Let’s get the sticky stuff out of the way first. Yes, it can feel pretty damn weird to watch a movie in Mia Farrow’s partner is cheating on her with one of her close female relatives. Then, like a gauche party guest who keeps repeating an awkward family story in the mistaken belief that their audience hasn’t understood the point, the movie echoes this set-up, inadvertently underlining the eventual real life parallels, with the plot involving Allen himself playing Farrow’s ex-husband who then ends up married to and having children with yet another of Farrow’s close female relatives. And finally, as if to underscore all of the above all too prescient parallels, Soon-Yi Previn – Farrow’s daughter who would have an affair with Allen and eventually marry and have children with him, ending his and Farrow’s relationship – is in this very film, glimpsed in one of the Thanksgiving scenes. “Boy,” Allen’s character muses at one point about the end of his relationship with Farrow’s character, “love is really unpredictable.” Farrow would doubtless second that.
So yes, as Woody Allen movies go, Hannah and her Sisters can give Manhattan and Husbands and Wives (which was in the middle of filming when Farrow discovered the photos of Previn in Allen’s flat – what a fun set that must have been to be on) a run for their money in the Well This Now Looks Awkward stakes.
But it would be a real shame to let that saga distract you from the movie. While Allen’s reputation today might be as associated with, shall we say, an uneven quality of work (in all honesty, I haven’t properly enjoyed a Woody Allen film since 1999’s Sweet and Lowdown and 1994’s Bullets over Broadway and don’t even get me started on Midnight in Paris which is nothing but a pale echo of The Purple Rose of Cairo) as it is with his coinage of the archetypal New York Jew. But there was a time when he made excellent films, some good films and two, I reckon, real masterpieces, which is two more than nearly all filmmakers manage. One of these is Annie Hall, possibly the finest testament to a failed relationship ever and certainly one of Allen’s most generous movies. And the other is Hannah and Her Sisters, the pinnacle of his collaboration with Farrow, the muse who inspired him to make his most heartfelt films, from the heartbreakingly lovely The Purple Rose of Cairo to the gutwrenchingly moving Radio Days. But this is the most sophisticated of his movies with Farrow and, like all of Allen’s best work, it is, save for some terrible jeans and cheesy sunglasses, astonishingly undated. If it came out tomorrow, it would win the Best Film Oscar.
Again, like all the best Allen films, it’s not the main story that holds the attention (let’s be honest, Leigh, played by Barbara Hershey, is a drip and even her own mother says she “lacks spark”, but at least we get to enjoy Hershey pre-lip surgery), but the parade of minor characters who leave you wanting more. Carrie Fisher as the selfish friend, John Turturro as the precious writer of comedy about the PLO, Sam Waterson as the sleazy architect, Daniel Stern as the trillionaire who coordinates his art with his ottoman, Julie Kavner as Mickey’s long-suffering assistant, forced to point out that he probably doesn’t have skin cancer just because he has an ink stain on his shirt: I would happily see a movie about any of those characters, ideally one made by Allen pre-1991.
But the minor character who really makes this film for me is Fredrick, played by Max von Sydow. His reaction to the discovery of Leigh’s infidelity, all hurt and anger and desperation and crushing self-knowledge, makes Elliot (Michael Caine) look even weaker than he already does. And who would have thought hearing what is clearly an old Allen joke – about Jesus throwing up if he came back and saw what was being done in his name – come out of von Sydow’s mouth would sound so right?
The reason Hannah and her Sisters feels so much richer than most of Allen’s films is because he is excellent at sketching out entire life stories with just a few casual lines of dialogue and the occasional lovely voiceover, from the childhood of Hannah, Leigh and Holly (Dianne Wiest) to Elliot’s life before meeting Hannah to the nightmare marriage of Hannah’s parents to Leigh and Holly’s addiction problems.
It also smoothes out and re-energises so many Allen tropes that were already clichés. His hypochondriac persona is livened up by pairing him up with Kavner and then giving him a true health scare. The besotted tour of Manhattan’s architecture is worked more smoothly into the narrative than it is in, say, Manhattan. I have always suspected that Allen’s role here as the Jewish neurotic who tries to change religions came from a separate short story that he decided just to tack onto the film but, strangely, that doesn’t feel like a problem, mainly because his and Farrow’s relationship does seem credible when they’re onscreen together. (His and Wiest’s, however, is less so, but by the end of the film I’m happy to be carried along.) Even his familiar retread of the exaggerated New York Jew doesn’t feel too grating, and I speak as an exaggerated New York Jew.
Hershey is, unsurprisingly, the weakest and most affected of the three main actresses while Wiest is hilarious and Farrow deserves a lot of credit for fleshing out what is, really, an underwritten, thin part. Why doesn’t she resent having to give so much to her difficult family – or does she actually like it? Allen apparently has no idea and I wish there were more opportunities to see her get angry with her infuriating siblings like she does in the brilliant restaurant scene because a furious Farrow is a very fun Farrow. This movie is a reminder about how intuitively Farrow could bring to life even the sketchiest of roles written for her by Allen, and the faith Allen had in her to do so (see also Sally in Radio Days.)
Caine is great, myopic with lust and emptied of morals, but the real problem with his role, and Hershey’s role, and with the whole movie to a degree, is that the script is not very smart about infidelity. A man having an affair with his wife’s sister – or a woman having an affair with her sister’s brother, for that matter – is a perfectly believable set up: if a major appeal to infidelity is the forbidden nature of the act, than there are few things more forbidden yet still legal than sleeping with an in-law, and one of the few things that is more forbidden Allen discovered for himself. But the movie seems to have as little knowledge as the participants about why the infidelity happened. The camera shots – often half obscured, with people hidden behind a pillar or offscreen entirely – reflects the secretive nature of the affair but without any further insight. Instead, the movie seems happy to go along with the characters’ assessment of the situation: Leigh needed to break away from Frederick; she had always idolised Hannah and sleeping with her husband was another way of living up to her; Hannah is so self-sufficient and Elliot wanted a woman who needed him. But as explanations go, these are all pat and lazy and empty.
As it happens, the year after Hannah and Her Sisters was released, another film came out about committing adultery with the sibling of one’s partner and that film was far wiser about the situation: Moonstruck.
Now, Moonstruck is one of the very few movies on the planet that I reckon I could watch once a week for the rest of my life and still feel I hadn’t seen it enough. I’ll save a proper discussion of it for another week, limiting myself here to three key points:
2. I continue to maintain that Nicolas Cage is the best thing about the Coppola family;
3. This is probably the smartest movie ever made about infidelity.
As the glorious Olympia Dukakis discovers in this film, people cheat for two reasons: they’re scared of death and they don’t know who they are. Say it, Olympia.
Hannah and her Sisters doesn’t have that self-knowledge, but then, any movie about infidelity that ends with absolutely nobody getting hurt is not going to be that realistic about adultery. To my mind, the least credible thing about this movie is not that Hannah’s two sisters have romantic entanglements with her spouses but that she never suspects, even for a moment, about Elliot and Leigh. She speaks to them both nearly every day and the clues begin to drop – but no. This movie isn’t really about infidelity – it’s a naïve fantasy about the possibility of infidelity.
But what it lacks in nous about sexual affairs it makes up for in smarts about familial affairs, the ties that bind, fray, strangle and rescue siblings, parents, children, partners and ex-partners. It is tempting to look to this movie more than any other for clues about the shadows that would form on Farrow and Allen’s relationship, but ultimately any such searches are as naïve as the depiction of infidelity in the film. Ultimately, it is a great testament to Allen and Farrow’s film partnership and what the two, at their best, brought out in one another.
Next week: boys on the beat – Beverly Hills Cop, Die Hard, Lethal Weapon