Why you should care

Somewhere out there might be a vintage, digressive, hilarious Woody Allen masterpiece made in the late ’70s. Or not. 

At the Golden Globes on Sunday, Woody Allen’s longtime muse Diane Keaton is slated to accept a Cecil B. DeMille Award on his behalf — an act likely to conjure fond memories of Keaton’s starring role in Annie Hall (1977). The film launched both their careers, earned Keaton a Best Actress Oscar and remains one of the most beloved romantic comedies in film history.

Less well known: Absent a monumental editing job, Keaton would never have starred in the film.

The original cut made room for a murder mystery, a sci-fi spoof, a basketball match against philosophers like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche…

The main plot of Annie Hall — the love story between Alvy Singer, played by Allen, and Annie, played by Keaton — was originally only one of many subplots in Anhedonia, an exploration of Singer’s midlife, Ingmar-Bergman-esque search for meaning after turning 40. Allen himself had just turned 40 when he and Marshall Brickman wrote the script in 1975.

Woody Allen center sitting in a jail cell with others around him

Source Everett

The movie was a philosophical odyssey not just through Singer’s entire life — from a girl-obsessed 6-year-old living under a roller coaster to a neurotic 40-year-old comedian — but through his detailed, hilarious assessment of that life. This version made room for a murder mystery, a sci-fi spoof, a basketball match between Singer and philosophers like Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, a trip to Nazi Germany, another to the Garden of Eden and an elevator tour through all nine layers of hell (and much more).

According to Ralph Rosenblum, who edited the film from sprawling pilgrimage to its final rom-com incarnation, you’d be hard-pressed to see a love story as the original’s primary focus. Annie didn’t even show up on screen until halfway through.

Rosenblum divulges the entire cutting process in his memoir, When the Shooting Stops. Of the first cut, which took six weeks, he says, “I felt that the film was running off in nine different directions … The film never got going.” He calls the first cut “nondramatic and ultimately uninteresting, a kind of cerebral exercise.”

Anhedonia is the scientific term for someone who cannot feel pleasure. One anecdote has it that the then-head of United Artists, Arthur Krim, walked to his office window and threatened to jump when he heard the title.

But as he and Allen watched the first cut, something else began to emerge. “It was clear to Woody and me that the film started moving whenever present-tense material with him and Keaton dominated the screen.” They began to cut around that relationship, losing the scenes that slowed down the immediacy of the love story.

Allen had “no hesitation about trimming away much of the first 20 minutes” to establish Annie’s character earlier, Rosenblum writes, but other cuts were harder for both him and co-writer Brickman, who saw the next cut of the film and “felt as if his ‘flesh had been ripped off.’” Allen said that at the time he was “sorry to lose just about all that surrealistic stuff … It was originally a picture about me, exclusively, not about a relationship.”

By the time they were done, Allen had to shoot some transitional scenes to make the new cut work, and there were some happy accidents. One was the iconic scene in which Singer sneezes into $2,000 worth of cocaine. It was put in the movie merely to get to a line announcing that he and Annie had to go to California and ended up getting the film’s biggest laugh.

Allen spent weeks fretting over reshoots for the end of the movie, trying to show that Alvey missed Annie. In the end, Rosenblum suggested that a single line would do: “I miss Annie.” They went with it, and it worked.

Woody on left and Diane on right kissing on the couch in color

Source Everett

But was Allen happy with the outcome? It depends on whom you ask. Rosenblum presents Allen as retrospectively proud of what they did to save the film, but only last year, in a press conference for To Rome With Love, Allen said:

”Nobody understood anything that went on, and the relationship between myself and Diane Keaton was all anyone cared about. That was not what I cared about. That was one small part of another big canvas that I had. In the end, I had to reduce the film to just me and Diane Keaton and that relationship, so I was quite disappointed in the end of that movie, as I was with other films of mine that were very popular.”

What emerged was undeniably a great film. And yet, it’s also true that not all great films are immediately palatable commercially. Rosenblum says that much of what got cut from Anhedonia was classically brilliant Woody Allen material: “some of the freest, funniest, most sophisticated material Woody had ever created.” No one knows if the footage cut from the film still exists or if it’s been destroyed. Allen has been mostly mum on the issue for 36 years.

I can’t help but wonder if there’s a lost masterpiece out there. Or what Allen’s career might have looked like if Anhedonia, rather than Annie Hall, had been his breakthrough film — or if he’d ever have had a breakthrough at all. But regardless of whether the scrap heap of 35mm film sitting in a closet somewhere is a long-lost masterpiece or just a pile of Woody Allen’s edited subconscious, I’d pay to see it.

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