Thursday, July 28, 2011

Stubs - Hannah And Her Sisters

HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986) Starring: Woody Allen, Michael Caine, Mia Farrow, Carrie Fisher, Barbara Hershey, Lloyd Nolan, Maureen O’Sullivan, Daniel Stern, Max Von Sydow, Dianne Wiest. Directed by Woody Allen. Written by Woody Allen. Produced by Robert Greenhut. Run Time: 103 minutes, Color. U.S. Comedy

Like Buster Keaton, there had to be a Woody Allen film on my list. Woody Allen has been one of my favorite directors for many years and I’m very happy to see the great reception MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011) has received.

While he has been making movies since the mid-1960’s, not all of his films have been well-received. After making his early “funny ones”, like TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN (1969), BANANAS (1971) and perhaps the oddest adaptation: EVERY THING YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX* (*BUT WERE AFRAID TO ASK) (1972), Allen’s films started to turn a little more mature. SLEEPER (1973); LOVE AND DEATH (1975) and ANNIE HALL (1977) pointed to a maturing filmmaker. ANNIE HALL was at the time his most acclaimed movie and won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

Allen’s first clunker came the following year with INTERIORS (1978) in which he tried to emulate the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman. This was the first Allen directed film in which he did not appear. Allen came back to form with MANHATTAN (1979), a black and white feature, that was both funny and serious. And like ANNIE HALL, there were definite auto-biographical undertones as Allen’s character Isaac Davis’s relationship with Tracy (Muriel Hemingway) in many ways paralleled his own relationship with teenager Stacey Nelkin.

STARDUST MEMORIES (1980) was as much homage to Fellini as INTERIORS was to Bergman. In the film, Allen plays a filmmaker appearing at a weekend retrospective of his own films. When extraterrestrials land nearby, even their message to Allen is to go back to making funny films. But that return is A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S SEX COMEDY (1982), which doesn’t quite work. ZELIG (1983) is a Woody Allen type special effects film, in which fictional Leonard Zelig (Allen) is inserted into newsreel footage with the likes of Charles Lindbergh, Charlie Chaplin, Babe Ruth and other luminaries of the 1920’s and 1930’s.

BROADWAY DANNY ROSE (1984) was supposed to be funny and does have its moments. THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (1985) shows Allen’s inventiveness as a writer and director. In this film, one character in the movie within the movie, notices a woman in the audience and falls in love with her to the point that he actually comes off the screen and into reality.

Up to this point, Woody Allen’s films usually had a leading lady that was also romantically linked to the director in real life. Sometimes they work, Louise Lassiter (TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN) and Diane Keaton (ANNIE HALL). And sometimes they are more hit and miss. This for me is true with the films he made with Mia Farrow. I am not a big fan of her work and I don’t think she is always a good fit for his films.

With HANNAH AND HER SISTERS, though, that changed. The film revolves around three sisters, Hannah (Mia Farrow), Lee (Barbara Hershey) and Holly (Diane Wiest). The film takes place in the 12 months between Thanksgivings. In the film, Hannah is at once the hub of the story and at the same time not the focus of the film. 

Hannah is a successful actress, who her sisters come to for advice and money. Fortunately, for me at least, the film concentrates on the two other sisters, Lee and Holly. Lee is living with a reclusive artist, Frederick (Max von Sydow) but the intellectual and sexual spark have long since disappeared. Elliot (Michael Caine) Hannah’s husband is also dissatisfied with his relationship. Hannah is too self-sufficient and he doesn’t feel she really needs him. Elliott is attracted to Lee and the two have an affair that lasts for months.

Her other sister, Holly (Diane Wiest) is a cocaine-addicted unsuccessful actress, who tries many ways to express herself, from catering to acting and finally to writing. Her best friend and business partner, April (Carrie Fisher) is also her competition for both acting jobs and for the affection of David (Sam Waterston), a man they both met while catering a party. Holly loses out to April. With no future in acting, she turns to writing, which means she has to borrow more money from Hannah.

Mickey (Woody Allen) is a TV producer of a show that appears to be like Saturday Night Live. He is successful, but, as with any Woody Allen character, has his issues. Mickey is a hypochondriac who after given a clean bill of health, has a crisis of another kind. Looking for guidance, Mickey turns to religion, including a short lived conversion to Catholicism and flirtation with Hare Krishna. When he is unhappy with the answers religion offers, Mickey tries and fails to commit suicide. When he goes for a walk, he happens into a theater showing the Marx Brothers’ DUCK SOUP and while watching the over blown production number about the declaration of war, Mickey realizes that it is more important to live for the now and not worry about what comes after death.

This prepares Mickey for a second encounter with Holly. Previously, Hannah had set them up but the date was a disaster. Mickey took her to the Oak Room to see Bobby Short, and she in turn took him to a punk music club. It was clear to both of them that they were not right for one another. However, when the two of them meet again, in what appears to be a Tower Records store, they are both ready to try again. Holly insists on reading her screenplay to Mickey, who loves it. In a relationship that takes place mostly off screen, Mickey and Holly get married.

By the time of the second Thanksgiving, all the sisters are married and happy. Elliott’s affair with Lee has ended long ago and she has married someone else. Meantime, Elliott has reconciled himself with Hannah and it is never clear if she ever knew about his affair. And it is at this celebration that Holly tells Mickey that she is pregnant. The film ends with Woody Allen seemingly content.

Two other performances are noteworthy: Maureen O’Sullivan (Norma) and Lloyd Nolan (Evan) hit it out of the ball park, as the parents of the sisters. They, like Hannah, are actors with careers of their own and they squabble like an old married couple about Norma’s drinking and Evan’s past flirtations.

I was once told by a professor I had, Rick Jewell, that HANNAH AND HER SISTERS was the most life-reaffirming film that Woody Allen had ever made, up to that time. And I would have to agree with him. With a structure apparently borrowed from Ingmar Bergman’s FANNY AND ALEXANDER, HANNAH AND HER SISTERS is like watching a good novel. The characters are rich and developed. Allen manages to successfully go back and forth between comedy and pathos. In some ways this is the best film Allen has ever made.

Unlike others on my list, Allen is an active filmmaker and his career has continued since 1986. Some of his films have been great, CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS (1989) and some have been not so great HOLLYWOOD ENDING (2002) and THE CURSE OF THE JADE SCORPION (2001). In some he has tried new ways to tell his story, DECONSTRUCTING HARRY (1997) with its use of jump cuts. Some have been funny and forgettable SMALL TOWN CROOKS (2000). One of the problems with Allen maybe that there is no one was editing him. He made the film with the script he had, whether it was fully developed or not. But you have to give Allen credit for never stopping making movies the way he wants to. This determination forced him to look for financing overseas and while that might have been the end of the line for some, it has actually given Allen new life.

His European filmmaking tour started with MATCH POINT (2005) and continues to this day. While he has returned to his beloved New York to make the solid WHATEVER WORKS (2009). It is hard to predict what the future holds for Woody Allen, but I will be watching.

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