Day 144: Great Movies You Probably Haven’t Seen – Zelig

originally published May 23, 2012

Most people in my sheltered little world would declare that they are not fans of Woody Allen. Maybe it’s because they’re still hung up on his 20-year-old scandal, or maybe they find his work too ‘Jewy’ – I should probably find out though, since I shouldn’t be hanging around with people in the latter category.

Those who have kept an open mind, and appreciate Woody’s injection of philosophy, esoteric literary references and immersive questions about life, death, art and love, do not often list Zelig among their favorites. Some love the neurosis-flavored slapstick of his early comedies, some prefer his auteur-emergence period of the 1980s. A lot of people find his Euro-reinvention over the last seven or so years to be his finest work.

So where does this film fit in? And what the hell is it?

Around 1980-81, Dick Cavett was shooting a Time-Life historical special for HBO. In a nifty attempt at pre-CGI film wizardry, they were utilizing blue-screen technology to drop Cavett into old historical footage, where no doubt his wry and smirky delivery was meant to bring a bubbly chuckle to the Boer War (or whatever the special was on, I don’t know). Dick and Woody were friends (insert giggle here), and Woody was fascinated by the process.

Zelig was fashioned as a mockumentary. The genre was almost unknown by name at that time; Christopher Guest’s career-defining mockumentaries were still a few years away. Woody had already employed the style for a large portion of his 1969 directorial debut, Take The Money And Run, so he had some idea what he was doing.

Woody envisioned his fictional subject, Leonard Zelig, as a man so overcome with a desire to please and adapt that he takes on characteristics – mental and physical – of those around him. To give it the air of an olden-days curio, he had Zelig’s heyday take place in the 1920s and 1930s, positioning the character as a wacky-world topic for old newsreels, logically mostly forgotten by today’s masses. Like those people who used to stand on each other’s shoulders and waterski. The old newsreel style became his format for the entire film.

If Leonard Zelig was to have been semi-famous in a bygone era, and if Woody and cinematographer Gordon Willis were going to pull this film off convincingly, every shot would have to be constructed with meticulous care and attention. That meant that everything they filmed was done using actual cameras, lenses and sound equipment from the late 1920s. Also, they had to light the shots in a way that matched that equipment. Apparently silent film star Lillian Gish (whose work every suffering film student has to sit through in Birth Of A Nation) was bought in for one scene. She derided Gordon Willis in front of the crew and ordered the lighting to be completely scrapped and re-set. Willis complied, but the scene was never used.

Woody dropped Leonard Zelig into footage with some of the biggest names of the 20s and 30s, people like Babe Ruth, Herbert Hoover, Al Capone, Charlie Chaplin, James Cagney and Adolph Hitler. He peppered in a bunch of sight-gags, and naturally he wove a love story into the tale, superimposing Mia Farrow into Zelig’s world as the doctor trying to figure out how and why this human chameleon does what he does.

The newsreel footage had to track Zelig’s impact on popular culture, so naturally there was a hit song that grew from the phenomenon. Woody brought in Mae Questel, the voice of Betty Boop, to sing “Chameleon Days” in an era-authentic squeak. He shot a handful of fake interviews in color, snagging names like Susan Sontag, Saul Bellow and Irving Howe to speak about Zelig as though he were a genuine slice of early 20th century lore.

The real challenge came in making the effects look real. There was no digital means for sliding Woody and Mia into this old footage, and no handy way to instantly ‘age’ a frame of film, Instagram-style. Gordon Willis took the exposed negatives into the shower and stomped on them. He and Woody crumpled the negatives up, threw them, beat the living crap out of them in order to produce the grainy vintage look they needed.

The visual tricks were so time-consuming, Woody tucked the project in his back pocket and made two more movies, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy and Broadway Danny Rose, in the time it took to get the film stock looking just right. Zemekis had it easy with Forrest Gump.

Then came the narration. Woody cast Sir John Gielgud (one of the greatest actors of the last century, though probably best known to people as ‘Hobson’ the butler in Arthur) to recite the film’s narration, but tossed out the work, feeling it sounded ‘too grand’. Woody Allen fired Sir John Gielgud. Jeebus.

When it was done, Woody had 45 minutes of completed film. He elbowed in some extra archive footage and wrote some more narration to pad the movie, but it still only clocks in at 79 minutes, short even by Woody’s standards.

The movie was released in the summer of 1983 to good reviews. As with a lot of Woody’s comedies, the gags and jokes are the entrée, but the real joy comes through the seasoning. Zelig asks questions about the nature of identity – it questions the importance of the self, and the possible consequences of the self’s absolute surrender to those around you. Leonard Zelig’s ability to physically mimic others makes him famous, but it also prevents him from experiencing real emotion, living a real life.

Despite the labor-intensive visual trickery, Zelig was not nominated for an Academy Award for its visual effects; Return Of The Jedi won that year, and nothing else was even thrown into the ring for competition. It was nominated for cinematography and costume design, but didn’t win either.

In 2007, a group of Italian psychologists found a rare type of brain damage which appears to affect its victims in a way that’s eerily like Leonard Zelig’s condition – minus the physical transformations, of course. At least one scientist on the team was a film buff, because the proposed name for this disorder is ‘Zelig-like Syndrome.’

Despite the film’s warm reception by the press, which includes a 100% positive rating at rottentomatoes.com, Zelig remains one of Woody Allen’s lesser-known films. Maybe it’s because he has made literally dozens of movies since, or again, maybe I’m just hanging around the wrong people. But this one is worth watching.

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