The Set of 400: #99 – My Favorite Pope Pius XI Cameo

Today! Because I myself felt that one could really think of him as the ultimate conformist –

Zelig (1983)

Directed by Woody Allen (x10)

Starring Woody Allen (x7), Mia Farrow (x5), Patrick Horgan, Michael Jeter (x3), Peter McRobbie (x2), Alice Beardsley, Mary Louise Wilson, Deborah Rush (x3), Jeanine Jackson, Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow, John Rothman

My third favorite Woody Allen movie, and my second favorite film of 1983 – if anything he made could be described as visually ambitious, it’s Zelig. Figure, even the other more supernatural/fantasy/science fiction movies he made were still grounded very much in Woody’s comic sensibility or modern day coasting – Sleeper, Midnight in Paris, Melinda and Melinda, Deconstructing Harry. The exception, maybe, is Purple Rose of Cairo, which has very definite visual effects elements and a slightly more elaborate plot than Woody’s films from that point on. But Zelig is the rare triumph of visual trickery in the Allen catalog – I’m not 100% on this, but am pretty confident this is the only of his films to receive Best Visual Effects nominations from anyone (the BAFTAs, incidentally). While he may have never made a good action director, were he inclined, Zelig actually points to a greater capability in complex effects-driven storytelling than you would’ve thought possible from him.

I mean, okay, the basis of the film is still the comedy – Allen’s Leonard Zelig is a human chameleon who can change his physical appearance and speech at will to fit in with any group he encounters. This is told as a mock-documentary, mock-newsreel, black & white 1920’s and 1930’s period piece, cutting Zelig into existing footage with politicians and celebrities of the day, such as Charlie Chaplin, Herbert Hoover, and Adolf Hitler. But far from just being an excuse for cameos of the dead, the movie takes Zelig through numerous bizarre avenues – attempted cures, psychological tests, varied crimes he gets up to in his organic disguises – all while maintaining the boxed-in limitations of the existing-footage style. I’ve always enjoyed this manner of storytelling – books utilizing diaries and news articles and such to tell a tale might be a bit of a narrative crutch, but they’re still fun. Stephen King’s Carrie is told this way, if I remember correctly, and I want to say I screwed around with this format in some short stories in college, now regrettably lost to the ages. Might be time to revive the concept! I’m not above narrative crutches!

While it did receive some mild awards attention at the time – Cinematography and Costume Academy nominations, Best Comedy/Musical and Best Actor nods from the Globes – I don’t know how lasting an impact Zelig had, except as the obvious inspiration for sequences in Forrest Gump. But reviewers at the time were quite effusive, and for what it’s worth the movie still holds a 100% from Rotten Tomatoes, even if older movies have an easier time making that mark than newer films with the hundreds of reviews compiled. It’s a fascinating curiosity, Zelig, as – as some reviewers have mentioned – it almost isn’t a movie. Leonard is a character, but is so constantly in flux that it’s hard to pin down who he is, or what he wants besides to fit in. Farrow is the next most significant figure in the movie, but is only concerned with helping Leonard, and so doesn’t emerge in any defined way either. The movie is at least in part about the comfort of conformity, and doesn’t necessarily reject that idea, which makes for a tricky message, but as a pure comedy it manages to work in spite of this. Woody’s films don’t tend to drown in themes, but they are usually propped up by very robust characters – this movie sort of operates with neither being very strong, almost throwing back to the days of his zanier films, even though this rarely dips into that wild comedic territory. It’s entertaining as a film, while also being a very interesting movie, if that makes sense.

This tenth Allen film is one of the first I remember seeing – there are a few movies together in a bunch, really – and most of those are on the higher end of this list. This is also Woody’s Seven-Timer acting induction, making him only the sixth person in that rank. Jeez, do we have to go through this list again? Okay, because there’s only one more Allen movie in the near future, here it is – #168 Sleeper, #304 Take the Money and Run, #180 Hannah and Her Sisters, #101 Midnight in Paris, #203 Purple Rose of Cairo, #349 Broadway Danny Rose, #107 Love and Death, #144 Bullets Over Broadway, and #320 Match Point. I always forget about Match Point! Maybe it could’ve slid off this list. Maybe I need to see it again. This is also Mia’s fifth movie, along with Purple Rose, Broadway Danny Rose, Hannah, and #352 Be Kind Rewind, making her the fifth actress in the Five-Timers. Spotlight!

She was on the cover of the first issue of People! Trivial Pursuit will ask you this at some point!

Coming Monday! Okay, now, look at me. Ready? Cirrus. Socrates. Particle. Decibel. Hurricane. Dolphin. Tulip. Monica. David. Monica –

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