Hannah and Her Sisters
Reviewed in August 2003
Top Ten List: #2 of 1986 (U.S. releases)
Top Ten List: #2 of 1986 (world premieres)
Director: Woody Allen. Cast: Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey, Dianne Wiest, Michael Caine, Woody Allen, Max von Sydow, Maureen O'Sullivan, Lloyd Nolan, Carrie Fisher, Sam Waterston, Julie Kavner, Daniel Stern, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, John Turturro, Richard Jenkins, J.T. Walsh. Screenplay: Woody Allen.
This review is for Donna D. Oman, the mother of a wonderful friend, and a friend herself to me and to this website!

Photo © 1986 Orion Pictures
Hannah, played by Mia Farrow, is actually not the main character of Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters. All three sisters are the stars, or rather, nearly everyone in the movie feels like the star whenever he or she is on screen . . . or even better than that, it is the resilient, molecular, push-and-pull connections among all these people that are the fundamental, glorious focus of the story. Allen's movies always have lots of bodies in them, but sometimes they only have one character, if you know what I mean. The Allen surrogates in Love and Death and Zelig (among others), the Mia Farrow protagonist in Alice, the Mira Sorvino character in Mighty Aphrodite, and the Sean Penn role in Sweet and Lowdown are all examples of invigorating comic personages who whizz around amidst broad situational farce, daring formal gags, or, in the last two cases, disturbingly vacuous pictures. As Allen's career has evolved in recent years (if "evolved" is the right word), his casts have tended to increase in reverse proportion to the shrinking humanity and waning detail of the parts. Few if any of the men and women in Everyone Says I Love You or Deconstructing Harry hint at any wider life beyond their own scenes, and these are some of Allen's better recent offerings. Maybe Allen no longer feels like imagining entire groups of people all at one time, or conceiving that they all have secrets, desires, peccadilloes, and contradictions that deserve to be shown, or at least implied. Oddly, though the title of Hannah and Her Sisters focuses only on three of its players, this was his last (and, one might argue, his first) film to plumb so deeply into the moods and tics and curiosities of so many people at once, some of whom we only meet three or four times.

Stated more plainly, Hannah is a masterpiece, a triumph of aesthetic balances like nothing the writer-director achieved previously or since, and a pinnacle of American moviemaking during a decade that all but abandoned the art. Not quite a comedy but too cozy and hilarious to be a drama, Hannah not only makes a strong case for itself as Allen's best film, it also marks a distinctive turning point in his overall career. The humor is as fresh and whipsmart as he had allowed his fans to expect, but both the tone and the colors are suddenly autumnal, enriched, aged. The nods to Bergman, Chekhov, and Renoir feel both truer and less forced than Allen's previous homages had been (viz. the interesting but tortured Bergmanisms of Interiors, the Fellini-inspired Stardust Memories). In fact, Hannah's success in approximating Allen's models without suppressing his own voice seemed to prompt a whole new wave of Europhilia, for better or worse, in his immediately subsequent work: Chekhov again in September, Bergman once more in Another Woman, Dostoevsky in Crimes and Misdemeanors, Lang and Weimar in general in Shadows and Fog.

For all its unhurried grace and subtle execution, Hannah thus feels in retrospect like both the film Allen had been leading toward for a while and the film he would chase for many years after. That the movie plays such a role within Allen's career is particularly ironic, because the story itself is about the quiet but decisive pivots in people's lives, and the rare, tentative moments of calm and grace that arrive like miracles amidst much commotion. As in Bergman or Chekhov, Allen continues to idolize artists as people who feel more deeply than ordinary mortals, though they also have infinite capacities for self-deception and a stubborn habit of pursuing sudden, poorly judged impulses. Hannah herself is a celebrated stage actress, though she has stayed off the boards for the better part of a decade in order to nurture her children and her clamorous extended family. The paradox of the character is that, while her domestic trials may be pulling her away from her art, they also seem to be saving her from the collapses and neuroses to which all the artists around her succumb all the time. Her sister Holly (Dianne Wiest, funny and wondrous) is a sometime-caterer, sometime-writer, longtime depressive and addict who always needs money during the intervals where she's molting some new version of herself. Her other sister Lee (Barbara Hershey, piquant and completely natural) is a sort of inveterate apprentice to creator-destroyers. She is currently withstanding a codependent relationship with Frederick (Bergman vet/emblem Max von Sydow), a dour and autocratic Scandinavian painter straight out of Winter Light. When Frederick feels like taking a break from scouring his soul, he watches TV and makes what for him are lighthearted pronouncements: Example: "If Jesus came back, and saw what was going on in his name, he'd never stop throwing up."

Across town, but probably not that far across town—and need I specify which town?—Hannah's parents tear away at each other like falcons. Her mother, a diva of the theater called Norma (and played by Farrow's own mother, Maureen O'Sullivan), wistfully remembers her career of playing Ibsen to enraptured eyes. Her father Evan (Lloyd Nolan) remembers Norma's other career, bidding every male co-star to come hither unto her glory. Norma is a nostalgia factory when she's happy and an alcoholic terror when she isn't. All of these characters, to include the ceaselessly caregiving Hannah and her faltering husband Elliot (Michael Caine), could easily have been caricatures or objects of our mockery. Certainly the actors are uniformly humane and dignified, even as they savor their punchlines. Still, keep in mind that writer-director Allen has felled many a gifted performer by not seeing past his misanthropic first impressions. Look how roundly he humiliates Judy Davis in Celebrity, Samantha Morton in Sweet and Lowdown, or particularly Mia Farrow in Husbands and Wives, even when the performers and the screenplays seem well-disposed toward those characters.

In Hannah, by contrast, Allen trusts his best instincts as a screenwriter while diligently suppressing his base instincts as a heckler, an easy satirist, and a self-absolving moralist. The veins of slash-and-burn antihumanism and flagellating autobiography that would soon creep further into his work are already budding here. Unlike in The Purple Rose of Cairo the year before, we're not squarely on Mia's side in her character's marital woes, and we're starting to hear uncomfortable jokes about pedophilia. But for the most part, Allen has caught himself in a moment of trying to see the bright side, the good side of people. This is true even in Allen's crafting of his own onscreen persona. He doesn't sell us too hard on his character's virtues, but nor are his self-criticisms so monumental that we don't quite believe their sincerity, a tactic that poses at best a nagging problem in Deconstructing Harry and Celebrity.

In Hannah, Allen's Mickey exudes the same kind of nervous, hypochondriac energy, simultaneously erudite and foolish, that Allen had perfected through his banner pictures of the 1970s. Unlike his alter egos in Annie Hall or Manhattan, though, Mickey is not the crackling, self-deprecating egoist who fights his way into the center of the movie (and, briefly, into the arms of Diane Keaton and Mariel Hemingway). Romance and family are re-offered to Mickey in the closing moments—a reversal of their last-minute retraction in Manhattan—and yet, through most of Hannah, he is a sort of second-level presence, affectionately tolerated by most of the other characters. Their roundelay of couplings and confrontations generally happen away from Mickey's purview, and they undeniably describe the major orbit of the picture. Allen doesn't even appear until about 20 minutes in, fretting about a brain tumor that proves to be a mis-diagnosis. This happy news only arrives, though, after he has held a rifle to his head, unintentionally pulled the trigger, and survived the altercation through a mini-farce that reminds the character of providential protection, the possibility of human relationships, and—shall we say it?—the joy of living. Mickey is clearly modeled on the young theologian in Bergman's Smiles of a Summer Night, who rises from a near-suicidal crisis into the same mood of spiritual rebirth, a note of optimism that feels as new and refreshing to the filmmakers as to the characters.

Earlier, in 1982, Allen had overtly adapted Smiles of a Summer Night into his own Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, but Hannah and Her Sisters more richly earns the comparison and is more clearly the work of a mature if perennially imitative filmmaker. When the film aims for laughs, it always finds them, from the mutually intolerable blind dates between Wiest's and Allen's characters ("You're going to develop a third nostril!" he admonishes the hard-snorting Holly) to the zoned-out idioms of Daniel Stern, playing a rock star to whom von Sydow's Frederick won't sell his paintings. When Hannah is feeling serious about passion and romantic loyalty, we don't doubt its convictions. Hershey and Caine manage to look and sound rejuvenated during their brief affair, though their dismay at love's fluctuations and at the possibility of discovery remains a pungent specter in their scenes.

Perhaps the rarest attribute of Hannah and Her Sisters within Allen's body of work, and this is accurately reflected in the title, is its earnest, complex treatment of family, usually a source of broad ridicule for this filmmaker. His real interests tend to lie in the streets or between the sheets. At a key moment in Hannah—which is made key by the 360 tracking of the camera and the delicate gravity of the actresses—Hannah goes to lunch with both her sisters. Little of their conversation or interaction treads beyond the normal range of familial encounters, but subtly, within this one scene, almost every plotline in the film is re-diverted and the priorities of every character palpably shift. The lunch-table scene is the crown jewel of Hannah and Her Sisters, which itself belongs in a league of its own within its genre, its era, and the portfolio of its creators. Grade: A+


Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Director: Woody Allen
Best Supporting Actress: Dianne Wiest
Best Supporting Actor: Michael Caine
Best Original Screenplay: Woody Allen
Best Art Direction: Stuart Wurtzel; Carol Joffe
Best Film Editing: Susan E. Morse

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Musical/Comedy)
Best Director: Woody Allen
Best Supporting Actress: Dianne Wiest
Best Supporting Actor: Michael Caine
Best Screenplay: Woody Allen

Other Awards:
Writers Guild of America: Best Original Screenplay
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Picture; Best Director; Best Supporting Actress (Wiest)
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Picture; Best Supporting Actress (Wiest; tie); Best Screenplay
National Society of Film Critics: Best Supporting Actress (Wiest)
Boston Society of Film Critics: Best Supporting Actress (Wiest); Best Screenplay
National Board of Review: Best Director; Best Supporting Actress (Wiest)
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Director; Best Original Screenplay

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