After nine years of dazzling originality and experimentalism, Hannah and her Sisters announces a new phase of Woody Allen’s filmography. The most confident and assured movie he’s made yet, it is the first film that is the unmistakable product of a master director. As its straight-forward title suggests, it is completely stripped of gimmicks and distractions; it is nothing other than the story of Hannah and her sisters.
It’s also probably my favorite Woody Allen movie. It’s so heavy in its material, yet so effortlessly funny and fleet-footed. A lot of pain makes it onto the screen, but the tone is ultimately hopeful and reflective.
Actually, the movie isn’t just about Hannah and her sisters, it’s also about Hannah’s husband, and her ex-husband, and her parents. And her sisters’ friends and lovers. It’s difficult to even identify the film’s primary narrative, as there are so many inter-connected stories.
The stories in the movie are all told within the context of Manhattan’s bourgeois elite, a demographic Woody Allen is obviously at home with. Allen has focused his attention on this demographic occasionally in the past (most notably Manhattan), but from now until the early ‘90s he’s almost exclusively interested in it. He’s often criticized for this perceived tunnel vision, and while it’s true that wealthy, neurotic New Yorkers are a seemingly unsympathetic section of the population, it should be appreciated that working in his comfort zone is likely what affords Allen the confidence to create many of the masterpieces he has.
Hannah, played by Mia Farrow, is the story’s anchor and core protagonist. She’s a some-time actress, but mostly she raises her small army of children with her financial-analyst husband Elliot (Michael Caine). In the opening scene, Thanksgiving dinner, Elliot’s voiceover reveals that he’s fallen deeply in love with Hannah’s sister, Lee (Barbara Hershey).
Elliot initially comes across as a simpering mess of insecurity, self-delusion and destructive impulsiveness. Although we later gain a bit more insight, in the film’s beginning it’s unclear as to why Elliot wants to leave his happy marriage and family to pursue Lee (apart from the obvious reason that she looks like Barbara Hershey circa 1986). He embarrassingly runs around trying to orchestrate “spontaneous” run-ins, corners her at family gatherings, gifts her books of poetry, and calls her late at night.
Originally Jack Nicholson was cast in the role of Elliot, and while that’s a bizarre choice, it’s only about equally bizarre as Michael Caine. I’m not sure why Woody Allen thought that a rough-edged English character actor with a Cockney accent would be a good choice to play a meek, bumbling Manhattanite financial analyst, but somehow it works out. Caine won a deserved Academy Award for his performance in this movie. His character is only intermittently likable, and almost constantly pathetic, but he throws himself all in, effectively oozing cringe-inducing pathos.
Anyway, he’s after Lee full-on, but first he has to contend with her current partner, an older, temperamental artist named Frederic played by the great Swedish actor Max von Sydow. Every character in Hannah and her Sisters gets a big moment, and in Frederic’s, Sydow seems to channel his character in The Exorcist and lets loose a jaw-dropping, blustery, righteous speech, not about Satan, but about the pervasive stupidity of everyone.
"You missed a very dull TV show on Auschwitz. More gruesome film clips, and more puzzled intellectuals declaring their mystification over the systematic murder of millions. The reason they can never answer the question ‘How could it possibly happen?’ is that it’s the wrong question. Given what people are, the question is ‘Why doesn’t it happen more often?’”
"You see the whole culture — Nazis, deodorant salesmen, wrestlers, beauty contests, talk shows. Can you imagine the level of a mind that watches wrestling? But the worst are the fundamentalist preachers. Third grade con men telling the poor suckers that watch them that they speak with Jesus, and to please send in money. Money, money, money! If Jesus came back and saw what’s going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.”
While Frederic makes a number of persuasive points, his feelings towards humanity suggest he’s perhaps not the best boyfriend. Lee, ultimately, doesn’t have the best taste in men. Making this point even clearer, she eventually succumbs to Elliot’s advances and the two of them end up in a hotel room bed together. Their first romantic moment portrays oblivious self-delusion so skillfully it’s painful to watch. While Frederic shows a potential buyer some of his paintings, Elliot lunges towards her, kissing her while she flails desperately to get free. He asks her if she has any feelings for him. She mumbles something about not being sure, which is enough for Elliot to raise his hand in the air and proclaim “I have my answer! I’m walking on air!” and walk away victoriously.
Elsewhere, Hannah’s other sister, Holly (Dianne Wiest), is a struggling actor/chef/recovering drug addict. Running absolutely antithesis to the calm, collected Hannah, Holly is incredibly fragile, her self esteem crashing and burning at the slightest provocation. Her relationship with Hannah is the movie’s most interesting. Hannah finances her lifestyle and offers endless support, but despite her best efforts to do the opposite, always seems to bring Holly down and make her feel worthless.
Woody Allen’s female characters are often modeled after classic cinematic archetypes, but Farrow’s Hannah is a distinct creation. Family and interpersonal dramas, even the great ones, are typically stories about the interactions between individuals’ weaknesses and eccentricities. In a tumultuous family such as the one here, Hannah would be portrayed as the heroic, guiding light in a lesser director’s movie, but Allen instead looks at how quietly oppressive it can be to co-exist with someone without any recognizable human flaws.
In doing so, he’s taken his movie into largely uncharted territory. Of course, it’s universal human nature to resent — silently or blatantly — those you see as better than you, or those who are obnoxiously “too perfect,” but I don’t think that sentiment has ever gotten the long, hard look it gets in Hannah and her Sisters. The frustration that Hannah’s sisters and husband feel with her doesn’t stem (at least not entirely) from jealousy, but rather a sense of immense frustration with trying to live in the shadow of someone who doesn’t have any human weaknesses, and therefore, can’t seem to understand them.
"I need someone I can matter to. I can’t be around someone who gives so much and needs so little in return.”
“I have needs. I have enormous needs...”
“Well I can’t see them, and neither can Lee or Holly.”
Ultimately, that’s what pushes Elliot, Holly and Lee away from her. Hannah (and Farrow, typically) tends to talk to everyone in a tone that is not quite condescending, but vaguely reminiscent of the way a mother would talk to a small child. It’s comforting and nurturing, but at the same time, there’s a coldness to it that casts people in a dependent light.
Hannah insists there’s more to her than people know, and it’s easy to believe her. The more mysterious part is what, exactly, it is that she’s keeping so close. In all of her ensemble movies with Allen, Mia Farrow tends to get portrayed as a skillfully machinating woman, subtly pulling the strings of her friends and family members. Very subtly. So subtly, in fact, it’s never quite clear whether she’s consciously trying to manipulate people or whether her unending attempts to help just happen to push people in certain directions.
Somewhat cruelly, Allen seemingly makes no attempt to hide the degree to which Hannah is based on Mia Farrow. Hannah’s apartment is Farrow’s apartment, Hannah’s children are played by Farrow’s real-life children, and Hannah’s mother is played by Farrow’s mother (Maureen O’Sullivan). Many of the comments leveled at Hannah (including some of those in Elliot’s speech, quoted above) sound suspiciously similar to comments Woody Allen has made about Mia Farrow.
“Cruelly” is perhaps the wrong word. “Lovingly” would be equally accurate. It’s difficult to say whether Hannah is portrayed positively or not. Allen seems to look at her in reverence, but at the same time sympathizes with Holly, Lee and even Elliot in their struggle to relate to her and form a relationship that moves in two directions.
Woody Allen himself also appears in the movie. He plays Mickey, Hannah’s ex-husband, a hypochondriac with a debilitating fear of death. Mickey’s story is almost a standalone aside to the rest of the action of the movie, only occasionally intersecting. It’s incredibly enjoyable, although quite familiar. Mickey has an artistic crisis and storms out of the TV studio at which he works, in near-identical fashion to the way Isaac did in Manhattan. Mickey also has a big speech in which he talks about how the Marx Brothers pulled him from the brink of suicidal depression, reminiscent of Isaac’s entertainment-heavy list of things that make like worth living in Manhattan. Also, on a date with Holly to a punk rock show, Allen’s stuffy contempt mirrors Alvy Singer’s on his date with Shelly Duvall to a Bob Dylan concert.
Still though, it’s quite funny. Hypochondria, faith and existential angst are perpetual Allen themes, and he gets a chance to really get into them. The scenes of him “trying out” different religions — Catholicism, Hare Krishna, etc — are my favorite. He’s viewing each of them from a strictly rational and utilitarian perspective, so of course, none of them make any sense. All that’s left is the social cliches, which leads to possibly the movie’s two funniest scenes — one where he tries to explain to his Yiddish mother why he’s become Christian, and one in which he reveals the contents of his first shopping trip after his conversion.
Excluding one or two early comedies, this is really the first time Allen has played a supporting character in one of his own movies. Personally, I’ve always preferred him in this capacity. I’ve praised his acting many times here, but his leading-man presence sometimes violates the show business golden rule of “always leave them wanting more.” As a supporting character, though, Allen isn’t around long enough to become grating; instead he makes the most of his screen time while making space for a wider breadth of auxiliary characters.
Perhaps the reason he’s shifted himself into supporting mode stems from the fact that his growing legend-status afforded him an increasingly wide pool of a-list talent to populate his movies with. Up until now, with a handful of exceptions, almost all supporting or leading roles in his films have been played by unfamiliar character actors (or faces familiar only from other Woody Allen movies). But all of a sudden, more and more roles started to get filled by bigger and bigger names, up until the present day, when almost every single speaking role seems to be occupied by a face recognizable from tabloid covers and movie posters.
This trend announces itself dramatically with Hannah and her Sisters, as not only Mia Farrow and Michael Caine, but well-known movie stars Barbara Hershey (The Right Stuff, Hoosiers), Max Von Sydow (The Exorcist, The Seventh Seal), Carrie Fisher (Star Wars) and Sam Waterston (The Killing Fields, Law and Order) all show up in supporting roles. Elsewhere, soon-to-be big stars John Turturro, Julie Kavner, Richard Jenkins, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Lewis Black and Daniel Stern are also present.
Like Annie Hall and Manhattan, Hannah and her Sisters is incredibly dense. Nearly every scene has something to recommend it, and over a dozen characters have a memorable scene or two (including Hannah’s dysfunctional but charming parents, and the vapid movie star who tries to commission a “big” painting from Frederic that will go with his ottoman). The star presence, combined with the film’s wide array of likable characters and abundance of melodramatic plot developments makes it easy to see why it was one of Allen’s biggest hits (and his last hit of any kind until 2005) — for pure, conventional entertainment value, Hannah and her Sisters is almost unbeatable.
In an atypical move for Allen, Hannah and her Sisters even has a happy ending. It also has an uncharacteristically cohesive message. All of the film’s main characters end up happy and in love, but they had to endure hardship to get there. Mickey and Holly end up together, after having one terrible date and respectively bottoming out. And, in the end, his ill-conceived affair with Lee just made Elliot realize how much he loved his wife, and it helped motivate Lee to make a proper effort to find someone who really cares about her (in the end she’s engaged to a new man). The film seems to be trying to make a central point which is that love without pain and struggle is never going to be truly fulfilling.
Canonically, there’s another important point I’d be remiss to forget. After nine straight movies, this is Allen’s first directorial effort without cinematographer Gordon Willis (the two date back to Annie Hall). Taking his place is Italian Carlos di Palma, who Allen would stick with until 1997. Willis created some of cinema’s most enduring imagery in Manhattan and demonstrated technical wizardry in Zelig and The Purple Rose of Cairo, but his most lasting contribution was his naturalistic approach to filming that I talked about in Annie Hall. Di Palma retains this style, although seems to tweak it slightly. His camera is slightly more active — sometimes following people from room to room. This new activity also contributes to one of the most famous sequences in any of Allen’s movies — Hannah, Holly and Lee are sitting in a diner, and as they talk, the camera floats and swirls around them.
Right in the middle of a particularly dense stretch of thoughtful movies, I feel like I am very steadily moving towards the complete depletion of my already shallow pool of insight into Woody Allen and his movies. Despite being one of my favorite movies, this is one of the shortest reviews. It’s not a movie I want to overanalyze and scour for something original to say. It’s just a movie I want to watch and enjoy. I suggest you do the same.
- “The heart is a resilient little muscle.”
- “Child molestation’s a touchy subject.”
“Do you read the papers? Half the country’s doing it.”
“But you name names...”
“Just the Pope”
- “For all my success and so-called accomplishments, I can’t seem to fathom my own heart.”
- “Nietzsche said that the life we lived we’re gonna live over again the exact same way for eternity. Great. That means I’ll have to sit through the Ice Capades again.”
- “How the hell do I know why there were Nazis? I don’t know how the can opener works.”
- “If they told me I had a tumor, I was gonna kill myself. The only thing that might’ve stopped me is that my parents would be devastated. I would have to shoot them also. And then I have an aunt and uncle — it would’ve been a blood bath.”
- “Could you have ruined yourself somehow?”
“How could I ruin myself?”
“I don’t know. Excessive masturbation?”
“You gonna start knockin’ my hobbies now?”
- “It’s a good thing that we had a talented daughter!”
“I can only hope that she was mine! With you as her mother, her father could be anybody in Actor’s Equity!”
- “Two months ago, you thought you had a malignant melanoma.”
“Naturally — the sudden appearance of a black spot on my back.”
“It was on your shirt...”
- At 107 minutes, this was the longest movie Woody Allen had written or directed yet.
- Woody Allen won a Best Screenplay Oscar (and was nominated for Best Director). He hasn’t won another one since, although he has been nominated a number of times.
- Sam Waterston and Tony Roberts are both uncredited, for some reason.
- Apparently a sexy sex scene between Michael Caine and Barbara Hershey was filmed, but never used, as Allen felt that portraying the explicit details of their affair made them both less sympathetic.
- Woody Allen seems to be living in the same apartment in Hannah and her Sisters that he was in Manhattan.
- The poem that Elliot gives to Lee is “somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond” by e.e. cummings.
- This is one of the most commonly regurgitated Hollywood anecdotes, but I’ll repeat it anyway because it’s so awesome: Michael Caine, a talented although infamously undiscriminating actor, was unable to attend the Academy Awards ceremony at which he won Best Supporting Actor, as he was on location shooting Jaws 4: The Revenge.
- Allen’s future wife, Soon-Yi Previn, appears in the movie as one of Hannah’s daughters.