Monday, June 24, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

Welcome back to the Oscar Film Journal, here at!

Time to take a little trip back to the mid 80s with a look at Woody Allen's acclaimed comedy-drama Hannah and Her Sisters, an ensemble piece about middle-age angst, starring Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey, Dianne Wiest, Michael Caine, Carrie Fisher, and Allen himself, plus a veritable who's-who of future film and TV stars (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Lewis Black, Julie Kavner and John Turturro for example).  The film centers around the titular three sisters and their sordid romantic entanglements with deeply insecure, troubled men.  Hannah (Farrow) is a self-assured actress who is always emotionally available to support her siblings and her former and current husbands, but everyone seems to resent how together she is and how she never seems to need that support reciprocated.  Her husband Elliot (Caine) is obsessively infatuated with her sister Lee (Hershey), who is dating an eccentric, reclusive artist (Max Von Sydow).  Hannah's other sister Holly (Weist) is a recovered cocaine addict struggling with her own acting career and running a catering business on the side with her friend/rival April (Fisher).  Meanwhile Hannah's ex-husband Mickey (Allen) is in the midst of an existential crisis brought on by a health scare, which sends him scrambling to find real meaning in his life.
This interweaving narrative is handled with Allen's signature light touch (heavily influenced by Ingmar Bergman), simultaneously taking the characters to pretty dark emotive places and also sort of kidding them about it.  Allen plays his standard neurotic romantic persona, puerile, pessemistic and anxiety-ridden.  An apparently infertile hypochondriac, he's convinced himself he's got a brain tumor, and even when tests show he's perfectly healthy, he can't seem to find joy.  Conversely Michael Caine's casting feels against type here; Elliot is a rather pathetic melting pot of guilt, insecurity and indecisiveness, fumbling around like a teenage boy as he makes awkward overtures to get Lee to notice him (like deliberately bumping into her on the street and buying her an e.e. cummings book which contains a sexually charged poem he really wants her to read), while hand-wringing over what an affair with Lee would do to his marriage to Hannah.  Hershey plays Lee as terribly lonely, having been mostly isolated from the outside world by her snobby, antisocial boyfriend, who views their relationship as a way to "educate" her.  Wiest is flaky and dependent as Holly, unsure what she wants to do in life and frustrated that April seems to get all the acting roles (and men).  

I found the principle characters in this film both relatable for their various midlife crises but also kind of offputting in the way they're always foisting their issues and insecurities onto the people around them.  Despite the extensive use of voiceover to convey the characters' thoughts, these folks don't seem to do a lot of inner monologuing; there's hardly a negative or unpleasant thought they won't discuss openly with each other.  The script felt a little artificial in that way - in my experience real people don't overshare like this - but I suppose that's Woody Allen's screenwriting style.  Still, one film featuring so many characters as painfully unconfident as Allen's onscreen persona feels a bit like overkill.  

Over the course of the story's two years though, most of them seem to figure out their shit, so at least they're not totally hopeless.  I suppose that's really the point of it all; no matter how tumultuous life can feel, in the end it's never as meaningless or difficult as it appears.

I give Hannah and Her Sisters *** out of ****.

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