Nathan: Woody Allen’s Leonard Zelig represents a fantasy and a nightmare of American Jewish assimilation taken to its extremes. For American Jews, assimilation generally has a protective element: Disappearing into the dominant culture is a way of getting ahead and escaping the ever-present specter of anti-Semitism, the shadow of pogroms and banishment and genocide. Zelig extends this instinct to the realm of satire and fantasy by presenting a Jew so pathologically desperate to fit in that his conformity takes on physical and psychological components. For Zelig, as with so many Jews, radical assimilation yields financial and professional rewards: He becomes a fad, a craze, a Jazz Age sensation. But it also strips him of his identity, agency, and humanity.
The film explicitly grounds Zelig’s chameleon tendencies in internalized self-hatred: His Jewish family even sides with the anti-Semites who bully him in the streets. Zelig takes this instinct even further late in the film when, in the ultimate act of self-hatred and assimilation, he becomes a Brownshirt in a sea of brainwashed Hitler followers. That’s the downside to assimilation: It can pave the way to success and acceptance, but taken too far, it can lead people to lose touch with their faith, and to embrace those who would destroy them, not just individually, but as a whole. There seem to be an infinite number of lenses with which to view Zelig’s condition, but it resonates most strongly with me as an unusually blunt allegory for the perils and rewards of Jewish assimilation.
Matt: I’m glad you note that Zelig portrays both the perils and the rewards, Nathan. Though most of the film satirizes its titular self-hating Jew’s extreme attempts to conform, Zelig is ultimately redeemed by another, less eccentric form of assimilation: the love of a good shiksa.
Scott: Nathan nails the specific aspects of Jewish assimilation in Zelig, but the impulse to blend into the great melting pot is common to all Americans, which makes Zelig’s character more broadly identifiable. He’s the most extreme case imaginable: a literal human chameleon whose fluid identity is both a fantasy and utterly pitiable. Who among us hasn’t dreamed of mingling with our favorite celebrities or sports stars, or having ringside seats to history? Zelig is everywhere, and Allen’s affection for the film’s 1920s setting makes that an appealing prospect. But at the same time, having every identity means having no identity, and Zelig is about the perils of conformity, of losing whatever qualities (ethnic, political, or otherwise) make you unique. There’s something deeply romantic about the fact that the love of Dr. Fletcher (Mia Farrow) salvages Zelig’s submerged humanity.
Noel: To me, the sharpest bit of satire in Zelig is this idea that not only can Leonard Zelig fit in anywhere, he can also be whatever the media and the public would like him to represent. (Case in point: the French intellectuals, who “see in him a symbol for everything.”) And it’s not just Zelig that gets this treatment. One of the funniest scenes in the movie is when Dr. Fletcher’s mother is interviewed, and the reporter keeps trying to shape the story as a conventional “mom proud of kid” puff-piece, while the mother keeps talking about what a difficult, troublesome child her daughter was. The reporter is unflappable, because he has a narrative to sell to his audience, and the rougher edges of his subjects’ actual identities are easily ignored.
Keith: To spin off Noel’s last point, and to bring it back to Nathan’s, note also how Zelig’s story gets processed by Hollywood in the 1935 biopic seen a couple of times in the film. Zelig is played by a WASP-ish actor (character actor Garrett M. Brown in an early role), Dr. Fletcher has been glammed up, and the story seemingly streamlined into as traditional a movie narrative as its elements will allow. There’s what really happened, and who people really were, and then there’s the Hollywood version. And sometimes it’s the Hollywood version that gets remembered.
Noel: Zelig wasn’t the first mockumentary, and it isn’t even Allen’s first mockumentary—that would be 1969’s Take The Money And Run—but I feel like it should get more credit than it does for what followed in its wake. The style most identified with the mockumentary genre these days is the one Christopher Guest codified in 2000 with Best In Show, with its mix of direct-to-camera interviews and faux-vérité fly-on-the-wall footage. That’s the style that’s become familiar through hit sitcoms like The Office and Modern Family. But Zelig is more like a proto-Arrested Development, given its helpful narrator and the effort put into filming complicated scenes and designing entire products for the sake of brief gags that are much closer to the “early, funny” Woody Allen of Bananas and Love And Death than the more sophisticated, highbrow Allen who emerged at the end of the 1970s, then dominated his 1980s work. The 1980s are actually my favorite Allen decade, because I prefer him less wacky and more wistful. But after suppressing this side of himself for a few years, he had a lot of prime material to throw into the mix: the Orthodox Jewish version of Midsummer Night’s Dream, the bickering family that lives above a bowling alley and gets noise complaints from the alley, and so on.
Matt: Between his plain white-on-black credits and recurring use of vintage jazz soundtracks, Woody Allen is known as an old-fashioned filmmaker. But Zelig was far ahead of its time, which becomes clear when watching it on DVD, where it’s possible to pause the film and pore over the onscreen news clippings and official documents. In 1983, in a movie theater or even on VHS, the most an audience would get out of those images were headlines and a couple of words. But the clippings and documents were created as authentically as the fake newsreels, and the ability to freeze-frame lets viewers appreciate the staggering attention to detail.
Scott: For me, the difference between Zelig and most of the mock documentaries that followed is that the latter wouldn’t prompt a conversation about style. The mockumentary has become more a template than an artful means of expression. Allen achieves a newsreel verisimilitude that’s essential to his goal of inserting Leonard Zelig into an authentic-seeming document of the past, and it’s a marvel of old-fashioned technical magic that he and his team could accomplish it long before the digital age made such revisions easier to pull off. Matt makes an excellent point about the sheer density of detail in the faux-archival material; it’s unusual for a verbal humorist like Allen to invest so much of his energy into visual jokes, particularly at a point in his career when he’d moved beyond the physical schtick of his earlier work.
Keith: Zelig works because Woody Allen got the details right in two areas: Mimicking the look and feel of an early-1980s PBS documentary down to choosing the proper talking heads, and staying stylistically true to the film’s setting. The latter means dropping his characters into historical footage, creating credible simulations of 1920s film, and digging deep into the era’s psyche by positioning Zelig as one American obsession among many that popped up in the era: aeronautical pioneers, movie stars, and fad dances—one of which Zelig inspires.
While Zelig is largely defined by his ability to blend in with his surroundings, he also mirrors the world around him. The age regards him as a sideshow freak, celebrity, and medical oddity. While Dr. Fletcher saves him, she doesn’t break down his defenses until she makes an emotional connection with him. There’s a suggestion here, both corny and moving, that without love, there is no understanding. And there’s a further suggestion that real understanding is elusive both in the moment and with the distance of time. Zelig is equally a puzzle to F. Scott Fitzgerald in the 1920s and to Saul Bellow in the 1980s.
Time does help a little. The distance of a few decades lets Allen explore some of the shortsightedness of the 1920s and 1930s. Note all the references to Fletcher as a “woman doctor.” There’s a story within the story about the obstacles she had to overcome in her field, seen most vividly in that interview Noel mentioned, in which Fletcher’s mother refuses to follow some extremely leading questions. The film also gives a sense that Zelig’s story might not have been possible at any other time. In the 1920s, America redefined itself yet again: As a great wave of immigration crested, the U.S. had to figure out how so many different cultures could live in the same country, and what role, if any, it would take on the world stage as new threats emerged in the 1930s. Zelig’s shapeshifting makes him an oddity, but also a product of the times.
Tasha: There’s an air of joyous superficiality to the early 1920s as portrayed in newsreels: The popular narrative is that the era was obsessively focused on fads and shallow diversion, all of which blurred by at jazz-induced manic speeds, to a degree unequalled until roughly now. It’s the only place Zelig naturally could have been set, given how much of its focus is on how the culture digests Leonard Zelig as a toy and an amusement. While he’s desperately trying to integrate into every group that gets near him, the culture is trying to integrate him via novelty songs, merchandising, that Chameleon dance Keith mentioned, and the feature-film adaptation of his story. Looked at one way, his story is incredibly sad, so it’s up to the playfulness of the 1920s to re-digest him into a divertissement so light that Allen’s usual Borscht Belt comedy fits into what feels like a tragedy.
Nathan: It doesn’t seem at all coincidental that Zelig’s rise coincides with the advent of the “talking picture.” It’s worth noting that while Hollywood generally shied away from explicit depictions of Jewish life, the first talking picture, for all intents and purposes, was The Jazz Singer, a melodrama explicitly about Jewish assimilation. And like that film, Zelig explores how America was inventing, or reinventing, itself throughout the 1920s, as it shook off the gloom and doom of World War I and embraced vulgarity in myriad forms.
Matt: The Jazz Singer and Zelig have another thing in common as well: both their lead actors appear in blackface. The moments where Allen changes his ethnicity are more than a little awkward, but they also confront how movies of this period dealt with Zelig’s themes of assimilation and identity. For better or worse, it’s another way in which Allen stays faithful to the milieu of the 1920s.
Actually, Allen is a more convincing mimic than his chameleonic subject. Dr. Fletcher discovers that Zelig’s condition stems from his desire to disappear, but his compulsion makes him more visible by turning him into a celebrity. Allen, on the other hand, vanishes into the period. He abandons his usual visual signatures and perfectly apes the style and language of vintage newsreels of the 1920s. The tricks used to blend new and old material, and to insert Allen into scenes with Babe Ruth and Adolf Hitler, are stunningly convincing. Zelig may never feel comfortable in the Roaring Twenties, but Allen clearly does.
Scott: We’re looking back on great Woody Allen movies like Zelig—one of his greatest—from a time when he’s significantly less engaged in his work, which now often seems more force of habit than urgent creative impulse. Compared to the literary travelogue of Midnight In Paris, for example, Zelig goes beyond the nostalgia and obvious signposts of a long-ago era and participates more fully in its kick-up-your-heels cultural vitality and the less progressive notions of gender and race mentioned by Keith and Matt, respectively. Just as our hero immerses himself in the Roaring Twenties, so too does Allen commit to exploiting the era as thoroughly as possible, from a soundtrack that allows him to indulge his musical obsessions to Zelig’s intersection with the key figures and historical movements of the time. It’s a mockumentary, but it feels awfully informative.
Noel: What makes it so convincing is the effort that Allen and his effects team put into getting the film stock right, as well as the postures, gestures, and inflections of the people in those old newsreels and films. It’s very un-Allen-like, actually. I can picture Allen coaching an old man to say, “I wish I was like Leonard Zelig, the changing man” in a blank, nervous voice, and him writing a line like, “What will they think of next?” for a newsreel voiceover, but it’s hard to imagine Allen approving all those toys and novelty products, or spending a day instructing a bunch of extras on a dance floor on how to do “The Chameleon.” (And since Allen doesn’t really give interviews about the technical side of his films, he’s unlikely to go into the details of how he pulled Zelig off.) But all those fillips make a difference. As my wife said to me after we re-watched Zelig, it doesn’t feel like it was made in the 1980s. It sort of exists out of time.
Scott: Zelig mingles two totally contradictory fantasies: the fantasy of being “the human chameleon,” capable of blending into every possible social and ethnic group without looking conspicuous, and the fantasy of being a celebrity. So the central irony in a movie full of them is that Leonard Zelig becomes famous for his extraordinary ability to not stand out in a crowd. He doesn’t have to do anything to achieve notoriety: Beyond a near-pathological desire for acceptance, his celebrity is achieved timidly and passively. (Note that he’s spotted in the on-deck circle in a baseball game, but he never steps up to the plate.) It’s a hell of a ride, but at bottom, his true talent is for self-negation, for burying all the shame and hurt within him, slipping into new identities, and drifting through the Roaring Twenties like a ghost.
The ironic capper to Zelig finds Leonard, after disappearing from public life, re-emerging as a member of the Nazi party. This is “fitting in” at its most hilariously unlikely, and underlines just how much Leonard is capable of obliterating his identity in order to get adopted by another group. The extremeness of the situation makes Dr. Fletcher rescuing him from this particular scrum all the sweeter. This “woman doctor” can claim a real breakthrough. And she’s pretty, too!
Keith: That last development made me wonder if the film was written around a timeline that would make that moment possible, as if Allen wanted to choose the historical window that best embodied the perils of conformity. He also seems to be playing with the idea of fascism as a response to the chaos and insecurity of the 1920s, not just political, but cultural and philosophical. It’s a decade in which “The Wasteland” summed up the fracturing of a confidence in eternal verities—like God and objective truth—and Zelig can be seen as embodying that same insecurity. But, hey, if the alternative is Hitler, chaos is better, right?
Noel: Speaking of irony, although we’ve talked about the Hollywood happy ending of the 1930s Zelig biopic, this movie also has a happy ending that’s no less corny, really. Allen carefully holds back whether Zelig is still alive, or if he ever married Dr. Fletcher, and then at the end, we find out that they’ve lived a very happy life together. It’s just like a movie.
Tasha: One point that’s been made over and over about Zelig is that Forrest Gump “couldn’t exist without it,” as if no one could have arrived at the idea of inserting a contemporary actor into existing historical footage if Woody Allen hadn’t done it first. That certainly isn’t true. But looking at the two films today, it’s astonishing how solid the effects in the earlier, cheaper Zelig are compared to the digital experiments in Forrest Gump. For me, the Zelig inserts are actually more visually convincing, probably because Allen is consciously attempting to make Leonard Zelig fit in subtly, to the degree where Allen-as-filmmaker sometimes has to point out Allen-as-actor in the images, as opposed to Tom Hanks being front and center, one of the most important things onscreen whenever he’s integrated into history in Forrest Gump.
Keith: I remember Zelig being talked about as a technical breakthrough at the time, and it still looks good. The shot of Zelig in the on-deck circle is a little shaky, but otherwise, I found it hard to tell the altered footage from the footage shot for the film. On the other hand, I’m not sure Forrest Gump could exist without Zelig, in the larger sense that it owes a lot to this movie beyond technical innovation. Here’s something, too: I’m personally more charitable to the film, but others have read Gump as a pro-conformity movie. Nothing good comes to those who rebel, but Forrest just goes along with everything and thrives.
Noel: Don’t get me started on Forrest Gump, Keith. I think it gets a bad rap (though a lot of that is the movie’s fault, I admit), which is worthy of further discussion at The Dissolve somewhere down the road. I will say that while Forrest Gump often gets criticized for its shallow, reactionary take on the past, Allen’s 1980s films aren’t that different, even though he pines for times gone by, while Forrest Gump scoffs at them. Allen is an unrepentant nostalgist; he couldn’t have made a movie so lovingly detailed if he wasn’t. See also: Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose Of Cairo, and my favorite 1980s Allen picture, Radio Days. The man loves the old-timey.
Tasha: Well, up to a point. Allen’s 2011 Oscar-winner Midnight In Paris is his own rebuke to unexamined nostalgia, to the belief that life was better, or at least more romantic and artistic, in the past. And Zelig could be seen as another one, though it’s less thematically overt. Allen loves the details of the past, but with Zelig, he seems more like a curator than a booster. His portrayal of the 1920s is less than flattering: From the American obsession with novelty to the German embrace of Adolf Hitler’s rise to the somewhat depressing contrast between the two—while Germany builds up for another World War, Americans are celebrating people for balancing on flagpoles and biplanes—Zelig is quietly caustic about the way people occupy themselves. But that may be true for any Allen movie, about any age.
Our Movie Of The Week discussion began yesterday with the keynote essay on Zelig’s ideas, and continues tomorrow with Noel Murray’s essay on Woody Allen as an actor.