Sunday, October 11, 2009

1986: Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen)

Released: February 7, 1986

Director: Woody Allen; Screenplay: Woody Allen; Cinematography: Carlo Di Palma; Studio: Orion Pictures Corporation; Producer: Robert Greenhut

Cast: Mia Farrow (Hannah), Barbara Hershey (Lee), Dianne Wiest (Holly), Michael Caine (Elliot), Woody Allen (Mickey Sachs), Carrie Fisher (April), Maureen O’Sullivan (Norma), Lloyd Nolan (Evan), Max von Sydow (Frederick)

- "The only thing that might've stopped me - might've - is that my parents would be devastated. I would have to shoot them also, first. And then I have an aunt and uncle, you know, it would've been a blood bath."

As rightly praised as his hits of the 70s are (and Annie Hall was already included in this countdown), my favorite era of Woody Allen films is actually his run in the 1980s. From about 1983’s Zelig until Crimes and Misdemeanors to close the decade, I don’t think that there was a finer American director. Sure, some of the films are better than others – September is far from a classic – but all of them are worth seeing and in some instances the Woodman not only hit it over the fence, but completely out of the park. Hannah and Her Sisters is one of those instances. More drama than straight out comedy, strong cases can be made for it being the “best” of Woody Allen’s work – his best writing, his best personal performance, and possibly even his best movie.

I don’t know if I’m ready to make such authoritative declarations, but at the very least this one ranks near the top of each category. This is a movie that has a different feel than others in Woody’s body of work. As Roger Ebert described it in his glowing review (in which he openly declares it Woody’s best film), the story is “organized like an episodic novel.” This is a most fitting description, one that is perfectly in line with my own understanding of the film, where each “chapter” is introduced by some type of title or heading. Looking at it in its individual segments, it actually does play like a number of individual scenes, ones that could almost stand alone as shorts. The brilliance of Allen’s writing is the ability to take these individual episodes and interweave each storyline together and propel them all toward mutual conclusions.


The story is told over a year-long period, running from one Thanksgiving dinner to the next. The main storylines that are covered are those of three sisters: Hannah, Lee and Holly. Hannah (Mia Farrow) is the centerpiece of the entire film, serving as the anchor for both the story and her interesting family. Hannah is an ex-stage actress who is married to Elliot (Michael Caine), a successful accountant who has become infatuated with Hannah’s sister Lee. Lee (Barbara Hershey), meanwhile, is involved in a relationship with a much older artist (Max von Sydow) who operates as something of a svnegali in attempting to control the previously-dysfunctional life of Lee. When Elliot finally gets the courage to pursue Lee, he at first is rebuffed. Quickly though, Lee accepts Elliot’s advances and the two begin to carry on a secret affair. Holly (Diane Wiest), the third sister, is a struggling actress who is now trying to get a catering business off the ground. Having battled issues with cocaine in the past, she constantly turns to Hannah for strength and financial support.

These three main storylines essentially play like straight drama, touched here and there with moments of humor. The true comic relief of the story comes from the travails of Hannah’s ex-husband Mickey (Woody Allen). Although he is a successful television producer, Mickey is constantly miserable due to his extreme hypochondria. His usual routine of visiting doctors for imagined sicknesses is suddenly disrupted when one of his fictitious ailments might actually be true. Suddenly certain that he has cancer, Mickey begins to question his life even more and reminisce about past relationship experiences. Thus in flashbacks we are treated to hilarious episodes from his past, such as a first date with the cocaine-hungry Holly and the scrambling by he and ex-wife Hannah to figure out how to conceive a child.


The impressive thing remains how adept Woody is at managing the various subplots. To prove how skillful he is at this, just try and pick out what you think is the most important story arc or who you believe to be the main character. A number of different answers are plausible. Perhaps it is Hannah, seemingly the rock of everything. Maybe it’s Elliot, who is the spur that kicks all of the plots into action. I even think a case can be made for Mickey, who seems to be Woody’s personal voice, as his tale provides much of the philosophical thoughts and musings that are seen in all of Allen’s films. What all this is meant to show is that Woody’s writing has the unique ability to juggle these different storylines and do so in a manner that makes each one feel like the most important part of the movie. Fortunately he also has the ensemble cast that is up to such a challenge. Two of his stock players are outstanding as usual and many have claimed that this is Farrow’s finest performance in an Allen film. Diane Wiest was honored with an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and hers truly is an outstanding performance, one that is a wonderful mix of drama and comedy. Michael Caine also won an Oscar, for Best Support Actor, and he is wonderfully sleazy. He is another character that you just want to hate, but you quickly realize how good Caine’s performance is and that it has to be appreciated.

I won’t spoil the ending for anyone who might not have seen it (if you haven’t you should so ASAP!), but I still am always struck by how this one ends on a more upbeat note than many other Woody films. Not that his other movies are exactly downers, but Hannah seems to tidy up nicely for all involved, with minimal collateral damage in the process. And yet rather than feeling forced or overly-schmaltzy, it feels just right.

Rating: 9/10

Other Contenders for 1986: A very solid year in 1986, with some movies that are critically-acclaimed and others that are personal favorites of mine. I have a unique relationship with the films of Oliver Stone, who released two in 1986. Those that I like, I really like, which is the case with his Best Picture winner Platoon. I think it's outstanding. Others, I just don't care for, which is the case with Salvador. This feels like an early attempt by Stone to make the politically-charged films he would become known for, but he's not yet mastered it. I also have always loved Rob Reiner's Stand By Me. This one can be divisive, as I know many folks who detest it, but I have always enjoyed it. And while I did not initially like David Lynch's Blue Velvet, I've appreciated it more and more each time I watch it. I still don't think it's Lynch at his best (in my opinion that comes later), but I know that the majority opinion is that this is the finest film he has ever made and one of the best of the last 20+ years.

I also have to admit not having seen Jean de Florette, which I really want to. I had ordered it from Amazon during a sale, but it was back-ordered, so I got frustrated and canceled the order!

15 comments:

  1. "but all of them are worth seeing and in some instances the Woodman not only hit it over the fence, but completely out of the park." - SPOT ON!

    As you said, HAHS has to be the warmest Allen film till date, along with perhaps Radio Days. THe kind of film you would want to take with you everywhere.

    And yes, Blue Velvet didn't work for me either.


    My Favorites:

    Hannah And Her Sisters (Allen)
    The Sacrifice (Tarkovsky)
    Ginger And Fred (Fellini)
    The Color Of Money (Scorsese)
    Down By Law (Jarmusch)

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  2. You like HANNAH more than I do Dave. I don't consider this anywhere near his best film, and I much prefer CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS of the 80's work, but I agree this was a great period, as you note in your typically though and passionate review here. I know the film has many fervant supporters, and heck Allen is close to being my favorite director, so a celebration of any of his films ins fine with me.
    Apparently this is one year where we are not much in agreement as Lynch's BLUE VELVET is for me his absolute masterpiece. But again, some of this is personal taste; your presentation here is again first-rate.

    My Own #1 Film of 1986:

    Blue Velvet (Lynch; USA)

    Runners-Up:

    Jean de Florette (Berri; France)
    Comrades (Dougles; UK)
    Caravaggio (Jarman; UK)
    Therese (Cavalier; France)
    The Sacrifice (Tarkovsky; Russia)
    Sherman's March (McElwee; USA)
    A Room With A View (Ivory; UK)
    Mona Lisa (Jordan; UK)
    Manon des Sources (Berri; France)
    Salvador (Stone; USA)
    She's Gotta Have It (Lee; USA)
    Down By Law (Jarmusch; USA)
    The Assault (Rademakers; Holland)
    Castle in the Sky (Miyazaki; Japan)
    The Green Ray (Rohmer; France)
    Platoon (Stone; USA)

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  3. Dave - We are in agreement here, this is one of Woody's masterpieces, along with Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Crime and Misdemeanors. Like Scorsese and Hitchcock, there is no such thing as a bad Woody Allen film. As you say, they are all worth seeing. Another wonderful review.

    #1 Hannah and Her Sisters

    Best of the Rest

    Platoon - (my 1st runner up)
    A Room With A View
    The Color of Money
    Something Wild
    Stand by Me
    She's Gotta Have It
    Blue Velvet
    Round Midnight

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  4. Dave, Hannah is one of Allen's better outings but I like Zelig and Crimes & Misdemeanors better out of his Eighties output. My own list for 1986 may look a little odd once past the top.

    1. Platoon
    2. Blue Velvet
    3. Aliens. James Cameron's sequel forcefully establishes its own identity and stands as a definitive sci-fi action film.
    4. The Mosquito Coast (Peter Weir). This film has been underrated from the beginning due to Harrison Ford's failure to be Jack Nicholson, but to see someone like him have a meltdown like this is somehow more impressive than when someone can do it in his sleep.
    5. Rosa Luxemborg (Marguerite von Trotta). I just happened to see this political biopic at the Public Library not long after its theatrical run and was very impressed by it.
    6. Big Trouble in Little China (John Carpenter). A classic comedy action film that as such would make a great grindhouse second feature with Aliens.
    7. 52 Pick-Up (John Frankenheimer) An almost Seventies-ish outburst of unrepentant sleaze with a great lead performance by Roy Scheider.
    8. Hannah and Her Sisters.
    9. The Color of Money.
    10. Round Midnight.

    Many of the expected items not found on my list are simply and in many cases inexcusably unseen.

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  5. Thanks, guys, sorry I haven't been around much today to respond. Sam, I am surprised that you are not as big a fan of Hannah. I agree with you that Crimes and Misdemeanors is a little better, but I do think that it is close.

    Just another film buff - I'm with you completely about Radio Days being another classic Woody film.

    John - Agreed. Everything Woody makes is worth at least checking out.

    Samuel - I like seeing the platoon selection. How you think it compares to other popular Vietnam films?

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  6. Dave: We'll have cause to compare Vietnam movies next year, or at least I will.

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  7. Great review, Dave - just catching up with your countdown after a busy week! I agree that 'Hannah and Her Sisters' is one of Woody Allen's best and a great choice for this year.

    My other personal favourites from that year are 'The Color of Money' and 'A Room with a View', and also Coppola's 'Peggy Sue Got Married' - does anybody else like that one? I know it tends to be thought of as similar to 'Back to the Future' - I'm just about to catch up on your review of that one! - but I think they are very different, although both great films. 'Peggy Sue' is really very poignant a lot of the time, though funny too, and its past can't be changed. Judy

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  8. Judy, I love PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED, and to be honest it should have been on that runner-up list above. It made my top ten of that year. Nice.

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  9. I find the conclusion of Hannah a little too pat and I see it as existing on a continuum of Woody getting too comfortable in his cozy upper-crust milieu - going from the poignant melancholy of Annie Hall to the ambivalent-but-hopeful conclusion of Manhattan and finally the warm and fuzzy happy ending of Hannah. But that's more an observation than a criticism, ultimately, and Hannah's an excellent film.

    My pick for '86 would be Louis Malle's riveting documentary God's Country. Blue Velvet is still not my favorite Lynch, not by a long shot, but it impresses me more and more on each viewing.

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  10. Dave,

    Just getting a chance to catch up on your countdown. I just watched Hannah for the first time a few weeks back and it immediately became a favorite (and Allen is quickly becoming a favorite director after I've neglected him for too long). It is interesting comparing this to Crimes and Misdemeanors as both are great films, with Hannah taking the more sentimental route and Crimes the more cynical one. I haven't been able to pick which is "better," but as of right now, Hannah is the one I enjoy more of the two, sentimental sap that I am.

    Also, you mentioned that Elliot is a character you want to hate. I'm not sure if I ever hated him, as even when he did something regrettable (cheating on his wife) he at least felt guilt over it and proceeded to end the affair. He may have been impetuous and unfaithful, but I don't think he was a bad guy. Credit to Allen and Caine for not making him what could have easily been a one-dimensional stock character.

    Also, I just rewatched Blue Velvet while on vacation and while I still think it's a great movie, what Lynch does later on with Mullholland Drive surpasses it as a masterpiece (and I'm likely jumping the gun on where you were going in replying to Sam's comment...but I can wait a few weeks to find out).

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  11. Glad that you liked it, Troy... I think I still slightly prefer Crimes and Misdemeanors, but it's close. Both are outstanding and probably my top 2 from Woody (with Radio Days very close).

    And I'll just say that there is definitely some Lynch in the mix in the coming years... I'll leave it at that! :)

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  12. I have never watched this movie.but i have read some story from here and also watch the latest hanna movie of 2011.

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  13. yes,Aliens. James Cameron's sequel forcefully establishes its own identity and stands as a definitive sci-fi action film.

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  14. you have wrote that I just rewatched Blue Velvet while on vacation and while I still think it's a great movie,
    I have also watch this great movie.

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  15. Hannah and Her Sisters is a 1986 American comedy-drama film which tells the intertwined stories of an extended family over two years that begin and end with a family Thanksgiving dinner. The film was written and directed by Woody Allen, who stars along with Mia Farrow as Hannah, Michael Caine as her husband, and Barbara Hershey and Dianne Wiest as her sisters.

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