25 November 2016

The List: Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

For me, there is no better Thanksgiving movie than Woody Allen's 1986 masterpiece Hannah and Her Sisters. Set over the course of two years, three Thanksgivings bring us into connection with a wealthy Manhattan family, rife with neuroses and indecision, navigating quests for meaning and purpose.

At the center is Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her husband Elliot (Michael Caine, in an Oscar-winning performance). She is the strongest sister, firm in her choices, but off-putting in her seeming perfection. Elliot pines for Hannah's sister, Lee (Barbara Hershey), an aimless perennial student in a relationship with a much older artist (Max Von Sydow). Meanwhile, the youngest sister, Holly (Dianne Wiest, also an Oscar winner), remains the classic baby of the family, relying on good looks, marginal talent, and loans from Hannah. One day she's a struggling actress, the next a fearful drug addict, sometimes a successful caterer, then a would-be writer. 

Circling the periphery of their lives is Mickey (Woody Allen), Hannah's ex-husband, who spends most of his days an over-worried hypochondriac, unsatisfied with his existence as a failing sketch comedy TV producer, lost in a search for answers. 
At once, Hannah and Her Sisters is a story of family and giving thanks, a romantic melodrama, a mediation on purpose and faith, and an often hilarious slice of New York intellectual life. The entire range put forth here lands, due to Allen's script, his very best work as a screenwriter, which is brought to life by Allen's immersive direction. He finds perfection on all levels. From Juliet Taylor's brilliant casting to the cozy clutter of Carol Joffe's set decoration, all captured with simplicity by director of photography Carlo Di Palma's camera and finally woven together by Susan E. Morse's Oscar-nominated editing.  

One of my very favorite films and what I consider to be Woody Allen's finest, I add, in honor of Thanksgiving and the 30th anniversary of the its release, Hannah and Her Sisters to The List. 
Allen structures this film with title cards, almost as chapter titles for a novel. Each title card, in essence, acts to set up a vignette that feeds into the whole by the end of the film. This first one is a knockout...

The First Thanksgiving

"Easy. You're a dignified financial advisor. It doesn't look good for you to swoon." - Elliot (V.O.)
Right out of the gate, Allen gets right into the inner thoughts of his characters. Dissatisfaction and indecision are classic Allen themes and will be at the forefront of almost every scene in this film. 

"I wonder if he and Hannah are happy. It's funny. I still feel a little buzz from his flirting." - Lee (V.O.)

"My stupid little roller skating joke. I should never tell jokes." - Holly (V.O.)
Another use of voiceover and an almost replica of the shot Allen used to introduce Lee's first inner thoughts, the sequence with Holly on a would-be date with architect David (Sam Waterston) and her business partner (Carrie Fisher) also serves as another example of New York as an almost character in itself. Taxis and buildings and city streets abound. 

"Nothing's gonna happen to you. You're in the middle of New York City. This is your town. You're surrounded by people and traffic and restaurants. I mean. My God! How can you one day just vanish?" - Mickey (V.O.)
That Mickey directly uses New York City as his harbinger of hope is fitting during his first interior monologue. And there's the street and that architecture again. Only in New York does a hospital look like that. 

Discussions of famous literature were not new to Allen's films at this point, but they are everything to this movie. The E.E. Cummings poem used as this portion of the film's title is the single most memorable thing about the entire film. 

"I want so badly to kiss her." - Elliot (V.O.)
There are shelves all over this movie, which is another of its comforts. Like its characters, I pride myself on shelves stocked with books and records. The sharing of books and music and the use of the Bach piece that Lee puts on in this scene, a piece that will become a motif for the duration of their affair.....

"Look at all these people jogging. Trying to stave off the inevitable decay of the body." - Mickey (V.O.)
Mickey's quest for answers, religion, begins here with a memory of a date he had with Holly, after his divorce from Hannah. This is where the ingenious editing comes in. Here is a scene that works as a comedic interlude. The two argue about the punk rock show Holly has chosen, resulting in the film's best one liner, "After they sing, they're gonna take hostages." 

The Second Thanksgiving

"I don't want to bother anyone." - Hannah to Holly

"It's hard to be around someone who gives so much and needs so little in return." - Elliot to Hannah
The only major character in the film not given an interior monologue is the title character, Hannah. She is the rock of the family, which makes her easy to resent, but she is not without her flaws. We don't get her thoughts because she wouldn't be the type to complain. This is brilliant. 

Mickey's reconnection with Holly spawns the films finest use of voiceover, but this time it is not interior monologue, but Mickey opening up in an off-screen conversation with Holly about his darkest day. Another stroke of genius.

"Look at all the people up there on the screen...what if the worst is true and there is no God...Don't you want to be part of the experience..." - Mickey (V.O.)
We are never gonna find the answers. We have only to bow down and be thankful for what is already within our grasp. 

The Final Thanksgiving

"Marriage agrees with you." - Elliot (V.O.)
The happiest ending of any of Woody Allen's serious films. That is something to be thankful for, that a film can so easily shift so often into things we can't possibly expect. 

Girl Week 2016...Hosted by Wendell over at Dell on Movies...in which we salute the great leading ladies of cinema....

Here's to Mia Farrow for being light and fierce at the same time! Here's to Barbara Hershey for being such a sincere, beautiful screen presence! Here's to Dianne Wiest for being an absolute powerhouse, especially in her Oscar-winning work here! Three of the screen acting's finest! Go Girls!

About The List

The List is a series of essays in quotes and screen caps covering re-watches of my all-time favorite movies. It is named after an actual list I once made of all the movies I wanted to show my girlfriend (now wife) when we first started dating. It is now an ever-growing list of movies we've both seen and love and that I, particularly, find important enough to recommend as essential viewing for any movie lover.

More Movies from The List


  1. I'm woefully behind on my Woody Allen and haven't seen this one, yet. The only one before this century I've seen is Annie Hall. I really need to get with it. Thanks again for doing this. I really enjoyed all of your entries.

    1. I loved getting to contribute. Love holiday breaks. I get to enjoy my hobbies. I'm not sure how you feel about Annie Hall, but I can tell you that these are the pre-2000 essentials: Manhattan, Broadway Danny Rose, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Mighty Aphrodite, and Deconstructing Harry. I have yet to see about 10 of him films myself, but, my god, he's made like 40-something.

      I would love to hear your thoughts on any of his films.

    2. Annie Hall is excellent. I have no reason that I haven't seen more of his stuff other than laziness. If it helps, all of those are already on my endless watchlist.

    3. I can further encourage you by saying that his movies are rarely more than 110 minutes long, and they are never dull or slow. Not a single one that I've seen that doesn't move really easily.

  2. Nicely laid out overview of the film.

    This is my favorite Woody Allen film and one of my all time favorites of any film. There is just so much here to love, much of which you highlighted. Everybody is so pitch perfect. One of my favorite unsung parts is the small vignette of the girls parents. They are a wild pair both perfect for each other and grossly mismatched and Maureen O'Sullivan (aside from the obvious fact that she is Mia's real mother) and Lloyd Nolan couldn't be better and how fitting that they were able to use actual glamour shots of both from their youth to give you a real sense of who they once were.

    I also love the lunch scene where the dynamic between the sisters that up to that point has been alluded to comes out in full force.

    As good as everyone is one performance is on another level, Dianne Wiest! Holly for most of the film is a royal pain in the ass and often a bitch and it's completely to Wiest's credit that the audience never dislikes her but sees the insecurity and indecision often lurking under the surface although sometimes right out there front and center. Her scene in the cab that you have a snap from is so brilliant, all alone with just her voice over she lives a whole little life in a few minutes.

    The three act structure is reminiscent of a play but it never feels like a play just snippets of family life.

    1. Thanks.

      Same same. The casting is really a winner. I neglected to highlight the parents. The mom has that great line to Holly about how she loved how she wrote the mother character in her play. I can't remember it exactly, but my wife and I both cracked up. Some great comedy in this drama.

      The lunch scene just didn't fit my voiceover/inner monologue through line, or I would've included it. That scene is a masterclass in script to director to performer. The circling camera too...so effective in that scene--a technique I saw just a day later when I went to see the beautiful and brilliant Moonlight, which you should really check out.

      I love Dianne Wiest. I wish she was still around. Between this and Parenthood, she was an unstoppable force in the mid-late 80s.

  3. O

    This movie is easily one of my favorite Allen's...my #2 right behind Purple Rose of Cairo...but now I want to revisit both because this post is brilliant. Love the way you're tackling this 'list'. The way Woody builds these characters is just flawless...they are all so real and authentic.

    One of the great ensembles of all time.

    1. THANKS!

      I need to re-watch Purple Rose of Cairo. I only saw it once. Loved it, but never went back like I do some of his others.

  4. I still haven't watched a single Woody Allen film. (I can hear you saying, "Cameron, you need to get on it, man. Start with Annie Hall or Hannah & Her Sisters. Just freaking watch his films already.")

    On the bright side, I do own Café Society, & I believe I own Annie Hall, but I will have to check.

    1. Cameron, you need to get on it, man. Start with Hannah & Her Sisters or The Purple Rose of Cairo or Vicky Cristina Barcelona ;-)

      Annie Hall is, while very good, highly overrated.

    2. Drew said it for me, Cameron, though I don't think Vicky Cristina Barcelona is that good. It's good though. And I did certainly enjoy The Purple Rose of Cairo. My Top Five Woody at this moment:

      1. Hannah and Her Sisters
      2. Annie Hall
      3. Crimes and MIsdemeanors
      4. Mighty Aphrodite
      5. Midnight in Paris

      There are five more I could throw in at anytime. That's just where I would start.

    3. I'd add Bullets Over Broadway, another brillant Dianne Wiest performance, Small Time Crooks, Radio Days and Midnight in Paris to the list. Not all masterpieces but all some of his better films.

    4. Bullets Over Broadway is easily on the fringe of my list. I love Small Time Crooks as well. So damn funny and a lot different than most of his work. Radio Days is one I haven't seen. As well as Zelig. I regret both and need to go ahead and do those. Broadway Danny Rose was close to making this list as well.

      Manhattan should be seen as well. I don't LOVE it, but it is, if nothing else, an extremely well shot ode to New York.

      And Deconstructing Harry, which is the lone actually badass Woody Allen movie. To that point, I always thought Husbands and Wives was pretty badass too. Handheld, close-up, angry as hell. Mia and Woody were in the middle of that crazy breakup while shooting it. Sydney Pollock and Judy Davis fucking kill.

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    6. I forgot also that I own Midnight in Paris. That looks really good.

  5. What a wonderful post! I love this movie. I saw it for the first time in the theater, when I was in college, then went back and saw it again. I recently watched it again for the first time in many years, and it had definitely held up well over the years. My favorite Woody Allen movie,perhaps tied with Anne Hall.

    1. Thanks, Stephanie! I would have loved to have seen this in the theater. Alas, I was a toddler. I talked to my Mom about this one the other day. She said she saw it in the theater, and it stands as about the only Woody Allen movie she'll watch. She hates him personally (thanks to her reading Mia Farrow's book) too much to watch his films.

      This one really does hold up though. I agree. It's a great film.