Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Family Thanksgivings: Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

I'm looking forward to spending some time with one of my favorite families this Thanksgiving weekend, Hannah and Her Sisters (as well as her other relatives and friends).

Dianne Wiest, Oscar winner
Hannah and Her Sisters, Woody Allen's, by turns, clever and outright hilarious 1986 classic, has been judged by many as his best film of the 1980s, but I think it might well be the best of his best work. Allen's own Oscar-winning script is a tour de force testament to his astounding facility as a screenwriter - he has a record 14 screenplay Oscar nominations to his credit; he's won two (the first for Annie Hall in 1977). Two member's of the film's superb ensemble cast, Dianne Wiest and Michael Caine, were awarded supporting Oscars for their performances. Allen himself delivers one of his own very best and Max von Sydow (who has some of the film's best lines, which is saying something) and Lloyd Nolan are especially memorable in slightly-more-than-cameo roles.

The film begins with one family Thanksgiving dinner and ends with another. Opening credits roll as the Harry James Orchestra croons "You Made Me Love You," and the story begins to the same band's snappy version of "I've Heard That Song Before." It is Thanksgiving in Manhattan and Hannah's family comes together in her spacious, character-drenched, softly-lit Upper West Side apartment. The parents of Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her sisters, a crusty and eccentric pair of old-school show biz troupers (Lloyd Nolan and Maureen O'Sullivan) take a moment to sit down at the piano and sing a duet on "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered," a tune that recurs, usually by way of tinkling ivory keys, throughout the film. Meanwhile, Hannah's husband Elliott (Michael Caine) has been ruminating on his fascination with his wife's sister, Lee (Barbara Hershey).

O'Sullivan and Nolan
A tumble of interconnected episodes from the lives of family and friends flows between the two Thanksgivings. Mickey (Woody Allen), ex-husband of Hannah and future husband of her sister Holly (Dianne Wiest), goes through a health crisis that leads to a spiritual crisis; Lee is unfaithful to her long-time lover (Max von Sydow) with Elliott. Bickering between the sisters' parents gets ugly and leads to bawdy, if amusing, accusations.  Along the way, flashbacks reveal bizarre and comical past events (bad first dates are traditional fodder for hilarity, but who knew infertility could be so entertaining?). By the second Thanksgiving, life seems to be on a more harmonious course for Hannah and Her Sisters. Elliott and Hannah are once again content with each other, Lee has married an entirely new man and Holly and Mickey, who once went through a date from hell, are now wed. A maid fusses with candles on the dining table, "I'm in Love Again" can be heard in the background, on piano, and one of the couples shares a private, irony-tinged moment...fade to black.

'Holly and Mickey' in Central Park
As so often with Woody Allen's films, Manhattan's alluring presence lingers in the background...Central Park, Greenwich Village, 5th Avenue, the Chrysler Building, Columbia University, The Carlyle Hotel, CBGB's - east side, west side, all around the town - accompanied by scintillating tunes that accentuate story and setting. The soundtrack is saturated with some of the great American standards of 20th century song: "Where or When," "You Are Too Beautiful," "Isn't it Romantic," "If I Had You," a Dave Brubeck version of  "I Remember You," Count Basie's "The Trot," "The Way You Look Tonight" sung by Carrie Fisher, "I'm Old-Fashioned" sung by Dianne Wiest - not to mention Bobby Short performing "I'm in Love Again" at the interludes of Bach and even a moment of "Madame Butterfly."

Hannah and Her Sisters brims with warmth as it casts a wry gaze on the misadventures of its confused but not-difficult-to-relate-to characters. It deservedly earned three Academy Awards (Weist, Caine, Allen) and was also nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, art direction and editing.  It is a gem.


The gifted Mr. Allen, now 75, is the auteur director of more than 40 films over the past 45 years, a writer on nearly 60 films and actor in 40+. Along with his screenwriting Oscars, he's won a Best Director award for Annie Hall. Allen began as a comedy writer for Sid Caesar's popular Show of Shows during TV's golden age of the 1950s, became a successful stand-up comedian, had short stories published in The New Yorker and wrote two Broadway hits, Don't Drink the Water and Play it Again, Sam. Today he continues to make films and also performs as a classic New Orleans-style jazz clarinetist.

Woody Allen (center) on the set of Hannah and her Sisters
Woody Allen has had one of the most prolific, varied and celebrated careers of the 20th and 21st centuries. My own favorites of his films are Hannah and Her Sisters, Bullets Over Broadway (1994) Match Point (2005) and Midnight in Paris (2011). Also on my list are Annie Hall (1977), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), Stardust Memories (1980) and Play it Again, Sam (1972). I haven't seen every one of his films and haven't loved everything he's done (Curse of the Jade Scorpion and Interiors come to mind), but I admire his lifelong devotion to creatively exploring and expressing his own unique personal vision - and I'm deeply grateful for the decades of intelligent entertainment and long, loud laughs he has given me.

Many thanks to Chris of Movies Unlimited's MovieFanFare website and Ivan of LAMB's 'Classic Chops' for republishing this post during Thanksgiving week 2011.


  1. This is one of Woody's most brilliant and big-hearted films. As a movie lover, the scene with the Marx Brothers speaks to my heart. No matter how horrible things are (or seem to be) as long as there are the Marx Brothers (or Cary Grant, or Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and on and on), then it can't be all bad! This is my favorite Thanksgiving movie, so I give thank to you for a great post. Have a wonderful holiday!

  2. FlickChick - Happy Thanksgiving to you, too. "Hannah and Her Sisters" is my favorite Thanksgiving movie as well, and also one of my favorite films about family. It is so warm and funny - and the music! The Marx Bros. scene effects me as it does you - Ah, the tonic properties of classic films!

  3. I forgot about the Thanksgiving connection with this film. I now know what I'll be watching the night before the big day. It's been sitting in the pile of unwatched DVDs for far too long. Indded, it's been far too long since I've seen it.

    If memory serves, this was Lloyd Nolan's last movie and he died before it came out. Not 100 percent sure about that but I have vague memories of seeing this in the theater a little saddened that it was Nolan's last movie. But as always, he was entertaining to the end. What a way to end his career.

    Eve, I do hope you get the chance to see "Midnight in Paris." It's my favorite film of the year so far.

    A wonderful appreciation of Mr. Allen's career.

  4. Eve, as always a wonderful post. I see you have Play It Again Sam as a favorite, it's one of my favorites too,Herb Ross did a great job directing.

  5. Kevin - I think you're right about this being Lloyd Nolan's last film, and he may have passed away before it was released. I remember hearing that he had some trouble remembering his lines - but you'd never know it, he's perfect. He and Maureen O'Sullivan are priceless together.

    Paul - I've always loved "Play it Again, Sam." The play was set in Manhattan but Woody filmed in San Francisco because there was some kind of strike going on in New York at the time. So...not only do I think "Sam" is hilarious, but it's also one of my favorite films set in 'don't call it Frisco.'

  6. Eve ,I have (somewhere) a frame by frame book of Play It Again Sam,. I've got to love a film that features a Oscar Peterson LP in a scene.

  7. That Oscar Peterson album was launched across a room in that scene, wasn't it? "Play it Again, Sam" is a fantastic time capsule of its era - and it has to have also been the inspiration for many comedy movies and scenes about awful but funny dating experiences.

  8. Thanks Lady Eve for this insightful post on Woody Allen, a favorite screenwriter of mine too. And yes, Midnight in Paris is definetely a must see - with more subtle humor and lots more charm and dreaminess than his other films. Now that Diane Keaton has written her memoirs, "Then Again," it's also appropriate to praise their classic, Annie Hall.

  9. Eve, I also loved this comedy/drama. Dianne Wiest, plays the perfect neurotic. Michael Caine's performance is very touching. Mia Farrow, performance pulls on your heart strings, in her scenes with her real-life mother, Maureen O'Sullivan.

    I also want to wish you a Happy Thanksgiving!!

  10. Christian - "Midnight in Paris" is definitely on my must-see list - have heard many good things about it plus the concept appeals. I've always thought Barbara Hershey had the 'Diane Keaton role' in "Hannah"...

    Dawn - "Hannah and Her Sisters" also revived Maureen O'Sullivan's movie career - she made a vew more films and continued to appear on TV into her 80s.

    Happy Thanksgiving to you both!

  11. Eve,

    Hannah is an exquisite film, possibly his most realized though "Annie Hall" is right there with it. It's a great film for the Thanksgiving season and just about any time of the year. "Midnight in Paris" is a must see. It's coming out on DVD, if I remember correctly, in December. If I had to list my top 10 Woody Allen's it would look something like this. The list is no particular order.

    Annie Hall
    Hannah and Her Sisters
    Manhattan Murder Mystery
    Play, it Again Sam
    Bullet's Over Broadway
    Match Point
    Husbands and Wives
    Broadway Danny Rose
    Crimes and Misdemeanors

    Some close runner ups...
    Midnight in Paris, Vicky Christina Barcelona, Scoop, Radio Days and Deconstructing Harry.


  12. John - Great list - all of your favorites are on my own list, too. You mentioned "Deconstructing Harry" which has some killer moments: One involving Allen and Kirstie Alley and another with Judy Davis (in an absolutely amazing turn) and Amy Irving.

  13. Eve, loved your review of a modern clasic. It ranks in my top 5 of Woody's films (No. 1 is probably MANHATTAN). I think HANNAH is the best of his "ensemble films." By the way, my wife often has to correct me on the film'S title. For some unknown reason, I will often refer to it as HANNAH AND HER TWO SISTERS!

  14. Great write up Ms Eve. Woody Allen is the most hilarious sad-eyed romantic I can think of. His poignant insight is equally matched by his fear of mortality - somehow, more often than not, this is a winning combination. Allen has really absorbed the feeling and tone of the old classic movie era and you can feel his longing for that time, and perhaps a lost innocence ("Radio Days" is a great example). His use of classic standard songs and jazz is always spot-on perfect and it's obvious that it's the expression of someone who truly loves and has deep knowledge of that music - of the entire era. I haven't seen "Hannah and Her Sisters" in years but I have vivid memories of it, which your writing has helped rekindle. I thought Lloyd Nolan serenading Maureen O'Sullivan with "You Are To Beautiful" was a moving glimpse into a reltionship that had managed to survive all the outlandish and foolish conceits of youth. A wonderful movie. Thanks for focusing your efforts on an american classic filmmaker who is still among the living - both literally and artistically.

  15. One of your very best, Eve. I love the movie, and I think Woody Allen is a film genius. The man can do everything involved in film, and Hannah is definitely at the top. You assessment of the film, particularly "A fully realized reflection on love, life and family" is right on -- beautiful way to put it.

    I too love the way Allen shows his love affair with New York, and the music that he chooses is perfection. He peppers his usual cast of actors with such wonderful stars like Michael Caine and Max Von Sydow, and that keeps his films fresh, intriguing and never stale. Wonderful article, Eve!

  16. Rick, MB and Becky - I hope you're all watching the PBS documentary on Woody Allen. The first part was excellent - a real in-depth look at his beginnings in comedy, how/why he became a performer and his move into filmmaking. Absolutely fascinating, with comments from everyone from Woody himself (at length) to Diane Keaton (his early, iconic muse) to Scarlett Johansson (his current muse and, possibly, a future icon). Tonight, Pt. II!

  17. LadyEve,
    I left a long comment but perhaps it didn't come through.
    I'll wait a day or two to see if it shows up! A great Thanksgiving Day choice.

  18. Hi, Page - So far, this is the only comment that's appeared from you on this post. You know how Blogger can be...& hopefully it isn't lost forever...Happy Thanksgiving!

  19. I have a somewhat ambivalent connection to the films of Woody Allen; I wasn’t a big fan until I saw “The Purple Rose Of Cairo” and worked my way backwards through his films. I’m a bit sentimental about each of the costume films, simply because I like the notion of living vicariously during the period, if only for an hour and a half. Although I will always associate “Crimes and Misdemeanors” with Christmas, perhaps because I first saw the film during the holiday, “Hannah and her Sisters” gave me a glimpse of a year in the life of Manhattan. The portrayal of the city as a dazzling character in many of his films, and his use of big band and jazz on his soundtracks, has always seemed the perfect canvas on which to render his world. The idea to tell the story between the celebration of two separate Thanksgiving holidays is what gives the story a touch of bittersweet humor. A year of angst and frustration is made all the more poignant when served with a blend of nostalgia for a holiday spent with family and friends. There are no happy endings or “warm fuzzies” in Woody Allen’s films, but he creates an entirely believable balance of realism and romance. Best wishes to you and your family for a Happy Thanksgiving.

  20. Eve, I always enjoy your wonderful blog posts, but your review of HANNAH AND HER SISTERS particularly moved me because of the circumstances under which I saw it during its theatrical run. To make a long story short, it was Christmas Day with other relatives present, and my stepfather, a bullying, difficult man even when things were going well, was being particularly nasty and acid-tongued, and the nastiness was contagious. My dear mom and I finally stormed out, both of us in angry tears, and we went to see HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (at the Murray Hill Theater, if I recall correctly). The movie worked its magic on us, and by the time it was over, we were laughing and smiling. (Also, we discovered the rest of the family had deservedly ripped my stepfather a new one in our absence.) For the rest of Mom's life, she and I referred to HANNAH AND HER SISTERS as The Movie That Saved Christmas! :-)

    If you'd like to hear an even more entertaining and upbeat Woody Allen-related story from the annals of our family, check out my previous blog post about MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY! :-)

    Eve, here's hoping you and yours have a happy and healthy and non-dysfunctional Thanksgiving and holiday season! :-)

  21. Gypsy - 'Better late [to Woody] than never,' I say. There's quite a difference between his earliest films and those beginning with "Annie Hall." It marked a departure and, I think, was the first of his films to reveal his real capacity for expressing heart and humanity (with hilarity). A Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours...

    Dorian - I can see how "Hannah" might save a Christmas, it's such a human tale - so funny - well-acted - & that soundtrack. I'll come visit your blog & get your take on another of Woody's classics, "Manhattan Murder Mystery."