skip navigation
The Essentials - March 2011
share:
Remind Me

The Big Idea Behind HANNAH AND HER SISTERS

Hannah and Her Sisters began as the annual WAFP (otherwise known as the Woody Allen Fall Project) for 1984-85 - a routine undertaking for the dedicated and prolific auteur. Ever since 1977's Annie Hall, Woody Allen had made one film a year like clockwork via a strict, disciplined process that had become a well-oiled machine: Allen would write it, cast it, and shoot it quickly, efficiently and always under budget. The WAFP would generally get a real title somewhere in the middle of filming, and by the time the picture was ready for release, Allen would already be hard at work on his next WAFP. As far as Woody Allen was concerned, there was nothing particularly special about Hannah and Her Sisters-- it was just another WAFP.

According to Hannah and Her Sisters co-star and Woody Allen's longtime partner Mia Farrow, the subject of sisters had always been a topic that intrigued Allen. "He had been close to Janet Margolin, his leading lady in Take the Money and Run [1969], and her two sisters;" said Farrow in her 1997 memoir What Falls Away, "then with Diane Keaton and her two sisters; and now there was me and my three sisters. While we walked, worked, ate, slept and lived our lives, the story of Hannah was fleshed out, detail by familiar detail."

When Allen gave his completed script to Farrow to read, she was critical of it - something she had never been before, according to her. "To me," she said, "the characters seemed self-indulgent and dissolute in predictable ways." She also couldn't help but notice that there were some things in the Hannah screenplay that hit a little close to home. "It was my mother's stunned chill reaction to the script that enabled me to see how he had taken many of the personal circumstances and themes in our lives, and, it seemed, had distorted them into cartoonish characterizations," she said. "At the same time he was my partner. I loved him. I could trust him with my life. And he was a writer: this is what writers do. All is grist for the mill. Relatives have always grumbled. He had taken the ordinary stuff of our lives and lifted it into art. We were honored and outraged."

When the time came to cast the film, Allen told Farrow that she could play any part she wanted. However, he did have a preference. "...he felt I should be Hannah," said Farrow, "the more complex and enigmatic of the sisters, he said, whose stillness and internal strength he likened to the quality Al Pacino projected in The Godfather [1972]." Farrow agreed and began preparing for her role in the fifth film she would be making under Allen's direction.

With Farrow cast as Hannah and himself as Hannah's ex-husband Mickey, Woody Allen set about finding the right actors to fill out the other roles. For Hannah's sisters, Allen hired established actress Barbara Hershey as Lee and the lesser known Dianne Wiest as the neurotic sister Holly. It would be the first time Hershey had appeared in a Woody Allen film, and the second time for Wiest who had played a supporting role in his 1985 film The Purple Rose of Cairo.

For the part of Hannah's husband Elliot, Woody Allen originally wanted Jack Nicholson. He talked to Nicholson at length about it, but in the end the actor had to pass on Hannah, having already committed to making John Huston's mobster drama Prizzi's Honor (1985).

Allen subsequently turned to Michael Caine for the part. Caine had been a friend of Mia Farrow's for over 20 years, though he had never worked with her in a film. In fact, Caine had been the person who had originally introduced Farrow to Woody Allen in 1980 at Elaine's restaurant in Manhattan, so there was a special connection between them. "Using an English actor was not my first choice," said Allen in a later interview. "Because I wrote it for an American, I wanted an American. But I was very lucky to get Michael. Michael Caine, I've often said, is incapable of an unreal moment. He's just one of those actors who was born graceful in front of the camera and he's a truly, truly fabulous movie actor. I mean, he's got what you want for the movies, a complete ease and naturalness. Nothing ever seems like acting."

Michael Caine had always been a fan of Woody Allen's work and thought the part of Elliot was strong. He agreed, like all of Allen's actors, to work for a fraction of his usual salary to be in Hannah and Her Sisters. "I had heard so many conflicting stories about working with Woody," he said in his 1992 memoir What's It All About?, "that I wanted to find out for myself."

To round out the cast, Allen added a touch of old Hollywood by hiring veteran actors Lloyd Nolan and Maureen O'Sullivan to play Hannah's bickering showbiz parents. Playing Hannah's mother wasn't a stretch for O'Sullivan, as she was Mia Farrow's real-life mother as well. O'Sullivan had made a name for herself playing Jane to Johnny Weissmuller's Tarzan in MGM's popular Tarzan film series throughout the 1930s and 40s. Hannah would mark O'Sullivan's return to the silver screen after a 20 year absence.

Hannah and Her Sisters would also be the first film since the Academy Award-winning Annie Hall on which Woody Allen would not be using longtime cinematographer Gordon Willis. Willis had been responsible for the look of many of Allen's most visually beautiful films such as Manhattan (1979), Zelig (1983) and The Purple Rose of Cairo. However, he was committed to working on another project that created a scheduling conflict with Hannah. Allen used cinematographer Carlo Di Palma instead, and it ushered in the beginning of a new collaborative relationship between the two that would last over a decade.

by Andrea Passafiume VIEW TCMDb ENTRY

Also Playing on TCM

Also playing
Janet Leigh - Wednesdays in October
34 Movies

A classic example of the small town girl who went to Hollywood and became a star, this lovely, intelligent actress worked with...more

Events

TCM Shopping
  • Hannah & Her Sisters DVD
  • This 1986 comedy-drama, written and directed... more info
  • $14.98
  • Regularly $14.98
  • Add to cart
  • Leading Ladies Of The Studio Era DVD
  • Five of Hollywood's greatest stars rule the... more info
  • $49.98
  • Regularly $49.98
  • Add to cart
  • Leading Ladies Of The Studio Era DVD
  • Five of Hollywood's greatest stars rule the... more info
  • $49.98
  • Regularly $49.98
  • Add to cart
  • Leading Ladies Of The Studio Era DVD
  • Five of Hollywood's greatest stars rule the... more info
  • $49.98
  • Regularly $49.98
  • Add to cart