I’m looking forward to spending some time with one of my favorite families over the coming Thanksgiving weekend, Hannah and Her Sisters (as well as her other relatives and friends).
Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody Allen‘s, by turns clever and outright hilarious 1986 classic, has been judged by many as his best film of the 1980s, but I think it might well be the best of his best work. Allen’s own Oscar-winning script is a tour-de-force testament to his dazzling facility as a screenwriter – with a record 14 screenplay Oscar nominations to his credit, he’s won two (the first for Annie Hall in 1977). Two members of the film’s superb ensemble cast, Dianne Wiest and Michael Caine, were awarded supporting Oscars for their portrayals. Allen himself delivers one of his very best performances, and Max von Sydow (who has some of the film’s best lines, which is saying something) and Lloyd Nolan are especially memorable in slightly-more-than-cameo roles.The film begins with one family Thanksgiving dinner and ends with another, a year later. Opening credits roll as the Harry James Orchestra croons “You Made Me Love You,” and the story begins to the same band’s snappy version of “I’ve Heard That Song Before.” It is Thanksgiving in Manhattan, and Hannah’s family comes together in her spacious, character-soaked, softly-lit Upper West Side apartment. The parents of Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her sisters, a crusty and eccentric pair of old-school show biz troupers (Nolan and Maureen O’Sullivan) take a moment to sit down at the piano and sing a duet on “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” a tune that recurs, usually by way of tinkling ivory keys, throughout the film. Meanwhile, Hannah’s husband Elliott (Michael Caine) has been ruminating on his fascination with his sister-in-law Lee (Barbara Hershey).
A tumble of interconnected episodes from the lives of family and friends flows between the two Thanksgivings. Mickey (Woody Allen), ex-husband of Hannah and future husband of her sister Holly (Wiest), endures a health crisis that leads to a spiritual crisis; Lee is unfaithful to her long-time lover Frederick (von Sydow) with Elliott. Bickering between the sisters’ parents gets ugly and leads to bawdy, if amusing, accusations. Along the way, flashbacks reveal bizarre and comical past events (bad first dates are traditional fodder for hilarity, but who knew infertility could be entertaining?). By the second Thanksgiving, life seems to be on a more harmonious course for Hannah and her sisters. Elliott and Hannah are once again content with each other, Lee has married an entirely new man and Holly and Mickey, who once went through a date from hell, are now wed. A maid fusses with candles on the dining table, “I’m in Love Again” can be heard in the background, on piano, and one of the couples shares a private, irony-tinged moment…fade to black.
As so often with Allen’s films, Manhattan’s captivating presence lingers in the background…Central Park, Greenwich Village, 5th Avenue, the Chrysler Building, Columbia University, the Carlyle Hotel, CBGB – east side, west side, all around the town – accompanied by scintillating tunes that kick the impact of story and scenery up a notch. The soundtrack is saturated with some of the great American standards of 20th-century song: “Where or When,” “You Are Too Beautiful,” “Isn’t it Romantic,” “If I Had You,” a Dave Brubeck version of “I Remember You,” Count Basie’s “The Trot,” “The Way You Look Tonight” sung by Carrie Fisher, “I’m Old-Fashioned” sung by Dianne Wiest – not to mention Bobby Short performing “I’m in Love Again” at the Carlyle…plus interludes of Bach and even a moment of “Madame Butterfly.”
Hannah and Her Sisters brims with warmth as it casts its wry gaze on the misadventures of its confused but not-difficult-to-relate-to characters. A fully realized reflection on love, life and family, the film earned three Academy Awards (Weist, Caine, Allen) and was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, art direction and editing. It is a gem.
The gifted Mr. Allen, now 75, is the auteur director of more than 40 films over the past 45 years, a writer on nearly 60 films and actor in 40+. Along with his screenwriting Oscars, he’s won a Best Director award for Annie Hall. Allen began as a comedy writer for Sid Caesar’s popular Show of Shows during TV’s golden age, became a successful stand-up comedian, had short stories published in The New Yorker and wrote two Broadway hits, Don’t Drink the Water and Play it Again, Sam. Today he continues to make films and also performs as a classic New Orleans-style jazz clarinetist.
Woody Allen has had one of the most prolific, varied and celebrated careers of the 20th and 21st centuries. My own favorites of his films are Hannah and Her Sisters and Bullets Over Broadway (1994). Also on my list are Match Point (2005), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), Stardust Memories (1980) and Play it Again, Sam (1972). I haven’t seen every one of his films (including this year’s Midnight in Paris, but soon) and haven’t loved everything he’s done (The Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Interiors come to mind). I admire his lifelong devotion to creatively exploring and expressing his own unique personal vision – and I deeply appreciate the decades of intelligent entertainment and long, loud laughs he has given me…
The Lady Eve is a bureaucrat by day, blogger by night…and a lover of classic film night and day. She lives in Northern California and works in TV. She also won a 2010 CiMBA Award from the Classic Movie Blog Association. For more information, visit http://eves-reel-life.blogspot.com.