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Revisiting Diane Keaton's iconic performance in Woody Allen film 'Annie Hall'

Woody Allen’s 1977 romantic comedy Annie Hall is often regarded as one of the best works of the genre, a perfect example of the creative sensibilities of the American New Wave. The filmmaker starred as the obsessively whiny Alvy Singer who cannot stop complaining about the whimsical nature of his life. Although that is an essential part of the allure of a Woody Allen picture, Annie Hall’s magic is often attributed to Diane Keaton.

The project was initially conceived by Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman while they were walking around New York City. It was intended to be an existential investigation of the banality of life, told through a psychoanalytical lens. It was supposed to be called Anhedonia, a psychiatric term for the phenomenon where people no longer derive pleasure from the things that they enjoyed.

As we all know, Annie Hall turned out to be something completely different. Allen was disappointed in the fact that audiences paid more attention to the on-screen relationship that his character shared with Keaton’s but that was undeniably a major factor that helped in maintaining the film’s momentum. Even after all these years, the story of Alvy and Annie reminds us all of what it’s like to be neurotic and in love.

Keaton’s part was written with her specifically in mind, having collaborated with Allen before in films like Play it Again, Sam and Sleeper among others. Despite the fact that the filmmaker has denied that Annie Hall is autobiographical in nature, Allen and Keaton were romantically involved at one point. In addition, Keaton’s childhood nickname was Annie and “Hall” was her original surname.

The constructed character of Annie Hall created a unique persona for Keaton which she felt was the idealised version of herself. We see her armed with a self-deprecating charm with which she disarms us all, including Alvy. Annie stumbles through life in an awkward manner but it’s on the opposite end of the spectrum compared to the awkwardness that Gena Rowlands oozes in John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence. The former makes us smile while the latter haunts us.

“The biggest worry I had making Annie Hall was whether or not I would get in my own way,” Keaton admitted in an interview. “I was afraid that unconsciously I might stop myself of showing the truth because it made me uncomfortable. I wanted to do Annie Hall fully, without worrying what I did wrong in real life.” Annie’s defiance of logic and her ditzy treatment of life puncture and sustain the illusion of cinema simultaneously, something that should technically be impossible.

As many feminist scholars have noted, Keaton’s character is an important symbol of the female presence on the screen. It deconstructs many of the stereotypes that we often associate with the women in cinematic romances. Instead of the archetype of the “goddess”, we are presented with a woman who is real and is beautiful because of her insecurities and her authenticity. It is not enough to say that Keaton does justice to the philosophical rebellion that her character retroactively launches by being in existence, she endearingly owns it.

Keaton ended up winning the prestigious Best Actress award at the Oscars along with several other important accolades. After the enormous success of Annie Hall, the actress attempted to escape the persona that had been created for her by participating in films like Looking for Mr. Goodbar. However, her legacy will always be defined by Annie, considered by many to be one of the finest cinematic performances of all time. Critics have compared her work in Annie Hall to the likes of Anna Karina’s collaborations with Jean-Luc Godard but Keaton’s brilliance exists in a category of its own, reminiscent of André Breton’s Nadja. Despite his griping about the film, it was Allen who summarised Keaton’s performance beautifully: “A nervous breakdown in slow motion.”