“Zelig”: One of Woody’s Allen’s Best

Well, no living director other than Scorcese has had the prolific run that the Woodman has had. As soon as you try to list Allen’s best, you realize how many hits he’s had and how many unique films there are within his oeuvre.

Zelig, his black and white mockumentary masterpiece about a fictional ‘chameleon-man’ who came to public attention in the 1920s, is a work of genius which came out in 1983. Director Woody inserts his character into old black-and-white footage and surrounds himself with deceased cultural figures of the day including Hitler, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Eugene O’Neill. He also uses many old historical scenes such as Lindbergh’s ticker-tape parade, speakeasy scenes, and Nazi parades.

There is a good chunk of social criticism embedded in all the laughs about prejudice, discrimination, anti-Semitism, popular ’20s entertainments, media coverage, documentaries, and movies. It is also an offbeat conventional love story in which love finds a way despite many obstacles. (Incidentally, Zelig’s doctor is effectively played by his wife-actress at the time, Mia Farrow.)

Allen also puts in interviews with living cultural figures (at the time) such as the art critic Susan Sontag and the Holocaust writer-psychologist Bruno Bettleheim to add verisimilitude to this witty laugh-a-minute fake documentary. The photography of Gordon Willis and the music (a combination of pieces written about Zelig and songs of the ’20s) contribute to the look and feel of this special film. But it is Allen’s triple contributions as actor, writer, and director that make Zelig the successful film achievement that it is.

This is, hands-down, one of the funniest, cleverest documentaries (c.f. This Is Spinal Tap) ever produced in film history. It is also important to remember that Zelig preceded Forrest Gump in its use of special effects for humorous juxtapositions. Overall, Zelig is extremely well-done with great attention to detail: a major cinematic success and one of Allen’s remarkable triumphs.

(One p.c. warning for 2019 viewers: the scenes when Zelig briefly ‘turns’ black or Asian.)

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