Oscar Vault Monday – Hannah and Her Sisters, 1986 (dir. Woody Allen)

I remember distinctly the first time I saw this film: it was about two days before I was moving away from San Francisco (that story is a whole other kettle of fish) and it came on PBS and I decided I would watch it. I was blown away. At that point I think I’d only seen about 8 other Woody Allen films (I’ve seen 31 now) and I just loved this film to pieces. I rewatched it again Saturday as part of TCM’s The Essentials and I fell in love with it all over again. Woody Allen won his only sole Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for this film (his only other writing win was for Annie Hall, which he shared with Marshall Brickman). The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning three: Best Art Direction, Best Film Editing, Best Supporting Actor Michael Caine (won), Best Supporting Actress Dianne Wiest (won), Best Original Screenplay (won), Best Director, Best Picture. The films also nominated for Best Picture that year were Children of a Lesser God, The Mission, A Room with a View and winner Platoon.

Although its not one of his “earlier, funnier” films, Hannah and Her Sisters is filled with such wonderful humor and some of the most fully fleshed out characters of Allen’s entire oeuvre.

While Allen’s Mickey may not be as famous as, say, Alvy Singer, he doles out some of Allen’s most thought-provoking and philosphical ideas. Pretty much any time Allen is in his own picture he plays a form of the wise-fool, usually a very eccentric version. Mickey might be one of the biggest seeming failures Allen has ever penned, but in being such it makes the character’s revelation and ultimate redemption at the end of the film all the more profound.

Michael Caine won his first Oscar for his role in this film. He plays Elliot, the current husband of Mickey’s ex-wife Hannah (Mia Farrow). Like most of Allen’s supporting men, Elliot finds himself in a crisis of love. He finds himself attracted to Hannah’s sister Lee (Barbara Hershey); he’s even convinced himself he’s in love. Again, this character over the course of the film (which spans roughly three years) goes through so many emotions, all wonderfully realized by Caine. One of my favorite lines in the film comes from Elliot when he’s trying to figure out his situation in life: “For all my education, accomplishments and so-called wisdom, I can’t fathom my own heart.

Barbara Hershey gives one of the best performances of her career as Hannah’s sister Lee, who catches the eye of Elliot. Lee lives with what we assume was once one of her college professors, the much older Frederick (Max Von Sydow). Their relationship has begun to crumble in the last few years and Lee is looking for the next stage in her life. At first she thinks it might be with Elliot, but she soon realizes that he loves Hannah more than he knows. With this realization, and having already left Frederick, she finally is able to move into the next phase of her life. This transformation comes about perfectly organically, in part due to Allen’s exquisite writing, but also because of Hershey’s subtle performance.

I get a kick out of Max Von Sydow in this film because he was one of Ingmar Bergman’s greatest collaborators and Allen is such a fan of Bergman. You can see shades of Bergman in several of Allen’s films, including this one. I read that the story arc and end of the film closely follows that of Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander (I still haven’t seen that film!). Sydow’s Frederick adds a bit of melancholy to the film, an intellectual whose only contact with the world is Hershey’s Lee.

Dianne Wiest won her first of two Best Supporting Actress Oscars (both under the direction of Allen) for her portrayal of Hannah’s flighty sister Holly. Like her sister Lee, Holly goes through a transformation as the film progresses. When we first see Holly she is in the middle of this transformation, having kicked drugs over a year prior and trying her hand at both acting and working as a caterer. We also get a peek of what Holly was like a few years earlier, when she still had a problem with cocaine, during a flashback where Mickey describes one really horrific date the two went on. By the time the film ends Holly has found her true calling – playwriting – and finds love in a very unexpected place. Wiest is luminous in this role, hitting every note perfectly.

Lastly I want to talk about Mia as the titular Hannah. While the film is named after her, this is not Mia’s strongest performance in an Allen film, nor is she really the main character of the film, though she most definitely is the center of its universe. Hannah is accused of being too selfless and having no needs, something she readily denies. She maintains a relationship with her ex-husband Mickey (they have twins; their conception is an interesting tangent) and can feel her current husband Elliot drifting. She tries to be supportive of her sister Holly, but in all the wrong ways. Maybe I don’t like Mia’s performance because I don’t really like the character. This is something I’ll have to work out with further revisits to the film. Also of note, classic film star Maureen O’Sullivan (Mia’s real-life mother) plays Hannah’s mother in the film.

If you’re interested in purchasing this film, you can do so here.


About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on March 21, 2011, in Oscar Vault Monday and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. I’m so fond of this movie.

    • it’s part of the Woody Allen collection vol. 3, which retails for about $60, but I found at Big Lots for $20 a few years back so I bought it even though at the time I’d only seen this movie and The Purple Rose of Cairo and I’m so glad I bought it because I can watch it whenever I want (and the other films in the collection are all so good). Now if only I could find vol. 1 and vol. 2 for equally small sums.

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