Sight and Sound - 09/01/1983
"...ZELIG is full of frantic invention [and] distinguishing lyrical whimsicality..."
New York Times - 07/15/1983
"...Technically, ZELIG is something of a cinematic marvel....Woody Allen's triumph..."
New York Times - 12/25/1983
Included in The New York Times "10 BEST FILMS OF 1983"
Variety - 07/13/1983
"...Uniquely conceived and subtly entertaining....Technically, ZELIG is a masterwork..."
Total Film - 02/01/2012
"[I]t's Allen's smarts that elevate this slender conceit to heights of zinger-flinging bliss."
Perhaps the most unique film of his career, Woody Allen's ZELIG not only stands as a technical triumph for a director not often associated with the technological aspect of filmmaking, but also utilizes a documentary aesthetic that Allen has not often used before or since. One of the first major mockumentaries produced (it was released a year before THIS IS SPINAL TAP), ZELIG combines voice-over, footage both historical and faux-historical, and staged interviews with famous intellectuals to tell the story of Leonard Zelig (Allen), the "Chameleon Man" of the 1920s and '30s who has since been largely forgotten. Zelig creates a media sensation when he is discovered, for he seems to have the unique ability to transform himself to fit in with whomever he finds himself--when encountering Greeks, he becomes Greek; surrounded by fat men, he becomes heftier. But his condition leaves him open to exploitation, and the only person who believes in him is ambitious psychologist Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow).
Technologically the film is a marvel, especially when the production history is taken into account. Allen wanted the film to appear genuinely from the period, and the footage shot was reportedly captured on equipment used during the 1920s. Even more astonishing is the manner in which Allen and other cast members were smoothly integrated into old photographs and film footage, some with distinguished historical figures, years before the advent of seamless digital techniques and over a decade before a similar strategy was used in FORREST GUMP. The setting and the aim for verisimilitude allow Allen to explore one of the most serious themes of his career: the assimilation of Jews and other immigrant groups into American culture, although the subject is still tempered by his intelligent verbal wit (for example, the voiceover explains: "As a boy, Leonard Zelig is frequently bullied by anti-Semites. His parents, who never take his part and blame him for everything, side with the anti-Semites"). Allen sees this desire for assimilation as a necessary part of cultural inclusion, but recognizes its dangers, as being a "Chameleon Man" seems only one step away from outright fascism.
Character Study |
Essential Cinema |
Period Piece |
Social Issues |
Switching Roles |
Theatrical Release |
Noted intellectuals and authors Susan Sontag, Irving Howe, Saul Bellow, Bricktop, Dr. Bruno Bettelheim, and Professor John Morton Blum appear in cameos as themselves. Patrick Horgan did the voice-over narration.
Additional technical credits: Karen Dean and Judith Lamb, photograph retouchers; Karen Siegel Engel, newsreel artcards; Joe Hynick and Stuart Robinson, optical effects.
Rate BBFC PG by the British Board of Film Censors.