Sunday, January 14, 2007

Films of Michael Caine #47: Hannah and Her Sisters

Cast: Barbara Hershey (Lee), Carrie Fisher (April), Michael Caine (Elliot), Mia Farrow (Hannah), Dianne Wiest (Holly), Maureen O’Sullivan (Norma), Lloyd Nolan (Evan), Max Von Sydow (Frederick), Woody Allen (Mickey).

Crew: Woody Allen (director), Robert Greenhut (producer), Woody Allen (writer), Carlo Di Palma (cinematography), Susan E Morse (editor), Stuart Wurtzel (production designer).

Synopsis: New York couple Elliot and Hannah host a Thanksgiving dinner for their extended family and friends. Elliot is infatuated with Lee, one of Hannah’s sisters. Hannah leads money to her other sister Holly, a failed actress. Hannah’s first husband is a hypochondriac TV comedy producer, Mickey. He visits a doctor about hearing loss and gets sent for further tests. Elliot woos Lee, claiming his marriage to Hannah is almost over. Tests prove Mickey does not have a brain tumour. He is overjoyed, then depressed by the knowledge he will still die one day.

Mickey quits his job and begins searching for a meaning to life. Elliot and Lee have a passionate affair. Holly abandons acting to become a writer. At the next Thanksgiving dinner Lee tells Elliot the affair is over, she is seeing someone new. Elliot and Hannah are reconciled. Holly bumps into Mickey, with whom she once had a disastrous date. He is a much happier person, having contemplated suicide. Mickey concluded life is too precious to waste, even if it has no meaning. A year later at the Thanksgiving dinner, Holly tells her new husband Mickey she is pregnant…


Filmmaker Woody Allen was inspired to write Hannah and Her Sisters after reading Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Allen told Cinema Papers he thought it would be fun to adapt the book’s storytelling techniques to a contemporary comedy. The writer-director cast many of his frequent collaborators in the film, but added several newcomers to his ensemble – including Caine. ‘I’ve always been a great fan of his,’ Allen explained. ‘He’s one of the few people around who can play serious and comedy. I wanted a normal man … just a regular man who could play both serious and comic, where you could see him suffer a little and he could also get some laughs... Michael seems to have a bigger scope than most actors: he just can play those things.’

I took the role to get comedy experience,’ Caine said in an interview with Arena magazine in 1988, ‘so that people would think of me being able to play comedy. Woody choosing me to do Hannah made me respectable as a comedy actor. Woody casts for what he needs. He didn’t have anyone for my part so he asked me. I was only on set four weeks.’ At the time Allen was in a long-term relationship with actress Mia Farrow, who played Caine’s wife Hannah in the film. The $7 million movie was shot on location in New York during 1985, with an opera sequence filmed at Turin in Italy.

‘That was a wonderful experience, doing that film,’ Caine told Venice magazine in 2002. ‘I’ve known Mia since she was 16 or 17, so acting with her was easy. It was a bit like working with a family because our apartment in the film was her apartment in real life. It was all very sort of intimate, doing scenes in her bed with her lover directing us.’ Caine said Allen rarely gave him any direction on set. ‘Woody just lets you go your own way, and you wind up with a performance.’

Caine recalled the shoot in his acting masterclass. ‘Woody Allen just puts it all on film right from the starts, so that the rehearsal and the take become indistinguishable. He just keeps shooting and shooting it.’ Caine said some scenes in Farrow’s apartment required twelve hours to light, such was the complexity. ‘Woody rehearses everything down to the tiniest detail; his camera becomes a microscope. His pictures may look as if they are ad-libbed, but they are brought to that point by solid rehearsal, rehearsal, rehearsal.’

Allen significantly altered Hannah and Her Sisters after initial filming was complete. ‘The whole of the second Thanksgiving party … was an afterthought,’ he told Cinema Papers. In the original script, there were only two parties: one at the beginning, one at the end. But after seeing a rough cut of the film, Allen decided he needed another sequence during the story to provide character and plot development. ‘I went out and shot the entire sequence … some old scenes and some brand new scenes.’

Hannah and Her Sisters was released in the US with a PG-13 rating in February 1986. Warmly praised by the critics, the film also became one of Allen’s biggest box offices hits, grossing more than $40 million. It reached the UK in July 1986 (rated 15), taking $4 million. The picture was released on video before the end of the year in Britain. Across the Atlantic Allen’s film was highly placed on many critics’ Top 10 lists for the year, prompting talk of Oscar nominations. It won the best musical or comedy award at the Golden Globes, with Caine’s performance among four other nominations received. At the BAFTAs Allen won prizes for his direction and script, while Caine was among six other nominations for the film.

When the Oscar nominations were announced in February 1987, Caine was one of those nominated as best supporting actor. Three times before he had attended the ceremony as a nominee for best actor, but left empty handed. ‘I thought, sod it, I’m not turning up again,’ Caine recalled in his public interview at the NFT in 1998. The actor was on location in the Bahamas shooting a small but lucrative role in Jaws the Revenge (1987) when the Oscar ceremony was held in March. Caine won, beating Willem Dafoe, Tom Berenger, Denholm Elliott and Dennis Hopper. Hannah and Her Sister also won awards for Dianne Wiest as best supporting actress and for Allen’s original screenplay.

The award came as a complete surprise to Caine. ‘The film had been released in February, before the previous year’s Oscars were given. Woody Allen was anti-Oscar, and there was no campaign,’ the actor told America’s Associated Press in 2003.
Hannah and Her Sisters remains available on VHS and has also been issued on DVD. Caine considers the film a turning point in his career. ‘I was beginning to change from leading man to character leading man,’ he told Variety in 2000, ‘like a teenager going through his awkward moment.’ Certainly, his career reached a significant peak in 1986. The next ten years saw Caine struggling to find great roles or opportunities to work with acclaimed directors.

Reviews: ‘The acting in Hannah is uniformly excellent, and Michael Caine fits into the Allen repertory company with evident relish.’ – Sunday Times
‘It isn’t that Mr Caine’s performance is all that different from other roles he’s had … It’s just that Hannah and Her Sisters makes better us of his wise, mellow, comically self-aware talents than any film he’s been in since John Huston’s The Man Who Would Be King.’ – New York Times

Verdict: What a wonderful film – funny and thoughtful, with the perfect balance of humour and pathos. Hannah and Her Sisters succeeds in juggling half a dozen major storylines and just as many subplots. This is one of the filmmaker’s warmest films, with a rare happy ending. Caine gives a fine performance in one of his best films. He fits seamlessly with actors familiar from so many Allen pictures and the whole ensemble is a joy to watch. The only regret this movie raises is that Caine hasn’t worked with Allen again. Hannah and Her Sisters is highly recommended.

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