Before there was Forrest Gump shaking hands with John F. Kennedy there was Leonard Zelig interrupting a speech by Adolf Hitler. This 1983 faux-documentary from Woody Allen tells the tale of a strange little man who wanted so badly to fit in that he was able to change like a chameleon to blend in with his surroundings, whether that meant being a musician in a black band, a psychiatrist in a mental institution, or a member of the Nazi party. Mia Farrow co-stars as Dr. Eudora Fletcher, who not only treats Zelig with her radical psychiatric theories but eventually falls in love with the lovable loser, saving him from those who want to put him on display so people can watch Leonard turn Chinese, French or obese.
Cinematographer Gordon Willis deserves a lot of the credit for "Zelig," creatively aging his film to blend with the archive footage that has Leonard rubbing elbows with Fanny Brice, Charles Chaplin and Rudolf Hess. This "documentary" includes "contemporary" interviews with Dr. Fletcher (Ellen Garrison) and other figures in the life and times of Zelig as well as comments from critics such as Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow ("He touched people in a way that they perhaps did not want to be touched..."). I also must commend the unique narrative style provided by Patrick Horgan, who delivers the sly narration with the driest sense of humor ever recorded.
My favorite section of this film is when Zelig becomes the national craze of the moment, to be celebrated and exploited by dolls, games and puzzles, songs like "Leonard the Lizard," and even a Hollywood movie. "Zelig" is a much more subtle documentary parody than either "Take the Money and Run" or "Spinal Tap." Truth, fiction and absurdity are blended seamlessly in this film, which is that most rare creature, a "charming" Woody Allen movie that is a much more enjoyable experience than reading "Moby Dick."
A film like Zelig doesn't fall into any obvious category, so it's important to remember that Woody Allen is a movie category unto himself. A true American auteur, he's exercised more creative freedom sine the '60s than most film directors and this movie comes from arguably Woody's most fertile period.
I see Zelig as building upon the flawed example of Allen's first directorial feature, Take The Money & Run. TTM&R was a kind of slapstick bio-pic about a career criminal, told through docu-style reportage with narration by an authority figure, interviews and hilarious dramatizations from the life of Allen's hopeless bank robber. It shows its age now, not least in the underwritten part for the girl playing Virgil's wife. With Zelig, again, there is a kind of emotional distance, but the overall concept is far more ambitious and thoughtful. The jokes are now used more sparingly, but are always wickedly funny when they arrive.
For anyone who mistakenly believes Allen works to a formula, where neurotic people gab on about their selfish problems against a New York backdrop - you need to see this and start rethinking your position. Zelig's metamorphoses are ingeniously handled - I really like it when he pops up on the balcony with the Pope and they start assaulting him. Mia Farrow is luminous as Zelig's psychologist. This film is a treasure trove of '30s archive footage and I can't think of another film of the period (1983) with which to compare it. Maybe that's the problem for some people.
Zelig is the movie equivalent of one of Woody Allen's loony short stories. The moral is, even if all you want is to blend in, you can't give up being yourself.
Amazing technically, with a lot to say about society, conformity, and how we see ourselves.
This brilliantly made mock documentary about a 'human chameleon' in the 1920s and 30s who unconsciously changes his appearance in a desperate attempt to fit in and be liked, is hilarious and heartbreaking, often at the same time.
Some of the visual effects are still astounding by modern standards. And Allen gives a performance that is surprisingly subtle.
There are a few slow moments, and a few jokes feel self-conscious, but not enough to hurt the film in any way. This is tied with 'Crimes and Misdemeanors' and 'Hannah and her Sisters' for my 2nd favorite Allen film behind 'Annie Hall'.
One of the greatest films by one the great filmmakers of the 2nd half of the 20th century. Very worth seeking out.
on 17 September 2012
Woody Allen has a chameleonic reputation as a film-maker, so how apt is this 1983 film which pre-empted Forrest Gump in telling the tale of an ordinary Joe who becomes part of extraordinary events almost without realising it, due in no little part to his chameleonic nature. Allen's Zelig though is not just able to blend in, he has a rare genetic condition that means he becomes just like the person he is close to, for example he is in a plane with a female pilot and suddenly develops the skill to fly upside-down across the Atlantic with no previous flying experience! My favourite scene though is where Zelig becomes part of Hitler's inner circle, and is seen at Nuremberg wildly waving to the doctor who has become his closest confidante, as Hitler rants and raves in the foreground.
A film before its time, the cinematography is amazing, and despite appearing to be quite a slight project, running at around 70 minutes altogether, this film has hidden depths, and certainly needs repeated viewings in order to get the full effect.
on 26 July 2010
This is a semi documentary - style comedy from Woody Allen and i think it is definately up there with the very best. I have watched it many times and still get a load of belly laughs. Working for two sets of siamese twins with split personalities and getting paid 8 times sounds good to me. I must dash i'm taking a class in advanced masturbation and if i'm not there on time they'll start without me. Another classic.
Don't miss it you will never see anything remotely like it again
on 2 May 2014
Zelig (1983) comes from the period when Woody Allen was at the very peak of his creativity. He had won the best picture Oscar with Annie Hall (1977), had made his most critically acclaimed masterpiece Manhatten (1979) and had made two extraordinary films which were panned at the time, but which have since come in to their own - Interiors (1978) and Stardust Memories (1980). He had started on Zelig before both A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982) and Broadway Danny Rose (1984), but the complicated special effects meant it was finished after those two. It has become customary to see Woody's films in total as rather narrow in their focus concerning as they do an America which is solely rich, privileged, upper middle class, white, well-cushioned and altogether too pleased with itself. Marriage, relationships, the neurotic artist at odds with the world - these subjects came to mark out clichéd Woody territory which would eventually grate on audiences with their repetition, but anyone who has seen all the films I have listed above will be astounded at the range and originality that he once commanded. The Oscar for Annie Hall gave Woody the freedom to break out of his stand-up comic pigeon hole, and like a kid in a toy shop he tried out all kinds of things as if for the first time.
Zelig is perhaps Woody's most experimental film of all. It is a mock documentary based on the life of Leonard Zelig (Woody himself), a fictional nobody whose complete absence of any kind of personality leads him to assume the identity of whoever he happens to be with at any given time. A chameleon, he changes size, shape and color in a sub-conscious desire to assimilate into society. When with psychiatrists he becomes a psychiatrist, when he's with fat rabbis he becomes a fat rabbi, when with black people he becomes black, and when he's with Chinese people he becomes Chinese. His `talent' leads to a certain notoriety as he is welcomed into the company of the rich and the famous. With the aid of clever photographic trickery Woody worked out with Gordon Willis his cinematographer, he is juxtaposed in a series of extremely funny vignettes with the likes of Al Capone, Charles Chaplin, William Randolph Hearst, Carole Lombard, Jimmy Cagney, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Adolphe Menjou, Adolf Hitler, Hermann Göring, Babe Ruth and even Pope Pius XI. The only other `fictional' character in the film is Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow) a psychiatrist who tries to save Zelig only to fall in love with him. It is very much a one-joke movie, but it's spun out deliciously to a well-chosen soundtrack as a 1930s newsreel piece with a splendidly wry narration (by Patrick Horgan) and is peppered with memorable fictionalized interviews with the likes of Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow among others. These interviews are given in color while the bulk of the film carries b/w footage of the 1920s and 30s so we get to see flappers, speak-easies, the great depression, great sporting occasions of the day and a ticker tape parade in New York with Charles Lindbergh. The film was made in pre-digital days and we have to admire the technical achievements of Woody/Willis, sometimes using old cameras and even scratching footage to age it appropriately. This kind of thing became much easier to do on computers, but for the early '80s this is extremely impressive. Artifice never encroaches on the documentary presentation and all things told the movie is a delight. If I had to single out one Woody Allen picture for its freshness, for its experimentation, for its originality, for its fertile imagination, this would be it.
The quality of the DVD is fine and it's also very cheap. However, I recommend buying the film as part of the extraordinary Woody Allen 20 DVD collection released by MGM / 20th Century Fox which is currently retailing at a paltry ₤27.00. At just over a pound a film, you get almost all of Woody's best virtually gratis. To my knowledge there is no other greater bargain in the catalog for DVD collectors than this. Even if you already own 10 of the titles you are still getting another 10 at a virtually give-away price. What's stopping you?
Woody Allen's 1983 film Zelig is a clever and beautifully constructed 'documentary' on fictional character, 'chameleon man' Leonard Zelig (played by Allen), and shot in black and white by regular Allen cinematographer Gordon Willis. In Zelig, Allen (and his technicians) skilfully intercut images of the fictional Zelig, with famous international stars from sport, literature and politics. Zelig is first mysteriously spotted in a baseball game, as he waits surreptitiously to come into bat behind Babe Ruth. The discovery of this 'mystery man' leads to Zelig being pursued by the authorities, who next locate him in the local Chinese community, where he has miraculously morphed in appearance to closely resemble a Chinaman - he is thereafter dubbed 'chameleon man'.
Allen has constructed the film in true documentary style (reminiscent of the earlier Take The Money And Run) with flashback footage of Zelig associating with high-profile public figures, being interspersed with current day interviews with close associates, family and friends (including real-life figures photographer Susan Sontag, author Saul Bellow and social commentator Irving Howe). Eminent doctor, Endora Fletcher (Mia Farrow) becomes fascinated with Zelig and undertakes a series of medical tests on him in an attempt to uncover the cause of his condition. She concludes that Zelig's metamorphic tendency is actually a 'cry for help' - he is seeking acceptance by society.
In Zelig, therefore, Allen is dealing principally with questions about identity and, in the character Zelig, has taken social conformity to its ultimate extreme, by adopting the same physical identity as one's surroundings. This is almost certainly Allen satirising the pressure he himself was repeatedly put under to 'conform' in his filmmaking, and to continue to make only genuine comedies. Also, as Zelig's notoriety grows, Allen once again satirises society's treatment of celebrity (as he had done previously - and more scathingly - in the earlier Stardust Memories), poking fun at the (tacky) commercial products launched on the back of Zelig's 'talent'. These include a dance - 'The Chameleon' - and various songs, such as 'You May Be Six People, But I Love You'.
Zelig contains a reasonable number of high quality Allen gags, but not as many, for example, as his other foray into the past, the marvellous nostalgia trip that is Radio Days which, for me, is a superior film. Indeed, midway through Zelig, I find that the 'one joke premise' underlying the film begins to wear slightly thin. It is not until the final 15 minutes, which contain the revelations of Zelig's past 'lives' and is followed by the marvellously funny sequence of him peeping out from behind Hitler(!) that lifts the film from three star to four star territory.
The other observation I had on the film were the (visual) echoes in parts (to me at least) of Citizen Kane. First, the documentary feel; second, the sequence in the film shot at William Randolph Hearst's Hearst Castle at San Simeon and, finally, the revelations from Zelig's past (a la Kane's affair with Susan Alexander). Perhaps it's only me.
In summary, not on a par with Allen's absolute best, but an inventive and funny film, nevertheless.
on 6 February 2010
This 'mockumentary' is funny in places (the scene with Hitler comes to mind), tender, dramatic, and intelligently made. It proves that Woody can do almost anything, and do it well.
Woody features as Zelig, the national phenomenon who acquires a personality disorder of the rarest and most bizarre kind. While Mia Farrow plays Zelig's psychiatrist, aiming to cure him of his rare condition.
The cinematography is very convincing, and the techniques used give it a unique and astonishing appearance; one of the many highlights. Techniques that were revolutionary at the time, and ones we see repeated in Forest Gump, which is a similar film of sorts. Photographed by Gordon Willis, it was nominated for an Oscar in cinematography, and one for costume design. The film is relatively short, coming in at just over an hour; and the extras are limited to the original trailer and scene access.
Hard to compare to other Woody films, just check it out if you want something different. Not to be missed by Woody Allen fans.
Whilst Allen has made many films with more immediate appeal, from the simple early laughs of Take The Money And Run or Love And Death to the maturer but very easy to enjoy Annie Hall or Radio Days, or even his frothier later comedies, where his easy facility belies the skill of his craft - which is good for anything from The Purple Rose Of Cairo to Bullets Over Broadway or The Curse Of The Jade Scorpion - yet Zelig remains amongst his very best.
I forget who his collaborator in the making of this movie was, but they deserve a lot of credit - the visuals in this film are fantastic, and in a pre-everything-in-CGI era. What they've done is help Allen create a unique (if not without precedent in format) and wonderful film. Another of my favourite Allen movies turned out to be something of a homage-cum-remake - his Midsummer Nights Sex Comedy leaning heavily on Bergman's Smiles Of A Summer Night - and not being too much of a film buff I might be wrong about this, but (as my knowledge stands at present), this appears to be far more of an original Allen conception.
The whole premise is richly replete with ideas both ripe for comedy and philosophical speculation: how badly do we want fit in? Who is sane, the oddball or society? The mock-umentary format, already attempted to differing degrees in such films as Take The Money And Run, Bananas and Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex (etc.) reaches a pitch of perfection here unequalled in either his own oeuvre or anyone else's. Okay, Spinal Tap may be more immediately funny, and equally 'true to life', but like its subject, it ain't so deep.
Farrow and Allen are fabulous, as the titular Zelig and his doc: we see Eudora's inevitable falling for her human-chameleon 'patient' miles off, but it remains deliciously wonderful anyway, mixing poignancy and pathos with wry smiles and belly laughs. There's more Zelig in all of us than we might care to admit, and I love Woody Allen deeply for making such a great film. I've heard him lamenting that he can't make serious dark deep films (to his credit he keeps trying, and I enjoy his efforts in that direction), but when you can touch on such depths as he does here, and still wrap it up in a beautiful and witty form that brings both tears and joy... surely that's accomplishment enough?
This certainly wasn't the first of his films to be acclaimed as a favourite by me, but has instead revealed its charms and its depths to me more with each viewing. At this point I'm convinced it's a solid gold classic: thank you Woody!
This is Woody at his most inventive. Beginning in the prohibition era and filmed documentary-style largely in black and white, it tells the fictional tale of Leonard Zelig (Allen), a humble clerk with a troubled childhood, who grows into a man who can change his physical appearance to match that of those around him. If he's among Chinese people, he becomes Chinese; if he's among Scotsmen, he grows red whiskers and sports a kilt. When among professional people, he talks convincingly as though he were one of them, though he's unable to accommodate any changes to emulate women, midgets or chickens. In the company of his psychiatrist, he pretends to be one himself, claiming that he's treating two sets of Siamese twins for split personalities, and is therefore getting paid eight times ...
Zelig eventually finds himself in hospital, being experimented upon by numerous doctors who try to find the physical cause of his peculiar talent. The general public are interviewed, expressing their theories, including `I think it's something he picked up from eating Mexican food.' Eventually, he is put under the care of psychiatrist Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow) and she determines that he has developed chameleon abilities due to his desire to fit in. Their relationship blossoms into love, but the road to the altar becomes strewn with enormous and comical obstacles. Eventually overcoming his problems, he rises, falls and rises again to become a Lindbergh-like figure.
Although made before the advent of CGI and other techniques, Woody seamlessly blends genuine footage of the era with his own material and for added realism begins and ends the film with contemporary mock contributions from great American intellectuals, including Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow. They comment philosophically on Zelig's relevance in American history and how his story reflects the underlying psychology of the nation.
Woody captures the spirit of the zany twenties and thirties extremely well in this, while successfully blending his own style of humour into the proceedings. Technically impressive, too.