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Hannah and Her Sisters
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Hannah and Her Sisters

Monday October, 23 2017 at 10:15 PM
Sunday November, 19 2017 at 06:00 PM

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Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) was described by Woody Allen as one of his "novels on film." And it is novelistic in style, in denseness and complexity of characters and story, even down to its chapter headings. The film portrays the lives and tangled relationships of Hannah, her two sisters, her parents, her husband and ex-husband, and assorted friends and relatives over the course of two years and three Thanksgivings. During that time, relationships begin and end, lives change, and life goes on. Allen told the New York Times that at first he "had a simple plot about a man who falls in love with his wife's sister." But re-reading Anna Karenina gave him the idea of experimenting with a novelistic style, intercutting and intertwining various stories.

Allen had been involved with Mia Farrow since 1980, and she had appeared in all four of his films since then: A Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy (1982), Zelig (1983), Broadway Danny Rose (1984), and The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). Allen readily admitted that Hannah and Her Sisters was "a romanticized view of Mia." And Hannah is indeed romanticized: a serene, competent woman who successfully juggles a complicated life and a demanding family. The connections between actress and character are many and obvious: Farrow's actress mother, Maureen O'Sullivan, plays her mother; seven of Farrow's children appear in the film; Farrow's father, like Hannah's, was a director, and many of the characters were reportedly based on members of Farrow's family. The film was even shot in Farrow's Central Park West apartment. But now, knowing the disastrous end of the Allen-Farrow liaison, what is one to make of some less benevolent coincidences? Hannah's husband, after all, is unfaithful with a member of her own family. Hannah's serenity might be seen as obliviousness, or unwillingness to show her own vulnerability.

With Farrow as the film's center, and Allen playing her ex-husband, the director cast Hannah and Her Sisters in his usual brilliantly idiosyncratic style. Michael Caine, a close friend of Allen's, played Hannah's neurotic husband, Elliot, a departure for the suave Caine. He decided that Elliot was another Woody Allen alter ego, and decided to play him as such, complete with Allen's trademark black-rimmed glasses. The performance won him an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor. The film's other Oscar winner was Dianne Wiest, who played Hannah's quirky, insecure, sister Holly. Barbara Hershey also turned in a strong performance as Lee, the third sister, who has an affair with Elliot. Allen said he cast Hershey because "she gives off enormous erotic overtones." Used to working with stellar actors, Allen was nevertheless intimidated when Max von Sydow agreed to play the older artist Hershey lives with. Allen worships the films of Ingmar Bergman, and declared himself "in awe" of Von Sydow, one of Bergman's favorite actors.

Of course, in any Allen film set in New York, the city itself is a character. Hannah and Her Sisters joins Annie Hall (1977) and Manhattan (1979) as another of his valentines to the Big Apple. This time, Allen was fortunate to have the services of the great Italian cinematographer Carlo Di Palma, who had worked with Antonioni and Bertolucci. Years earlier, Allen had wired Di Palma asking him to work on Take the Money and Run (1969), but Di Palma wasn't available. When they finally did work together, Allen was touched to learn that Di Palma had kept that telegram. Di Palma's ravishing color images of Manhattan are a highlight of Hannah and Her Sisters. Music, too, is important in Allen's films, and the director's use of music in Hannah and Her Sisters is particularly eclectic and complex, from classical and opera to pop and jazz. Each of the characters has her own musical motif, from Rodgers and Hart to Bach. The musical cues, like the chapter headings, help establish the tone of the scene.

As usual on a Woody Allen film, re-shooting was the rule rather than the exception. A part of the budget was even set aside for this purpose, and only about 20 percent of the original script ended up in the film. Many completed scenes were discarded, such as an art gallery sequence with Tony Roberts and a fairly explicit sex scene between Hershey and Caine (Allen decided to cut it because he felt it was inappropriate for "a Woody Allen film"). The upbeat ending was one of the scenes that was added later. The original cut of the film ended with Elliot still in love with Lee despite the fact that she has married her college tutor but Allen recalled that this conclusion "was so down for everyone that there was a huge feeling of disappointment and dissatisfaction every time I screened it."

In Woody: Movies From Manhattan by Julian Fox, "Barbara Hershey has said she found the filming a grueling experience: there were some lighthearted moments but usually it was a very serious set. This view was confirmed by Caine who recalled in his autobiography that it was the quietest set he had ever come across, 'a bit like working in church.'" Carrie Fisher, who appears in a minor role as April, a friend of Holly's, later voiced her opinion of the film's understated theme for the New York Times: "We can go to shrinks for 50,000 years and know why we do everything and then go back and do it again. You can have your mistakes, and repeat it, too."

Hannah and Her Sisters was one of Woody Allen's most financially and critically successful films. Besides the two acting Academy Awards, the film earned Allen an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, and was also nominated for Best Film, Best Director, Best Production Design and Best Set Decoration.

Director: Woody Allen
Producer: Robert Greenhut
Screenplay: Woody Allen
Editor: Susan E. Morse
Cinematography: Carlo Di Palma
Art Direction: Stuart Wurtzel and Carol Joffe
Cast: Mia Farrow (Hannah), Woody Allen (Mickey Sachs), Barbara Hershey (Lee), Dianne Wiest (Holly), Carrie Fisher (April Knox), Michael Caine (Elliot), Maureen O'Sullivan (Norma), Lloyd Nolan (Evan), Max von Sydow (Frederick), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Mary), Julie Kavner (Gail), J. T. Walsh (Ed Smythe), Lewis Black (Paul), John Turturro (writer).
C-107m.

by Margarita Landazuri

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