A Very, Very Resilient Little Muscle
“How the hell do I know why there were Nazis? I don’t know how the can opener works!”
One thing I like about Woody Allen is that, for the most part — and unlike so many of even my favorite movie directors — he tries to create complete, psychologically complex female characters. It doesn’t always work, but I appreciate the effort. Martin Scorsese, to pick just one example, has made some of my favorite movies ever, but no more than a handful of female character with more than two dimensions.
Mia Farrow, Dianne Weist, and Barbara Hershey star in Hannah and Her Sisters as Hannah and… her sisters, Holly and Lee. Hannah is married to Michael Caine’s Elliot, and her ex-husband is hypochodriachal comedy writer Mickey, played by — well, you’ll never guess. But Allen wisely casts himself here as a kind of comedic Greek chorus figure, and not the leading man. The sisters’ various relationships, with each other and with a number of different men, make up the movie’s many plot threads, particularly Elliot’s doomed secret affair with Lee. (Michael Caine is one of the very, very few actors who could pull off this role without leaving you loathing the character, although I still end up having less sympathy for him than Allen’s script seems to). The great ensemble of complex, distinctive, well-drawn characters is the real strength of Hannah and Her Sisters – one of my favorite Woody Allen movies after Annie Hall and Manhattan, and one that he clearly poured a lot of care into.
The movie is packed with cameos, and future stars in small roles – Julie “Marge Simpson” Kavner plays a producer on a comedy show that also employs, for one or two lines each, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Lewis Black, and John Turturro. Allen must have had one hell of a casting director. Sam Waterston plays a slimy-suave architect who dates both Holly and her friend April – who’s played by Carrie Fischer. J.T. Walsh and Daniel Stern make appearances, the sisters’ parents are played by the late, great Lloyd Nolan and Maureen O’Sullivan, and Lee’s pretentious older artist lover is the awesome Max von Sydow. A very very young Soon-Yi Previn even shows up at the end as a “Thanksgiving Guest”.
Woody Allen, even in his youth, was always something of a grumpy old man – he never warmed up to rock and roll even a little bit, and after complaining about Bob Dylan in Annie Hall, here he grouches endlessly about having to sit through the “noise” of a punk band. Everyone in this movie loves opera, jazz, classical music, fine art, and Cole Porter; only Diane Weist’s insecure cokehead listens to musical genres that developed since 1950. But if you can overlook those rather anachronistic character touches in a movie that’s otherwise very much of its 1980s New York setting, you find some very believable, recognizable people. No one in this movie is a villain; everyone is just trying to muddle through, with varying degrees of success. And Allen’s script is big enough to find some sympathy for everyone.
Much like Mia Farrow’s character in Purple Rose of Cairo, Woody Allen’s Mickey essentially has his life saved after a half-hearted suicide attempt by movies – in this case, the Marx Brothers, who convince him that even if life is meaningless and God nonexistent, we might as well try to enjoy ourselves while we’re here. I never found it especially convincing that he and a suddenly transformed Dianne Weist end up blissfully together at the end of the film (with her sister’s/his ex-wife’s blessing), but I do buy into the moral a bemused Allen expresses in the final scene – “The heart is a very, very resilient little muscle, it really is.”
In a way, it’s the same message Allen had for the audience at the end of Annie Hall – a message I like so much that when my dad asked me to read something at his wedding last month, that’s what I picked. We need the eggs.
Granted, all of this might be a little easier to fully embrace if Allen’s own private life hadn’t taken such a creepy turn in the 90s, but never mind; as is so often the case, you have to separate the man’s personal life from his creative one if you hope to ever enjoy a movie without conducting a moral audit of its director. Which is something that I think Allen, or at least the desperate movie-loving character he plays here, would entirely agree with.