Zelig (1983)

Film Review by Harry Karlinsky, MD, MSc, FRCPC

USA 1983, Director: Woody Allen

Zelig is a Woody Allen film classic worth revisiting. It is the story of Leonard Zelig, a man who can seamlessly adopt the identities of those around him.

In addition to mimicking the occupational or social status, opinions, and psychological characteristics of those he meets, Zelig can even physically begin to resemble those with whom he comes into contact. We see 44 transformations throughout the film, including Zelig becoming transiently obese and even morphing into a black trumpet player in a Chicago speakeasy.

But Zelig is much more than a simple one-joke affair. It’s hard not to be mesmerized by the film’s unique technical features, particularly for its release year of 1983. The entire film is presented in documentary style as if Zelig were an actual celebrity in the 1920s.

To facilitate this ruse, there are some remarkable integrated special effects that place Woody Allen (as Leonard Zelig) in either altered historical film footage or new footage shot to match the requisite historical qualities (i.e. scratched film, poor sound, etc.). As a result, we see effective shots of Zelig attending a New York Yankees baseball camp, the Vatican, and even a Nazi rally.

Allen was indeed distressed that much of the critical acclaim for Zelig focused on the technical achievements of the film.
“To me, the technique was fine. I mean, it was fun to do, and it was a small accomplishment, but it was the content of the film that interested me." (Woody Allen on Woody Allen: In Conversation With Stig Bjorkman, Faber and Faber, London, 1994, p.141).

It is clear from published interviews that Allen’s impetus for making the film revolved around the theme of identity. “I wanted to make a comment with the film on the specific danger of abandoning one’s own true self, in an effort to be liked, not to make trouble, to fit in, and where that leads one in life," Allen said in that same interview. (Ibid, p. 141).

The resulting trajectory for Zelig was a roller-coaster ride that involved up and down celebrity status, legal entanglements, and extreme character transformations. Not surprisingly, Zelig’s unique abilities also lead to imposed contact with the discipline of psychiatry. Ultimately, Dr. Eudora Fletcher, a young psychiatrist played by Mia Farrow, successfully treats Zelig and the closing credits of the film speak to a happy ending for the couple, both personally and professionally.

It is fascinating that the film Zelig has since added a new dimension to the relationship between psychiatry and film. Previous authors, such as Gabbard and Gabbard (Psychiatry and the Cinema, 1999) have examined at length the psychiatrist ‘in the movie’ (i.e. the frequent presence of psychiatrists as film characters) and the psychiatrist ‘at the movie’ (i.e. examining and critiquing movies and film theory from a psychiatrically informed perspective, particularly psychoanalytic). With Zelig, however, psychiatrists are now utilizing insights gleaned from a film within their own clinical and research practices, and sharing their observations in psychiatric literature. Three cases in point now follow:

McGorry, P D, Campbell, R, and Copolov D L. “The Zelig phenomenon: A specific form of identity disturbance." Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry. 1987, Vol 21(4): 532-538.
The authors describe the cases of two males with psychotic features and a severe identity disturbance they term ‘the Zelig phenomenon.’ Both patients were diagnosed as suffering from schizophrenia. The paper emphasizes psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia, must also be carefully considered when clinicians encounter what these authors call ‘the Zelig phenomenon.’

Moses L N. “The Zelig Syndrome." Issues in Ego Psychology. 1989, Vol 12(2): 117-126.
This paper is a detailed case report dealing with the issue of a person who comes to therapy, or has had a series of therapies, but remains untouched on some profound level. As characterized by Zelig’s initial therapy with Dr. Fletcher, this is described as “the ability of the patient to learn the therapist’s language to hide the patient’s unengaged self."

Conchiglia G, Della Rocca, and Grossi, D. “On a peculiar environmental dependency syndrome in a case with frontal-temporal damage: Zelig-like syndrome." Neurocase. 2007, Vol 13(1): 1-5.
This fascinating paper describes in detail the circumstances of a 65-year-old male who showed similar pheno-mena to that of ‘environmental dependency syndrome’ (see below) following a cardiac arrest causing significant cerebral hypoxia and widespread fronto-temporal damage. What is particularly interesting is that the authors, in order to observe this unusual behavior in controlled conditions, manipulated the ‘environmental variables’ to verify the clinical phenomena. As one example, the patient took on the role of chef when accompanied and interviewed in the hospital kitchen.

Conchhiglia et al’s paper follows upon the work of French neurologist L’hermitte who hypothesized that when the frontal lobes are damaged we do not live reflectively, but reflexively. As a result, some very unusual behaviours have been observed, including imitation behaviors (a patient’s tendency to imitate an examiner’s gestures or movements), and utilization behaviors (a condition in which a patient automatically searches for and utilizes objects or other stimuli in the environment). In rare circumstances, the disturbance can be even more complex.

In 1986 L’hermitte used the term ‘environmental dependency syndrome’ to describe the particular disturbance in the behavior of two patients with frontal damage characterized by a deficiency in personal control over environmental, social and physical stimuli. (L’hermitte, Ann Neurol 1986; 335-43) The patients behaved by responding to stimuli that were implicit in the social context in which they found themselves, a remarkable biological parallel to Zelig’s circumstances.

It is now appreciated that even subtler and less pathologic biological principles may be accounting for at least some Zelig-like behaviour.

The new field of social cognitive neuroscience now informs us that we all likely have what are called mirror neurons. In animals, these cells fire when an animal acts and also when the animal observes the same action performed by another animal. Some scientists believe they might be very important in imitation.

Did Zelig have overactive mirror neurons?

Even the physical transformations depicted in Zelig are no longer as implausible as Woody Allen might have imagined—albeit with slightly longer time frames in mind. For example, there have been recent headlines related to a study that found obesity could spread through social ties (Christakis et al, N Engl J Med 2007; 357-370-9). This likely occurs not so much on behavioural imitation but “on a change in an individual ego’s general perception of the social norms regarding the acceptability of obesity".

Zelig—a remarkable look backwards; an even more remarkable look forwards.