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Writing About Film

Hannah and her Sisters, 1986Hannah and Her Sisters (Woody Allen, 1986)

Paper for The Films of Woody Allen class, 1987


A lot has been written about Woody Allen's 1986 comedy Hannah and her Sisters, and its synthesis of the themes that have recurred throughout his film career. In many ways, Hannah hearkens back to productions like Sleeper and Take the Money and Run, while in others aspects it epitomizes the themes that Allen concentrated on in more recent ventures, such as Annie Hall, Manhattan, and Zelig. What really makes the film work for me is its basis in reality, though it has its share of bizarre scenes. For the most part, though, Hannah and her Sisters depicts the comedy that occurs in everyday life, without resorting to imaginary situations.

The film's three main male characters, Eliot, Mickey, and Frederick, are in many ways alternate aspects of their creator. Eliot is an entertainer's agent, Mickey is a talk- and variety- show producer, and Frederick is an aging artist/poet. The film presents each man from a primarily one-sided perspective, but the script and Allen's directing soon brings their sympathetic characteristics to light, and we see that each man has his individual charm. Taken as a unit, Eliot, Mickey, and Frederick mirror the complex and highly amusing person that is Woody Allen.

Eliot as played by Michael Caine is not particularly challenged by his occupation, but he gains a certain vicarious thrill from it. His wife, Hannah, is a serious actress turned mother, who exudes charm and sophistication, and is respected by all who know her. Though Eliot is intelligent and well-read, he feels inferior when confronted with Hannah's abilities, and at the movie's opening, he is unsure about his life goals. At a sort of mid-life crisis, Eliot decides to "pull up the anchor" and play the field a little. He is not sure if the stable Upper East Side life is what he really wants, and his inherent insecurity compels him to look for something else.

He develops a crush on Lee, Hannah's younger beautiful sister, and finally tells her of his feelings. They have a few liaisons, but both quickly realize that they are fooling themselves. Eliot does not need to start over again, but only has to be reminded of the true love and stability that Hannah offers, while Lee sees that she has to break out of her almost Oedipal fascination with older men and find someone of her own age and interests (ironically, she ends up marrying her Columbia professor, but he is not much older than her, and obviously appreciates her previously unacknowledged intelligence).

Eliot is comical due to his wishy-washyness and his clumsy attempts at carrying out his extramarital fantasies. The film also draws humor from his barely-controlled nervousness and his periodic bouts of shyness. Eliot represents the middle-ground between Frederick's methodical seriousness and Mickey's neurotic hypochondria.

Frederick, played by Max Van Sandow, is Allen's tribute to Ingmar Bergman. He is a tragic figure, unsuccessful and not respected by the art world, relying on Lee's veneration to keep him going. He is morbid and taciturn, and has a difficult time expressing his tender emotions. Though Frederick is in many ways a hardhearted and unsympathetic character, he is extremely sad and endearing, due to Sandow's ability to portray the artist's pain. He is a genius, with many things to say and contribute, but his temperamental shortcomings and turbulent personality have always led him in the wrong direction. Frederick seems trapped by his emotions, fated to forever isolate himself. It is heartwrenching to see Lee leave him, and I was left with a feeling that he would not live long without her.

Finally, the character of Mickey Sachs, played by Allen, is the most extreme of the three. He is the most nervous, out of control character in the film (though Holly, Hannah's other sister, takes a close second). Mickey spends half the movie in dread of dying from a brain tumor, as he reminisces about his life's earlier pitfalls (such as his failed marriage to Hannah). After the brain tumor scare turns out to be groundless, Mickey becomes even more hyprochondriacal and obsessed with death. He desperately searches for the meaning of life through religion, going from Judaism to Catholicism to Hare Krishnaism to despair. Everything about Mickey is hilarious, as he rushes around New York, sweating, kvetching, and whining about the futility of life. Mickey's character is most similar to Allen's previous incarnations (such as Allie Singer of Annie Hall) in his Jewishness, urban intelligence, and extreme nervousness.

Eliot, Frederick, and Mickey are three very different personalities, but their presentation in this film, and their relationship with the three main women characters, links them together. In addition, they are the only male characters who we glimpse "inside," as the other men's personalities are only hinted at by their actions (like April's boyfriend, Hannah's father, etc.). In addition, from what I know of Woody Allen's life and career, Eliot, Frederick, and Mickey combine to create a complex and often contradictory entity that in many ways reflects Allen's true personality.

Eliot is the basic friendly guy, who gets through life on simple pleasures, and takes a healthy interest in the women around him. He appreciates culture and literature, but on a leisurely level. Eliot sometimes takes risks, but in the end he returns to his stable lifestyle. Frederick is the intensely serious artist, often forced to pander to a simplistic public (like the rock star Dusty) to survive, but possessed by a need to express something truly new and meaningful. And Mickey is the neurotic urbanite, a reflection of the ethnicity, intelligence, and high energy that is New York City. Woody Allen represents all of these elements, though Mickey's character is the most obvious. But characters such as Eliot have certainly appeared in Allen's work before, and what male does not identify with the traits that he characterizes? Finally, Frederick is the auteur in Allen, his serious side which first asserted itself in Interiors, and is beginning to realize that it must tone down its rhetoric if it wants to reach people. Allen's "Frederick-like" aspects have displayed themselves in every film he has done since Love and Death, increasing the strength of their message with each successive film.

The conclusion of Hannah and her Sisters leaves two of the three men in happier situations. Eliot revitalizes his marriage and no longer needs to look at other women. Mickey abandons his search for spiritualism and comes back to earth. He realizes that Holly, the female character most like him, is the women who finally can bring out his best, as documented by the fact that he is now able to impregnate her.

The one character that gets left out, however, is Frederick. Once Lee leaves him, we do not hear of the artist again, and as I said before, I have a bad feeling that he either leaves the country or dies. Anyhow, the fact is that the personification of Allen's serious, emotional side is here given the short end of the stick. Why does Allen reject that very important part of himself? The only reason I can think of rests in looking at Hannah and her Sisters the way Allen may have conceived of it before it was released and became a blockbuster film. Allen quite possibly saw the film as a bit of a sellout in its slapstick and "easy laugh" routines, like the Hare Krishnas bit, the punk club, and the scene where Mickey almost shoots himself. If so, by eliminating the tragic character of Frederick, Allen may be acknowledging that he is giving in to public pressure a little by making a "big comedy" in the vein of his older films. Or then again Allen could merely be throwing a little bit of a Bergman-esque element in this otherwise upbeat movie. Hannah and her Sisters is a tight, highly complex film, and the only way to really know what motivates Allen would be to talk to him about it.

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