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Film / Hannah and Her Sisters

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"What if the worst is true? What if there's no God and you only go around once and that's it? Well, you know, don't you wanna be part of the experience? You know, what the hell, it's not all a drag. And I'm thinking to myself, Jeez, I should stop ruining my life searching for answers I'm never gonna get, and just enjoy it while it lasts. And, you know, after, who knows? I mean, you know, maybe there is something, nobody really knows. I know "maybe" is a very slim reed to hang your whole life on, but that's the best we have."
Mickey Sachs

Hannah and Her Sisters is a 1986 comedy-drama film by Woody Allen. Until the release of Midnight in Paris in 2011, this was the most financially successful of Allen's films.

The film follows the lives of a dysfunctional family between two Thanksgivings. Hannah (Mia Farrow) is a successful actress, wife, mother, and sister. As the oldest daughter of actors Evan (Lloyd Nolan) and Norma (Maureen O'Sullivan), she shoulders the difficult task of keeping the family balanced.

Hannah's sister Lee (Barbara Hershey) is an intelligent, recovered alcoholic who lives with a misanthropic artist named Frederick (Max von Sydow). Unbeknownst to Hannah, her husband Elliot (Michael Caine, Best Supporting Actor winner) has fallen hopelessly in love with Lee. And Lee just might return his feelings.

Hannah's youngest sister Holly (Dianne Wiest, Best Supporting Actress winner) is an out-of-work actress and recently recovered cocaine addict. Rejection after rejection starts to take a toll on Holly's confidence level and threatens to destroy the progress she's made.

Meanwhile, Hannah's ex-husband Mickey (Woody Allen) has a crisis of his own as he tries to balance his job as a television producer with his crippling hypochondria and fear of death. Relationships and affairs evolve in surprising ways and it all leads up to one final Thanksgiving, three years after the start of the film, that finds everyone in situations they never expected.

This movie provides examples of:

  • The Alcoholic:
    • Lee admits to Elliot that she was an alcoholic in the past and still regularly attends AA meetings because they comfort her.
    • Norma (the mother) struggles with alcoholism.
  • Amicably Divorced: Hannah and Mickey divorced several years before the events in the film, though they have remained good friends.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Elliot picks the most inopportune moment to pour his heart out to Lee. Elliot plants a kiss on her while Frederick is just in the other room.
  • The Anti-Nihilist: Mickey decides to kill himself, because he feels that existence is meaningless. After he bungles it, he goes to the streets, and eventually wanders into a movie theater, where a Marx Brothers film, Duck Soup, is playing. After a while, he starts enjoying the film.
    I started to feel, how can you even think of killing yourself, I mean isn't it so stupid? Look at all the people up there on the screen, they're real funny, and what if the worst is true. What if there is no God and you only go around once and that's it. Well, ya know, don't you wanna be part of the experience? You know, what the hell it's not all a drag. And I'm thinking to myself, jeez, I should stop ruining my life searching for answers I'm never gonna get, and just enjoy it while it lasts. And after who knows, I mean maybe there is something, nobody really knows. I know maybe is a very slim reed to hang your whole life on, but that's the best we have.
  • Babies Ever After: In the last lines of the film, Holly tells Mickey that she's pregnant.
  • Bad Date: Mickey and Holly had a date so bad "it was like the Nuremburg Trials".
    Mickey: We did everything except exchange gunshots!
  • Betty and Veronica: Hannah and Lee for Elliot.
  • Bitch in Sheep's Clothing: April. She and Holly are friends but end up in constant competition with each other over auditions and men. Since April always seems to come out on top, Holly starts to see April as conniving.
    • Lee, in a subtle way. Their mother says she worships Hannah, but she ultimately becomes the mistress to Hannah's husband, highlighting the hidden resentment both Lee and Holly have towards Hannah, despite all their love and respect for her.
  • Bittersweet Ending: All the parties get a happy ending, but the love triangle is still a bit sad. Despite a shared love, Elliot and Lee don't wind up with each other due to him being unable to leave Hannah and her meeting someone else while he stalled to end his marriage. Meanwhile, Hannah never finding out about the affair helps keep all three happy, but there's still the question of whether it's better that she remain blissfully unaware or would it be better if she knew the truth but was hurt by it.
  • Book Ends: The film both begins and ends with a Thanksgiving dinner party at Hannah's apartment.
  • Bungled Suicide: Mickey, despairing over the meaninglessness of life, tries to shoot himself with a rifle. Just as he squeezes the trigger, the gun slips and misfires because he was so anxious and sweaty.
  • But I Can't Be Pregnant!: Mickey was diagnosed as infertile years before the events in the film but by the end his new wife Holly is pregnant.
  • The Cameo: Sam Waterson as David and Tony Roberts as Norman.
  • Cannot Tell a Joke: Though we never see any evidence of it, Holly falls under this category by her own admission.
    Holly: I can't believe I said that about the Guggenheim. My stupid rollerskating joke. I should never tell jokes. Mom can tell 'em. And Hannah. But I kill 'em.
  • Casting Gag: Tony Roberts in a cameo as Mickey's ex-sitcom writing partner.
  • Crisis of Faith: Mickey begins to feel that life is meaningless and spends nearly a year researching different religions to help answer his questions about the afterlife.
  • The Cynic: Frederick. All of his comments about the state of society and culture reflect his very dark attitude towards humanity and life in general.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Frederick. Mickey has his moments as well.
  • Desperately Looking for a Purpose in Life: The Central Theme, as all of the characters to one degree or another are unhappy or are a mess because they don't know what they really want out of life. Holly is the most obvious example, as someone who has no idea what she wants and self-medicates with drugs, while Mickey is obsessed with the afterlife.
  • Did You Think I Can't Feel?: Hannah questions Elliot about his coldness toward her. After having nearly everyone tell her she's so "giving", Hannah wonders if people think she has no needs.
    Hannah: I have needs!
    Elliot: Well, I can't see them and neither can Lee or Holly!
  • Epic Tracking Shot:
    • The entire breakup between Lee and Frederick was a single shot. If that weren't enough, the scene went so well the camera crew were in tears.
    • During a dinner between all three sisters, the camera does an arc pan several times during the subtext-filled conversation between the trio.
  • Eternal Recurrence: During Mickey's Crisis of Faith, and has been looking up philosophers about the afterlife, and brings up the Trope Namer, and finds no comfort in it.
    Mickey: Great, that means I'll have to watch Ice Capades again.
  • Failed Audition Plot: Holly auditions for several acting gigs but never manages to get a role. She doesn't take rejection well and struggles with her self-confidence because of it.
  • Falling-in-Love Montage: Played with. Mickey and Holly walk through the park, go out for lunch, and plan a dinner date. Nothing cheesy, just natural conversation and flirting.
  • Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling: Holly and Hannah, with Lee falling somewhere in between them.
  • Freudian Trio: Holly (Id), Lee (Ego), Hannah (Superego). Mickey (Id), Ellliot (Ego), Frederick (Superego).
  • Functional Addict: Holly walked the line between functional and not. She was addicted to cocaine and had issues with depression but she didn't seem to be a lost cause. She recovered before losing control completely.
  • The Glorious War of Sisterly Rivalry: Lee and Holly both feel overshadowed by Hannah's successes. Holly lashes out at Hannah because of this while Lee keeps it inside and ends up having an affair with Hannah's husband.
  • Guilt Complex: Lee starts siding with Hannah because she's having an affair with her husband. Holly is shocked by her seemingly sudden reversal.
  • Hands-Off Parenting: Hannah says that her parents "loved the idea of having us kids but the idea of raising us didn't interest them much".
  • Happy Ending: Especially when compared to other Woody Allen films. Mickey and Holly are Happily Married and expecting a child. Elliot rediscovers how much he loves Hannah and she never finds out about his affair with Lee. And Lee ends up Happily Married herself to a literature professor.
  • Happily Failed Suicide: Related to Bungled Suicide. After the gun misfires, Mickey walks aimlessly around town all day and eventually stops at a movie theater. While watching a Marx Brothers film, Mickey comes to the realization that life is worth living for such things.
  • Happily Married: By the end of the film, this is true for Mickey and Holly and Lee and the unnamed literature professor. Presumably, it's also true for Hannah and Elliot.
  • Hollywood Atheist: Averted. Mickey starts to think life is meaningless if he can't believe in God, but realizes that life is worth living for itself.
  • Homage: Allen stated the film was a tribute to Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya.
  • I Didn't Mean to Turn You On: Lee's initial reaction to Elliot's Anguished Declaration of Love.
  • I Was Quite a Looker: Norma, the mother of the sisters, was a very attractive actress in her day. Hannah, Evan, and Norma herself comment on it. Hannah also states her father was "so dashing."
  • Induced Hypochondria: At even the slightest suggestion, Mickey becomes paranoid that he's deathly ill. The real possibility of having a brain tumor almost drives him over the edge. Played with as Mickey knows he's a hypochondriac, and talks about his father being an even bigger one.
  • Inner Monologue: Each of the main characters gets a chance to narrate their inner thoughts at certain points. Elliot and Mickey monologue the most.
  • Instant Book Deal: Holly writes two scripts: one that gets set aside because Hannah was upset at how much the characters resembled her family and a second one that gets produced because of Mickey's support.
  • Insufferable Genius: Frederick. However, it's his negativity that finally forces Lee to break up with him.
  • Ivy League for Everyone: Unfocused, thirty-something Lee ends up taking classes at Columbia.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Frederick may be arrogant and self-absorbed, but his comments about the shallowness of mass entertainment and consumer culture are generally accurate.
  • Jewish Mother: Mickey's mother has a fit when he tells her he wants to covert to Catholicism.
  • Law of Inverse Fertility: A rare gender-flipped version. When he was married to Hannah, Mickey was told he was infertile (though not sterile). Years later, Mickey marries Holly and she surprises him at Thanksgiving by telling him that she's pregnant.
  • Lethal Diagnosis: Mickey's absolute worst fear. His hypochondria and paranoia reach an all time high when he starts worrying that he might have a brain tumor.
  • Love Dodecahedron: Yes. Elliot is married to Hannah but is secretly in love with her sister Lee. Lee is living with Frederick, a disaffected painter. Hannah once tried to set up her ex-husband Mickey with her youngest sister Holly but that turned out to be a disaster. Holly has eyes for an architect named David but he prefers her friend April.
  • Male Gaze: The very opening lines of the film are a POV shot of Elliot staring at Lee, talking about how sexy she is in her grey sweather.
    Elliot: When she squeezed past me at the doorway and I smelt that perfume on the back of her neck... Jesus, I-I thought I was gonna swoon!
  • No Name Given: We never learn any of the main characters' surnames.
  • Off the Wagon: Hannah helps her mother sober up after she starts drinking excessively again.
  • One True Love: Mickey has a disastrous marriage with Hannah but then a happier one with her sister Holly. Note the distinction with Hannah's second husband Elliot, who has a secret affair with Hannah's other sister, Lee, but realizes it was a terrible idea.
  • The Oner: The long breakup scene between Lee and Frederick is a single shot.
  • Public Exposure: Lee tells Elliot that she posed nude for some of Fredrick's sketches. He gets a little hot under the collar when he sees them hanging in Lee's apartment later.
  • Roman à Clef: An In-Universe example. Both of Holly's scripts are clearly taken from events in her own life. So much so that it upsets Hannah how much the characters resemble her own family.
  • Rule of Three: There are three sisters, three Thanksgiving dinner parties, and three doctor visits before Mickey finds out he does not have a brain tumor.
  • Self-Abuse:
    Hannah: Could you have ruined yourself somehow?
    Mickey: How could I ruin myself?
    Hannah: I don't know. Excessive masturbation?
    Mickey: You gonna start knockin' my hobbies?
  • Shrinking Violet: Played with in Holly's case. She isn't shy but she is very neurotic and insecure.
  • Sibling Triangle: Elliot is married to Hannah but is in love with her sister Lee. A second triangle materializes in the end. Hannah's ex-husband Mickey marries Hannah's younger sister Holly. But Hannah was the one who tried to match them up in the first place so there's no conflict there.
  • Slice of Life: While the film never focuses on a particular character, we get a good picture of how each of them lives.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: Hannah's father Evan, whom her mother calls an "expensive haircut" masquerading as an actor.
  • Spiritual Successor: Frasier took its cues from the film, right down to the upper-middle-class families, Freudian subtexts, snappy banter, and white-on-black episodic title cards.