'Hannah And Her Sisters' Turns 30

Woody Allen's classic isn't quite ready for its mid-life crisis, but it's getting close.
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Hannah and Her Sisters Photo

Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey, and Diane Wiest in 'Hannah and Her Sisters.' (Photo: Photofest)

Hannah And Her Sisters is 30 years old. Not quite ready for its mid-life crisis, but it's getting close. While most agree that Annie Hall is Woody Allen's masterpiece, there's a lot to be said about this more mature relationship comedy that came nine years later. It may not have the word Manhattan in its title, but this gorgeously shot tableau of the intelligentsia class is as much a fairly tale smooch to Allen's beloved city as any other. It's also a perfect place to start if you've always heard about one of our greatest living writer-directors, but felt a bit flummoxed looking at his enormous resume.

Part of what makes Hannah And Her Sisters so special is that it doesn't have just one story. In the loosest of possible ways, Allen fashioned his script around Anton Chekhov's play Three Sisters. Basically, there are three sisters; the middle one is having an affair and the youngest is a bit of a dreamer; it all opens at a family gathering. The similarities end there, but it's enough to introduce a number of additionally rich characters and dozens of perfect scenes. Here are seven of the ones that really stick out.

Book Store Ambush 

If there's a lead character in this movie it's Hannah (Mia Farrow), a headstrong former actress that's an emotional rock to the rest of her family. Unfortunately her husband Elliot (Michael Caine) has found himself infatuated with her sister Lee (Barbara Hershey), currently clinging to a dead relationship with an emotionally vacant older painter Frederick (Max von Sydow.)

While Caine exudes confidence and élan, when we hear his interior monologue we know he is a jumble of nerves and insecurities. In an attempt to woo Lee, he spends the whole day lurking around her Soho apartment hoping to just bump into her and that she'll be free so she can join his stroll through a bookshop, and maybe impress her by reciting some verse by e.e. cummings.

Sounds like a total cheeseball move, but it works.

“We say the Pope. We ALWAYS say the Pope!” 

Most of the comic relief in Hannah and Her Sisters comes from Hannah's younger sister Holly (Dianne Wiest) and her love interest, Mickey (Woody Allen) who is Hannah's ex-husband. When we first meet him, he's a Tasmanian devil of creative chaos, a producer at a Saturday Night Live-esque comedy show that's about to go on air, dealing with problems from an angry in-house censor, an indignant writer brooding over cut lines and an actor whacked-out on quaaludes.

As he blazes down an office corridor dodging stagehands and clipboard-waiving assistants, Allen let's loose with a tidal wave of zings, but modern audiences get a little bonus. By his side there's the familiar voice of Marge Simpson, Julie Kavner. This wasn't quite so shocking in 1986, as Kavner was already a television personality from her days on Rhoda. But also in the mix were the virtually unknown J.T. Walsh and John Turturro. (Turturro gets to shout “who changed my sketch about the PLO?!?!”) Also of-note, the not-quite-household-name Julia Louis-Dreyfus pops up in this scene, having just ended her stint on SNL, but yet to line up her next gig.

“You Get to See the Whole Culture” 

Lee and Elliot continue their affair and, eventually, Lee's boyfriend Frederick puts two and two together. Max von Sydow, the brilliant Swedish actor, is perfect in this small role as a brooding, nihilistic genius. As Lee tries to slink home in the rain after a rendezvous, she interrupts Frederick, who had been sitting in their loft eating a sandwich and raging against popular culture. What follows is one of Woody Allen's best written monologues, delivered to perfection, simultaneously hilarious and frightening. On the topic of fundamentalist preachers imploring their viewers to send in money (which was quite the rage back in the 1980s) Frederick exclaims “if Jesus came back and saw what was going on in his name, he'd never stop throwing up.”

New York City Architecture Tour 

Holly, the middle sister, hasn't quite figured out what she wants to do with her life. (She knows she wants to stay drug-free, as she's already gone down that road to a bad end.) For a while she's an actor, then she's a novelist, then she's a playwright. For a time she and a friend, another aspiring actress played by Carrie Fisher (!), form the “Stanislavski Catering Company.” As they are dishing out hors d'oeuvres at a fancy party, they both meet a debonair, opera-loving architect (Sam Waterston).

There's some competitive flirting going on, and it ends with Waterston offering the gals a lift home. But along the way he (and the movie) detour for a marvelously photographed tour of some of the city's most gorgeous (but hidden) buildings. (An extra gag: one of those buildings is the Dakota, the apartment building where Mia Farrow shot Rosemary's Baby.) Those of us who live in New York are too cool to gawk at the Empire State Building or Brooklyn Bridge, but it's the treasures on the side streets that finally get their close-up in this terrific chapter of Woody Allen's film.

The Three Sisters Rap 

Midway through Hannah and Her Sisters the three women are roiling in their personal conflicts. They find time, however, to meet for lunch, and as they do, Woody Allen does a gutsy thing. He puts the camera down on dolly tracks and lets it circle, the tense conversation literally becoming a whirlwind of emotions. Holly lays into Hannah, Lee lays into Holly, Hannah tries to make peace, everyone is drinking and smoking. These are three women who clearly love and depend on one another, making it even worse that their actions are the cause of one other's strife, whether they are aware of it or not.

Years later, Woody Allen tried a similar technique in his film Shadows and Fog, this time putting the camera directly on top of the table and spinning it around. Stick with the original.

“She Was So Beautiful at One Time, and He Was So Dashing” 

Hannah isn't only tasked with keeping her sisters in good spirits, she also ends up helping out her parents. This had to have been an extremely personal film for her. The Thanksgiving sequences that bookend the movie were shot at Farrow's actual home on Manhattan's Central Park West. Moreover, the woman playing her aging actress matriarch, Maureen O'Sullivan, was, in fact, her own mother.

During the large family scenes it appears that her parents are happy and in love, but in actuality her mother is a struggling alcoholic given to embarrassing, flirtatious episodes. Among Hannah and Her Sisters' most emotional moments is her rushing to calm her parents down, then taking a moment to look at the old (real) photos on the shelf.

It also makes for quite a counterpart to a scene where Mickey visits his parents, asking philosophical questions. When asking how there could be a God and also the horrors of Nazism, his father shrugs, “how the hell do I know why there were Nazis? I don't know how the can opener works!”

Oh, Freedonia! Don't You Cry For Me! 

For a movie with all this emotional sturm und drang, there's an awful lot of comedy. As the story continues, we keep checking in on Mickey, the frustrated television producer. First he has a health scare. Then, a crisis of faith (and a switch conversion to Christianity – he even buys some white bread and mayonnaise.) Finally, convinced life is meaningless, he buys a gun and decides to shoot himself. While prepping himself for the act, the gun goes off and he flees his apartment.

He ends up walking into a movie theater, where a revival of The Marx Brothers' Duck Soup is playing. The goofy antics of Groucho, Harpo, Chico and maybe even Zeppo get his mind off things, and force him to realize that even if the world is horrible, it is his duty to try to stop worrying, be a decent person and have a little fun.

It starts out as a goof, but ends up being sincere and profound. (It also inspired one of the better David Letterman parodies, in which he reenacted the sequence, but traded the Marx Brothers for Porky's 5.)

For all the cosmopolitan dressing, Hannah and Her Sisters is a classic because it sticks to very basic themes: love, desire, fear and self-realization. But the piano jazz on the soundtrack, shots of Central Park in autumn and Academy Awards for Dianne Wiest and Michael Caine don't hurt, either.