At some point during the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday, I will again honor a long-standing tradition and steal a couple of hours away from the rituals of family, food and football to wallow in the pleasures of Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters. It is, in my mind, the perfect film for Thanksgiving, with a surprising sweetness and warmth protruding from beneath the multiple layers of angst, anxiety and cynicism that are the director’s staples.
“Hannah and Her Sisters long ago became my Thanksgiving addition to the films that must be enjoyed annually during the November-December holiday season. My personal list always includes Miracle On 34th Street (the 1947 original, of course, with Edmund Gwenn forever embodying Kris Kringle), two well-aged musicals in White Christmas and Holiday Inn, and the lesser known, but delightful All I Want For Christmas, which features a very young Thora Birch and the forever young Lauren Bacall.
You’ll note my line-up doesn’t include It’s A Wonderful Life, which I only catch sporadically since I’ve always found it a bit manipulative. But if it warms the cockles of your heart during the holidays, add it to the stack.
However, for Thanksgiving, there is only Hannah and Her Sisters, a film in which Allen skillfully mines his favorite themes: love, sex, relationships, infidelity, mortality, religion, culture and the meaning of life. Yet, this one also has a creamy center since, beneath it all, this is a true romantic comedy, with a heart and soul that fit precisely into that certain longing that infects most of us around the holidays. And in today’s world, its warmth, escape and comic relief are needed more than ever.
There is a moment in the 1986 film that now takes on a chillingly different meaning within the context of 9/11 and its aftermath. Allen as Mickey, the hypochondriac “this time I really think I have something” television producer, is fleeing the hospital after receiving troubling news. As he reels down the street, his mortality dancing before him, Mickey tries to reassure himself: “Nothing’s going to happen to you. You’re in the middle of New York City. You’re surrounded by people and traffic and restaurants. God, how can you just one day vanish?”
But this disconcerting twist shouldn’t diminish the wonderful resonance of a film that deserves its classic status and the three Academy Awards it received. And, even though I’ll gladly enjoy Hannah and Her Sisters at any time of year, it has become traditional holiday fare because there’s just no film that better captures the things that make Thanksgiving special. Of course, this perception is helped along by the fact that the film opens and closes with Thanksgiving dinners (with another in the middle) that provide the ideal framing for the intertwining stories that unfold. Beyond that, it’s the feeling and mood of virtually every aspect of the film that make it right for the season, from the complexity of the relationships to the wintry scenes of the city that create such an ideal backdrop.
On that foundation, everything revolves around the three sisters–Hannah (Mia Farrow), Lee (Barbara Hershey) and Holly (Dianne Wiest)—and an extended family that includes husbands, ex-husbands, aging parents, children and friends. We’re welcomed into this circle from the opening scene, which is a celebration of Thanksgiving in Hannah’s rambling apartment. It’s a Hallmark kind of holiday event, the type of romantic gathering in which we all secretly yearn to be included (but may not actually exist), where family and friends hug and chat, sipping wine and cocktails as children play underfoot. Mom and dad are at the piano, playing and singing old favorites. Outside the windows, we catch a chilly glimpse of Manhattan, but you clearly sense that inside it’s cozy and comfortable, with the aroma of Thanksgiving dinner permeating the rooms.
We quickly discover there’s more than dinner percolating as Hannah’s husband Elliot, played in Oscar-winning form by Michael Caine, engages in an internalized argument with himself over his intense love/lust for his wife’s sister, Lee.
“I’m consumed by her,” Elliot tells himself with mock disgust. “I think about her at the office. I dream about her. Before, when she squeezed past me in the doorway and I smelled the perfume on the back of her neck, I thought I was going to swoon.”
It’s the beginning of an awkward seduction in which Elliot uses music and poetry to spark Lee’s interest as she struggles over the dissolving relationship with her older lover, Frederick the brooding artist (Max von Sydow). Despising contemporary culture, he has pulled back from it (“If Jesus came back and saw what’s going on in his name, he’d never stop throwing up.”). Elliot continuously tries to convince himself he has fallen out of love with Hannah, but waffles even when Lee responds to him through her need to be truly wanted.
Hannah is the earth mother, watching over a brood that not only encompasses her husband, children and sisters, but her aging parents (portrayed perfectly by Maureen O’Sullivan and Lloyd Nolan) whose relationship is teetering under the weight of old wounds and mom’s occasional bouts with booze. Hannah is the stable force to whom everyone turns for advice and help, but who still finds time to roll out a holiday feast and star in “A Doll’s House.” Farrow’s quiet, big-eyed presence has never been put to better use.
In contrast, there’s Holly, the wild child of the sisterly trio, who is a recovering addict still trying to figure out what she wants to be when, and if, she grows up. She relies upon Hannah for moral and financial support, but bridles at her sisterly advice. Wiest received, and deserved, the Academy Award for best supporting actress for this role that highlighted her wacky vulnerability. Holly is the film’s searcher: seeking a career, seeking love, seeking someplace she feels comfortable.
And, of course, there’s Allen in top form as Mickey, the self-absorbed cynic searching for the meaning of his existence. His work as producer of a television comedy show is unfulfilling, even though he and his staff are staging such notable bits as the “Cardinal Spellman-Ronald Reagan homosexual dance number.”
He also remains troubled by his divorce from Hannah, which failed partially because they were unable to have children due to his supposed infertility.
“Could you have ruined yourself somehow?” Hannah tearfully asks, as the couple leaves the doctor’s office. “Like excessive masturbation?”
“Hey, you gonna start knocking my hobbies,” replies a distressed Mickey. But even successful artificial insemination can’t save the marriage. As Mickey observes, “Boy, love is really unpredictable.”
His failed relationship and trials in the television rat race pale when the hypochondriac is faced suddenly with the real possibility of a brain tumor, and his own mortality. Mickey plunges headlong into a search for meaning, ultimately deciding to forego his Jewish faith and become a Catholic. His confrontation with his parents is a classic scene in which Mickey demands to know why, if there is a God, how there can be Nazis?
“How the hell do I know why there were Nazis?” his father says in exasperation. “I don’t even know how the can opener works.”
When a skeptical priest asks if he believes in God, a desperate Mickey answers, “No, but I want to. I’m willing to do anything. I’ll even dye Easter eggs if it works.”
Ultimately, a distraught Mickey botches a half-hearted suicide attempt and finds himself wandering aimlessly through the city. He ends up seeking solace in a theater where the Marx Brother’s Duck Soup is playing. As he becomes caught up in the zany film he admittedly has seen many times before, he experiences an epiphany:
“What if the worst is true? What if there’s no God and you only go around once? You know, don’t you want to be part of the experience? What the hell, it’s not all a drag. And I’m thinking to myself, geez, I should stop ruining my life searching for answers I’m never going to get and just enjoy it while it lasts.”
Therein, the truth according to Woody Allen. But Hannah and Her Sisters offers numerous other pleasures as it weaves its romantic spell. As usual, Allen masterfully utilizes music, particularly the traditional jazz he favors. The opening credits roll under a graceful Harry James’ rendition of “You Made Me Love You,” which recurs as a theme for Elliot and Lee as they bumble through their affair. O’Sullivan and Nolan sit at the piano and offer up “Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered.” Throughout the film, other gems enliven transitions, underscore key scenes or just set the mood.
One exceptional flashback sequence shows a distraught Mickey (pay special attention to Allen’s expression) being assaulted by blasting alternative rock in a grungy club as his date Holly snorts cocaine at the table and grasps the “tangible energy” in the room. Mickey, on the other hand, is quite certain that, following the set, the band plans to take hostages
In an inspired counterpoint, Mickey then convinces Holly to continue their ill-fated evening and accompany him to The Carlyle where the late Bobby Short romps through an inspired rendition of “I’m In Love Again.” Unfortunately, the fidgeting, coke-addled Holly is not appreciative of the moment, after which Mickey observes with disgust, “You don’t deserve Cole Porter.”
And, of course, readily evident throughout Hannah and Her Sisters is Allen’s unabashed love affair with New York. Cinematographer Carlo Di Palma, working here with the director for the first time, captures the cityscapes in warm, unvarnished tones that don’t wash them clean, but revel in the wrinkles and warts. The director uses some of his favorite locations along the river and in Central Park, but allows them the dignity to appear as they are, with leaves blowing about under gray skies. Hannah’s apartment (actually Farrow’s residence at the time) is a rambling place with dark wood, crowded shelves and even a ketchup bottle on the table. It stands as a real place where people live, not the sterile architectural renderings that so often populate films set in the city.
In terms of real, Lee and Frederick coexist in a crusty loft that is a far cry from the hip units that are fast becoming cinematic cliches. Plus, few other directors would have enjoyed Elliot, the well-dressed financial advisor, jogging in his fur-trimmed coat around a grimy industrial district in an attempt to “accidentally” run into Lee, the object of his misplaced affections.
Beyond his skillful use of the city as a backdrop, Allen actually pays open tribute in this film as David, the opera-loving architect played by Sam Waterston, squires Holly and her friend April (Carrie Fisher) on an impromptu tour of his favorite buildings. The excursion features those unique, sometimes odd architectural marvels that still exist but are too often lost amid the glass and steel of newer edifices. But here the camera romances them, dwells on details and graces them, as April points out, with an “organic” quality.
In the end, all the elements that make Hannah and Her Sisters so wonderfully compelling pull together at the closing Thanksgiving dinner. Again, Hannah’s apartment is filled with human beings reaching for the warmth of the holiday. The wine and music are flowing. Mom and dad are back at the piano, tossing out oldies. Hannah and Elliot are at peace and content again. Lee has met and married a man she deeply loves. And, in a pleasant surprise, we discover that the seemingly ill-matched Holly and Mickey have fallen in love and married.
In a quiet, closing moment in the darkened hallway, Mickey encircles his wife and remarks on the unpredictability of life and love. “I was talking to your father before, and I was telling him, it’s ironic, I used to always have Thanksgiving with Hannah, and I never thought I could love anybody else. And here it is years later, and I’m married to you, and completely in love with you. The heart is a very, very resilient little muscle.”
In an interview several years ago, Allen revealed that, in retrospect, he might have tied up the ending of Hannah and Her Sisters a little too neatly.
Perhaps. But, in these uncertain times, that warmth and sweetness serve us well.
So, thanks, Woody.