Wednesday, November 17, 2010

1986 - Hannah and Her Sisters

We launch into another year of review, which is normally the time I put up the poll to decide the next year of review after that. I'd like to offer you some options from the 1930s again, but before I do that, I need to figure out which films are more easily available to me from that decade. Hence, I may need another few days of research. Stay tuned...

On another note, many of you may be aware of my previous website creation years ago - a weekly film quiz. Perhaps if I ever manage to complete this current project, I'll return to that concept, but in the meantime, I couldn't help myself. I created a couple of quizzes on Sporcle (Verbose Movie Titles and Verbose Movie Titles 2) for a bit of fun. Enjoy!

Yesterday, I began my look at the Best Picture contenders of 1986 by revisiting...

Hannah and Her Sisters
Woody Allen
Woody Allen
Woody Allen, Michael Caine, Mia Farrow, Carrie Fisher, Barbara Hershey, Lloyd Nolan, Maureen O'Sullivan, Daniel Stern, Max von Sydow, Dianne Wiest
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
3 wins, including Best Original Screenplay

Unsurprisingly, Hannah and Her Sisters is about a woman named Hannah (Farrow) and her two sisters, Lee (Hershey) and Holly (Wiest). Also prominent in the story are Hannah's ex-husband Mickey (Allen) and her current husband Elliot (Caine), plus her parents (Nolan & O'Sullivan). But I suppose Hannah and Her Sisters and Her Husbands and Her Parents was a little too long-winded as a title ... Not that Woody Allen is averse to long-winded titles. But I digress...

The film follows the trials and tribulations of this family of characters. Although married to Hannah, Elliot is head over heels in love with her sister Lee. Other sister Holly is insecure about how her business partner April (Fisher) is more talented and more attractive than she. And hypochondriac Mickey fears the worst when doctors suspect he may actually have a fatal disease.

Here's how you know that this is a Woody Allen film:

* The opening titles are white text in Windsor font on a black background, underscored by an upbeat piece of early jazz music. This, perhaps more than any other Allen trademark, elicits a familiar sensation of comfort.

* Rather than one major theme, the story examines several fundamental issues of the human condition - fidelity, mortality, insecurity, religion, love. For this film, these subjects are explored with the clever and illuminating use of inner monologues. Through voice over, the audience becomes privy to each character's private thoughts.

* Witty and very quotable one-liners permeate the script, often related to one of those fundamental issues being explored, particularly philosophy and religion. Here, we are treated to such gems as, "If Jesus came back and saw what was going on in his name, he'd never stop throwing up," and, "I was in analysis for years, nothing happened. My poor analyst got so frustrated, the guy finally put in a salad bar."

* The visual style is relatively basic. There are, of course, some exceptions to this rule within Allen's body of work, but Hannah and Her Sisters falls pretty squarely in the 'simple images' category. Which is appropriate, mind you. The material is based on those raw and honest feelings we all experience - or at least a slightly exaggerated version of the same - so the photographic simplicity is the perfect complement.

* The cast is dense with renowned actors delivering naturalistic performances. There is an almost improvisational style to each scene. People talk in half-sentences, cutting each other off constantly. The emotional displays are subtle and reserved, except perhaps for Allen's own neurotic histrionics.

* Along with the plethora of established performers in main and supporting roles, there are numerous minor roles portrayed by actors of future renown. Here, we have John Turturro, J.T. Walsh, Richard Jenkins, Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Even comedian Lewis Black makes his film debut.

* The script and the actors fared well with the Academy. For Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar (his second after Annie Hall), while both Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest received awards for their supporting roles. Wiest's second Oscar eight years later was for Bullets Over Broadway, also directed by Allen. Interestingly, though, the last decade has not been so kind to Allen and his casts in this regard. Only one writing nomination (for Match Point) and one acting nomination (for Penelope Cruz in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, which she won).


  1. Julia Louis Dreyfus was in this? I can't remember her in this. I guess I need to see the film again.

  2. This is his best film IMHO

  3. Tom: Yep, she only has one line. It's the same scene that Lewis Black, J.T. Walsh and John Turturro are in. All very brief appearances about 11½ minutes into the film.

    Erik: It's near the top of my list of Woody Allen faves, but I think Manhattan still takes the number one spot for me. Mind you, I've missed a lot of his more recent films, so I need to catch up...

  4. When Woody Allen won the Best Original Screenplay Award, he was quoted as saying: "If you make a popular movie, you start to think, Where have I failed? I must be doing something that's unchallenging, or reinforcing the prejudices of the middle class, or being simplistic or sentimental." Although a few critics found a certain banality in Hannah and Her Sisters, I felt it was one of Allen's most complete, most accomplished films. He gives us two years of his Manhattan universe with the ensemble of three sisters and their extended family and makes each of the characters fully three dimensional. While the subject matter may be one he has tackled many times, it seems fresh and very re-visitable. Even Allen's character, a variation of the neurotic, fatalist he's played in other films, has a depth not often seen. He is still searching for the meaning of life, and though not really finding it, learns that life can be enjoyed in a bowl of Duck Soup.

    All three actresses playing the sisters do exemplary work. The virtuoso scene of them meeting for lunch with Allen's camera circling them as they try to straighten out their lives is one of the highlights of the film. It was a nice touch using Mia Farrow's real life mother, Maureen O'Sullivan as her screen mother here, although seeing the young Soon-Yi Previn in the film was a little strange, knowing what the future held. I think this is a good time to recognize the talent of Allen's Casting Director, Juliet Taylor. Her credits are astonishing. It makes you want to have a category for casting added to the Awards.

    Keeping the personal history of Farrow, Allen and Previn aside, what is on the screen is exemplary, and a very strong contender for best of 1986.