Woody Allen’s Zelig: An Artful Tapestry of History and Psychology

“I love baseball. You know, it doesn’t have to mean anything. It’s just very beautiful to watch.” — Leonard Zelig

Leonard Zelig undergoing therapy with Dr. Eudora Welty (Zelig publicity still)

THE FILM opens with footage of a 1920s ticker tape parade.

Cut to Susan Sontag
“He was the phenomenon of the 20s. At that time he was as well-known as Lindbergh. It’s really quite astonishing.”

Cut to ticker tape parade.

Image for post
Image for post

Cut to Irving Howe
“His story reflected the nature of our civilization, the character of our times. Yet it was only one man’s story and all the themes of our culture were there. Heroism, will, things like that… but when you look back on that it was very strange.”

Cut to parade.

Cut to Saul Bellow
“Well, it’s ironic to see how quickly he has faded from memory. Considering what an astounding record he made. He was of course very amusing but at the same time touched a nerve in people, perhaps in a way which they would prefer not to be touched. It certainly is a very bizarre story.”

Cut to Roaring Twenties scenes… flappers tap dancing, Charleston playing, trolley cars.

Voiceover: The year is 1928. America, enjoying a decade of unequalled prosperity…

Image for post
Image for post
Public domain.

So begins Woody Allen’s 1983 documentary about a man so obsessed with fitting in that he becomes like whoever he is with, Zelig the human chameleon. With Chinese, he becomes Chinese, with Native Americans he becomes Native American, with his doctors he becomes a doctor.

In addition to its stellar script there were two features of the film that especially made it an achievement. First, was the manner in which inserted Woody Allen and Mia Farrow into real historical footage of the Twenties. Zelig appears with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Babe Ruth, Woodrow Wilson and many others including Der Führer at a Hitler rally in Germany. Second, was the manner in which the footage shot in the present was made to look and feel like those scratchy, B&W historical reels.

I vaguely recall that what Woody Allen did to get that “look” was to take the processed film that had been shot, put it on the ground and walk on it so that it became scratchy in a random sort of way.

For screenwriters the film is worth studying as a model for producing mockumentaries. You can see (above) how quickly and effectively the story gets set up.

Though only 79 minutes in length, the film was a groundbreaker. You can see how Zelig is echoed in the blockbuster Forrest Gump (Tom Hanks) 11 years later in which Gump’s life interests with a whole series of presidents and historical events.

My favorite scenes in Zelig are when he undergoes psychoanalysis with Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Mia Farrow). The breakthrough occurs when she admits that she is not a doctor, that she has in fact been faking it. He become confused because this means he’s faking it, too.

Zelig publicity still. Public domain.

Though the story becomes preposterous, Woody Allen has done a masterful job of crafting a story addressing our human tendency to want to fit in, to belong to a larger tribe, to not feel isolated from the group. If we give up who we really are in order to fit in, then we will lose that which is most essential and fundamental: our true selves.

If you’ve not seen this little gem, I heartily recommend it.

Related Links

Ten years ago Chinese artist Liu Bolin made news when he began protesting the actions of his government for shutting down his art studio in 2005. The Chinese government wanted him to “fit in” so he began doing paintings of himself in such a manner that he does blend in… with his surroundings.

Here are some Liu Bolin links that tell this story.
Zelig at

An avid reader who writes about arts, culture, literature & other life obsessions. @ennyman3 Look for my books on Amazon

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store