Oscar night, April 3, 1978: it was the fiftieth time the stars of Hollywood gathered to celebrate the movies of the previous year. Tied for the most nominations (11) were a ballet melodrama directed by Herbert Ross and a Fred Zinnemann film about a pre-World War II anti-Nazi mission. The second-most nominations (10) went to a George Lucas space opera, the most financially successful movie of the year, well on its way to becoming one of the most successful movies ever made. The other two films in the Best Picture race were a Neil Simon romantic comedy, also directed by Herbert Ross, and a romantic comedy from Woody Allen.
This was the year Annie Hall beat Star Wars. In the three categories in which the two films went head-to-head, Annie Hall won everything (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay). However, Star Wars won more awards overall, succeeding in six categories (Best Original Score, Best Costume Design, Best Sound Mixing, Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing, Best Visual Effects). Diane Keaton won Annie Hall‘s fourth trophy, for Best Actress. I haven’t researched the history of that year’s Oscar campaign and can’t speak to exactly how things shook out the way they did. But seeing that a couple generations have now grown up in the post-Star Wars era of Hollywood blockbusters, it’s easy to imagine a lot of people consider this one of Oscar’s great injustices. I’m here to correct that misapprehension, or at the very least to eradicate this planet of those people who (1) think Star Wars was robbed and (2) have not seen Annie Hall. If you belong only to one group or the other, I will permit you to continue existing comfortably; I hope to persuade you to abandon both. What better way to accomplish this than with a Double Feature consisting of these two very, very, very different films.
Annie Hall was a creative experiment and a significant breakthrough for Woody Allen. He was already a success in the realm of film comedy, but now he wanted to branch out into the more serious subject of modern relationships, without abandoning what had already worked. The resulting film is cinematically audacious. This is the one in which Allen tried basically everything — animation, split-screens, subtitles, double exposure, fourth-wall-blasting flashbacks, stand-up routines — and it all serves the story. Even though the broad sweep of the relationship between the two main characters, Annie Hall and Allen‘s Alvy Singer, takes the focus away from making the audience laugh every few seconds, critics still frequently cite this as one of the greatest comedies ever made. The humor is intelligent and cutting — occasionally esoteric, although I don’t think those unfamiliar with Federico Fellini or Franz Kafka will miss much. Allen takes dead aim at himself, more than anything else, shining a light on his own fears and insecurities.
The word most often associated with Allen’s personality is “neurotic.” That word certainly applies to his alter ego in this film, but it also applies to the title character. The brilliance of the film’s plot is that the two characters’ similarities, what initially attract them to each other, end up causing most of their conflicts. Many of those conflicts are about sex. Herein lies the most subversive reason for an Annie Hall/Star Wars double bill. The latter, clearly, appeals to kids. The former most certainly does not. Allen incorporates candid discussions on sexuality into this and others of his films. Nowhere else than the bedroom can a person’s self-confidence and comfort with intimacy be so tested. Nowhere else, perhaps, are a person’s flaws so impossible to hide, and in this Allen finds priceless humor. This is a romantic comedy with emphasis on the comedy; few films in the genre are so ambivalent about the benefits of romance and the possibility of keeping it going. It’s a shot in the arm, but it finds its own bliss. Allen gives an offhand comment before his closing joke in the film; I won’t spoil it, but it really struck me on my most recent viewing.
One of the main draws of Annie Hall is its dialogue. I wish I could say the same for Star Wars, but this film displays a different kind of intelligence. It’s really superfluous to point out how George Lucas harnessed so much of what makes movies exciting, weaving together chivalric tales, science-fiction fireworks, religious symbolism, and dogfights in space into something that still leaps off the screen. In some ways it’s a mixed blessing that this film set the standard for the summer blockbuster/franchise — telling a story with an unmistakable beginning, middle and end while leaving plenty of narrative threads to be tied off in future installments — but it’s inevitable that truly daring, standout films will be copied with diminishing returns, sometimes by their own creators. At any rate, Star Wars itself survives because it captures the thirst for adventure, a journey from dead-end frustration to discovery to peril to ultimate victory, stirring the imagination in a fundamental way. And when it comes to the Force, Lucas has his hero doing nothing less than harnessing the power of the universe itself, a universe the sight of which tends to make us humans feel very small.
It’s hard for someone who grew up with this film to be objective about the iconic status of the characters, weapons, and story. It’s not particularly illuminating to mention how thrilling I find the look and sounds of a lightsaber, for example. But I think I can see some things more clearly with each passing year. The character that really stood out to me the last time I saw this film is R2-D2. Beloved, yes, and amazingly funny for someone who doesn’t speak and has limited mobility. But until Luke Skywalker blows up the Death Star, R2-D2 is, quite simply, the most important figure in the rebellion against the empire. He (She? It? Hmm…) carries the message from Princess Leia to Obi-Wan Kenobi, ensures that only its intended recipient hears the full message, rescues our heroes from the trash compactor, and carries the schematic of the Death Star that informs the rebels’ entire battle strategy. We can chalk it up to good programming, but R2-D2 seems well-aware of the importance of all this. Somehow, I got the impression that, with the possible exception of Kenobi, R2-D2 was always the wisest person in the room. C-3PO wouldn’t last a day without the squat fellow.
I can’t write a takedown of Star Wars or pretend I think Annie Hall is vastly superior. I love both films. We all need to take the Oscars less seriously; clearly, Star Wars has not suffered irreparable harm from being passed over for an award. On the other hand, I hope we can all be grateful for the recognition Annie Hall received. The Oscars traditionally have a blind spot toward comedies, and very few have ever won the top award. Allen takes a few jabs at Hollywood and southern California in his film, which makes the award even more noteworthy. He didn’t attend the ceremony. All told, Annie Hall is about as far from “Oscar-bait” as you can get. If you’re ever in the mood for a weird yet entertaining and totally unique evening, watch both these movies.