Monday, July 15, 2013

Karma Chameleon

"My deepest apology goes to the Trochman family in Detroit. I never delivered a baby before in my life, and I just thought that ice tongs was the way to do it."

Leonard Zelig (Woody Allen)

In the fall of 1983, Boy George and his band Culture Club released what became their biggest hit — "Karma Chameleon."

In an interview, he explained that the song was about "the terrible fear of alienation that people have." People, he said, crave acceptance, and they try to fit in.

Now, I am not — never have been — a Boy George fan. But I have to admit that I have long wondered — partly, I must concede, in jest — if the song was written as some kind of psychological promotion for the Woody Allen movie that made its debut on this day in 1983, "Zelig."

(I mean, it wasn't uncommon 30 years ago for a movie to spend several months at a theater. The home video market was still in its infancy in those days, and theaters still represented the major source of revenue for moviemakers. I could see people who were involved with a theatrical release wanting to have some sort of media boost for sluggish box–office receipts.

(OK, it's a bit of a stretch — but, hey, I'm a writer. What do I know of the ways of marketers?)

Allen directed and starred as Zelig, a mousy, uninspiring sort who, because he so desperately wanted to be liked by others, took on the dominant characteristics of the people around him. This ability made him a celebrity. He was known as the "human chameleon."

Sometimes these characteristics were physical. For example, there was one scene in which he was meeting with a group of native Americans, and he had taken on the long braided hair of the native American. His skin appeared darker as well, but the movie was made in black and white so that wasn't as clear as it might have been.

(It's important to note that this movie was made in the style of a documentary utilizing primarily film clips that were supposedly made in the early 20th century. The parts that were intended to be interviews with modern–day experts were in color — which I always felt gave "Zelig" a kind of a "Wizard of Oz" feel.)

There was another scene in which Allen was with a group of blacks. His skin definitely appeared darker in that scene.

At other times, Allen the director seemed to be using technology that would be put to even greater use a decade later in "Forrest Gump."

That technology involved inserting a character in film footage taken long before. There were some light–hearted scenes in which Zelig was seen with Woodrow Wilson and Babe Ruth.

But then he showed up at Nazi rallies, waving to someone from behind Hitler as the fuhrer delivered a speech, then lowering his arm when Hitler turned quickly to see who was upstaging him.

Allen's Zelig did not acquire a stub of a mustache or Hitler's way of combing his straight, black hair to blend in, but he did don the uniform of a Nazi, which made sense. How else could anyone expect him to be that close to Hitler?

At other times he was visible as a part of the crowd — kind of like when Forrest Gump could be seen off to the side as George Wallace made his stand in the schoolhouse door.

Narrator: The Ku Klux Klan, who saw Zelig as a Jew that could turn himself into a Negro and an Indian, saw him as a triple threat.

Mia Farrow, Allen's real–life love interest for many years, played a psychiatrist who tried to help him through hypnosis. She concluded that his desire for acceptance was so strong that he would change his own appearance in fundamental ways in order to blend in with those around him.

It's too bad, really, that Zelig was a fictional character. He seemed like a lot of fun.

In the movie, he inspired jokes, hit songs and even a dance called "The Chameleon."

If you are familiar with Allen's directorial work prior to "Zelig," you can appreciate the departure this was for him.

He couldn't quite get away from his roots, though. Whenever Allen appeared in any of his movies, his was at least in part an autobiographical character, typically a nonentity who accepted the idea that he meant nothing in the scheme of things.

But Allen's character in "Zelig" wouldn't accept his fate. He sought to blend in with others.

It represented, as I say, a departure for Allen — a premise that was, in comparison and in its way, more positive than his other films.

He won Oscars for "Annie Hall" — and deservedly so — but I always thought he deserved similar recognition for "Zelig."

However, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences only nominated "Zelig" for two Oscars. It won neither.