Tuesday, November 20, 2012

On HANNAH AND HER SISTERS

"Boy, love is really unpredictable."
~from Hannah and Her Sisters, written and directed by Woody Allen
(There may be spoilers in my piece, in case you haven't seen the movie.)

Let's face it.  The holiday season is now upon us.  Christmas shopping commercials are playing on television.  We all know that there are way more movies about Christmas than there are about Thanksgiving.  Brokeback Mountain has two Thanksgiving dinner scenes but I'm not quite sure many folks consider that to be a holiday film.  Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009) and What's Cooking? (2000) are two new Thanksgiving rental favorites of mine.  For several years now, it's been a personal tradition of mine to watch Woody Allen's 1986 classic during Thanksgiving week.  That's the perfect time to see it.  First of all, didn't the three lead actresses -- Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey and Dianne Wiest -- actually look like they were sisters?  I was lucky enough to interview Barbara Hershey on WPIX TV/Channel 11 in New York before the film opened.  I mentioned that during the interview.  Wiest won the first of her two Best Supporting Actress Academy Awards for this film.  Her other Oscar was for another Woody Allen film, Bullets Over Broadway.  Michael Caine earned the Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for Hannah and Her Sisters.  This Woody Allen gem is one of those top films that makes me say "Are you kidding me?  Mia Farrow has never been nominated for an Oscar?  Never?!?!"  What a major oversight by the Academy.  Especially considering performances like the one she gives in this as the always dependable oldest child of the three siblings.  The peacekeeper and rescuer, if you will.  Hannah's the one who handles their parents who occasionally act like unruly adolescents.  Often, her career as a performer took a backseat to family matters.  I'm the oldest of three siblings and, since the first time I saw this movie, I've felt a strong connection to Hannah.  I understood her.  I knew her.  I recognized the dynamics of her role as the oldest child in the family.  Although they were pumps, I felt like I'd been in her shoes as I watched her deal with relatives -- especially on Thanksgiving Day.
I've blogged before about how, in the literature of film, lighting and set design give you visual information about character and story.  Costume design does the same thing.  Hannah's wardrobe is very interesting.  She's an acclaimed stage actress married to an accountant.  She's a wife and mother in her second marriage.  She also seems to be a pretty good cook.  Does Hannah look like a star?  Nope.  She's in clothing that's comfortable but a bit too large, shapeless and sexless.  And downright plain.
Nothing really pops about her attire.  It looks like she's in an endless project of household chores.  This informs us about the marriage and Hannah's muted image within her family.
Farrow understands this and gradually reveals Hannah's alienation.  Notice how she dressed when married to Mickey, the neurotic TV producer.  Very feminine and sweet.
Mickey is neurotic and a hypochondriac having a temporary existential meltdown.
Just like Billy Wilder's The Apartment, this is a romantic holiday tale with a suicide attempt and a husband having an extra-marital affair.  It's the kind of tale that could only take place in New York City.  We feel a little sympathy for Elliott, Hannah's husband who thinks he's fallen in love with the sexy middle sister, Lee.  Even Lee's older boyfriend sees what she hasn't noticed about her brother-in-law.  "Elliott lusts after you," he tells her.  The accountant seems to be a big, awkward dork who can't fathom his own heart.  He's just having a bit of middle-aged craziness.  Or is he?  Allen wrote a very subtle script.
Is he really an awkward dork or can he be manipulative to get what he wants?  His sister-in-law honestly tells him that she attends weekly Alcoholics Anonymous meetings even though she's stopped drinking.  She finds comfort in the AA meetings.  He secretly courts her into a discreet yet complicated affair.  Lee is guilt-ridden.  During one meeting for some afternoon delight in a hotel room, what does Elliott hand her?  A glass of champagne.  They both sip from it.  That bottle of champagne is an alcoholic beverage.
Where is Elliott's moral compass?  That brief, telling scene always get me.  There will be a showdown and a confrontation with his truly confused wife.  Hannah senses something is amiss in the marriage but doesn't know exactly what.  Elliott's guilt translates as anger.
Mia's excellence in the film hits its pinnacle here.  Gentle Hannah realizes that her dependability, generosity and selflessness in her marriage -- and in her family -- have made her invisible.  She has blended in.  She's the one everybody assumes will always be fine.  She's become a background actor in her own life.  All her heartbreak comes out in one simple declaration:  "I have enormous needs."  The rescuer is wounded.
There will be reconciliation, realizations and redemption.  For the final Thanksgiving scene, notice how Hannah has changed.  She wears a bright color, something form-fitting.  Something feminine.  Hannah doesn't blend into the wall.  She stands out.  She'll be doing the female lead role, the object of desire, in a classic play for PBS television.  Along with her brilliant breakdown in the modern-day horror story, Rosemary's Baby, and her sparkling comic versatility in Woody Allen's Radio Days, Broadway Danny Rose and Alice, this is another fine Mia Farrow performance that was overlooked by the Academy.
Maureen O'Sullivan and Lloyd Nolan, two Hollywood veterans who'd been making movies since the 1930s, played Hannah's show biz parents.  O'Sullivan, who became a star at MGM Studios thanks to playing Jane in the studio's successful Tarzan adventures with Johnny Weissmuller, gave just about the best performance of her long career as the boozy actress mother opposite her real life actress daughter, Mia Farrow.  Carrie Fisher, daughter of Debbie Reynolds, another former MGM star, also appeared in the film.  As we follow these complicated sisters from Thanksgiving to Thanksgiving to Thanksgiving, I could see some of my own frustrations and flaws in this film.  If you've never seen it, treat yourself.  There's another romantic comedy that's dear to my heart.  A woman's late boyfriend, the love of her life, visits her in the 1990 British comedy Truly Madly Deeply.  Not only does he keep visiting, he brings his Afterlife buddies along.  Hannah and Her Sisters is so good that ghosts want to see it again.  Now THAT'S good.  "Heartwarming" is a word that accurately applies to this Woody Allen film.  Dianne Wiest is huggable Holly, the youngest and most insecure of the three sisters.  She has a bumpy time trying to figure out what her true talent is.  When she does find it, Mickey says something to her that wraps up the essence of the movie like a beautiful holiday valentine:
"The heart is very, very resilient little muscle."  Happy Thanksgiving.

P.S.  I love how costume designer Jeffrey Kurland outfitted Dianne Wiest as Holly.








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