HANNAH AND HER SISTERS (1986) is one of Woody Allen’s most acclaimed and commercially successful movies — which is exactly why he has always treated it with apprehension. To Allen, the more popular a movie is, the more he suspects that he failed to make it challenging enough. But perhaps he doesn’t give his audience enough credit.
HANNAH was actually an especially difficult film for Allen to begin with. The story’s multiple storylines and numerous characters proved difficult to balance correctly. Unsatisfied with his original cut, Allen gathered the cast again and re-shot 80% of the footage. While he’s been known to do significant re-shoots on other films, this was a large amount even by his standards. (It wasn’t a record, however: a year later, he would completely scrap his first filmed version of September and re-shoot it from scratch with a new cast.)
The film’s treatment of three sisters (Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey and Dianne Wiest), their significant others, their parents and romantic entanglements is intricate. In fact, as Dennis Bartok (former programmer for the American Cinematheque) explained in his introductory remarks on Saturday, “this is probably Woody Allen’s richest and most complex study of family dynamics both on and off screen.”
Off screen, of course, Allen and Farrow were in a relationship. Farrow agreed to let Allen shoot the scenes set in her character’s apartment in Farrow’s actual apartment. A number of Farrow’s real-life children appear in the film. And Allen cast Maureen O’Sullivan, Farrow’s real-life mother, as her movie mother. At first both actresses were against it, with Farrow claiming that the parts were written as “self-indulgent and dissolute in predictable ways.” O’Sullivan was “stunned” by the script (in a bad way!), and caused Farrow to see “how [Allen] had taken many of the personal circumstances and themes of our lives, and, it seemed, had distorted them into cartoonish characterizations.” But Allen re-wrote the script and softened the characters, and both Farrow and O’Sullivan then came on board.
The three male leads are played by Michael Caine, Max von Sydow, and Allen, who debated which of the roles he wanted to play himself, for he felt a strong kinship to all three. In the end, he chose the character of Mickey, a hypochondriac. But it is Michael Caine, as Elliot, who is married to Farrow but in love with Hershey, who is at the story’s core. Dennis Bartok explained that off screen, it had been Caine who originally brought Allen and Farrow together romantically — adding yet another element of fact and fiction blurring together.
Allen has said that his main problem with HANNAH is the ending. According to a biography by Richard Schickel, Allen explained, “The original ending was supposed to be that Caine ends up with Hannah as a second choice to Hannah’s sister, who has married someone else. He is despondent but goes back to Hannah and is perpetually glum and depressed, and doomed to see the sister at family parties, and stuck with second choice for life… It was such a downer. It was like the picture just fell off the table. And so I had to put a more upbeat ending on the picture, because I just had not justified that level of Chekovian sorrow.”
Audiences certainly liked the happier ending. And the Academy recognized it with seven Oscar nominations and two wins, for Caine and Wiest. The picture certainly played well in this year’s family-in-the-movies themed festival.
Final interesting fact from Bartok: Farrow’s role was first offered to Kim Basinger (whom I find very hard to imagine in the part), but Basinger turned it down to do 9 1/2 Weeks instead.