On the 40th anniversary of Annie Hall's release, I wish I could issue a gushing plea for everyone to revisit this classic film about two New Yorkers groping their way into (and out of) a relationship. I’d like to praise the sprightly and scatterbrained character of Annie Hall (Diane Keaton): her sunglasses worn indoors like a way-cooler Bono, her reckless driving, her fear of spiders and love of photography. Or rave about Annie Hall’s inventive narrative structure, disrupting the traditional romantic comedy mould with cutaways, non-sequiturs, and breaks in the fourth wall.
I wish I could say that, 40 years on, Annie Hall is the honest, authentic epitome from which all other romantic comedies should be derived. In Annie Hall, we see a couple proceed through every phase of their relationship, from having a blazingly awkward first conversation to forging intimate banter to confronting the inevitability of an end. The rise and fall of Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) and Annie Hall’s romance is earned, built through naturalistic interactions at every stage. Essentially, the movie is steeped with an intimacy one would expect to see only in real life, not on screen.
Oh, I wish I could say all these things — because they’re true. As a work of art, Annie Hall is magnificent. But, unlike ancient statues dug from the ground with nary a signature from their artists, this isn’t art that exists on its own. It’s a product of its star and writer: Woody Allen, the Hollywood legend who's created so many iconic works of comedic cinema. And for its inseparability from the man, I can’t justify raving about Annie Hall, even while I recognise its artistry.
Trust me, though: It took me some time to come to this conclusion. For a while, I was caught in the web of Allen's craft, hypnotised like I’d fallen under a spell. What woke me up was a throwaway line that comes at the end of Annie Hall.
After Alvy’s arrested in L.A., his childhood friend reluctantly picks him up from jail. Clearly, Alvy has interrupted something. As we find out, what Alvy interrupted his friend's steamy rendezvous with 16-year-old twins. At that, I cringed in my seat. I remembered what I was watching, and who wrote it.
What a juxtaposition we find ourselves in. Woody Allen has written such vibrant, interesting women characters, ones whose legacies live off the screen, with Annie Hall as the most shining example.
And yet, Allen remains at the centre of a maelstrom of sexual assault accusations. These accusations came to a head when Dylan Farrow, Woody Allen’s adopted daughter with Mia Farrow, published an open letter in The New York Times describing, in graphic detail, her assault at the hands of her father. At the end of the letter, Farrow implicates all fans of Allen’s work when she says, “So imagine your 7-year-old daughter being led into an attic by Woody Allen. Imagine she spends a lifetime stricken with nausea at the mention of his name. Imagine a world that celebrates her tormenter.”
Unsurprisingly, Farrow’s letter unleashed a media storm of friends coming to Allen's defence, celebrities evading questions about their relationship to him, and fans' undergoing no small amount of soul-searching. And then, as the media tends to do, the focus moved to other, more glistening controversies, without doing Allen’s career substantial damage. Since 2014, Allen has unveiled Magic in the Moonlight, Cafe Society, and An Irrational Man, three star-studded movies. Clearly, Hollywood has forgiven Woody Allen — or at least seems to have stored the long history of accusations against him in some part of the brain where, like email passwords and coworkers’ birthdays, things are easily forgotten.
In 2016, Ronan Farrow, Allen's son with Mia Farrow, wrote his own plea for recognising Dylan's allegations in a column for The Hollywood Reporter. Farrow states his position plainly: "I believe my sister," he writes. But this isn't just about sibling loyalty, as Farrow elaborates. It's about confronting the inaction from media and A-listers that currently buffers and protects Allen's reputation. This kind of complacency has repercussions far beyond Allen himself, as Ronan insists, it's also about "[building] a culture where women like my sister are no longer treated as if they are invisible." Dylan's silencing sends a devastating signal to all women and sexual assault victims: If the assailant is powerful or well-respected enough, you will be ignored.
Should we separate art from the artist? I can’t speak for Emma Stone or Blake Lively, who both recently starred in Allen’s films, but I can speak for myself. In Annie Hall, Allen’s character constantly breaks the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience. After reading Ronan and Dylan's words about their father, I didn’t want him to speak to me.
At this point in the Woody Allen controversy, I’m unable to separate the art from the artist. I can't just pop some popcorn, watch Annie Hall, and stay silent. And in light such harrowing accounts from two of his children, how can anyone?
For that, I won’t be watching his new films, or celebrating Annie Hall’s 40th anniversary. Rather, I’m mourning the loss of this film, whose artistic genius is overshadowed by the questionable character at its helm.
Annie Hall was released in cinemas on April 20, 1977.