Sunday, February 12, 2012

Director's Spotlight #4.11: Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. February’s director is comedy legend Woody Allen.  Next up, 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters.

Grade: 95 (A)
In less than twenty years, Woody Allen had explored more territory than most directors did throughout their whole careers. He made films about the insanity of politics (Bananas), the difficulty of keeping relationships alive (Annie Hall), and the inevitability of death (Interiors). He paid tribute to the Marx Bros. (Bananas), Benny Hill (Sleeper), Russian literature (Love and Death), Ingmar Bergman (Love and Death, Interiors), the jazz age (Zelig), the stage (Broadway Danny Rose), the movies (The Purple Rose of Cairo), and his beloved New York itself (Manhattan). With 1986’s Hannah and Her Sisters, Allen made perhaps the most ambitious film of his career: a film which covered nearly all of his favorite themes (love, sex, death, religion, existence, art) and served as a summation of everything he had been working on for years.
The film interweaves the stories of three sisters and the men they’ve loved: Hannah (Mia Farrow) is a warm, loving, and giving woman with a successful career as an actress in New York. Holly (Dianne Wiest) is a bit less assured, a recovering cocaine addict whose half-baked career aspirations include working as an actress and running a restaurant with her fellow aspiring actress friend April (Carrie Fisher). Lee (Barbara Hershey) is less ambitious, and has lived with the reclusive, prickly artist Frederick (Max von Sydow) for five years. Hannah’s husband Elliot (Michael Caine) loves his wife, but he’s infatuated with Lee, and Lee, tiring of Frederick’s smothering nature, begins an affair with him. Holly, meanwhile, begins a competition with April for the same acting roles and the same man (Sam Waterson), who only has eyes for April. Added into the mix is Mickey (Allen), Hannah’s hypochondriac ex-husband working on a floundering sketch-comedy show. Mickey goes into the doctor for what seems to be another one of his hysterical episodes, but his woes become more concrete when he learns he may have a malignant brain tumor.
It’s a bit heavier than Allen’s usual work, particularly following lighter films such as Broadway Danny Rose and The Purple Rose of Cairo. Hannah and Her Sisters is, like many Allen films, inspired by the works of Ingmar Bergman. In this case, the Swedish master’s 1982 film Fanny and Alexander provides a basic model for Allen (along with Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina). Both films revolve around theatre-based families, and both involve three family gatherings on holidays (Thanksgiving rather than Christmas here). But where Allen’s previous Bergman-inspired films (Interiors, A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy) were pale imitations that failed to find the humor or warmth buried beneath the chilly surface, Hannah and Her Sisters is never oppressive or self-serious. However dark the dealings get, there’s comic relief around the corner. Characters hurt each other, but never out of malice. Allen extends a certain warmth to the characters that he failed to extend to their correspondents in Interiors. Perhaps his relationship with Mia Farrow brought him a more optimistic attitude towards life. Perhaps Allen had briefly learned to lighten up a little bit. Or perhaps the studio’s insistence that he have a happier ending than originally planned had something to do with it. Whatever the case, the warmth that Allen displayed in Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose, and The Purple Rose of Cairo extends to Hannah and Her Sisters.
These are prickly, complicated characters. Take the relationship between Lee and Elliot. Elliot loves Hannah for the warm, giving person she is, but she’s so satisfied that it seems like she doesn’t need anyone to give in return. Lee, meanwhile, has a certain lost quality to her. Both Lee and Elliot are beautiful, but Elliot feels he has more to give her. Lee, meanwhile, is Frederick’s only connection to the world. A classic misanthrope, Frederick thinks poorly of everyone around him: Elliot is a “glorified accountant”. Elliot’s musician friend (Daniel Stern) is a philistine who wants to buy one of his paintings “to blend in with a sofa”. Frederick isn’t interested in sex anymore, but in Lee’s “education”, and his lectures on the modern equivalents of Auschwitz and the charlatan preachers on television (“If Jesus saw what was going on his name, he would never stop throwing up”) are punishing. Lee leaves Frederick in an emotionally devastating scene; she is, after all, his only connection left to the world, but that’s too much for her now. She needs something simpler.
Simple, however, isn’t what she gets. Her relationship with Elliot is initially a relief from the harsh realities of the world: he romances her, shares his love of classical music and poetry with her, and gives her everything he has. But he’s ultimately another man who smothers her with attention, and the guilt of what they’re doing to Hannah gnaws at their insides (it’s one of Allen’s most successful depictions of guilt). Elliot takes his frustrations out on Hannah. At the second Thanksgiving gathering, shortly after Lee ends their relationship, the situation reaches its boiling point as Elliot brings forth his frustrations about her giving nature before the two reconcile. Lee was right: he loves Hannah more than he knows, and she needs someone else (she ends up marrying a fellow student at Columbia).
Hannah isn’t perfect, however. She gives endlessly to Holly, but her remarks on Holly’s impulsive, half-baked decisions often cut-down her sister and hurt her. Without ever intending, the successful, giving sister tears apart her troubled sibling. Holly has overcome her cocaine addiction, but she’s still a raw bundle of nerves who can never quite book the parts she seeks (the more confident April takes her parts and her crush). Everything culminates beautifully in a scene where the three sisters meet for lunch. Hannah is plagued by Elliot’s wavering attention, Lee by her betrayal of her sister, Holly by her lack of success. Holly decides that she’s going to try writing rather than acting, and she needs money to get started. Hannah always gives money to Holly, but she feels this is another one of her sister’s impractical decisions, and she says as much. Holly is deeply hurt, and she picks away at Hannah. Lee, wracked with guilt over her relationship with Elliot, takes Hannah’s side. These three sisters, who love each other very much, all manage to hurt each other. Love wins out in the end, however, at the second Thanksgiving. Just as Lee leaves Elliot, Hannah confronts Holly about her first script, which features characters clearly modeled after Hannah and Elliot and their problems. It’s an act of passive-aggression that has deeply hurt Hannah, but Holly meant nothing by it, and she agrees to toss the script in favor of something else.
The relationship problems aren’t limited to one generation: their parents, seemingly happy together for years, are more complicated than they seem. Their father (Lloyd Nolan) philanders, and their mother (Maureen O’Sullivan) has affairs of her own. Their father is insanely jealous, their mother an alcoholic (echoing Holly’s cocaine problems). They toy with each other endlessly to make each other jealous, yet they’re frequently seen singing together around the piano. In the end, love conquers all.
But what of Mickey? Woody’s own character is not the protagonist of this film, but rather a part of an ensemble who rarely interacts with the other characters. Mickey is a hypochondriac dissatisfied with his lot in life. His writing partner (Tony Roberts) moved to California, and his shows are far more successful than Mickey’s. He loved Hannah, but when they found out he was sterile, their happy marriage floundered. Now, he might have cancer. Mickey has plenty of Allen’s classic one-liners in response to his crisis (“If I had cancer, I’d have to kill myself…it’d crush my parents, so I’d have to shoot them…and my aunt and uncle. It’d be a bloodbath”), but his crisis has real weight. For the first time in a comedy, Allen explores his mortality with maturity.
When it turns out Mickey doesn’t have cancer, it doesn’t give him much comfort. He’s the ultimate pessimist, and all the men he admires (Freud, Nietzsche, Tolstoy) found no answers. “We’re hanging on by a thread”, and it’s important that he finds meaning in life. Mickey, like all Allen characters, is an atheist, and Judaism failed for him. Why not try Catholicism, then? The religion has beauty and structure to it. He doesn’t believe, but he wants to (“I’ll dye Easter eggs if I have to”). His parents are understandably upset that he rejected Judaism and tried Catholicism, and he responds that he needs answers. And if there is a God, why is there so much evil? Why were their Nazis? His father’s answer: “How the hell should I know, I don’t know how the can opener works.”
When his dalliances with Catholicism and Buddhism invariably fail, he’s ready to end it all. A botched suicide attempt later (“I was sweating so much the gun slipped off my temple”), and he needs to get away from it all and get some rational perspective: cut to the mass chaos of the Marx Bros. classic Duck Soup. Mickey knows that whether or not there’s an answer, he needs to be part of the experience, stop searching for answers, and enjoy himself. It’s the old question from Manhattan: “What makes life worth living?” Groucho Marx is again one of his answers. The other, ultimately, is love.
After their divorce, Hannah tried to set up Mickey with Holly. Their date is perhaps the funniest sequence in the film: she’s still addicted to cocaine, and he won’t touch the stuff. She takes him to a punk rock club, where he looks as out of place as can be (“I’m afraid when they’re done singing they’re gonna take hostages”). “Don’t you just love songs about extraterrestrial life?”, she asks. “Not when it’s sung by extraterrestrials”, he replies. He takes her to a jazz club, where she’s hopelessly bored by the Cole Porter songs he adores. How, then could they ever work as a couple?
Years later, after Mickey’s existential crisis, they meet by chance in a record store. They’ve both grown up a little bit, and they’re charmed by each other. She reads him her new script, and he loves it (“How did you think of that ending, where the architect and his actress girlfriend are stabbed to death?”). The two fall in love. A year later, at the third Thanksgiving gathering, they’re happily married, and it turns out that Mickey isn’t sterile after all: Holly is pregnant. It’s a hard-won happy ending, the “good kind of sentimental” that the Allen of Stardust Memories spoke of.
Hannah and Her Sisters is one of Allen’s finest and most mature films. Allen assembled some terrific casts throughout his career, but never better than this: Caine and Wiest won well-deserved Oscars for Best Supporting Actor and Supporting Actress, respectively, and the rest of the cast matches them (von Sydow, Hershey, Farrow, and Allen). Allen made many great films after his Annie Hall, but in a way, it’s appropriate that this film caught on more than any other after his Oscar-winner. Both films deal with relationships in mature, emotional, warm-hearted ways. Annie Hall’s central relationship doesn’t work out in the end, but it was worth it. Hannah and Her Sisters shows a world where relationships fail, only for newer, even more beautiful ones. After Hannah, Mickey thought he would never love anyone else, but he was wrong: “the heart is a resilient little muscle.”

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