Who else but Woody Allen could insert himself into Nazi archival footage, cause a ruckus to get the attention of a girl he loves and then get a laugh while Adolph Hitler rants on world domination and Aryan purity. The film is Zeliq – a 1983 mocumentary, staring the eclectic filmmaker and his then girlfriend, Mia Farrow.
Leonard Zelig suddenly emerges in the early 1920s – a human chameleon who takes on the personality and physical characteristics of those around him. Masterfully inserted into a number actual scenes from the era (on the golf course with Bobby Jones, flirting with Clara Bow and mingling with Calvin Coolidge), he exhibits this as a form of defense.
Fearing his own persona will not measure up, he later tells Dr. Eudora Fletcher (Farrow) that he simply wants to be liked.
That leaves the psychiatrists who are trying to crack his case in the position of looking in the mirror and being forced to face the irony Woody Allen has always thrust on them. “I knew Freud,” Zelig tells them. “We agreed on most of his theories, but I thought penis envy should have been limited to women.”
As such, Zelig explodes into a national sensation and the country marvels as they witness him morph into those around him - a fat man, a jazz performer, a rabbi among orthodox Jews. Hungry for updates, authorities at the state hospital are forced to deliver.“Through recent tests staff has concluded that the phenomena doesn’t occur around women. Later today, doctors will be experimenting with a midget and chicken,” the radio newscaster reports dispassionately to comic perfection.
Of course, in sticking to the American storyline, Zelig’s fame meets misfortune as an unscrupulous relative seeks to exploit his disorder. Forcing his release, Zelig’s stepsister and husband, turn him into a sideshow freak and parade him to the world.
Off camera, “Zelig’s own existence is nonexistence,” the haughty British narrator tells us. But a love triangle between a cowardly bullfighter and the jealous husband ends in a murder/suicide and gives custody back to the hospital.
Eager to engage again with Zelig, Dr. Fletcher runs up against the same roadblocks. “I teach a course at the psychiatric institute in advanced masturbation. If I’m not back in time, they start without me,” Zelig assures her.
But she then has an epiphany and takes on Zelig’s own personality. Through this, Zelig realizes his lizardly imitations derive from an insatiable need to be liked. Slowly emerging into his own, Zelig and Fletcher fall in love.
The storybook rise must then be met with scandalous decline. In his less then certain days of identity, Zelig had made himself available to a number of women for matrimony. Illegitimate children and heartbroken women on full display, the outrage follows the typical American narrative and the public eagerly complies with the change of heart. “This is a moral nation, a God fearing nation, so in keeping with a pure society, I say lynch the little Heb,” a spokeswoman from the Catholic Association sums up the sentiment.
Enduring the onslaught, Farrow and Allen are able to weather the storm and America gets its happy ending. Susan Sontag, among a host of renowned authors and intellectuals interviewed, puts everything into perspective. “Has America really changed,” she asks rhetorically.