Harold & Maude confronted the conventions that the couple either be roughly the same age or the woman be younger than man and, sure enough, dares to violate the requirement of happily ever after, but in a way that ultimately is a pure wimping out through the convenience of death by old age.
What the generic conventions of the romantic comedy that Annie Hall dared to deconstruct were really about was the reinforcement of domesticity of the American Dream. In order to replicate the perfect society represented by democracy and free enterprise, procreation had to be encouraged, but within strictly coded and secured guidelines. Man meets woman, they marry, he gets a great job, she has kids and, when necessary, those kids can be called upon to fight on foreign soil to maintain democracy and free enterprise long enough for the men who survived to come back, meet a woman, get married and replicate the entire process over and over. To suggest that the man and the woman won’t get married and won’t have children together was to implicitly suggest that the story just witnessed was not a comedy, but a tragedy.
Annie Hall starts subverting the comfortable trajectory of the romantic comedy right from the start. Most romantic comedies since sound arrived in Hollywood (and nearly every romantic comedy made today) systemically reject the notion of love at first sight. The couple must first endure a period in which the magnetic appeal that creates attraction be slowly ramped up to speed. Only after arriving at the inevitable realization that they are meant for each other can the short, sweet period of untroubled romantic fantasy commence. Apparently, audiences must be convinced that it is a case of true love before they will accept that the also inevitable obstruction to happily-ever-after could, in fact, pose a serious jeopardy. By contrast, the electricity between Alvy Singer and Annie Hall crackles right from their first meeting. Woody Allen reject the notion that comedy in a romance must be mined from two characters too stupid to realize they are attracted to each other.
The next great convention to be subverted in Allen’s film is the obstacle. In about 95% of the time, this obstacle appears in the form of a rival to one or the other or sometimes both members of the couple. Mitigating circumstances of all varieties may be added to the mix, but somewhere in that mix is the potential for a jealous confrontation and what the filmmakers hope will be a very real possibility that one of the stars will actually wind up with the rival. What was almost unprecedented in the long history of romantic comedies up to Annie Hall—and, in fact, may well have been utterly unprecedented—was the introduction of the obstacle to happily-ever-after arriving not in the form any concrete alternative to finding the happily-ever-after, but in the form of falling out of love.
The obstacle to happily-ever-after in Annie Hall is mere drifting apart…losing interest in one another…realizing, ultimately, that it wasn’t that fairy tale, happily-ever-after one true soulmate kind of love that is the very foundation upon which romantic comedy absolutely must be built upon.
That is what leads to final and ultimate subversion of the genre: Alvy and Annie do not overcome that obstacle and end up together forever by the closing credits. And that is why Annie Hall is one of the few romantic comedies produced by Hollywood that is taken seriously by critics, scholars and even Oscar voters.