1986 / Best Director / Best Picture / Best Supporting Actor / Best Supporting Actress

Film #316: Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

It’s fair to say that Woody Allen had a pretty interesting 1970s, winning Best Director and Best Picture for Annie Hall. Nine years later he found himself with a Best Picture nominee once again in the form of Hannah and Her Sisters. The film nagged Allen a Best Original Screenplay Oscar whilst two of the films’ cast members also won awards for their roles.

Hannah and Her Sisters starred Allen’s then wife Mia Farrow in the titular role whilst he appeared as her ex-husband. When the film begins, Hannah is seemingly in a happy marriage to second husband Elliot but he is secretly harbouring feelings for her younger sister Lee. The film plots the course of their lives over two years in which Elliot and Lee begin an affair before ending it when he can’t seem to end his marriage. Hannah’s other sister Holly is the most flighty of the trio; a former drug addict she can’t seem to hold down any type of career. At times an actress, caterer and finally a writer, Holly’s story is one of failed relationships and doomed business ventures. Allen’s Mickey also has his own story in which he fears he may have a brain tumour after losing hearing in one hear. Mickey feels that he should have religion in his life but struggles to make sense of anything. Eventually he relents and tries to enjoy life, or as much as any character that Allen plays can. Oddly, for a Woody Allen film, everybody has a fairly happy ending with all three sisters finding love and marriage in some way or another.

Whilst Annie Hall was definitely Woody Allen’s most-respected work I think that Hannah and Her Sisters is a lot more disciplined. I did find Annie Hall to work like a sketch show at times as it was a number of disjointed scenes thrown together with a loose narrative. Hannah and Her Sisters is much more solid and the stories involving the three sisters were incredibly compelling. The love triangle between Hannah, Elliot and Lee was very well-written and all of the twists and turns along the way made sense. Similarly, Holly’s struggles to find something to occupy her time and her difficulty to find a man provided a different sort of story to the romantic complications of the main plot. The scenes between the three sisters, in particular one in which they all set down to dine at a restaurant, rang the most true for me as their feelings for each other finally came out. In fact the only part of the plot that I wasn’t a fan of was the story involving Mickey, which for the most part acted completely outside of what was happening to Holly, Hannah and Lee. I did seem that Mickey’s troubles were just an excuse for Allen to work in some of his material about religion and existence and it wasn’t until the last twenty minutes that the character really became part of the plot. In fact, up to this point, I didn’t feel the film particularly needed Mickey and would’ve worked a lot better without him.

The tradition of the academy awarding actors for starring in Woody Allen films is a long-standing tradition that still exists today, as we saw with Cate Blanchett’s win at the weekend. In terms of Hannah and Her Sisters, Dianne Wiest won Best Supporting Actress for her dazzling turn as the ditzy and unhappy Holly. Similarly impressive was fellow Oscar winner Michael Caine as the depressed Elliot who realised that the grass wasn’t greener on the other side. Mia Farrow and Barbara Hershey, as Hannah and Lee, added their own energy to proceedings and the chemistry between the three sisters was perfectly realised. Although I didn’t think much of his performance, Allen’s script for Hannah and Her Sisters was well-constructed and well-paced. I particularly enjoyed the fact that we heard the inner thoughts of the main players and this narrative structure meant that we learnt more about them than we would have done had their thoughts solely been expressed through dialogue. Allen’s win for Best Screenplay would be his last for twenty-five years and Hannah and Her Sisters would be his last appearance in the Best Picture category for the same amount of time. But performers in his films would be more successful even though Allen himself often refused to appear at the ceremony preferring instead to play jazz music at a local bar.


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