Key to understanding the film’s themes is a consideration of some of its formal and structural devices. A casual viewer will note that 1) the film takes place in a convincingly recreated past and 2) the film eschews straightforward Hollywood narrative and instead presents itself as an expertly faked documentary. Allen even appropriates the “savant interview” device from 1981’s Reds.
The film opens simply and austerely, like most of Allen’s films, with three simple title cards: the movie company’s moniker, the film’s title, and a dedication to Eudora Fletcher and her sister for their support and assistance during the making of the film. I’m guessing few, if any, people walked into Zelig thinking it was an actual documentary (having read reviews or having heard about it from friends) but Zelig presents itself from minute one as a text unto itself and does not announce its fiction for another 78 minutes with the first title card of the closing credits: “Written and Directed by Woody Allen.”
Many critics pointed out the Yiddish origins of the title character’s peculiar surname. Most pointed to a translation that rendered it as “blessed,” implying Allen might want us to regard his protagonist as a holy fool. Stanley Kauffman, writing in The New Republic, translates the name adjectively to mean “dear departed,” suggesting that because of the film’s supposed 1920s provenance and strict documentary form, the truth about the Zelig character is unknowable and has been buried with him. Like Citizen Kane (which Zelig superficially resembles) we are left pondering the impossibility of reconstructing a man’s life after the fact.
Fact lies at the heart of all documentaries. Zelig’s chief aim seems to be to reduce the phenomena it presents and describes into a neat little package of small truths. The film presents an array of professional and non-professional witnesses, critics, and commentators. At the time of Zelig’s original release, much was made of filmmaker Allen managing to coax such renowned intellects to appear in his film and gently chide their own fields of study. John Morton Blum, Bricktop, Susan Sontag, Irving Howe, Saul Bellow, and Bruno Bettelheim all comment on the text itself, in the context of that text, and become part of that text themselves: Zelig may be the first film that reviews itself.
The savants, as I will call them, offer consistent opinions and commentary, the totality of which seems woefully inadequate to explain the phenomenon that is being presented to the viewer. This points to the greater impossibility of deriving or expecting any sort of truth from any re-assembly or reconstruction of the past, however popular, ubiquitous, famous, infamous, bizarre, or well-documented. The documentary’s unflinching gaze and “assembling mentality” are as much a part of the film as the fantastic Zelig story itself.
This theme of media inadequacy often shares the screen with the theme of social conformity that informs much of the film. Zelig is the story of a man so moved to conform to those around him that he not only adopts their opinions, but their physical traits as well. During the course of the film, with the help of impeccable make-up, costumes, and pre-CGI special effects, Allen offers many of these unusual and funny transformations: he impersonates a psychiatrist, a Coolidge Republican, Pagliacci, another psychiatrist, A Frenchman, a Chinese coolie, a Greek sailor, an Italian mafioso, a good friend of Eugene O’Neil, and most disturbingly, a Nazi.
This channeling and reinterpretation of history, stemming from the media’s inability to look beyond its own established forms and ideologies, is best represented in the sequence where an anonymous newsreel journalist interviews Eudora Fletcher’s mother. It becomes clear early on that the journalist has not only pat questions to ask, but also pat answers that he expects to be delivered on cue. Eudora’s mother foils him at every step. He is high-minded and inspirational; she is bitter and realistic, often muttering that her daughter was “a moody child,” and that her husband drank to excess. The journalist wants some sort of rags-to-riches story; Eudora’s other tells him bluntly that they never wanted for anything. Peter Hogue and Marion Bronson wrote in Film Quarterly, “No less ironic is the scene of mutual obliviousness between interviewer and interviewee. This and the stock questions that seem to cue stock answers calls further attention to the tendency toward pigeonholing.”
Zelig establishes early on the complete documentary “realism” it strives for; the film revels in illustrating every salient point of its narrative with vintage stock footage, even though the juxtaposition of what is said and what is shown is often quite incongruous. At one point our ubiquitous narrator informs us that “time moved fast... like Red Grange,” as the filmmakers dutifully show us footage of the famous footballer scoring a touchdown, a somewhat awkward metaphor which I suspect came about merely because of the availability of the film clip. The narrator’s opening assertion that the Twenties were a period of “diverse heroes” (None more diverse than our Zelig!) is heard over file footage of Al Capone. A comment about “outrageous stunts” is accompanied by file footage of a daredevil balancing on a chair atop a high building. These early examples point to a need for documentation that is manipulatively fulfilled by the documentary film. Zelig is a film detailing a search for self, a search ironically documented by a media that never comes to grips with the full meaning of the search.
Fletcher: Who are you?
Zelig: I don’t know.
Fletcher: Leonard Zelig?
Zelig: Yes... Well... Who is he?
Fletcher: Is he you?
Zelig: He’s nobody. He’s nothing.
This exchange begins Zelig’s search for his true self, a solitary, personal pursuit, almost by definition. Could the melodramatics of the fictional (!) Eudora Fletcher in the ersatz Warner Brothers biopic, The Changing Man, be closer to the truth (or closer to the artifice surrounding the truth than we might suspect? Audiences laugh knowingly during these sequences (Brazen, headstrong Eudora declares that she will find a solution. “Whatever it is,” she concludes, “It will have to be PERSONAL!”) because as filmgoers we are accustomed to Hollywood inserting inspiring, individualistic ideologies and unneeded love stories where there originally were none in stories based on fact. The documentary that is Zelig not only throws in a love story every bit as contrived as The Changing Man’s is, but it also throws in commentary that is just as absurd as the overdramatic, Warner Brothers, “ripped-from-the-headlines” B-picture.
Zelig is also a parable of Jewish assimilation in America run amuck. As in most biographic documentaries, Zelig’s past is quickly traced at the start of the film. This section provides a nice encapsulation of the Jewish experience in this country during the first part of the twentieth century. His father, Morris Zelig, was an actor of little renown, having appeared as Puck in a Yiddish production of Midsummer Night’s Dream. At this point the film shows us old and scratchy newsreel footage of several Orthodox Jews looking distinctly un-Shakespearean in their long beards and severe hats. The earthy, free-spirited quality of early immigrant Jews is satirized when Zelig’s narrator informs us that though the large Zelig family lives above a bowling alley, it is the bowling alley that complains of noise. This seems to be a joke of which Allen is particularly fond, as when he compares the sedate, Wisconsin Hall family (“We went with Grammy to the swap meet yesterday.”) to his own loud, brash, combustible Brooklyn family (“She should get cancer and DIE!”) in his earlier Annie Hall. We are told that as a boy, Zelig was picked on by neighborhood Anti-Semites, a standard problem of turn-of-the-century Jewish life in New York. Screenwriter Allen takes this cliché one step further by having Zelig’s mother and father side with the Anti-Semites. Although this is a joke, it suggests Zelig is somehow more Jewish than the Jews around him. This point arises later in the film, during Zelig’s fall from celebrity into scandal. Though Zelig’s supposed crimes were committed while he was adopting multiple personalities and guises, an old woman, speaking on the radio on behalf of a Christian women’s group, concludes her tirade by suggesting that the authorities should “hang the little Hebe.” Thus, though he can change into anyone at will, Zelig is always a Jew above all else.
Irving Howe offers the final comment in the film, asking “Has America changed that much?” and concludes, “I don’t think so.” The film suggests that the only difference between America in the 1920s and America in the 1980s is the number of viable ideologies available to us. The film is filled with typical Twenties commentary bound to an existing and widespread national ideology of optimism. At the end of the first newsreel devoted to Zelig, the film’s announcer concludes, “What will they think of next?” – a pat closing line for a film but a woefully inappropriate response to what came before it. (Who, for example, is “they?”) Perhaps Allen is trying to mirror Zelig’s conformity with the documentary’s strict conformity to a dominant ideology, dominant forms, and accepted narrative tropes.
NOTE: The above essay was adapted from a paper I wrote in one of my Cinema Studies classes while an undergraduate student at the University of Illinois almost 40 years ago. Editing the original was quite the journey in that besides correcting some 100 hard errors and more than 50 diction errors. I also completely re-structured the piece. I would like to thank the amazing Professor David Desser, who taught me much of what I know about film and in whose class, I originally wrote this.
In 1985, he gave it an A.