Doodad Kind of Town

Movies I Watch Over and Over: THANSKSGIVING EDITION
November 21, 2007, 1:01 am
Filed under: Woody Allen

I had planned to open my post today with these great pictures of Plymouth Rock and the Mayflower that I snapped on my New England vacation 3 years ago; BUT Blogger and/or my photo editing software are not behaving tonight, so there goes the seasonal photo tie-in. Drat!

Fortunately, I can wrap up my series on favorite comfort flicks with a selection that has a definite tie-in to the Thanksgiving holiday: “Hannah and Her Sisters.”

“Hannah and Her Sisters” was released in 1986, and it turned out to be the almost-last-gasp of great filmmaking by Woody Allen. (“Crimes and Misdemeanors,” his last great film, came three years later. As you may have guessed, I’m not expecting the Woodman to ever be this brilliant again. See my review of “Match Point.“)

Spanning three consecutive Thanksgivings in the life of an extended family, “Hannah” mines rich comedy from its privileged Manhattanite characters and their messy little affairs of the heart. Typical territory for Allen so far. It also memorably depicts the conflicts within a family. The titular Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her sisters (Barbara Hershey and Dianne Wiest) are the offspring of a volatile couple, retired actors played by Lloyd Nolan and Farrow’s real-life mother, Maureen O’Sullivan. Daddy was a bit of a philanderer and Mommy was (and continues to be) a mean drunk. Hannah, their eldest is a textbook candidate for Al Anonnurturing to the point of being controlling; forever helping, giving and fixing up the problems of both parents and siblings, but refusing to accept help from anyone else. Lee, the middle sister (Hershey) is a recovering alcoholic living with a moody Sweedish artist (Max Von Sydow, who skips out on Thanksgiving at Hannah’s because “I’m at one of those stages where I can’t really be around people.”) Little sister Holly (Wiest), a former coke addict, gamely struggles with launching an acting career, doing a little catering on the side, and looking adorable in her thrift shop/vintage finds.

Hannah’s husband (Michael Caine), feeling unneeded by his capable wife, starts an affair with Lee. Holly falls for, but never lands, a lonely architect. Hannah is puzzled by her husband’s coldness and indifference. Mom keeps drinking and picking fights with Dad.

Meanwhile, Hannah’s first husband, a TV comedy writer played by Allen himself, goes through a medical scare that leaves him searching for meaning and considering becoming a Hare Krishna or a Catholic before he goes on to find the meaning of life in the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup.”

And all the while, big band classics (“I’ve Heard that Song Before,” “You Made Me Love You,” “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered”), plus a Bach harpsichord concerto, give us musical clues to the fragile state of the characters’ hearts.

Family drama is generally not Allen’s forte. His more serious attempts at the genre (such as “Interiors” and “September”) are chilly, bloodless affairs where the characters seem more like psychological constructs than people, and their heartbreaks are examined from a cool, intellectual distance. They’re intelligent, but not very involving.

Fortunately “Hannah” is about nine parts comedy to one part drama. Allen abandons his usual Debbie Downer-meets-Ingmar-Bergman style of screenwriting, and lets loose with the kind of self-deprecating wit that we saw in his early films (and the lines he gives to Dianne Wiest and Michael Caine, who both won Oscars, are as good as his own lines. He got a screenwriting Oscar, too.) And this time, Woody gets the family dynamics right. I tend to attribute that to the influence of his then-lover Mia Farrow, and her large extended family. Farrow herself spoke of this in her autobiography, although not favorably: “It was my mother’s stunned, chill reaction to the script that enabled me to see how he had taken many of the personal circumstances and themes of our lives, and, it seemed, had distorted them into cartoonish characterizations.”

Ouch! Well, there is a lot of Farrow’s life in this movie. Her own children play Hannah’s kids (although they’re not seen much except in the Thanksgiving scenes). In fact, her own New York apartment stood in for Hannah’s. There’s another disturbing similarity which Farrow writes about in her book; Caine’s affair with Hannah’s sister in the film seems to mirror Allen’s flirtation and possible affair with Farrow’s own sister.

It’s hard to separate Allen films from his bad offscreen behavior in subsequent years. How do you watch him romance 17-year-old Mariel Hemingway in “Manhattan” or college student Juliette Lewis in “Husbands and Wives” without thinking about Soon Yi? Having read Farrow’s very damning book, it is harder now to watch some of their movies together. But I still like “Hannah and Her Sisters,” if only because it ends so much more optimistically than most Allen films: everyone is in love with his or hew own spouse, broken hearts are mended (“The heart is a resilient little muscle” as Allen memorably observes), family conflicts are resolved, and the future looks bright.

Were it any other director, such a sunny ending might seem trite. From Woody Allen, it’s practically a miracle.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)


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