Originally shown November 24, 2010
To get professional curmudgeon Woody Allen to give thanks for anything is like pulling teeth. That makes it doubly strange that one of my favorite of Allen’s movies – and, until the success of the recent Midnight in Paris, his biggest money-maker – is also one of the great all-time Thanksgiving movies, 1986’s Hannah and her Sisters.
Hannah is played by Mia Farrow, and the movie follows her and her sisters over the course of a year, from one Thanksgiving dinner to the next. She’s married to Elliot (Sir Michael Caine), who is thinking about cheating on her with her sister Lee (Barbara Hershey), who is herself stuck in a miserable relationship with gloomy artist Frederick (Max von Sydow). Hannah’s other sister is the flighty cocaine addict Holly (Dianne Wiest), who has a miserable date with the hypochondriac Mickey (Allen), who was previously married to Hannah. Got all that?
If it doesn’t make sense as text in a browser, don’t worry, because it’s easy enough to follow as a movie. That’s Allen’s gift as a writer: not only does he write sharp dialogue, but he rarely loses control of the plots of his movies. This despite the fact that his movies often have dozens of characters or more, and take place in the “real” world where people’s lives are usually messy and plot-less affairs. He peppers their drama with jokes, as well as humor that just comes naturally from their awkward situations.
It seems a bit narcissistic that the movie spends so much time with Mickey, the character who starts the film with the most tenuous connection to Hannah and her sisters. After his hypochondria uncovers the specter of a serious disease, he has an existential crisis and is unable to find the meaning in life. It wasn’t until much later that I realized Mickey is directly expressing the same sorts of crises that other characters in the movie are having. Many characters in Hannah and her Sisters are uncomfortable with their lives, but they’re not sure why. Mickey explains why, and his eventual happiness is found by helping solve one of the sisters’ problems.
Caine and Wiest both won supporting-actor Oscars;* I’d like to focus on Caine, because his is an unusual role. Most of Allen’s movies either star Allen himself, or the male lead acts as an Allen surrogate by adopting Allen’s vocal and physical tics into his performance. This film is unique in that Allen acts in it, but Caine also seems to be acting as an Allen surrogate. You watch Caine cheating on Mia Farrow’s character with her sister, and it’s hard not to think of Allen cheating on Mia Farrow in real life with her daughter.**
It seems that Allen is playing himself as he does in many of his movies, but Caine is expressing the internal Woody Allen: the secret heart that Woody couldn’t reveal to the public. And I’m not just talking about the cheating, but also the uncertainty. Perviously I had always thought that Allen’s self-deprecation was just a trick to get women to sleep with him, something which sounded like a neurosis but was endearing in the context of the movie. It wasn’t until Caine’s performance that it seemed like “the Woody Allen persona” was masking a deep core of sadness and self-doubt. Caine’s work transformed not only this movie, but every Woody Allen film that I’ve seen before or since. An Oscar seems like a fitting prize for such an achievement.***
If there’s one complaint I had with this movie, it’s that the Holly character seems a little smaller than she needs to be. At the start of the film, she asks her family for money for a personal project, and we as the audience definitely get the sense that she’s lying. This is before we see Holly do enough coke to stun a horse, so it’s quickly clear that the character has serious problems. Those problems should cause problems for the other people in her life, and they do, but not to the degree that we might expect; getting herself out of it should be a big deal for her, and it is, but not to the degree that we might expect. It’s great acting and I don’t mind that Wiest won an Oscar, but a character like this could be a drama machine, worthy of a movie all to herself, so it’s a little weird that’s not what she gets.
There’s really nothing more delightful in Allen’s filmography than the scene in which Mickey regains his will to live by watching Duck Soup. There’s just something so poetic and appropriate about a depressed person finding purpose and reason in the nonsensical anarchy of a Marx Brothers film. This is why I go to the movies: searching for that next brilliant thing which will make me see my own life in a way that I hadn’t seen before. Hannah and her Sisters is in that category.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*Since 1980, the only films to win both supporting-actor Oscars were this film, and 2010’s The Fighter.
**Allen and Farrow were never married, but they had one child together and adopted two more. Their long-time relationship ended six years after the release of Hannah and Her Sisters, when Allen admitted to being with one of Farrow’s children from a previous marriage.
***Caine was not at the ceremony to accept his Oscar; he was in the Bahamas, filming Jaws The Revenge. That led to my all-time favorite quote from an actor: “I have never seen [Jaws the Revenge], but by all accounts it was terrible. However I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific.”