Sex and Politics in Annie Hall

Sex and Politics in Annie Hall: Not Essentially a Political Comedy at All

by John Carvill

Annie Hall is densely packed with references and cultural allusions. The scope is wide, taking in literature, philosophy, psychiatry, psychology, drugs, religion, cinema, art, academia, and more. Right at the start of the film, we’re straight into a discussion of Sigmund Freud’s ‘Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious’. Not standard romantic comedy material. This fast-paced and wide-ranging use of references is itself signposted when Annie Hall (Diane Keaton) tells comedian Alvy Singer (Woody Allen), after he’s played a college stand-up gig, how much she enjoyed the show and that, “I think I’m starting to get more of the references, too.” The film also represents a continuation of a number of themes that don’t so much recur in Allen’s films, as run like veins through his whole body of work. Anyone reasonably familiar with Allen’s oeuvre could doubtless very easily fire off a list of common Allen preoccupations which show up in this film, some of the most obvious being: New York (in general, and as opposed to Los Angeles), neurosis, sex, the travails of the nebbish, modern-day male-female relationships, death, existential angst, city versus country, paranoia, the role of the artist, the meaning of life, or lack thereof, etc.

Arguably, the most prevalent theme in Allen’s work in general, and in Annie Hall in particular, is that of Jewish identity. If this is subtly alluded to in the very first lines of Alvy’s opening monologue – the combination of ‘old joke’ and ‘Catskill mountain resort’ clearly signalling Jewishness – a more obvious early instance occurs in the film’s opening scene proper, in which Alvy and his best friend Rob (Tony Roberts) are seen approaching out of the far distance, discussing Alvy’s propensity to “pick up on” nuances of everyday speech which he interprets as making derogatory reference to his Jewish roots:

“You know, I was having lunch with some guys from NBC, so I said, ‘Did you eat yet or what?’, and Tom Christie said, ‘No, JEW?’. Not ‘Did you?’, JEW eat? JEW? No, not ‘Did you eat’, but JEW eat, JEW, you get it? JEW eat…”

Later, when Alvy and Annie are shown meeting for the first time, Alvy nervously accepts Annie’s invitation to come up to her apartment for a glass of wine – despite being “all perspired” – and they make awkward conversation on Annie’s rooftop terrace. Totally oblivious to Alvy’s sensitivities, Annie’s opening gambit proves difficult for him to swallow:

Annie: “You’re what Grammy Hall would call a real Jew!”

Alvy: “Thank you.”

Whole books have probably been written about this theme in Allen’s work, but another topic which has received a lot less attention, certainly in as much as it might be present in Annie Hall, is politics. During a key scene in the film, Alvy tells the audience at a 1960s political rally that he doesn’t know why he’s been invited because he’s “not essentially a political comedian at all.” Similarly, Allen’s films are not often thought of as being very political, and certainly not Annie Hall which is ostensibly a ‘Romantic Comedy’, albeit one far, far removed from the cloying, vacant sludge served up under that faded banner nowadays. Of course, Alvy’s disavowal needs to be taken with a pinch of salt – he is after all addressing a rally in support of Democratic Presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson, in his ultimately unsuccessful attempt to win the Democratic nomination that would eventually go to JFK.

Woody Allen’s earlier films ‘Sleeper’ and ‘Bananas’ both dealt directly with political matters and, while nearly always unambiguously farcical on the surface, this often concealed a more serious undercurrent, as when the trial of Fielding Mellish in Bananas – “a travesty of a mockery of a sham of a mockery of a travesty of two mockeries of a sham” – unmistakably echoed the trial of the Chicago Seven. In Sleeper, Allen’s character is asked whether he has ever been involved in political activism:

Miles, have you ever taken a serious political stand on anything?

Yeah, sure. For 24 hours once, I refused to eat grapes.

Allen himself has on occasion denied any real interest in politics, but he has taken political standpoints in the past, as when he supported George McGovern’s doomed 1972 Presidential campaign. To anyone interested in politics or current affairs, Allen’s political views are easily discernable, making him a long-time favourite hate figure for Conservatives, who have him pegged as the archetypal ‘New York liberal intellectual’, the living embodiment of how Alvy tells Rob the “rest of the country” sees New Yorkers: “like we’re Left-Wing, Communist, Jewish, homosexual pornographers. I think of us that way sometimes, and I live here.” More recently, he has been attacked for speaking out (however mildly) against the invasion of Iraq.

Although he’s certainly a ‘liberal’, and a New Yorker to his bones, Allen has repeatedly attempted to distance himself from any public perception of him as ‘an intellectual’. Playing up his love of sports, he routinely denies that he has any real interest in more cerebral pursuits (despite their prevalence in his work). On the subject of literature, for instance, Allen’s character in ‘Manhattan’ includes Gustave Flaubert’s 19th Century historical novel ‘Sentimental Education’ in his list of things that make life worth living; yet Allen has been quoted as saying he only bothered with books like that in order to impress well-read women: “I read that stuff to keep up with my dates”.

This comes across as a typically glib Woody Allen sound-bite, but in fact hints at something much more complex: the way in which Allen plays around with the relationship between ‘higher’ matters, such as art or world events, and ‘lower’ concerns such as sex. Think of Allen and Keaton in ‘Play It Again Sam’, hanging round the museum:

- Do you realise we’re in a room that holds some of the highest achievements of Western civilisation?

- Yeah, but there’s no girls.

Or, again, Keaton and Allen in ‘Love & Death’:

Boris: Who is to say what is moral?

Sonja: Morality is subjective.

Boris: Subjectivity is objective.

Sonja: Moral notions imply attributes to substances which exist only in relational duality.

Boris: Not as an essential extension of ontological existence.

Sonja: Can we not talk about sex so much?!

What’s interesting, in general, is the unusual, maybe unique way in which Allen often mixes sex and relationships with politics, and this continues in Annie Hall. Throughout the film, peaks and troughs in Alvy’s relationships with women seem to coincide with political events. This puts a new spin on the term ‘sexual politics’. Alvy expresses his antagonism towards his uptight socialite ex-wife Robin by refusing to take her friends seriously, saying he thought the political magazines Commentary and Dissent “had merged and formed Dysentery.” Bored by the highbrow blather at the party, Allen retreats to a bedroom to watch a basketball game on TV. When his wife finds him there, Alvy tries to prevent her from returning to the party, suggesting that they have sex instead:

No, it’ll be great! It’ll be great, be-because all those Ph.D.’s are in there, you know, like … discussing models of alienation and we’ll be in here quietly humping.

When Annie and Alvy are seen amicably splitting up, congratulating each other on how mature they’re being about it, they sort through their possessions, symbolically dis-entangling aspects of each other that they can do without (Annie: “Now let’s see, all the books about death and dying are yours…”). Annie finds a box of badges, of which just one is hers; the rest are relics of Alvy’s political past: ‘Impeach Ronald Reagan’, ‘Impeach Eisenhower’, ‘Impeach Nixon’, ‘Impeach Lyndon Johnson’. Later, Alvy rushes over to Annie’s in the middle of the night – leaving behind Rolling Stone reporter Pam (Shelley Duvall), with whom he’s had ‘Kafkaesque’ sex – and is shocked to find the ‘emergency’ she’s called him over to deal with is a spider in the bathroom. But he’s even more shocked to find a copy of the right-wing ‘National Review’ magazine in Annie’s bedroom. They argue, and he suggests they “get William F Buckley to kill the spider”.

The most memorable melding of sex and politics is the bravura flashback sequence in which we see Alvy’s entire relationship with his other ex-wife, Allison Porchnik (Carol Kane), blossom and then fall apart, all in the course of only a few minutes. They meet at the Adlai Stevenson rally, where Alvy is worried about following another comedian onto the stage, fearing the audience will be “laughed out”. He begins a nervous chatter with Allison, asking if she works full-time for Stevenson. She tells Alvy, no, she’s “in the midst of doing my thesis”, the subject of which is “Political Commitment in 20th Century Literature.” Alvy then insults Allison by labelling her, “like New York, Jewish, left-wing Liberal intellectual, Central Park West, Brandeis University, Socialist summer camps, and the father with the Ben Shahn drawings, right, the really, you know, strike-oriented, kind of… stop me, before I make a complete imbecile of myself.” She says not to worry, she loves “being reduced to a cultural stereotype”, to which Alvy replies, “Right, I’m a bigot, I know, but, for the left.”

After a brief glimpse of Alvy’s stand-up routine, in which he ponders the irony in his having briefly dated a woman in the Eisenhower administration, since he “was trying to do to her, what Eisenhower has been doing to the country for the last eight years”, we see the couple a few years later, now married. Alvy is vexing over the murky details of the JFK assassination:

“It doesn’t make any sense. He drove past the book depository, and the police said conclusively it was an exit wound. So how is it possible for Oswald to have fired from two angles at once? It doesn’t make sense.”

Allison complains that he’s obsessing, that she needs his attention. Alvy begins pacing the room, snapping his fingers as he tells Allison:

“I tell you this: he was not marksman enough to hit a moving target at that range. But….”

Finally Allison loses her patience and throws the accusation at Alvy, “You’re using this conspiracy theory as an excuse to avoid sex with me!” Turning to the camera/audience, Alvy says, “Oh my God – she’s right”.

This last line is cleverly woven back into the continuing narrative, one of the instances in the film where dialogue from one scene overlaps into another, as Alvy wonders, “Why did I turn off Allison….is it the old Groucho Marx joke that I’m, that I just don’t want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member?” Thus the ‘oh my god – she’s right’ line seems to refer both to what Allison has said, as well as to Annie reminding Alvy, when he complained about her excuses for not having sex with him, that he had experienced a decline in his sex-life with Allison, which is what triggered the Allison flashback in the first place.

Ironically, in a classic case of the use of clever passing references in Annie Hall – less ‘blink and you’ll miss it’, more ‘watch the film enough times and you might catch it’ – Annie is resisting Alvy’s sexual advances whilst leafing through Simone de Beauvoir’s ‘The Second Sex’. In any case, political events have book-ended Alvy and Allison’s relationship, one of the deeper ironies being that they met at a rally in support of Adlai Stevenson, who failed to secure the Democratic nomination, becoming instead Kennedy’s Ambassador to the United Nations, where he would play a key role in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Kennedy was later assassinated, and it’s his murder, and Alvy’s inability to accept the Warren Commission’s assessment that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, that acts as a tipping point in Alvy and Allison’s faltering marriage.

Allison’s realisation that Alvy is using the assassination of JFK and its reverberations to avoid having sex with her, parallels Alvy’s realisation that the official story cannot be true, which in turn acts as a microcosm for the whole country’s realisation that something is horribly wrong with the ‘Democracy’ they thought they were living in.

The Presidential assassination was deeply shocking, but the warm blanket of reassurance cast over the country by the Warren Commission’s ‘lone nut’ conclusion quickly became threadbare and ultimately made things worse, for when people came to realise, as they eventually did, that there had been some sort of cover-up, this very fact probably did more to undermine Americans’ confidence in Government, and their way of life, than the assassination itself. Amid this national loss of political innocence, Lyndon Johnson, JFK’s Vice President, was sworn in as his successor on the plane which flew Kennedy’s body back to Washington. Alvy had already expressed his mistrust of Johnson, telling Allison, “Lyndon Johnson? Lyndon Johnson is a politician. You know the ethics those guys have, it’s like a notch underneath child molester!”

In 1971, a PBS TV special which Allen wrote, directed and starred in – ‘The Politics of Woody Allen’ – was withdrawn by the network in what many people interpreted as an act of censorship aimed at avoiding causing offence to Richard Nixon, who Allen lampooned in ‘Sleeper’, telling the cultural museum curator of the future that yes, Richard Nixon had indeed been President, but that after he left each night the Secret Service would “count the silverware”. Allen was quoted as saying that while he admitted some of the routines in the ‘The Politics of Woody Allen’ had been in poor taste, it would be “hard to do anything about the [Nixon] administration that wouldn’t be in bad taste.”

Back at the start of the film, Rob told Alvy, “Max, you see conspiracies in everything.” And although there is little doubt that Allison was right in suspecting that Alvy was concentrating so hard on unravelling the mysteries of the JFK assassination in order to mask his real reasons for avoiding her, it’s also true that there was some sort of conspiracy at work. Allen has used a clever mix of politics and relationships to convey America’s creeping realisation that not only had their president been murdered, but that they were not being told the truth about it.

There’s a fine line between the sort of healthy scepticism that allows characters like ALvy to see through their Government’s lies, and the sort of full-blown paranoia which continued exposure to the uncertainties engendered by that very culture of covert operations and cover ups; when Alvy reflects on the aging process in his opening monologue, he includes in a roster of older character ‘types’ which he might turn out to be, “one of those guys with saliva dribbling out of his mouth who wanders into a cafeteria with a shopping bag screaming about socialism.”

As the old 1960s saying goes, “the personal is political”, and in Annie Hall the political is also highly personal. Towards the end of the film, one of the passers-by whom Alvy stops on the street for advice on his break-up with Annie informs him that Annie is living out in LA with record producer Tony Lacey (Paul Simon). This is too much for Alvy, who spits, “Oh yeah? Well if she is then the hell with her. If she likes that lifestyle let her live there. He’s a jerk, for one thing.” The stranger argues, “He graduated Harvard,” to which Alvy retorts, “He may have… listen, Harvard makes mistakes too you know: Kissinger taught there!” It’s instructive that Alvy’s way of denying the infallibility of Harvard University is distinctly political, and he associates Annie’s abandonment of him, along with her abandonment of cerebral, cultural New York for the vacuous, suburban mentality of LA, with dishonest, discredited right-wing politicians. Thus he feels he has lost Annie in more ways than one.

As Annie would say, “Oh well. La-dee-dah. La-dee-dah. La-la. Yeah.”

‘Annie Hall’ is yet to be issued on Blu-Ray. It is available on DVD, with no extras or commentaries. Woody Allen is on record as regarding such bonus features as ‘extraneous junk’. He’ll crack eventually, though, wait and see.

This entry was posted in Movies and tagged Annie Hall, Diane Keaton, , Politics, Woody Allen.

3 comments to Sex and Politics in Annie Hall

  1. Jeff Cochran says:

    I enjoyed this very much. How’s the site doing? Jeff

  2. Lisa says:

    Isn’t “Impeach Ronald Reagan” an anachronism? This movie was made in the ’70s and Reagan was elected to Presidency in 1980. Hmmm.

  3. admin says:

    Hi Lisa. Reagan was Governor of California at one time, so that’s probably what the badge mentioned in ‘Annie Hall’ referred to. At the time, probably not even Woody could have predicted the darkly comic fact of Regan becoming President of the USA.

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