Family Thanksgivings: Hannah and Her Sisters

"Michael Caine","Hannah and Her Sisters",Woody Allen,Lloyd Nolan,Max von SydowGuest blogger The Lady Eve writes:

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

  • Valerie

    And don’t forget Radio Days…a WWII era gem.

  • Allen Hefner

    Make sure to catch the PBS “American Masters” two-part documentary on Woody Allen that is airing this week. I saw parts of part two last night, and have it set for my DVR. It will be better from the beginning!

  • Hank Zangara

    My Woody Allen Favs (in no particular order):
    – The Purple Rose of Cairo
    – Zelig
    – Sleeper
    – Take the Money and Run
    – What’s Up Tiger Lily
    and last but certainly not least:
    – Scoop!

  • Brian

    What!? No mention of Crimes and Misdemeanors?

  • Publius

    HANNAH is my favorite Thanksgiving film because Allen seems to crystallize what all American families are like duirng the Thanksgiving season. The lines are priceless and although I think the plot falls a bit, the Thanksgiving scenes are the best things in the whole film.
    My favorite Woody Allen films are his early ones: SLEEPER, EVERYTHING YOU…SEX, LOVE AND DEATH, RADIO DAYS and ZELIG.

  • Ron

    My Woody favorites are: Zelig, Manhattan, Crimes Misdemeanors, Radio Days, Annie Hall, Broadway Danny Rose, Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and her Sisters to name a few.

  • Michelle Malkin

    My favorite Woody Allen films are “Sleeper” and “Mighty Aphrodite”. I love the Greek chorus
    in Aphrodite.

  • Mike D.

    I also need to make mention to:
    Manhattan Murder Mystery: re-teams with Diane Keaton and a scene that pays homage to Orson Wells The Lady from Shanghai.

    Small Time Crooks: Fun send up to Larceny Inc.

    Deconstructing Harry: self-effacing deconstructing Allen after his public life is unraveled and tributes the Hades scene that is an homage to Olsen and Johnson’s Hellzapoppin’

    The Purple Rose of Cairo: A diehard classic moviegoer lovers dream to immerse oneself into the dreamy days of chapter matinee idols that escape the flickering light to adventure, as a devotee enters into and behind the screen. The Astaire – Rogers number draws you in.

    Everyone Says I Love You: Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby song title from The Marx Bros. film: Horsefeathers and includes a treasure of vintage songs that intertwine a movie musical Love Story and a special Groucho Marx homage.

    Bullets over Broadway. What more could be said other than the oddest couple pairing of Chazz Palminteri and John Cusack as a Mobster and Playwrite and a barrage of subtle one liners that kept me in stitches from start to finish.

  • hiram grant

    Clearly the great “auteur” of my lifetime in American film. My favorites, alphabetically: Annie Hall, Everyone Says I Love You, Hannah and Her Sisters, Midnight in Paris, The Purple Rose of Cairo, the terribly underrated You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, and Zelig.

  • Alfie

    Personally, I sm unable to enjoy the Woody Allen directing talent… for seeing and hearing Woody Allen himself in his films. His whining, self-absorbed, pie-eyed, weasel-like personna turns me off very quickly, no matter the movie. Why does the man believe that he should ‘act’ in his films? A ‘Hitchcockian appearance’ would have been sufficient. I did see all of “Hannah” and enjoyed most of it.

  • Doug

    Derrik Christophear it was great talking to you this past
    weekend I’m happy you got your car back but more than that I’m excited about
    your new role in the movie can’t wait I think you will be awesome playing the
    part ofNorman and tankst myand frend and God bless .

  • Amy Condit

    Hannah’s apartment also was Mia Farrow’s real-life Upper West Side apartment that they used for filming.