Hannah and Her Sisters: Saved by the Marx Bros

hannahandhersistersThere’s every reason for Mia Farrow not to enjoy watching this movie. Some of it was shot in her actual apartment, and she has talked about the creepy effect of sitting in one’s apartment flipping through channels and finding a movie that takes place exactly where you’re sitting. Then there’s also the fact that her and Woody Allen’s stepdaughter Soon-Yi Previn can be seen at a Thanksgiving party; considering that Soon-Yi was to become Allen’s future wife, talk about a creepy effect. And Farrow also had a weird feeling after making the movie that maybe Allen was expressing his own feelings for her sister through it…

She was never a fan of the script in the first place. But Hannah and Her Sisters became one of the director’s biggest commercial and critical hits.

The story begins with a Thanksgiving party thrown by Hannah (Farrow) and her husband Elliot (Michael Caine). Elliot has been secretly harboring a crush on one of Hannah’s sisters, Lee (Barbara Hershey), showering her with attention, recommending books and albums. It hasn’t gone unnoticed though; Lee is curious about it, but she’s in a relationship with a sullen artist (Max von Sydow). At the same time, another one of Hannah’s sisters, Holly (Dianne Wiest), is trying to find success as an actress but her life is a mess. And then there’s Mickey Sachs (Allen), Hannah’s ex-husband, who’s a hypochondriac… but this time one of his frequent visits to the doctor might actually reveal a brain tumor.

Getting back to an Annie Hall feeling
After the immense success of Annie Hall (1977), Allen seemed more interested in exploring specific ideas or concepts in the movies that followed. It took an entire decade for him to sort of go back to what made Annie Hall so successful, not just to critics but to large audiences. Hannah and Her Sisters has a similar blend of comedy and drama, although the standup routines and visual jokes of the 1977 film have been toned down or excised altogether.

This is a more straight-forward portrait of a family, but with Allen’s character serving as comedy relief, first suffering in agony because he thinks he’s dying of cancer, then comically trying to find out which religion might serve him best. This may be one of Allen’s best directed films, but the initial challenge wasn’t easy. He was inspired by “Anna Karenina” and the way the novel cuts from one story to another. Other cultural influences (possibly Fanny and Alexander) made Allen see how he could follow the sisters and the men in their lives without confusing the audience too much. The results are terrific, seamlessly interweaving the stories as they progress in three phases, helped by a few title cards. We’re drawn into the sensitive relationships between siblings, as well as the fears and confusions all of us are constantly subjected to – just like Annie Hall did, this movie brilliantly captures themes and emotions that appeal to a very broad audience.

Wiest is a particular standout as Holly, the insecure sister whose path to maturity isn’t always so neat. But there are also many beautiful minor performances, such as Lloyd Nolan as the sisters’ father, his last effort onscreen.

Allen’s search for religion may strike some in the audience as a distraction, but the scene where he finally finds peace is one of the film’s best. Watching a Marx Brothers classic, he realizes that it doesn’t really matter if there’s a God or not; what matters is that life isn’t only painful, but has its good moments as well. Maybe Mia Farrow can see the same in this movie?

Hannah and Her Sisters 1986-U.S. 106 min. Color. Produced by Robert Greenhut. Written and directed by Woody Allen. Cinematography: Carlo Di Palma. Cast: Woody Allen (Mickey Sachs), Michael Caine (Elliot), Mia Farrow (Hannah), Carrie Fisher, Barbara Hershey, Lloyd Nolan… Maureen O’Sullivan, Daniel Stern, Max von Sydow, Dianne Wiest, J.T. Walsh, Richard Jenkins, Julie Kavner, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, John Turturro. Cameo: Sam Waterston.

Trivia: O’Sullivan plays the mother of her real-life daughter, Mia Farrow.

Oscars: Best Supporting Actor (Caine), Supporting Actress (Wiest), Original Screenplay. Golden Globe: Best Motion Picture (Comedy/Musical). BAFTA: Best Direction, Original Screenplay.

Quote: “A week ago I bought a rifle, I went to the store – I bought a rifle! I was gonna, you know, if they told me I had a tumor, I was gonna kill myself. 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.” (Allen)

Last word: “The movie has sort of a literary structure, and that’s deliberate. I broke it up into chapters, and began each chapter with a heading. It was fun to work that way. We shot it in Mia’s apartment, so I never had to leave mid-town Manhattan. All I had to do was go right across the park to her house. I could put all of my energy into the product. Directors like Fellini and Kubrick work in a big filmic way, which is why they only make a film every couple of years, but I’ve always been interested in turning out a lot of film, not spending years in preparation.” (Allen, interview with Roger Ebert)

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