The easy answer to 'What's the best Woody Allen movie?' is Annie Hall. Woody's 1977 masterpiece still feels fresh and experimental, and the movie's basic truths are just as wonderfully observed today as they were almost 40 years ago. Everybody loves Annie Hall. Except Woody Allen.
That's not unusual for Woody. Speaking at the press conference for his latest movie, To Rome With Love (he hates that title, by the way, calling it 'terrible.' He wanted to call the movie The Bop Decameron and nobody got it), Woody explained the huge divide between his own expectations for each of his films and what actually ends up being released:
When I begin a film, I always think that I’m going to make The Bicycle Thief or Grand Illusion or Citizen Kane, and I’m convinced that it’s going to be the greatest thing to ever hit celluloid. Then, when I see what I’ve done afterward, I’m praying that it’s not an embarrassment to me. So I’ve never been satisfied or even pleased with a film that I’ve done. I make them, I’m finished, I’ve never looked at one after. I made my first film in 1968, and I’ve never seen it since. I just cringe when I see them. I don’t like them because there’s a big gap between what you conceive in your mind when you’re writing and you don’t have to meet the test of reality.
But Annie Hall was a bit more extreme than most of his films when it comes to the difference between intention and reality. Annie Hall began life as a movie called Anhedonia, which is the scientific term for someone who cannot feel pleasure. The original movie bears almost no resemblence to the finished film that we all love.
[T]hat film was not supposed to be what I wound up with. The film was supposed to be what happens in a guy’s mind, and you were supposed to see a stream of consciousness in his mind and I did the film and it was completely incoherent. 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.
The original Anhedonia cut of Annie Hall is legendary. Alvy's relationship with Annie made up maybe a third of that film, and the movie was structured in a very free-form way, with Alvy looking back on his life and riffing on it like a longform stand-up act. Back in 2008 I wrote about the Anhedonia cut on CHUD; here's the relevant stuff:
The changes were drastic. Annie Hall, as a character, was anything but central to the film. The movie’s opening, depicting Alvy Singer’s Brooklyn childhood, lasted something like fourteen minutes, and included an appearance by Brooke Shields as young Alvy’s girlfriend – a flash forward shows her as fat and surrounded by kids. She’s not the only girlfriend young Alvy has; his first sexual experience involves a condom he’s been carrying around for so long it’s turned to dust in his wallet. And Brooke’s flash forward isn’t the only one – Alvy imagines the lives of his other classmates in detail, visiting the house of one of them. To show you what kind of a movie this was, while visiting the house in his imagination, Alvy sees a game show on the TV and has an argument with the game show host about tranquilizing with the trivial. There’s more with his family, including an Invasion of the Body Snatchers riff, shot in black and white, where his mother decries ‘the element’ moving into the neighborhood (there’s another deleted Body Snatchers gag in a Beverly Hill set fantasy sequence where a pod person Tony Roberts tells Alvy there are pods in the guest room that will help assimilate him).
Alvy’s relationship with Annie Hall is there, but it’s not the backbone of the movie. Rather it’s just another element, alongside more with his two ex-wives, that serves as a springboard for more digressions and random gags. Rumors have long festered that Anhedonia was a murder mystery – there may have been a murder after the scene where the two Brooklyn goombahs accost Alvy for his autograph – but if that’s the case it was only in the script stage. Nothing I’ve read indicates that the murder mystery stuff (apparently repurposed for the delightful Manhattan Murder Mystery) was ever shot. What Anhedonia sounds most like is a random and anarchistic comedy like Take the Money and Run, but with a bit more of a serious side.
Other deleted scenes from Anhedonia have passed on into legend. The scene in Annie Hall where Alvy leaves a party to watch the Knicks in a bedroom was initially longer, and included a fantasy segment where the Knicks play a squad made up of himself and philosophers – including Kafka, Nietzsche and Kierkegaard. Another scene had Alvy and Annie Hall meeting Satan on the streets of Manhattan and taking a tour of Hell, which included an appearance by the then-alive Nixon (the Hell stuff apparently was reworked for Deconstructing Harry). Another scene at the end had Alvy relating to prisoners while in jail after crashing into a car in a Los Angeles parking lot. The Hall family had a bigger role as well.
What’s amazing about Anhedonia is that it really is a completely different movie. It’s a movie about Alvy Singer only, and through him about Woody’s views and musings and comic thoughts on just about anything. The first cut sounds a lot like a movie version of a stand-up comedy routine, with jokes coming from any available spot and stories that exist only to set up other stories. It was only during editing that the central story, Alvy’s relationship with Annie Hall, began to take shape. I have to assume that Woody knew that Anhedonia would never fly as a title (co-writer Marshall Brickman recommended It Had To Be Jew), but when shooting finished no one could have imagined that Annie Hall would be the title character.
At the end of the press conference I asked Woody if we would ever see the original cut of Anhedonia. He was surprised that anybody even knew the movie's original title, and then he gave me an answer that could read as cryptic:
No, not with that title.
I don't think we'll see these deleted scenes while Woody is alive. His answer, at the very least, makes me believe this footage still exists, that it hasn't been destroyed by the studio (which happens all too often). Woody has no interest in sharing deleted scenes, but I do wonder if, as he gets older, he couldn't be convinced to release the original cut of the movie just to see how people react. I know that Anhedonia is one of the movies I most dream of being able to see.