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Title: Zelig  
Author: World Heritage Encyclopedia
Language: English
Subject: Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, 56th Academy Awards, Gordon Willis, Michael Jeter
Collection: 1980S Comedy Films, 1983 Films, Adolf Hitler in Fiction, American Fantasy-Comedy Films, American Films, American Independent Films, American Satirical Films, Black-and-White Films, English-Language Films, Films Directed by Woody Allen, Films Produced by Robert Greenhut, Films Set in 1928, Films Set in 1929, Films Set in 1930, Films Set in 1931, Films Set in 1932, Films Set in the 1920S, Films Set in the 1930S, Films Shot in New Jersey, Great Depression Films, Mockumentary Films, Orion Pictures Films, Screenplays by Woody Allen, Warner Bros. Films
Publisher: World Heritage Encyclopedia


Original poster
Directed by Woody Allen
Produced by Robert Greenhut
Written by Woody Allen
Narrated by Patrick Horgan
Music by Dick Hyman
Cinematography Gordon Willis
Edited by Susan E. Morse
Distributed by Warner Bros.
(Original release)
(Current rights holder)
Release dates
  • July 15, 1983 (1983-07-15)
Running time
79 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $11,798,616 (US)

Zelig is a 1983 American mockumentary film written and directed by Woody Allen and starring Allen and Mia Farrow. Allen plays Leonard Zelig, a nondescript enigma who, out of his desire to fit in and be liked, takes on the characteristics of strong personalities around him. The film, presented as a documentary, recounts Zelig's intense period of celebrity in the 1920s and includes analyses from present-day intellectuals.

The film was photographed and narrated in the style of 1920s black-and-white newsreels, which are interwoven with archival footage from the era, and re-enactments of real historical events. Color segments from the present day include interviews of real and fictional personages, including Saul Bellow and Susan Sontag.


  • Plot 1
  • Production 2
  • Soundtrack 3
  • Release 4
  • Critical reaction 5
  • Awards and nominations 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


Set in the 1920s and 1930s, the film focuses on Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen), a nondescript man who has the ability to transform his appearance to that of the people who surround him. He is first observed at a party by F. Scott Fitzgerald, who notes that Zelig related to the affluent guests in a thick, refined accent and shared their Republican sympathies, but while in the kitchen with the servants he adopted a ruder tone, and seemed to be more of a Democrat. He soon gains international fame as a "human chameleon".

Interviewed in one of the witness shots, Bruno Bettelheim makes the following comment:[1]

Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow) is a psychiatrist who wants to help Zelig with this strange disorder when he is admitted to her hospital.[2] Through the use of hypnotism, she discovers Zelig yearns for approval so strongly he physically changes to fit in with those around him. Dr. Fletcher's determination allows her to cure Zelig, but not without complications; she lifts Zelig's self-esteem but much too high and thus he temporarily develops a personality which is violently intolerant of other people's opinions.

Dr. Fletcher realizes she is falling in love with Zelig. Because of the media coverage of the case, both patient and doctor become part of the popular culture of their time. However, fame is the main cause of their division; the same society that made Zelig a hero destroys him.

Zelig's illness returns, and he tries to fit in once more. Numerous women claim he married them, and he disappears. Dr. Fletcher finds him in Germany working with the Nazis before the outbreak of World War II. Together they escape and return to America, where they are proclaimed heroes (after Zelig, using his ability to imitate one more time, mimics Fletcher's piloting skills and flies back home across the Atlantic upside down).

The character Eudora Fletcher's name was taken from the principal of P. S. 99, the elementary school that Woody Allen attended as a boy.


Allen used newsreel footage and inserted himself and other actors into the footage using bluescreen technology. To provide an authentic look to his scenes, Allen and cinematographer Gordon Willis used a variety of techniques, including locating some of the antique film cameras and lenses used during the eras depicted in the film, and even going so far as to simulate damage, such as crinkles and scratches, on the negatives to make the finished product look more like vintage footage. The virtually seamless blending of old and new footage was achieved almost a decade before digital filmmaking technology made such techniques in films like Forrest Gump (1994) and various television advertisements much easier to accomplish.

The film uses cameo appearances by real figures from academia and other fields for comic effect. Contrasting the film's vintage black-and-white film footage, these persons appear in color segments as themselves, commenting in the present day on the Zelig phenomenon as if it really happened. They include essayist Susan Sontag, psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim, Nobel Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow, political writer Irving Howe, historian John Morton Blum, and the Paris nightclub owner Bricktop.

Also appearing in the film's vintage footage are Charles Lindbergh, Al Capone, Clara Bow, William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies, Charlie Chaplin, Josephine Baker, Fanny Brice, Carole Lombard, Dolores del Río, Adolf Hitler, Joseph Goebbels, Hermann Göring, James Cagney, Jimmy Walker, Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Adolphe Menjou, Claire Windsor, Tom Mix, Marie Dressler, Bobby Jones, and Pope Pius XI.

In the time it took to complete the film's special effects, Allen filmed A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy and Broadway Danny Rose.


The soundtrack includes such period songs as:

In addition, Dick Hyman composed a number of tunes allegedly inspired by the Zelig phenomenon, including "Leonard the Lizard", "Reptile Eyes", "You May Be Six People, But I Love You", "Doin' the Chameleon", "The Changing Man Concerto", and "Chameleon Days", the latter performed by Mae Questel, the voice of Betty Boop.


Before being shown at the Venice Film Festival, the film opened on six screens in the US and grossed US$60,119 on its opening weekend; it eventually earned $11,798,616 in the United States.[3]

Critical reaction


has an overall approval rating of 100% on the review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes based on reviews from 21 professional critics with a weighted average of 7.9/10.[4] In his review in the New York Times, Vincent Canby observed:

[Allen's] new, remarkably self-assured comedy is to his career what ... Berlin Alexanderplatz is to Rainer Werner Fassbinder's and ... Fanny and Alexander is to Ingmar Bergman's ... Zelig is not only pricelessly funny, it's also, on occasion, very moving. It works simultaneously as social history, as a love story, as an examination of several different kinds of film narrative, as satire and as parody ... [It] is a nearly perfect – and perfectly original – Woody Allen comedy.[5]

Variety said the film was "consistently funny, though more academic than boulevardier",[6] and the Christian Science Monitor called it "amazingly funny and poignant".[7] Time Out described it as "a strong contender for Allen's most fascinating film",[8] while TV Guide said, "Allen's ongoing struggles with psychoanalysis and his Jewish identity – stridently literal preoccupations in most of his work – are for once rendered allegorically. The result is deeply satisfying".[9]

In Empire magazine's poll of the 500 greatest movies ever made, Zelig was ranked number 408.[10]

Awards and nominations


  1. ^  
  2. ^ Eudora Fletcher was the name of the principal of P.S. 99 in Brooklyn, NY, the elementary school Allen attended as a child.
  3. ^ at BoxOfficeMojo.comZelig
  4. ^ "Rotten Tomatoes". Retrieved 9 July 2013. 
  5. ^ Carby, Vincent (17 July 1983). (1983) WOODY ALLEN CONTINUES TO REFINE HIS CINEMATIC ART"Zelig".  
  6. ^ reviewVariety
  7. ^ reviewChristian Science Monitor
  8. ^ Huddleston, Tom (22 December 2011 – 4 January 2012). review"Zelig".  
  9. ^ reviewTV Guide
  10. ^
  • Karlinsky, Harry (October 2007). : Woody Allen's classic film continues to impact the world of psychiatry [Zelig syndrome or Zelig-like syndrome]"Zelig". Canadian Psychiatric Association 3 (5). Retrieved 4 July 2012. 
  • King, Mike (2008). and the Narcissism of the Other-Directed Person (pp. 166–167)"Zelig". The American Cinema of Excess. Extremes of the National Mind on Film.  
  • Sickels, Robert (2006). "11 – "It Ain't the Movies! It's Real Life!" Cinematic Alchemy in Woody Allen's "Woody Allen" D(M)oc(k)umentary Oeuvre". In Rhodes, Gary Don; Springer, John Parris. Docufictions. Essays on the intersection of documentary and fictional filmmaking. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co. pp. 179-190.  

External links

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