Hannah (Mia Farrow) is a retired actress with a dysfunctional family. Her mother is an alcoholic. Her husband, Elliot (Michael Caine), is obsessed with another woman. Her ex-husband Mickey (Allen) is a hypochondriac. Then there are her sisters, Holly (Dianne Wiest) – a struggling actress/writer/recovering addict, and Lee (Barbara Hershey) living unhappily with a tortured artist Frederick (Max Von Sydow) and the object of Elliot’s affection.
The film boasts the richest assembly of talent on screen in any of Allen’s 46 film career and, perhaps, in film history. Aside from the exemplary Allen regulars, (incl. Sam Waterson, Julie Kavner, Daniel Stern) small parts are lived through iconic and treasured performers with Carrie Fisher as April, Maureen O’Sullivan as Hannah’s mother (Farrow’s mother in real life), Lloyd Nolan as Hannah’s father, and of course, Bergman muse Max Von Sydow as Frederick. The film gained both Dianne Wiest and Michael Caine Academy Awards Best Supporting Actor. Wiest deserved hers.
A tenor that is equally funny and moving, the film is a pitch-perfect balance of comedy and tragedy. This is shown in the unforgettable sequence that has Mickey’s tormenting cancer scare turn out to be nothing. Elated, he runs out of the doctor’s office and leaps joyously down the street until stopping suddenly, realising that his life will someday end, and resuming his paranoiac, neurotic hypochondria within seconds.
With Hannah, Allen explores the many incarnations of art as philology, like a second language by which people can love. It is expressed in structure (architecture), in performance, as a movement (the delightful scene where Holly takes Mickey to a punk show – attributing his hearing loss), as a commodity (Dusty seeking work of Frederick’s to go with his furniture), as love-making – the sensual passages that Elliot gives Lee, and as a redemptive moderator between strong personalities, as in the lovely scene when Hannah’s parents, after a fight, settle at the piano and make music together.
The film readdresses the delivering experience of going to the movies. As Cecilia sought to escape from a depressed reality in Purple Rose, Mickey finds a reason to live when he watches Duck Soup. For Allen, art, more than anything, harmonises us, and makes life worth living. Hannah And Her Sisters is a celebration of art in all its forms, and is itself probably Woody Allen’s finest creation (the script alone is a work of art independent of the film), and should be his most enduring cinematic legacy, perhaps a leg above Annie Hall.
Read more entries in our Wednesdays with Woody feature!