Hannah and Her Sisters is the definitive Thanksgiving movie, full stop. Why? Well, there’s a lot of Thanksgiving in it. But also, like your family, the one in this movie doesn’t know it’s unbearable, funny, sad, weird as hell, and perfect. It will fuel you with essential patience through Thursday’s festivities, even when your Uncle Werner begins with his conservative rants about Jennifer Lawrence’s new haircut. She just likes it that way, Uncle Werner! Don’t be on the wrong side of history!
New viewers of Hannah and Her Sisters will find it’s much different than recent Woody Allen movies, which are streamlined, plot-driven efforts. Midnight in Paris and Blue Jasmine almost feel like elongated short films, but Hannah and Her Sisters dishes plenty of comedy, wordy-ass arguing, despair, and a lot of contemplative moments featuring none of the above. Woody Allen’s character in the movie is a peripheral figure, a former husband of Hannah’s, and his incessant reckoning with death feels like a necessary dose of (neurotic) reality compared to the minor adulteries, egotism, and petty indecisiveness of the main characters. But that’s why I actually love the movie: There’s enough to mine as a viewer whether you find Allen’s problems or the pettier concerns of Hannah and Her Sisters more intriguing.
I’m in the latter category, personally. And here are five reasons proving Hannah and her Sisters might be the Best Movie Ever.
1. It’s nice to have a classic dramedy where the women rule and the men are insufferable.
I’m sorry, but are we supposed to care about the gents (aside from Mickey, Woody’s character) in this gem? Because Hannah (Mia Farrow, officially the greatest star never to earn an Oscar nomination) is a charming actress who, of course, has just killed as Nora in a production of A Doll’s House. Her sister Lee (Barbara Hershey) is a stunning beaut with glamorous bed hair and her other sister Holly (Dianne Wiest) is a struggling actress who quakes with insecurity and cocaine tremors. Those are the kinds of people I care about. I’m not so keen on Hannah’s pretentious, philandering husband Elliot (Michael Caine), who says things about Bach records and trips over himself trying to justify and fulfill his love for Lee. I also hate Lee’s scathingly snooty husband Frederick (Max Von Sydow), a reclusive artist who basically uses Lee as a tether to society. Throw in Daniel Stern as a douchebag recording artist, and it seems a majority of men in this film are unbearable. It’s telling that the best scene in the whole movie is when Hannah, Lee, and Holly dine together, and we see a whole lot of Holly’s money desperation, Lee’s frustration with her own torrid feelings, and Hannah’s even-keel sympathy.
2. But let’s talk more about Dianne Wiest.
Oscar-winner Dianne’s best moments are easy to pick out since her character is so babbly and self-absorbed that she’s actually charismatic. Some of my favorite scenes: her coke-aided date with Mickey at a jazz club (where she opines, “I love songs about extraterrestrial life, don’t you?”), her bothered narration when co-caterer April (Carrie Fisher) waxes about architecture (“Where did April come up with that stuff about Adolph Loos and terms like ’organic form’? Naturally, she went to Brandeis.”), her fits about not being talented, and her eventual humility and triumph as a screenwriter. But upon further inspection, I love what Dianne Wiest does as Holly when the focus isn’t on her.
In the movie’s first scene at Thanksgiving (beginning at 7:16), keep your eyes on Wiest as Lloyd Nolan, Maureen O’Sullivan, and Mia Farrow offer up little speeches before dinner begins. Dianne basically accomplishes 100 things in the span of a minute: She complains that she’s hungry. She splashes herself with wine. She grabs Lee’s arm. She drums a roll against the table. She chuckles at her own clumsiness. She cheers for Hannah. She’s so busy, and that self-involvement is precisely what the film wants us to think about.
3. Do not forget the rancor of Maureen O’Sullivan.
My GOD, I love Maureen O’Sullivan — Mia Farrow’s real-life mother — in this movie as Norma, Hannah’s mother. A faded actress whose dreams never quite actualized, she is a hailstorm of fed-up one-liners. “It’s a good thing that we had a talented daughter!” she sneers at her husband, before complaining, “How can you act when there’s nothing inside to come out?” She is brutal and never wastes a word. In this way, you could say Jane has become Tarzan in her advanced age. How are you supposed to cope with ’80s blahness when you’ve felt Johnny Weissmuller’s pecs in your lifetime?
(P.S. Hello, Previn family! Wow.)
4. Maybe Barbara Hershey secretly gives the best performance? Maybe?
The truth about Hannah and her Sisters is that the movie’s biggest conflict concerns Lee, whose relationship with Frederick (a jackass who gets in one amazing line about Auschwitz: “The reason they can never answer the question ’How could it possibly happen?’ is that it’s the wrong question. Given what people are, the question is ’Why doesn’t it happen more often?’) is waning as her vivid pangs for Elliot flare up. She’s harried and searching for answers, but she’s also an unassuming, lived-in character. Oh, also: The camera loves her. She is inventing Anne Archer with that haircut. Her bedraggled sweater chicness is Big Chill-worthy. She’s like Jennifer Grey’s cool and collected older sister. She’s the entire ’80s of supporting actresses, OK? Live with it. Best of all, her mounting frustration culminates in such an unexpected moment at dinner with her sisters. I live for that guilty-as-hell outburst at Holly: “Would you stop attacking Hannah? She’s going through a really tough time right now!”
5. You almost forgot Julie Kavner. I can’t believe you almost forgot Julie Kavner.
A note about Julie Kavner: There’s a lot of Jennifer Aniston going on in that face. Wish that was stated more often. Secondly, she is more hilarious in this movie than she is in any given episode of Rhoda, and that’s quite a feat considering she has a pretty small part as Mickey’s fellow TV executive. She fields a lot of Mickey’s narcissism, and the single most laugh-out-loud moment in the film is when she tries to soothe him by saying, “Listen, kid, I think you snapped your cap. Maybe you need a few weeks in Bermuda or something. Or go to a whorehouse.” It’s always nice to have that one friend who knows what you really need is paid sex.
Can I just say: I always love my quaint affections for character actresses, but Julie Kavner is the one woman in this category who makes you say, “She’s so adorable! And funny. Aww, I want to be her friend. I bet we’d get along! She’d love me! Oh wait, she has $100 million dollars and all the power on Earth. Right.”
What are your favorite moments in the brilliant, melancholic, tragically funny Hannah?