"Zelig" Screening Companion

-Released in United States July 15, 1983

-Runtime: 79 mins

-Production Company: Orion Pictures Corporation

-Distributor: Orion Pictures Corporation

-Rated PG

- Budget : NA

-Gross: $11.8 million [1]

- Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1

-Soon after signing his new contract with Orion Pictures, “he started developing his first film project with the twin themes of conformity and celebrity, a subject he explored with “Stardust Memories” but that continued to preoccupy him. Despite the drubbing he took for that picture, he was not finished with the issue of unhappiness born of success and fame and refused to drop material that the public cared nothing about.” [4]


-In his first offering for Orion, smarting from accusations that he relied too heavily on Bergman and Fellini, he came up with a concept that was original from start to finish. And for good measure, he quiety remade “Stardust Memories.” [4]


- Zelig is a “documentary” about a man named Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen), a 1920s bookkeeper and a social chameleon in the most profound sense. Without trying, he blends in seamlessly to whatever group of people he is with. [2]


- The subject matter is obviously fantastical, but the way the film plays and feels borders on realistic. The film is told through narration, newsreel footage, still photographs, “interviews,” and the counseling sessions between Zelig and Dr. Fletcher, which Fletcher was filming for posterity. [2]


-The newsreel footage and photographs are sometimes genuine historical documents altered to include Woody Allen and/or Mia Farrow (such as the scene at the Nazi Munich rally), or sometimes completely fabricated (such as the broadcast advertising “The Lizard,” a new hit album inspired by Leonard Zelig) — but the fabricated material strives for, and achieves, authenticity (in terms of look and feel, if not content). [2]


-Unlike many of his inspirations and peers, Woody Allen tends not to make cryptic films. The themes and motifs of his movies are quite clearly laid-out — self-narration and over-explanation are traits of both Woody Allen and the characters he writes. Zelig has long struck me as a rare exception to this rule. Beneath the surface of an eminently likable but off-beat romantic comedy are powerful reflections on identity, mental illness, and the universal human need to be liked. [2]


-This is yet another one of Allen’s subtle satirical references — Zelig’s disease is mistreated the same way psychological impairments such as depression and bipolar disorder have been throughout the history of modern science, right up until the ‘80s and ‘90s. [2]


-Allen has said that apart from himself and Farrow, there are no professional actors in the movie. He felt that real actors, no matter how talented, could not convincingly portray regular people doing interviews. Therefore, the people being “interviewed” for the purposes of the “documentary” were played by his friends, family members, and the film’s crew. The exception, of course, is people who play themselves — like Susan Sontag and Saul Bellow, who show up to offer their opinions on the philosophical meaning of Zelig’s existence. [2]

How he made it


-Although the shoot wrapped in twelve weeks, the postproduction took over a year, nine months of that time was for editing alone. Headed up by legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis, the visual effects team undertook the arduous task of marrying different types, ages, grains, and qualities of film footage together. [3]


- "There was a point when I thought we were never going to finish, a point when I thought I was going to go nuts. I have never worked so hard at making something difficult look so simple." –Gordon Willis [3]


- At the time Woody Allen's friend Dick Cavett was hosting a series of Time-Life historical specials for HBO in which a process was used to insert Cavett into archival footage. The process so intrigued Allen it became the impetus for making this film. [1]


-To create authenticity, the production used actual lenses, cameras and sound equipment from the 1920s, and used the exact same lighting that would have been done. In addition, 'Gordon Willis' took the exposed negatives to the shower, and stomped on them. [1]


- In order to help create the look of genuine footage from the 1930s, DuArt, the lab that handled processing, called some of their experienced technicians (who were experienced with processing techniques of the 1930s) out of retirement. [1]



- Zelig was originally intended to be a made-for-TV movie before plans for a theatrical release were finalized. [3]


-Like the namesake character, the film went through some changes of its own; working titles ranged from The Chameleon Man, The Cat's Pajamas, The Changing Man (the name of the film within the film), and Identity Crisis and Its Relationship to Personality Disorder. [3]


-In 2007, Italian psychologists discovered a rare form of brain damage which affects its victims much like Zelig's condition (without, of course, the accompanying physical transformations). Researcher Giovannina Conchiglia and associates have proposed the name "Zelig-like Syndrome" for the disorder, because of the parallels to the film. [1]


- The first cut ran only 45 minutes, so Woody Allen had to include more archive footage and shot some scenes to fill up the time (mostly public scenes with narration). [1]


-A number of the film's interiors were shot at the Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, which served as the East Coast office of Paramount during the silent and early sound era. Other locations included the John Jay College of Criminal Justice on West 51st St. in Manhattan and Teaneck, New Jersey where D. W. Griffith and the Biograph Company players had made films some 70 years earlier. [3]

-Mae Questel, the voice of Betty Boop from 1931 to 1989 is the voice of Helen Kane singing "Chameleon Days". [1]


- Silent screen legend, Lillian Gish, was filmed for a scene in "Zelig". She scolded director of photography, Gordon Willis, on his lighting set-up and, while the crew watched aghast, gave Willis step by step instructions on how to re-light the scene. Willis complied. The scene did not make it into the final version of the film.


-The house in the closing scene is the same house used as the location for A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy. [1]


- John Gielgud was originally cast as the narrator and recorded the entire narration for the film, but Woody Allen decided to recast the role after hearing it because he thought Gielgud sounded "too grand" for the part. [1]


- Woody Allen originally wanted Greta Garbo to be one of the people interviewed. [1]


- The filmed footage of F. Scott Fitzgerald is, in fact, the only filmed footage of F. Scott Fitzgerald in existence. [2]

Critical Response


- “A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy was an unfortunate debut for the Allen/Farrow partnership, partly because it’s a forgettable movie, but also because Farrow was last minute replacement for a role that didn’t really suit her. Here, Farrow is playing a part that was written specifically for her, and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in it. This is the first example (and a very good one) of Allen using Farrow’s warm, nurturing, slightly anxious presence to create an indelible and sympathetic character.” [2]


-Zelig, however, is filled with them, and they are as brilliant and impressive, in their own way, as those of Return of the Jedi, which came out the same year. Aging and manipulating images is no big deal today, but Zelig’s tricks were all analog. Filming the scenes of Allen and Farrow to be interspersed had to be done under absolutely precise conditions, and the two had to be manually removed from the film, frame by frame, and then added to the historic reels. [2]


-A general success with critics and audiences, the film garnered good receipts but great reviews and was Allen’s first #1 film on Variety's Box Office chart. Zelig is admired by almost all as a masterful technical achievement in film except perhaps its creator who, as ever, maintains a unique perspective: "To me, the technique was fine. I mean, it was fun to do, and it was a small accomplishment, but it was the content of the film that interested me." Well, would we expect any less? [3]


-Newsweek’s Jack Kroll spoke for the majority when he called “Zelig” “a brilliant cinematic collage that is pure magic.” [4]


-Vincent Canby wrote that the film was nothing less than the perfection of ideas Woody had been systematically exploring in every film since “Take the Money and Run.” [4]


-Few critics or viewers realized how intensely personal the picture was for Woody, nor did they associate its themes with “Stardust Memories.” Only Pauline Kael was impolite enough to bring this up, writing that despite Woody’s claims to the contrary, his films could not be more autobiographical; he is constantly showing audiences how bad he feels about himself. [4]


-Academy Award nominations: Best Costume Design and Best Cinematography. The latter is somewhat bizarre, as there’s not much “cinematography” in stitching Woody Allen and Mia Farrow into stock footage and photographs. It was perhaps the best way the Academy could think of to to honor the film’s significant technical achievement — after all, there was, at that point, no Special Effects category yet. [2]


- Zelig might not cohere as a classic, and it doesn’t challenge viewers in the way great art is supposed to, but more so than any other Woody Allen movie so far, it’s a film which is impossible to dislike. [2]


-100% Rotten Tomatoes rating

[1] – imdb.com

[2] – "Every Woody Allen Movie" web site

[3] – Turner Movie Classics

[4] - "The Unruly Life of Woody Allen" by Marion Meade