US Release Date: 02-07-1986
Directed by: Woody Allen
- Barbara Hershey, as
- Carrie Fisher, as
- Michael Caine, as
- Mia Farrow, as
- Dianne Wiest, as
- Maureen O'Sullivan, as
- Lloyd Nolan, as
- Max von Sydow, as
- Woody Allen, as
- Lewis Black, as
- Julia Louis-Dreyfus, as
- Christian Clemenson, as
- Julie Kavner, as
- J.T. Walsh, as
- Ed Smythe
- John Turturro, as
- Sam Waterston, as
- Richard Jenkins, as
- Dr. Wilkes
- Fred Melamed, as
- Dr. Grey
- Joanna Gleason, as
- Daniel Stern, as
- Tony Roberts, as
- Norman - Mickey's Ex-partner
- Bobby Short, as
- Ken Costigan, as
- Father Flynn
- Verna O. Hobson, as
- Soon-Yi Previn as
- Thanksgiving Guest
The family gathers for Thanksgiving dinner in Hannah and Her Sisters.
Hannah and Her Sisters stands alongside Annie Hall and Manhattan as one of Woody Allen's most successful and critically acclaimed movies. All 3 are cinematic love poems to the city of New York as well as being intelligent, often hilarious, stories about human relationships. Hannah grossed over 40 million dollars in 1986 and was nominated for 7 Academy Awards including Picture and Director. It took home 3 Oscars, one for Allen for Original Screenplay, and Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress for Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest.
The movie covers 3 Thanksgivings in the life of a New York City family. Hannah (Mia Farrow) has 2 sisters, Lee (Barbara Hershey) and Holly (Dianne Wiest). Hannah's husband Elliot (Michael Caine) secretly lusts after Lee, while Holly is unlucky in love and goes from job to job, unsure what to do with her life. Hannah provides emotional as well as financial support to her siblings. Lee is at the end of a relationship with an older reclusive cynic played by Max von Sydow. Allen, in a somewhat peripheral story, plays Hannah's hypochondriac ex-husband Mickey. Over the course of the movie he endures a health scare followed by an existential crisis where he explores both Catholicism and Krishna Consciousness.
Allen's love affair with Manhattan is front and center. In one scene he has an architect (Sam Waterston) show Holly and her friend April (Carrie Fisher) some of his favorite buildings around the city. Woody makes dirty, graffiti covered 1980's Manhattan seem as romantic as April in Paris.
There are several scenes that stand out. One shows the sisters sitting around a table talking. As they converse the camera rotates around them passing the backs of their heads as it goes. It's an obviously artistic flourish, unlike Allen's usual straightforward camera work. Another brilliant moment happens when Allen's character leaves his doctor's office having learned he does not have a brain tumor. He is completely joyous and skips down the sidewalk, but in typical Allen fashion his celebration is short-lived. By the time he gets to the end of the block his body language tells us he is already back to his old pessimistic self.
The supporting cast features Farrow's real life mother Maureen O'Sullivan (Jane to Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan) as Hannah's "boozy old flirt" of a mother. Lloyd Nolan, in his final movie role, plays Hannah's father. Their scenes together around the piano are both touching and funny. The fact that Woody used Mia Farrow's actual apartment, and her real life mother, adds an extral layer of veracity. Even Farrow's adopted children appear as extras, including Allen's future wife Soon-Yi Previn.
Allen writes such great dialogue that I had to include a few quotes. Nobody combines intellectual and lowbrow humor like Woody Allen. Take this speech by Allen's character Mickey. “And Nietzsche, with his theory of eternal recurrence. He 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.”
Mickey's a writer for television, here's an exchange he has with his producer Ed (J.T. Walsh)
Mickey: Why all of a sudden is the sketch dirty?
Ed: Child molestation is a touchy subject, and the affiliates...
Mickey: Read the papers, half the country's doing it!
ED: Yes, but you name names.
Mickey: We never-we don't name names, we say "The Pope"!
Max von Sydow as Frederick gets this juicy speech about watching television. “You see the whole culture. Nazis, deodorant salesmen, wrestlers, beauty contests, a talk show. 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.” An ironic last line when you remember that Sydow played Jesus in The Greatest Story Ever Told.
Hannah and Her Sisters ends on an upbeat note. Mickey recalls the moment he nearly committed suicide but instead went to see a Marx Brothers' movie. He finally comes to terms with his existential crisis and offers this pithy advice, “What if there is no God and you only go around once and that's it. Well, ya know, don't you wanna be part of the experience? You know, what the hell it's not all a drag. And I'm thinking to myself, Jeez, I should stop ruining my life searching for answers I'm never gonna get, and just enjoy it while it lasts.”
That's how I feel whenever I watch Annie Hall, Manhattan, or Hannah and Her Sisters.
Woody Allen and Dianne Wiest in Hannah and Her Sisters.
There's a warmth and heart to Hannah and Her Sisters that is missing from most of Allen's other works. It contains his stock New York neurotics with their First World problems and his trademark wit, but its family centric story and happy ending is in contrast to many of his other films. This ending only came about after the original, more downbeat ending bombed with test audiences. I have no doubt that this is the reason this movie was praised so highly at the time of its release and why it regularly tops polls of Allen's greatest works.
In structure the film is like a novel. There are several intertwined stories and a large cast of characters, some of whom are only loosely related. The different sections of the film are divided into chapters, announced in the form of title cards. It's a device that works well and holds the disparate elements together.
The cast is a mixture of Allen's standard repertory company with some big name faces thrown in. This was Farrow's 5th Allen film in 4 years. He reportedly wrote the film for her and offered any part she wished, strongly pushing her toward Hannah, whom he'd based on her. The part of Elliot was originally intended for Jack Nicholson, but the schedule couldn't be worked out to accommodate him and so Michael Caine, who had introduced Farrow to Allen years earlier, stepped into the part that would earn him an Oscar. Allen regular Dianne Wiest, who also won, is a delight as the younger, more flighty sister.
As Patrick mentioned, a large portion of the film was shot in Mia Farrow's actual apartment. According to Michael Caine's autobiography this lead to some surreal moments as she would be feeding her children in the kitchen, only to be summoned on set in the living room where she would act out her scene, before returning to the kitchen and her motherly duties. He also commented on the oddity of filming a love scene in Farrow's actual bedroom while her lover directed them behind the camera. Farrow herself has commented in an interview how she once had the odd experience of watching this movie on television late one night in the very apartment she was watching on her television.
Generally Allen does either comedies or dramas, but some of his best work combines the two, as this one does. Allen saves the funniest lines for himself. Wiest manages to get her own share of laughs however, while Caine and Farrow's story is mostly played straight.
For many years this was Allen's highest grossing film. It wouldn't be surpassed until 2011's Midnight in Paris, although if you adjust for inflation, both Annie Hall and Manhattan would outgross it. It's definitely one of his best.
Sam Waterston, Dianne Wiest and Carrie Fisher in Hannah and Her Sisters
I am not the Woody Allen fan that my brothers are and did not enjoy Hannah and Her Sisters quite as much as they. The overall plots meander between characters that are not always related. Some storylines I enjoyed, while others, not so much. Still, I recognized much brilliance in individual scenes and was very entertained.
As Patrick wrote, many of the scenes are subtly hilarious. I liked when Weist and Fisher are each trying to be the last one Waterston drops off after showing the girls his favorite buildings. When Allen and Farrow ask a friend for his sperm, he justifies that he, “…gave blood, and clothing to the poor...” I laughed when Stern insults Sydow’s art work by wanting to buy one of his paintings simply because it is large enough to fit a wall of his home.
The genius of Allen’s writing is that the jokes are obvious but they do not beat you over the head. A lesser screenwriter would have had Wiest and Fisher get into a fight over the ride home, turned the sperm donation scene into something vulgar and shown Stern hanging a small painting on a huge empty wall.
The dramatic scenes also work very well. Agreeing with Scott, there is warmth and heart in how Allen handled the fight between Farrow’s parents. They say horrible things to each other and to Farrow about the other. Farrow understands their relationship in spite of their flaws. This old bitter couple is so very frighteningly real and true to life, as is Farrow’s reaction to them.
What Allen does not handle well, or I found myself less engaged in, is the romance. I never cared for the story of Caine falling in love with Hershey. It is all played as romantic and sweet but HELLO! He betrays his wife with her sister, while she fucks her sister’s husband. I did not find them in the least entertaining or worth spending time with. Other than Caine finding her attractive, there is no reason given for the affair.
Still, the good far outweighs the bad. As usual, Allen has some great lines, such as, “I was happy but I just didn’t realize I was happy.” The soundtrack is full of recognizable pop standards. I was humming along through half the film. I did not find this an entirely satisfying experience but Hannah and Her Sisters is a great film.
Photos © Copyright Orion Pictures CorporationJack Rollins & Charles H. Joffe Productions (1986)