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Thirty-four years ago Tuesday, the 50th Academy Awards were held, boasting a show-down between the neurotic past and the fantastical future – Annie Hall v. Star Wars. In one corner was Woody Allen, the cerebral filmmaker whose idea of comedy was intellectual discussion and chatter intermingled with well-placed Marshall McLuhans. In the other was the epic, sci-fi blockbuster that helped change how Hollywood viewed cinema. Woody won the battle, with Annie Hall earning little gold men for Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Actress.
Yet the win was bittersweet – a last hurrah as Star Wars began to change the way Hollywood thought about film, moving from the deeply challenging interpersonal stories of the ‘70s to a big-budget, big-mayhem, big-effects mindset of the future. (A coincidental turning point as well, as both were up against the ballet film Turning Point that year.)
By this point in the cinematic cycle, it seems almost unfathomable that a film discussing intellectual curiosities while touring through the demise of a relationship could win for Best Picture, let alone become one of U.S. cinema’s beloved classics. This is a love story with no feverish intent for people to live happily ever after, no urge to boil complex human emotions into superficial romps that hold little value. In fact, the romance isn’t as important as the personal trajectories of its characters. Annie Hall is a cerebral journey, one resting mainly on the shoulders of Diane Keaton, which makes it even more of a curiosity. (As much as Allen is present, the force of Annie Hall informs his every word, making her a notable presence even when she’s not on-screen.)
Women wearing vests and ties whilst talking about poetry aren’t the women who gain mainstream attention these days, so I can’t help but wonder how Hollywood’s Star Wars change affected women on the big screen. Though Allen’s seminal film definitively impacted cinema, did Annie Hall leave a legacy of her own, or merely act as a lone icon not only for her generation, but each one that followed?
Looking at the Academy’s Best Picture nominees, the late seventies were certainly a different time for women. Before the big blockbuster could being its stranglehold, we were treated to nominees offering love with Jane Fonda’s Coming Home and female independence with Jill Clayburgh’s An Unmarried Woman in 1978, and fierce custody battles with Meryl Streep in Kramer vs. Kramer and a tough labor union fight for Sally Field in Norma Rae in 1979. There was an insistence in the female spirit and fight, on an exploration of the many facets of life.
Perhaps it’s an end-of-decade fervor. The early ‘80s offered up minimal female-centric Best Picture offerings, generally relegated to romance and family without the cerebral edge or diversity until 1985, which boasted a killer year for women with Meryl Streep’s Out of Africa, Whoopi Goldberg’s The Color Purple, Kathleen Turner’s Prizzi’s Honor, and Kelly McGillis’ Witness. (The only male-centric offering for Best Picture? Kiss of the Spider Woman.) A year later, there was Marlee Matlin’s Children of a Lesser God, Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey, and Dianne Wiest’s Hannah and Her Sisters, and Helena Bonham Carter’s A Room with a View. One year after that, Holly Hunter took on the TV world with Broadcast News while Glenn Close had a Fatal Attraction and Cher was Moonstruck.
The ‘90s, unfortunately, ended the habit with a decade almost solely dominated by British romance in minimal quantities. Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling and Frances McDormand’s Marge Gunderson were the lone lights to balance the retro fare and straight-forward romances. Luckily, the new millennium brought a touch more diversity to a still-waning Best Picture presence. Julia Roberts became the new fight-for-rights heroine with Erin Brokovich, films like The Hours delved into the female experience, and Hilary Swank was a boxing Million Dollar Baby. When five nominees became ten, 2009 offered up romance and family woes until 2010 finally used the space to offer four films ranging from ballet neurosis to family drama to determined revenge, and finally to one-girl-against-the-world drama.
Between Annie Hall and Norma Rae, it would’ve been no jump to assume a future Hollywood rife with just about any characterization an actress could dream of. Or, at the very least, that the films considered the “best of the year” would relish in the dynamic women that once had such power that they could dominate The Force. For each great female performance in a Best Picture that followed, the shadow of Annie Hall dampens the glow. Only three have names easily recognizable to the casual viewer at large – Rae, Starling, and Brokovich.
Sure, there’s a much larger world out there than the Best Picture Oscar can encapsulate, even with its now ten nominees. Though 2011 boasted only one Best Picture nominee with women as the focus (The Help), we can remember the behind-the-scenes work on Bridesmaids and the indie stunners like Pariah and We Need to Talk About Kevin. But these aren’t mainstream wonders. It would take a wildly successful resurfacing to make these films part of the future, everyday consciousness.
It’s not even about the reverence, or lack thereof, that Annie creates, but rather the potential of what could have followed. The women that Diane Keaton, Jane Fonda, Jill Clayburgh, Meryl Streep, and Sally Field encapsulated so well quickly disappeared, only momentarily revived in the likes of Holly Hunter or Glenn Close, before becoming forgotten. And it’s not a matter of who is behind the camera. If a diminutive, neurotic white guy can create such a woman, anyone can.
It’s sad that instead of inspiration and vibrancy, Annie Hall’s legacy is disappointment and wishful thinking. I'm just grateful that I was born in her immediate shadow, just one month later, before it was dampened.
The above chart details how many Best Picture nominees at the Oscars boast women in starring roles (excluding 10 ensemble pieces with notable female roles).