The primary piece of background information anyone who was not around when it was first released into theaters needs to know is that before Annie Hall, Woody Allen was considered a very fine writer and director of not so much wholly coherent narratives as much as loosely connected set pieces. Hysterically funny set pieces, to be sure, but until Annie Hall, enjoying a Woody Allen was not dissimilar to watching a sketch show. Except, of course, that the sketches, in most cases, did tend to be related to each other rather than existing in isolation.
Make no mistake: Annie Hall is also essentially just a collection of a set of pieces, but they connect more smoothly, the type of humor is more consistent, and, most importantly as far as marking an evolutionary jump for Woody Allen, the integrity of the narrative is sacrificed for the sake of a joke. What sets Annie Hall apart from the Woody Allen movies preceding is less about rejecting the style that got him to that point than it is about learning how to integrate the various components of that style more seamlessly.
That Woody’s style seems to be an evolving adaptation of the sketch comedy brand of the presentation should not be surprising since he perfected the craft of writing short sketches in the writing of the 1950s King of Sketch Comedy TV, Sid Caesar. Allen’s TV background likely has much to do with why his movies before Annie Hall play so much better when watched on TV with commercials than when viewed in one sitting. The commercials form natural breaks between those set pieces without creating any noticeable interruption in the narrative flow.
The same does not apply to Annie Hall. A very effective means of seeing for oneself exactly how Annie Hall represents an evolution and maturation in Woody Allen’s filmmaking abilities is to conduct a little experiment. Try watching one of his earlier films like Bananas or Love and Death (not Everything You Wanted to Know About Sex but was Afraid to Ask, however, because that one is unapologetically a sketch comedy movie featuring independent and unrelated sections) back to back with Annie Hall first without commercial interruptions and then with them. You won’t even need to watch the movies all the way through to get how this experiment produces opposite reactions.
The background of Annie Hall is a story that overflows with elements of the opposition. For instance, to use one meaning of that word, Woody Allen wrote the script and planned to release the completed movie under the title “Anhedonia” which is a psychological term used to describe the actual inability of a person to experience a pleasure. United Artists executives quite predictably opposed that plan. The final choice for the title is partly inspired by the fact that star Diane Keaton’s actual last name is Hall.
Then there is the natural opposition that Oscar voters continually direct to the concept that a funny movie might well be the best movie of the year. Using a loose definition of the term comedy movie that categorically rejects the inclusion of musicals, only six such films had been named Best Picture by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences before the 1979 ceremony recognizing films released in 1977. Using a scale for determining what constitutes a movie comedy using Annie Hall as the baseline for comparison, Oscar voters had expressed opposition to the idea of naming a comedy the Best Picture of the Year on all but three occasions before 1978.
As previously stated, the Academy Awards ceremony broadcast in 1978 honored the movies released in 1977. Another important piece of background information on Annie Hall to keep in mind is that 1977 was the year that saw the release of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third King. In other words, 1977 is universally recognized as one of the three or four most significant years in the history of Hollywood filmmaking; the year that launched the Era of the Blockbuster and forever changed everything about the movies from their content to the way they are marketed.
Oscar voters kept their unbroken streak of either refusing to recognize or being incapable of recognizing such transformative moments in the industry they are charged with rewarding when they instead engaged in an exhibition of almost unprecedented iconoclasm at the 1978 Oscar telecast. Not only did they reject what many were already describing as the wave of the future, but they also rejected their long history by handing out the awards for Best Picture and Best Director to neither the upstart sci-fi blockbusters nor the safety of one of their beloved sincerely self-important dramas.
And as if naming a Woody Allen movie the best film of the year wasn’t iconoclastic enough, Oscar voters also decided that when it was finally time to choose a romantic comedy as Best Picture again—for the first time since the early 1930s—it would be a romantic comedy in which the couple does not end up together at the end!
The groundbreaking nature of the Academy Awards' decision to recognize Annie Hall as the best movie of 1977 was a bold move, no doubt. But even more remarkable was how Allen was able to weave his comedic set pieces and sketches into a cohesive narrative that was still able to maintain its comedic integrity. Allen's script was full of zingers, and the movie featured some of the most memorable comedic scenes of the 1970s such as Alvy's childhood flashback, the lobster scene at the restaurant, and the tennis match between Alvy and Diane Keaton's character (complete with Allen's trademark neurotic monologues).
The movie also featured a unique blend of comedy and drama, with scenes like Alvy's breakup with Annie and his nervous breakdown in the phone booth providing a dramatic backdrop for the more lighthearted moments of the movie. This blend of comedy and drama is something that had rarely been seen in movies up to that point, and it was something that Allen was able to pull off without coming across as too schmaltzy or too silly.
In addition to the comedic and dramatic elements of the movie, Allen's direction was also groundbreaking. He used a variety of innovative techniques, including split screens, jump cuts, and montages, that had never been seen before in a movie. He also incorporated a variety of camera angles and shot sizes, which had rarely been seen in a comedy up to that point.
Overall, Annie Hall was a remarkable achievement in filmmaking, and its impact is still felt in today's movies. As a result, it's no surprise that it was able to break through the Academy Awards' traditional resistance to comedy movies, and it stands as an example of how a brilliantly crafted movie can be both funny and emotionally resonant.