Hannah, Holly and Lee are adult sisters from a show business family, their boozy actress mother who still believes she’s an ingénue that can attract any man she wants, despite still being married to the girls’ father, Evan. Hannah, on her second marriage to a man named Elliot, a financial advisor, is the success of the family, taking a break from her acting career to raise her children.
Everyone turns to her for advice, while she never talks to others about what she needs or feels. Her first husband, Mickey, is a comedy show writer and hypochondriac, who is going through a crisis as he mistakenly believes he will die soon without a clear belief, as a non-practicing Jew, of what will happen to him in the afterlife. Single Holly is the insecure flaky sister, a struggling and thus continually unemployed actress, who has just started a catering business with her actress friend April, in order to do something constructive with her life.
Hannah and Her Sisters is a 1986 American comedy-drama film which tells the intertwined stories of an extended family over two years that begins and ends with a family Thanksgiving dinner. The film was written and directed by Woody Allen, who stars along with Mia Farrow as Hannah, Michael Caine as her husband, and Barbara Hershey and Dianne Wiest as her sisters.
The film’s ensemble cast also includes Carrie Fisher, Farrow’s mother Maureen O’Sullivan, Lloyd Nolan (who died in September 1985, more than four months before the film’s release), Max von Sydow and Julie Kavner. Daniel Stern, Richard Jenkins, Fred Melamed, Lewis Black, Joanna Gleason, John Turturro, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus all have minor roles, while Tony Roberts and Sam Waterston make uncredited cameo appearances. Several of Farrow’s children, including a pre-adolescent Soon-Yi Previn (who married Allen in 1997), have credited and uncredited roles, mostly as Thanksgiving extras.
Hannah and Her Sisters was for a long time Allen’s biggest box office hit (forgoing adjustment for inflation), with a North American gross of US$40 million. The film won Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Supporting Actress. It is often considered one of Allen’s major works, with critics continuing to praise its writing and ensemble cast.
About the Story
The story is told in three main arcs, with most of it occurring during a 24-month period beginning and ending at Thanksgiving parties hosted by Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her husband, Elliot (Michael Caine). Hannah serves as the stalwart hub of the narrative; most of the events of the film connect to her.
Elliot becomes infatuated with one of Hannah’s sisters, Lee (Barbara Hershey), and eventually begins an affair with her. Elliot attributes his behavior to his discontent with his wife’s self-sufficiency and resentment of her emotional strength. Lee has lived for five years with a reclusive artist, Frederick (Max von Sydow), who is much older.
She finds her relationship with Frederick no longer intellectually or sexually stimulating, in spite of (or maybe because of) Frederick’s professed interest in continuing to teach her. She leaves Frederick after he discovers her affair with Elliot. For the remainder of the year between the first and second Thanksgiving gatherings, Elliot and Lee carry on their affair despite Elliot’s inability to end his marriage to Hannah. Lee finally ends the affair during the second Thanksgiving, explaining that she is finished waiting for him to commit and that she has started dating someone else.
Hannah’s ex-husband Mickey (Woody Allen), a television writer, is present mostly in scenes outside of the primary story. Flashbacks reveal that his marriage to Hannah fell apart after they were unable to have children because of his infertility. However, they had twins who are not biologically his, before divorcing. He also went on a disastrous date with Hannah’s sister Holly (Dianne Wiest) when they were set up after the divorce.
A hypochondriac, he goes to his doctor complaining of hearing loss, and is frightened by the possibility that it might be a brain tumor. When tests prove that he is perfectly healthy, he is initially overjoyed, but then despairs that his life is meaningless. His existential crisis leads to unsatisfying experiments with religious conversion to Catholicism and an interest in Krishna Consciousness. Ultimately, an unsuccessful suicide attempt leads him to find meaning in his life after unexpectedly viewing the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup in a movie theater. The revelation that life should be enjoyed, rather than understood, helps to prepare him for a second date with Holly, which this time blossoms into love.
Holly’s story is the film’s third main arc. A former cocaine addict, she is an unsuccessful actress who cannot settle on a career. After borrowing money from Hannah, she starts a catering business with April (Carrie Fisher), a friend and fellow actress. Holly and April end up as rivals in auditions for parts in Broadway musicals, as well as for the affections of an architect (Sam Waterston). Holly abandons the catering business after the romance with the architect fails and decides to try her hand at writing.
The career change forces her once again to borrow money from Hannah, a dependency that Holly resents. She writes a script inspired by Hannah and Elliot, which greatly upsets Hannah. It is suggested that much of the script involved personal details of Hannah and Elliot’s marriage that had been conveyed to Holly through Lee (having been transmitted first from Elliot). Although this threatens to expose the affair between Elliot and Lee, Elliot soon disavows disclosing any such details. Holly sets aside her script, and instead writes a story inspired by her own life, which Mickey reads and admires greatly, vowing to help her get it produced and leading to their second date.
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Directed by: Woody Allen
Starring: Mia Farrow, Dianne Wiest, Michael Caine, Barbara Hershey, Maureen O’Sullivan, Lloyd Nolan, Max von Sydow, Woody Allen, Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Screenplay by: Woody Allen
Production Design by: Julia Louis-Dreyfus
Cinematography by: Carlo Di Palma
Film Editing by: Susan E. Morse
Costume Design by: Jeffrey Kurland
Set Decoration by: Carol Joffe
Distributed by: Orion Pictures
Release Date: February 7, 1986