Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

Director: Woody Allen

Starring (in alphabetical order): Woody Allen, Michael Caine, Mia Farrow, Carrie Fisher, Barbara Hershey, Lloyd Nolan, Maureen O’Sullivan, Daniel Stern, Max von Sydow, Dianne Wiest

Once again, I have found myself in the position of sitting down to watch a wildly popular film directed by Woody Allen without any idea what to expect and, in all likelihood, requiring many future viewings to truly appreciate it. This is not a knock against his work. Far from it. There’s just so much going on in the multiple plot threads of “Hannah and Her Sisters” that it’s not easily digestible.

Although it’s up in the air just who one could consider as the main character or characters, it is certain that each of the three main story arcs (which run concurrently over a period of two years) has a connection back to Hannah (Mia Farrow). The first one follows Hannah’s current husband, Elliot (Michael Caine) and his irrational but passionate pursuit of her sister Lee (Barbara Hershey), eventually resulting in an affair. Although Lee is not married, she has been living with the artist Frederick (Max von Sydow) for five years. Lee’s problem with Frederick is that his reclusive nature is causing him to rely on her less as a partner in a relationship and more as his last remaining tether to the outside world. This is a responsibility which Lee does not want on her shoulders.

The second arc features Hannah’s ex-husband Mickey (Woody Allen), a television writer. Most of his story is told in flashback, including the reasons for his divorce from Hannah and a subsequent date with her other sister, Holly (Dianne Wiest), a drug-addicted wannabe actress. To say that the date does not go well is truly an understatement. That they do not come to blows is a miracle. Mickey has much bigger things to worry about besides an ex-wife, their twin children via artificial insemination, or her crazy sister. He’s worried half to death that he’s got a brain tumor. When he’s reassured this isn’t the case, his moment of relief is overcome by a new problem: the thought that life is meaningless. Turning to religion proves a fruitless endeavor. At his lowest point, Mickey attempts suicide, but even that doesn’t go as planned. Going to the movies to see the Marx Brothers in “Duck Soup,” he is able to discover what for him is the meaning of life. Personally, “Animal Crackers” would have done it for me, but that’s a discussion for another time.

Holly, with whom Mickey has a second, more successful date, is the focus of the third arc. Her biggest problem is that she feels as though she’s constantly in competition with everyone. In some cases, she’s right. She frequently argues with Hannah and vies for the affection of David (Sam Waterston) against her friend and fellow actress, April (Carrie Fisher). She is also in line for a part in a Broadway play, again losing to April. Finally, when she finds her niche as a writer, the first story she comes up with is one her sister criticizes heavily, accusing Holly of basing it on her and Elliot’s marriage. Of course, Hannah, still completely unaware that Elliot and Lee had been seeing each other behind her back, has only theories as to how Holly could know such intimate details if she (Hannah) is not the one who’s been feeding them to her sister.

Woody Allen’s Oscar-winning screenplay is filled with a lot of fantastic scenes. My favorite is the one in which the three sisters have gone out to eat together. The camera rotates around the table, and as Hannah and Holly bicker with one another, Lee’s growing unease about her own situation is finally getting to her, and she finally has an outburst of her own. Her sisters of course don’t understand where this is coming from, since they don’t have the full story, nor will they. Lee can’t bring herself to confess to her sisters what she and Elliot have been up to. It’s her problem and she’s got to resolve it herself, one way or another.

“Hannah and Her Sisters” is also bolstered by one of Woody Allen’s best casts. It is the only one of his movies which managed to snag two Academy Awards for acting, for Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest. Of the three main story arcs, the one which interests me the most is the Elliot/Lee affair, and it’s all thanks to terrific performances from Michael Caine, who I’ll watch in anything (even his bad movies), and Barbara Hershey (who, among other things, featured in my favorite two-part episode of “Kung Fu”). Even as their relationship threatens to hurt others whom they love if they’re discovered, you can’t help but sympathize with Elliot and Lee in their mutual quest to add some joy to their lives.

Many have ranked “Hannah and Her Sisters” either at or near the top of their lists of favorite Woody Allen films. While I can’t do the same… at least not yet… I can at least recognize that this is a fine film worthy of everyone’s attention. It’s one of those movies which seems better upon reflection. This is a story in which each of its characters searches for an answer. Each of them finds one, even if it wasn’t what they expected. I expect I’ll find mine after I’ve had the chance to see this movie one or two more times.

  1. Sylvia Williams says:

    A fine review, as always! You perfectly described the conflicting and confusing story arcs. Loved your comment about “Animal Crackers” and the meaning of life!!!!!

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