A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Friday, December 11, 2015

Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen, 1986)

In the films in which he appears, Woody Allen has two personae: the nebbishy neurotic that was the mainstay of his early career as a standup comedian, and the witty, self-effacing charmer who can credibly win the hearts of such co-stars as Diane Keaton, Mia Farrow, and Dianne Wiest. He appears in both personae in Hannah and Her Sisters. As Mickey, he suffers from hypochondria and a fear of death so severe that when he discovers he doesn't have a brain tumor he goes through a desperate but hilarious search for God, even going so far as to try to convert to Catholicism. (The gag involving Wonder Bread and mayonnaise is, I think, a bit too forced.) He also plays the successful lover, winning Holly (Wiest) after an earlier misfired attempt. But Allen is not the only actor in the film who is playing the two "Woody Allen" personae: As Elliot, who is married to Mickey's ex-wife, Hannah (Farrow), Michael Caine also becomes both the neurotic and the charmer in his obsession with Hannah's sister, Lee (Barbara Hershey). So what we get is Elliot as Mickey's psychological doppelgänger. (Mickey was once married to Hannah and Holly is also her sister, reinforcing the duplication.) That all of this works as well as it does -- and sometimes it doesn't -- is why the film remains one of Allen's most successful. It was a critical and commercial hit, receiving seven Oscar nominations (including best picture) and winning three: for Caine and Wiest as supporting performers and for Allen as writer -- he was also nominated as director. It is certainly well-structured, given the intricacy of the various interrelationships of the three sisters and their husbands and lovers. I think the weakest part of the structure is Allen's own performance; unlike Caine, he never succeeds in integrating the two personae. Some of the problem is the way his role is written: The comedy of his hypochondria is too broad for a film that takes on some serious issues in the way people deal with infatuation and infidelity, and when Mickey recovers from his obsession with God and death, Allen borrows shamelessly from Preston Sturges's great Sullivan's Travels (1941) by having Mickey snap out of it while watching the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup (Leo McCarey, 1933), just as Sullivan recovers from his own funk by watching a Disney cartoon. But there is a real sophistication in the way Allen ends his somewhat Chekhovian comedy by playing on our expectation of a happy ending. All of the characters in the film are far too morally compromised for a simple resolution, so Allen gives us what just appears to be one: a Thanksgiving party with all of the sisters and their husbands accounted for. At the very end, we find that Mickey and Holly are not only married now, but she's pregnant. Fade out, music and credits up. Perhaps only as we're walking out of the theater do we remember that it has earlier been well established that Mickey is infertile.

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