“The heart is a very, very resilient little muscle.”
Throughout the years, the line above has caused me to get very emotional – and on this special day – it’s the perfect summation of how some of us may feel. They’re uttered towards the end of Woody Allen’s beguiling “Hannah and Her Sisters” (1986) which is one of the greatest movies ever – and without a doubt the best Thanksgiving one.
I came to the United States in 1978 and inherited Thanksgiving. It is my favorite of all the holidays, and for forty-two years I spent it in New York City. Even when I moved to Santa Barbara, I pilgrimaged back to the Big Apple. For obvious reasons, I’m not there today.
It is the celebration of this holiday by a big extended theatrical family that bookends the narrative of “Hanna and Her Sisters” – three dinners in the span of two years. They earmark the structure of the script: Act one – the setup, where the characters and their conflicts are introduced – happens during the first Thanksgiving. The turmoil that the different protagonists undergo crescendos a year later at another gathering – and at a final fete, and through its generative powers, most of the issues are resolved. Seasons come and go during this chronicle, friends and relatives gather for each dinner, and it becomes an embroidery of mood, uncertainties and desires. It is suffused with melancholia. It is extremely funny, and unusually tender. It affirms that life itself is cyclical, and we’re forever capable of being buoyant.
New York City becomes a main character – captured in all its autumnal splendor. Cinematographer Carlo Di Palma imbues the proceedings with that special light found late November on the island – where the sunshine’s fleeting among its tall buildings and the air is crisp. Allen’s love affair with Manhattan is on full display. Twenty minutes into it, the story stops to give us an architectural tour. “You know, people pass by vital structures in this city all the time, and they never take the time to appreciate them,” comments someone before we embark on a montage of landmarks. Throughout the film, we get glimpses of things that are perennially New York, and others that we will always associate with it but are now just a memory like seeing Bobby Short holding court at the Café Carlyle. “Nothing’s going to happen to you,” says Mickey (played by Allen) to himself. “You’re in the middle of New York City. This is your town. You’re surrounded by people and traffic and restaurants.” The Langham – at 135 Central Park West – is the hub where the parties take place.
The focus is on three sisters, Hannah, Holly and Lee – whose parents were famous actors. The yarn splits into three strains. One follows Hanna’s husband – Elliot – and his infatuation for Lee. Lee lives with a much older and reclusive intellectual artist who has a Svengali control over her. “I don’t even know what I want.” Lee exclaims. Elliot’s guilt-ridden by his unfaithfulness to Hannah. “I love my wife and now I have betrayed her,” Elliot says.
The second arc follows Hannah’s former husband – Mickey – a television writer and a hypochondriac. A major existential crisis ensues when he finds out that he may have a tumor. He will question the true nature of life as well as religion. “Can you understand how meaningless everything is?” he questions. It is worth noting that his story takes place outside the gravitational pull of Hannah and her immediate family.
The final storyline involves Holly – who is trying to forge a career for herself. She’s always been in the shadow of Hannah, who has a successful acting career like her parents – as well as a marriage and children. Holly dabbled with drugs, attempted becoming an actress unsuccessfully and now is thinking of starting a catering company with her friend April.
Hannah is the steady force for all these characters – and also the most elusive and enigmatic of them all. She’s a great source of respect, admiration and also envy, yet there’s turmoil in her. “It’s hard to be around someone who gives so much and needs so little in return,” Elliot tells her. “I have enormous needs,” she cries out.
Allen creates a panoply of variant longings and emotions in one of the finest displays of assured storytelling in American cinema. His ensemble is all in fine form, Max Von Sydow, Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey, Carrie Fisher and Sam Waterston are all seamless. Diane Weist and Michael Caine won Best Supporting gold statues for their formidable work.
Mickey has an epiphany in a movie theatre that never fails to get me all welled up.
Mickey: “And I went upstairs to the balcony, and I sat down. The movie was a film I’d seen many times in my life since I was a kid, and I always loved it. I’m watching these people up on the screen, and I started getting hooked on the film, you know? And I started to feel, ‘how can you even think of killing yourself?’ Isn’t it so stupid? Look at all the people up there on the screen. They’re real funny, and what if the worst is true. There’s no God, and you only go around once, and that’s it? Don’t you want to be part of the experience? What the hell? It’s not all a drag. And I’m thinking to myself, Jeez I should stop ruining my life searching for answers I’m never going to get, and just enjoy it while it lasts. And after, who knows? Maybe there is something. Nobody really knows. I know maybe is a very slim reed to hang your whole life on, but that’s the best we have. And then I started to sit back, and I actually began to enjoy myself.”
Available to stream on DIRECTV and Watch TCM and to rent on Apple TV, Amazon, Google Play, YouTube, FandangoNOW, Vudu, Microsoft and iTunes.
Written and Directed by Woody Allen
Starring Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey, Dianne Wiest, Michael Caine, Woody Allen, Carrie Fisher, Lloyd Nolan, Maureen O’Sullivan, Daniel Stern and Max von Sydow
The Making of “Hannah and Her Sisters”
Shooting began on Hannah and Her Sisters in the Fall of 1984 in New York City. Woody Allen used Mia Farrow’s real-life apartment on Central Park West as Hannah’s home in the film. Farrow’s real-life children were also used in the big family Thanksgiving scenes that bookend the film. With those details–along with having Farrow’s real-life mother Maureen O’Sullivan playing Hannah’s mother–it made the film something of a family affair, bringing a warmth and familiarity to the set. Since Farrow and her extensive brood were actually living in Hannah’s fictional apartment during filming, they had to do their best to go about the usual daily routine in a way that fit into the shooting schedule. “The place was pandemonium,” said Farrow in her 1997 memoir What Falls Away. “The rooms were clogged with equipment. Forty people arrived at dawn crowding into any available space, our personal treasures were spirited away to who-knew-where. The kitchen was an active set for weeks…Some nights I literally couldn’t find my bed…It was strange to be shooting scenes in my own rooms – my kitchen, my pots, my own kids saying lines, Michael Caine in my bathroom, wearing a robe, rummaging through my medicine cabinet. Or me lying in my own bed kissing Michael, with Woody watching…The commotion, and not being able to find anything, sometimes got me a little crazy. But the kids loved it.”
At times co-star Michael Caine felt like he was in the middle of an intimate home movie. “It got so domestic that when we were shooting the sequence [in Mia’s apartment], I would often see Mia serving up food to her numerous offspring,” said Caine in his 1992 autobiography What’s It All About?. “The assistant director would come into the kitchen and say, ÔYou are wanted on set, Miss Farrow.’ Mia would stop ladling out food, take off her apron and go into the other room and start acting and at the end of the scene she would rush back into the kitchen.” Sometimes, according to Caine, things could get surreal under such circumstances. “When we got to the bedroom scenes, which were shot in Mia’s real bedroom (although for propriety’s sake I think we had a different bed), things became even more cozy until one day I wound up doing a love scene in bed with Mia in her own bedroom, and being directed by her lover!” said Caine. “This was nerve-racking enough but got even worse when I looked up during the rehearsal to find her ex-husband Andre Previn watching us from the other side of the bedroom. He had come to visit the children and found us all there. It took all my concentration to get through that scene!” (tcm.com)
About Cinematographer Brian Di Palma
Di Palma was born into a poor Roman family; his mother was a flower seller on the Spanish Steps. After showing an early interest in photography, he was a non-credited assistant on the sets of two pioneering neo-realist films, Luchino Visconti’s “Ossessione” (1943) and Rossellini’s “Paisà” (1946). He worked as an assistant cameraman to one of the first maestri of postwar Italian cinematography, Gianni Di Venanzo, and, in 1956, was his cameraman for the film that Francesco Rosi co-directed with Vittorio Gassman of the actor’s stage performance as Edmund Kean…Rosi said that, with his use of colour, Di Palma had “opened a new chapter in the history of the cinema”. His first credit as cameraman had been in 1954, on a routine costume picture. His first critical attention, as director of photography, was for Florestano Vancini’s “The Long Night Of ’43,” which won the best directorial debut award at the 1960 Venice Festival…it featured the camera work of Di Palma’s nephew Dario, capturing the foggy greys and whites of writer Giorgio Bassani’s Ferrara. Di Palma undertook the photography for two other directors making significant debuts in the early 1960s, Elio Petri and Giuliano Montaldo. Pier Paolo Pasolini, who had been one of the scriptwriters of Vancini’s film, asked Di Palma to be his cameraman for the trial tests for his directing debut, “Accattone,” though another cinematographer shot the film. Di Palma had met Antonioni when Di Venanzo was shooting “Il Grido and Le Amiche,” and, in 1963, they got together to study the possibility of making “The Red Desert” in Technicolor…For a segment of “The Three Faces” (1965), his photography did something to convey the inner qualities behind the inexpressive face of the rather pathetic ex-Empress Soraya of Iran’s screen test. More important, of course, was “Blow Up,” where photography was at the centre of the story. After using a deep-focus lens on “The Red Desert” to obtain two-dimensional effects, in “Blow Up” Antonioni told Di Palma he wanted “to lengthen the perspective and give the impression of space between people and things”. Di Palma loved this kind of challenge, and was able to help the director get the effects he wanted.
On the set of “The Red Desert,” a relationship had developed between him and its star, Monica Vitti, who felt the need for a change in her private, as well as public, image. Under his guidance, she moved towards comedy, and it was in “The Girl With A Pistol” (1968), by the top-notch Italian comedy director Mario Monicelli (for whom Di Palma had already been director of photography on the visually dazzling, medieval comedy “L’armata Brancaleone,” 1965), that Vitti was turned into a box-office comic star to rival the likes of Gassman and Ugo Tognazzi. The relationship with Vitti led to Di Palma’s debut as a director, with another comedy for the actor, “Teresa La Ladra” (1972). He went on to direct her in several other lighthearted films but, though professionally competent, they did not turn him into an auteur. His mastery of visuals – in another film for Vitti’s comic talents – was better served in 1970 under the more inspired direction of “Ettore Scola, Dramma Della Gelosia.” In 1981, Di Palma worked on Bernardo Bertolucci’s “Tragedy Of A Ridiculous Man” and, once again, with Antonioni on “Identification Of A Woman” (1982). Later in the 1980s, he began his 10-year collaboration with Woody Allen, which he described as “the most enjoyable period of my professional life”. He was director of photography when Allen was exploring his European-style auteur fetishes, to which Di Palma was able to add some authentic visual thrills, as in such titles as “Mighty Aphrodite” (1995), “Everyone Says I Love You” (1996) and the last one they did together, “Deconstructing Harry”…in the 1980s, Di Palma married Adriana Chiesa, admired in international film industry circles as an exporter of Italian films. As a couple, whether in New York or Rome, they had many friends. She nursed him through his final illness. (theguardian.com)
About Editor Susan E. Morse
Film editor Susan E. Morse is best known for her more than twenty year collaboration with writer/director Woody Allen, beginning as an assistant film editor on his 1977 film “Annie Hall,” uncredited co-editor on Interiors, and her first solo editing credit on Manhattan, for which she received her first British Academy Award Nomination for Best Film Editing. In addition to her prolific collaboration with Allen, Morse has edited films for directors Steve Gordon, Jim Kouf, Lee Davis, Marc Lawrence, Chazz Palmintieri and, more recently, first-time director Massy Tadjedin; as well as serving stints as an associate film editor on Walter Hill’s “The Warriors,” (with a team of editors headed by David Holden), and briefly on Martin Scorsese’s “Raging Bull” (with longtime friend and three time Oscar- winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker.) The 32 feature films Morse has edited have earned worldwide critical acclaim, including a total of 41 Oscar nominations and 7 Oscars including an Oscar nomination for editing “Hannah and Her Sisters.” In addition, two of the films she has edited with first- time writer/directors “Arthur” (with Steve Gordon in 1981) and “Two Weeks Notice” (with Marc Lawrence in 2002) were major successes at the box office. (mewshop.com)
About Casting Director Juliet Taylor
Taylor graduated from Smith College in 1967, and joined the staff of David Merrick, remaining there until the spring of 1968. At that time, she went to work as a secretary to Marion Dougherty who was opening a motion picture casting office in New York. In 1973, when Marion Dougherty left casting to produce films, Taylor ran Marion Dougherty Associates until 1977, when she became Director of East Coast Casting for Paramount Pictures. She left that position in 1978 to cast motion pictures independently…Taylor has worked with some of the leading directors of our time, including Mike Nichols, Steven Spielberg, Woody Allen, Louis Malle, Martin Scorsese, Alan Parker, James L. Brooks, John Schlesinger, Stephen Frears, Nora Ephron, Neil Jordan and Sydney Pollack. She has cast more than eighty films, with more than thirty of them for Woody Allen. Among her credits are: “Schindler’s List,” Terms of Endearment,” “Sleepless in Seattle,” “Dangerous Liaisons,” “Big,” “The Grifters,” “Mississippi Burning,” “The Killing Fields,” “Working Girl,” “Julia,” “Taxi Driver,” “Network,” “Pretty Baby” and “The Exorcist.” She won an Emmy Award for casting on the HBO Miniseries “Angels in America.” Her work with Woody Allen dates back to “Love and Death” in 1975 and most recently includes “Match Point,” “Cassandra’s Dream,” “Scoop,” “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” “Whatever Works,” “You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger,” “Midnight in Paris” and To Rome with Love.” (sonyclassics.com)