Program Notes: Hannah and her Sisters (1986)
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Hannah and Her Sisters is about love, death, lust, hypochondria, music, architecture and salvation through the Marx Brothers.
In this terrific comedy Woody Allen once again explores his familiar obsessions: fear of nothingness, the uncertainties of romantic love, urban neuroses.
Yet this 1986 release is also as close to an optimistic statement as the fretful Allen has ever made. It even ends with a bona fide miracle.
The title characters are three sisters living in Manhattan and dealing with middle age with various degrees of success.
Hannah (Mia Farrow) is the most stable, an actress who juggles career, a large family of adopted children (does any of this sound familiar?), her bickering parents (Maureen O’Sullivan, Lloyd Nolan) and her accountant husband Elliot (Michael Caine).
Sister Lee (Barbara Hershey) is an earthy beauty who finds validation through the men in her life. In lieu of career and family she devotes herself to the physical and emotional needs of her significant other, a considerably older and very grumpy painter (Max von Sydow).
The third and most troubled sibling is Holly (Dianne Wiest), a failed actress who runs a catering service. She has a history of drug addiction and analysis and is a walking bruise of defiant loneliness.
Finally there’s Mickey (Allen), Hannah’s ex-husband, a hypochondriacal TV producer who somehow has remained a part of this extended family.
Beginning and ending with two chaotic Thanksgiving dinners a year apart, Hannah offers a round robin of romantic entanglements.
Though happily married to Hannah, the bookish Elliot pines desperately for his sister-in-law Lee. Holly continues to strike out in every aspect of her life.
And Mickey convinces himself he has a brain tumor (Woody Allen may be the only person on Earth who can find humor in a CAT scan). Fearing the worst, he attempts a conversion to Catholicism and dallies briefly with becoming a member of the Hare Krishna sect.
He also has a disastrous date with the failure-prone Holly ... but don’t write them off too quickly. You know what they say about opposites attracting.
Despite having nearly a dozen characters and several plot threads, Hannah avoids becoming a fragmented collection of impressions. It is surprisingly coherent, with its many elements melding into a seamless whole.
And while Allen is on screen here, he’s playing just one of several roles that receive equal attention. Veteran Allen-watchers will quickly recognize that Caine’s lovesick Elliot (he won an Oscar for his performance here) and Weist’s insecure Holly are basically Allen stand-ins, picking up aspects of his well-known persona.
Searching the Psyche through Cinema series is co-sponsored by the Greater Kansas City and Topeka Psychoanalytic Center.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.