HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986)

  • Director: Woody Allen
  • Writer: Woody Allen
  • Starring: Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey, Dianne Wiest, Michael Caine, Max von Sydow, Carrie Fisher, Lloyd Nolan, Maureen O’Sullivan, and Daniel Stern
  • Accolades: 3 Oscars (Best Supporting Actor – Michael Caine, Best Supporting Actress – Dianne Wiest, Best Original Screenplay), 4 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – Woody Allen, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction)
  • Where to Watch: Stream with subscription on Starz app, buy or rent with Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Some time ago I picked out Hannah and Her Sisters as our Thanksgiving feature, as it is a critically-acclaimed film centering around two consecutive annual Thanksgiving dinners for a rich New York family. This was delayed by a few factors, one being that I was busy with my own family over Thanksgiving, another being that my laptop’s internet connection stopped working, and a third being that, given that Hannah and Her Sisters is directed and written by Woody Allen and stars his then-wife Mia Farrow (as the titular Hannah), I felt a responsibility to educate myself as much as possible on the allegations of child sexual abuse made by Farrow and other members of her family against Allen if I was going to write about it. That research brought me to the unfortunate conclusion that, despite multiple official investigations, court cases, and tell-all books and articles, there is no real way to figure out at this point what actually happened between Allen and Farrow’s daughter Dylan in August of 1992. I could get into this issue at much greater detail, but I think that is the end result, and in any case there are many others far better qualified than I who can and have weighed in on these issues.

For our purposes, perhaps the greater problem is one I have address before, what to do about art made by bad people. My general take is that, rather than shutting such works out of the canon altogether, they should still be watched and discussed with their underlying issues in mind. There are really two different types of these works: those where the content itself is the problem, like The Birth of a Nation or the films of Leni Riefenstahl (both of which we have already touched on), and those where the off-screen, reprehensible actions of those involved in the movies (such as in the case of Roman Polanski) should be discussed even when they are not particularly reflected in the movies themselves. Hannah and Her Sisters would seem to mostly fall into the latter category, though the inclusion of Farrow as an actress complicates matters. In fact, Farrow has since publicly voiced her suspicions that some of the screenplay, such as the plotline in which Hannah’s husband (played by Michael Caine) confesses his love to Hannah’s sister (played by Barbara Hershey), was more directly autobiographical than Allen let on at the time. Regardless, Allen’s relationship with Farrow is, unfortunately for those who say his movies should be viewed entirely in a vacuum, at the forefront of many of his films from this period. Farrow acted in 13 of Allen’s films over the 11 year period between 1982 and 1992, which may be some sort of productivity record for an actor/director pairing.

Anyway, Happy Thanksgiving! As a movie, Hannah and Her Sisters remains pleasant to hang out with, though I do think it has darker themes on its mind than some of Allen’s earlier classics we’ve featured here, like Annie Hall or Manhattan. I have always seen something of myself in Allen’s movies, and this movie is no different, though the questions the movie is asking have “matured,” if that is the right word, from straightforward neuroticism to asking deeper questions about, well, the “meaning of life.” Despite all this, this is very clearly a “comedy,” in that it always comes back around to how silly it is that we’re even asking these questions. In one scene, Allen’s character, Mickey (of the various Allen movies where he plays a version of himself, this is a rare instance of that character not really being the main star of the movie), tells his elderly parents that he has trouble believing in God when there’s so much evil in the world. What possible God could allow the Nazis to exist, for example? His father (Leo Postrel) is exasperated. “How the hell should I know why there were Nazis? I don’t know how the can opener works!”

Allen plays Mickey, Hannah’s ex-husband, who writes for a television show. He is a hypochondriac who becomes convinced, on very little evidence, that he has a brain tumor, and seriously considers suicide (he at one point gets out a shotgun and it accidentally goes off, mostly pissing off his neighbors) before having a revelation that “life is to be enjoyed, not understood” while watching Duck Soup. Hannah’s sister Lee (the one her husband Elliott falls for) is, at the start of the movie, living with a former college professor (played by, of all people, Max von Sydow) who rarely leaves the apartment and has taken to greeting her with scathing reviews of the Auschwitz documentary he watched that evening. Hannah’s third sister, Holly (Dianne Wiest) is a cocaine addict moving in a time and place (upper class New York in the 80s) when that is more “vaguely frowned upon” than seen as a terrible failing. With a loan from Hannah, she starts a catering business with her partner April (Carrie Fisher), then writes a screenplay about a very thinly veiled version of Hannah and Elliott’s marriage that contains so many personal details that it threatens to expose the affair Elliott and Lee carry on at one point. But it exposure is avoided, and in the end Holly ends up together with the newly enlightened Mickey, who likes her screenplay.

Though lacking the exuberant experimentation of Annie Hall, Hannah and Her Sisters is still virtuosically elaborate in its structuring. It juggles all of those storylines with seemingly little effort, along with interlocking voiceover narration from most of those characters we just discussed. Scenes that would just be Mickey walking along the street are carried by his internal monologue. He watches joggers in Central Park and marvels: “Look at all these people, trying to stave off the inevitable decay of their bodies.” Elliott’s storyline would also be nonsensical without his own, guilt-ridden voiceover, in which he more than once seems determined to tell Hannah about his love for Lee and then, in reality, completely fails to do so. 

Allen was among the most respected American directors at the time, but even for him the release of Hannah and Her Sisters in 1986 was met rapturously by critics. Roger Ebert, for example, immediately crowned it the best of Allen’s movies, while the New York Times went even further, saying it “set new standards for American moviemakers.” Financially it also ranked in the top tier of Allen movies at the box office, certainly the most popular of his 1980s work with Farrow. Its seven Oscar nominations remains the high-water mark for Allen films, and he won one of his three screenplay Oscars. The film also won in both Supporting categories for Caine and Wiest, respectively, becoming the last movie to win in both of these categories for 25 years. 

One cannot really blame the critics for going over the top in their praise, I suppose, despite all that has come out about Allen since. While most mass-release films aim merely to entertain, at his best Allen goes for something beyond that, sort of an on-screen Chekhov play, except more palatable for most people than that. It is also, of Allen’s hits, perhaps the one least given to those Allen-isms that tend to detract from many of his works, such as the usual Allen central character with romantic problems involving much younger, more beautiful partners. Here, Allen plays one of several main characters, who is given much more to do than worry about women and eventually ends up with someone who seems approximately his own age. So in that sense perhaps this is the Allen masterpiece for people who don’t like Woody Allen movies. Though I liked it for very similar reasons to the other Woody Allen movies I’ve liked, so… your mileage may vary, as they say. I don’t think I can put it better than The Daily Telegraph in one more recent article, which wrote that Hannah and Her Sisters is “perhaps the most perfectly assured braiding of comedy and drama in mainstream American film. It feels like the miraculous sweet spot between all of its filmmaker’s many modes and tones – biting without being cruel, profound without seeming sanctimonious, warmly humane without collapsing into goo.”

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