Wednesday, February 9, 2011
Not Even The Rain
It’s now twenty-five years since I walked through a blizzard to see Woody Allen’s HANNAH AND HER SISTERS at Yonkers Movieland on opening day. And, I swear, I’m really not exaggerating. February 7, 1986. It was a snow day. School was closed. I had recently figured out how to traverse various side streets to walk from my suburban village of Scarsdale to Central Avenue at the edge of Yonkers where there were two multiplexes right near each other. The first show on that opening day was at noon and I walked. In the falling snow. I can’t even remember what I may have told my parents about where I was going. What can I say, I was a weird kid and I’m not sure much has changed beyond that I don’t have to deal with all the snow anymore. The suburban theater was mostly empty—of course it was, there was a blizzard outside—but I’m sure the Beekman downtown in Manhattan did considerably better business that day with David Edelstein’s recent review in Rolling Stone blaring “Woody Makes a Masterpiece” in its headline and Vincent Canby in The New York Times that morning declaring that the film “sets new standards for Mr. Allen as well as for all American moviemakers.” Looking up the numbers, the film grossed $1.2 million on only 54 screens coming in tenth place in its opening weekend, which would be pretty damn impressive even now. And I’m still glad I went that day.
In the end, HANNAH AND HER SISTERS played for months, received seven Oscar nominations a year later, won three (Original Screenplay, Supporting Actor, Supporting Actress) and became the rare Woody Allen film to receive mass acceptance. It remains the only time in his career he’s cracked the $40 million mark (some of his other hits during the previous decade of course came out at a time of lower ticket prices) and was generally beloved by all. As many times as I’ve seen it over the past several decades recently it hasn’t been one of the ones I’ve returned to the most—ANNIE HALL and MANHATTAN top the list, which is probably the way it is for a lot of people. So to mark the occasion I decided to revisit the film in an attempt to remember a little of that day and as things turned out what I got was a much deeper, richer experience than I ever could have imagined all those years ago when I was, after all, pretty young and stupid. In fact, I’ve wound up watching it twice over the past week and have been a little blown away each time, genuinely moved by this film even more than I might have expected, moved by all that is has to offer. Twenty-five years old now, it remains a beautiful piece of work from start to finish.
The movie spans several years in the life of an extended family in Manhattan whose most stable member appears to be Hannah (Mia Farrow), an actress who is currently focusing her life on her children and husband Elliot (Michael Caine), a well-to-do financial advisor who is secretly in love with Hannah’s sister Lee (Barbara Hershey), an aimless woman currently living with her former professor, the humorless artist Frederick (Max Von Sydow). While Elliot tries to figure out whether to admit his feelings to Lee, there’s also the problems of the third sister Holly (Dianne Wiest), an aspiring actress always looking for other possible careers on the side while dealing with the continuing troubles of her own love life. And of course there’s Hannah’s ex-husband Mickey (Woody Allen), a television producer and extreme hypochondriac who thinks that he’s finally about to get the bad news he’s always feared but then realizes that there’s an even greater problem within himself that he suddenly has to contend with.
There’s something about the film which for me is so welcoming in its spirit that winds up feeling like all the good things that deep down I want to associate with memory, making me believe that I can actually breathe in the air of every scene set out there on the New York streets. Everything about HANNAH AND HER SISTERS flows together, every moment seems absolutely ideal. I can believe that the reasons I haven’t returned to this movie quite as much as a few others simply has to do with how I’m going to respond to a film dealing with the foibles of the singles world these days more than the inter-connected lives of an extended family. And maybe it also has something to do with the warm and fuzzy 80s-ness of what it all builds to in the end with everything working out yet the perception of that representing the entire film seems a little unfair. Many of the film’s characters are in situations that make them about as desperate as they could be in their lives and their genuine desire to make things better, what they’re striving for in their dreams, is palpable through every moment. What sticks out for me is how much true empathy HANNAH AND HER SISTERS has for each of its characters and how non-judgmental it ultimately is towards all of them no matter what they do. As misanthropic as he can be in his thematic goals at times, this is most likely Woody Allen’s most purely human film, the one that seems to believe that everything good can be possible and most completely felt when we all look over at all our loved ones at that annual Thanksgiving dinner. There are laughs throughout, and I could easily name favorite moments like Mickey’s explanation involving his family of the logistics of why he can’t just shoot himself as well as that reference to the Nuremberg Trials, but this one time Woody doesn’t seem to be going for as many quotable lines that might distract from the story he wants to tell. Broken up with title cards as if indicating chapters in a novel, the scene order at times seems random yet each piece of the narrative flows into one another beautifully, taking the mixture of laughs and seriousness further than he had up to that point and as funny as some of it is, particularly during the scenes focusing on Mickey, I may have needed to grow into a full appreciation of a lot of things in life to fully understand it all. Because, really, what the hell was I doing going to see this movie at my age? What did I think I was going to get out of it? And why did I go back several more times? Now, of course, the question is what I will continue to get out of the film when I return to it as the years go on and I get even older myself.
But I suppose I was trying when I was a kid and regardless, so much of it has such greater resonance now, even related to things I’ve experienced relatively recently thousands of miles away from where I first saw it. It’s the awkward way that these characters grope towards trying to figure out how to communicate, like how Barbara Hershey’s Lee keeps dwelling on having to go get her teeth cleaned while trying to think of something to say to Elliot aside from what she’s thinking, it’s the fear that arises when the worst thing is about to happen to you in life, followed by the greater fear that occurs when it doesn’t. To Woody, wisdom means nothing when it comes to what the heart wants and those feelings eventually all have to be reconciled. Of course, it drives some of us crazy sometimes, particularly when it comes to certain enigmatic women. The film treats each one of its characters with affection as they try to figure one another other out and so much of the story ultimately seems to be about those silent beats as they gaze at each other, whether due to thoughts of love or just trying to decipher what they’re saying. People don’t always go together in life, just like a few of those buildings Sam Waterston points out during his architectural tour of Manhattan, but if they keep pushing and remain resilient, refusing to remain what everyone thinks they are, maybe they can somehow figure out how to allow themselves to change. You need to find that balance within yourself, Woody as writer/director seems to be saying—Von Sydow’s Frederick may in fact be a brilliant artist, but he comes off as so miserable and self-serious that I can’t imagine him ever deigning to watch the Marx Brothers, to do anything that might actually give him some pleasure and as a result not only Lee, but the film itself turns its back on him.
A few of those biggest changes occur gradually, almost off screen, and much of the family dynamic is just laid there throughout with no explanation so this may have been my first viewing where I realized just how screwed up this family really was. The showbiz parents vividly portrayed in just a few scenes by Farrow’s own mother Maureen O’Sullivan and Lloyd Nolan (in his last role—he passed away before the film was released) have presumably been going through a nonstop circle of drinking, bickering and making up for decades, resulting in two of their daughters becoming addicted to drugs in one form or another which they have fortunately recovered from by the time the movie begins. The one who tries to keep everyone afloat is meanwhile silently grappling with her own insecurities, never knowing that the perfection she represents is what probably drives her husband away towards her livewire of a sister. That lunch scene between the three female leads is stunningly well done, one of the very best and most truly cinematic ever directed by Woody Allen, building some of the tensions between the sisters to a boil before the climactic point you’d expect, utilizing the directorial decision to cover the scene in three separate shots in a row, moving around the table with each beginning on a close-up of one of the sisters and allowing us to observe each of them during various points of the discussion. The device focuses on what each one is saying, as well as their silences, paying attention to the tensions that are going on between them as well as what they aren’t even aware of, what they never become aware of even when the end credits roll.
In recent years even some of Woody Allen’s better films have felt a little too put together on a whim, at times seeming like he’s not bothering with a second draft or take two, but everything here feels totally sharp, totally focused, the man working at the absolute top of his game. Accounts on the film indicate that the undeniable warmth it exudes was something which happened gradually during production as some of the darker plot turns Allen was going for didn’t quite come together and he later called these aspects the biggest weakness of the film (to Richard Schickel: “And so I had to put a more upbeat ending on the picture, because I just had not justified that level of sort of Chekovian sorrow. So I put in the ending that HANNAH has.”). It could be argued that some of the films he made soon after were an attempt to compensate for what couldn’t be achieved here—the very serious SEPTEMBER and ANOTHER WOMEN as well as the comedy-drama CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS are certainly a few of his chilliest films but in the case of HANNAH the result that’s achieved feels like exactly what it’s supposed to be.
Much of that emotion is actually set in what much of the time appears to be a grey, cloudy New York (photographed by Carlo Di Palma) that I find truly beautiful in its distant familiarity, with a few locations like that Tower Records near Lincoln Center making me remember what it was like to be in those places--since when Mickey is approaching it he appears to be coming from the old Regency Theater, still a revival house in those days, I imagine he’s just seen a double bill there and wonder what it was. Various musical standards used as themes recur throughout (as well as an on camera appearance by Bobby Short) just as they no doubt recur in the character’s own lives and maybe because of this even the places I never went to in real life seem familiar to me—I never went to the Pageant Book & Print Shop (which apparently still exists, but only online) where Elliot buys that book of e.e. cummings poems for Lee but I watch this film and it’s almost like I can remember the sensation of actually being there.
Woody’s Mickey Sachs (strangely, I never realized before now that he plays the only main character given a last name—an attempt to avoid dealing with the family’s inherent goyness?) does seem to exist a little outside of the rest of the film, with some of his character background feeling maybe a little too much like a mixture of elements from earlier films—also, that whole sperm donation thing involving his former partner could very well have deserved its own movie—but the themes expressed are a very much part of everything else and the way he ultimately becomes part of the overall narrative feels totally organic, two distant pieces on a board finally coming together. Regardless, each male role here feels like something of a real-life surrogate for him anyway, even Sam Waterston’s architect to a certain degree. Michael Caine’s Elliot is all ticks and insecurities in his love life while Frederic as played by Max Von Sydow, the Bergman surrogate, seems very deliberately designed to be the darkest side of Woody’s own self, the one who sits up late at night brooding about everything that’s happened to civilization and maybe even the allegedly serious artist that he wishes he could be thought of. Mickey’s quest for religious enlightenment in the wake of his health scare feels a little glossed over as if Woody the director couldn’t figure out a way to be as interested in it as his character is and the Krishna joke feels at least a half-decade out of date for the time, but what matters is how these characters are able to grow enough to figure themselves out along with the eternal truth that gets learned, the right way to “be logical and put the world back into rational perspective”—really, if the existence of DUCK SOUP doesn’t count as a reason to go on living in this world I don’t know what does. It reminds me of another personal connection I make with this film in how when Woody wanders in to see that Marx Brothers classic the theater in question is the Metro, now closed of course, which really was a revival house at the time and where I once saw that very movie with my father on a double bill with HORSE FEATHERS. In some ways that memory I have is about as important as what happens to Mickey here.
The apparent center of it all, Mia Farrow has never gotten as much acclaim for this film as a few of her flashier costars and my own feelings about her performance have varied through my multiple viewings over the years. Sometimes she seems to blend in with the scenery, a character struggling to break out of what everyone’s expectations of her are, maybe even missing that one big moment where she could explain everything. And at other times the way she is framed in close-ups becomes rather magical, allowing it to fully be understood why there’s a reason that everything in this family’s world has become centered around her, this actress who decided to focus on family and always try to be perfect. After this viewing I think she’s just amazing. Playing the role that won him his first Oscar Michael Caine really is phenomenal, taking what may have been written as a part that Woody himself might have played and doing something totally different with it, infusing it all with an inner life that makes him understandable, even if what he does can’t possibly be defended. Also winning her first Oscar, Dianne Wiest is just wonderful, selling every ounce of insecurity and abrasiveness along with those moments where the charm comes through, making the end of the journey she reaches in the final shot genuinely rewarding. Maybe not as acclaimed since some of her story is by nature offscreen, Barbara Hershey is nonetheless luminous as Lee, making it clear why anyone would fall for her and doing some particularly strong work in her final scene with Von Sydow, who is excellent as well through every harsh moment he has. Having to spend a fair amount of his screen time alone, Woody himself delivers one of his best performances, making every desperate moment he has seem genuine and at times hysterical. In fact, there’s not a bad performance in the entire cast which also includes Julie Kavner, Carrie Fisher, Daniel Stern and Joanna Gleason. Tony Roberts and Sam Waterston are unbilled and there are brief early appearances by the likes of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, John Turturro, Lewis Black, J.T. Walsh and Richard Jenkins. Just to state for the record, apparently Soon-Yi Previn is also in there at some point.
It’s strange to say how completely rewatchable the film is for me considering how I’ve already admitted that this was my first complete viewing in some time (hey, is that my ANNIE HALL disc over there? I haven’t watched any of that for nearly three weeks) and how often I return to it in the future may have as much to do with my own place in life as much as anything. Will I need to feel this sort of nostalgia just as Lloyd Nolan’s father stays forever at that piano going down memory lane, hearing those songs I’ve heard before, continually dwelling on the day I first saw this film? I really can’t answer that right now. I only know how much it’s staying with me this time and I have little doubt that the movie will still have as much to offer to me in another twenty-five years. Woody Allen really did make a masterpiece with HANNAH AND HER SISTERS…it’s just that with some films they become so familiar to you that it’s easy to forget just how meaningful and important they are to you. And in many ways that’s what the movie is trying to say about all the things we love in life as well.