Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Johnny California: ZELIG

by JB

Zelig is a rarity among comedy films. Like its title character, the film offers a multiplicity of comic personas and ends as a deeply-layered critique of the media in general and the documentary film in specific.

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 Plot in Brief: The film purports to tell the real story of Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen), a so-called “chameleon man” because of his uncanny ability to change his outward physical appearance, speech, and personality to match that of his surroundings. Zelig was famous in the 1920s, but now he is strangely forgotten. A neophyte psychanalyst, Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow) vows to cure him, and the film alternates between Zelig’s story and how the media at the time covered it, and Fletcher’s fledgling experiments, which she had the foresight to film.

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.
The film’s critical reception upon release, ironically, resembled nothing less than Leonard Zelig’s character shifts and the plethora of interpretations placed on them by the experts and witnesses in the film. Critics in 1983 tended to ether oversimplify Allen’s intent and dismiss the film as little more than a filmed New Yorker essay, or to only see those themes they chose. No one gave full measure to this simple, yet oddly complicated and subtly disturbing film. Much of this critical disparity and dismissal is ironic is due in large part because critical and interpretive inadequacy itself lie at the heart of the film.

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.
One of the most interesting themes in Zelig is the public and the media’s complete inability to understand or interpret something outside their normal range of experience. Much of the humor in the film springs from the naïve, inappropriate and unwittingly ignorant responses of common people to the Zelig phenomenon. Doctors list the cause of his strange affliction to be anything from a brain tumor... to Mexican food. A loud man, pontificating in a barber shop, expresses his wish that perhaps someday, he too “can be like Leonard Zelig,” then somewhat implausibly adds, “And perhaps one day, my wish will come true.” An anonymous man on the street shouts to the cameras that “Leonard Zelig is a wonderful person!” Fictional newspapermen Mike Geibel and Ted Bierbeaul are amazed that the Zelig story alone was enough to sell newspapers in the 1920s, that there was no need for their usual exaggeration and “playing with the facts.” But this is exactly what Zelig, the film we are watching, is doing over and over again. Zelig is both a modern meditation on the media’s easy ability to play with facts, and it is literally filmmaker Woody Allen creating fiction and “playing with the facts.”

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 theme of the media failing to illuminate its subjects is my favorite of the film’s many themes. Historian Irving Howe suggests in his opening comments that the Zelig story contained all the elements of the American myth, “heroism... will,” but concedes that despite these elements the story is “still quite strange.” Despite containing many features of Hollywood narrative film, Howe seems to be suggesting that the Zelig story somehow resists pigeonholing, that despite the unseen documentarian’s best efforts, this particular story just won’t fit into a neat little box. Zelig as a subject is both “quite strange” and “strangely elusive.”

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.
When Eudora Fletcher begins her series of “white room” experiments, she is careful to film them, preserving them for posterity and the scientific community because, in her own words, she was “planning on making history.” This too is a clever euphemism for what Allen did in making his film. The “white room” sequences (a metaphor for the subconscious, perhaps?) focus on the search for self that is at the heart of the film. Leonard Zelig is analyzed by Eudora Fletcher. Using a variety of methods, Fletcher attempts to disabuse Zelig of the notion that he too is a psychiatrist. She winds up hypnotizing him. There follows this disturbing and surrealistic dialogue on Zelig’s true self.

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.
It makes sense that the end of Zelig should come when 1) the supply of supposedly archival film is depleted (because Zelig ceased to be news) and 2) by calling forth the savants for their final summary. Historian John Morton admits that the Zelig story can support “a variety of interpretations.” This seems to refer to an earlier segment of the film, wherein the Zelig phenomenon was subject to a diversity of interpretations. The Marxists, we are told, believe Zelig exploits the worker, for with his multiple personalities, he can hold five jobs. The KKK considers Zelig, a Jew who could change at will into a black or a Catholic, “a triple threat.” The French saw Zelig as a symbol for everything. Irving Howe sees Zelig as the epitome of the Jewish experience in America because all Zelig ever wanted to do was “assimilate like crazy.” Saul Bellow sees Zelig’s story as a paradox in that “his sickness led to his salvation.” Bellow here refers to an episode where Zelig magically turns himself into an experienced airplane pilot to fly himself and Eudora Fletcher out of danger. Bellow concludes that the Zelig story is “interesting to view in this way.”

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.
Many critics suggested that in choosing a mock documentary as his vehicle, Allen had alienated his audience to the film’s central character, that the film lacked heart. What can be equally exciting, enriching, and entertaining is finding a film whose “heart” does not lie in mere emotion, plot elements, or dialogue, but in its sheer inventiveness, innovation, and intelligence. Zelig’s heart is in its brain.

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.


  1. I loved reading this! Awesome insights into a movie that I love but hadn't considered this deeply before. Thanks for sharing your essay--I can see why it got an A. :)

  2. Have any of your thoughts about Zelig changed over the years since you wrote that paper, J.B?

    I have not seen the film in a long time, but it did leave a strong impression on me. The thought process that went into creating Zelig intrigued me greatly.

    1. I still "agree with myself" about the content of the film (now, there's a concept straight out of Zelig) but I was amazed, revisiting the original essay, what a poor writer I was at 23. I guess teaching English Composition for 32 years helped! I still think the "pancakes scene" is one of the funniest in all of Allen's films.

  3. Besides everything JB wrote, "Zelig" is also noteworthy for being a 1983 special effects-heavy film (a first and last for a Woody Allen flick!) that has dated much better than show-off movies like "Return... Jedi" or "Krull." Seriously, the invisible trickery used to make Zelig's transformations and fake documentary footage look real is half the fun of rediscovering the film in the 2020's. 🙂👍