Hannah and Her Sisters is a 1986 American comedy-drama film which tells the intertwined stories of an extended family over two years that begin and end with a family Thanksgiving dinner. The film was written and directed by Woody Allen, who stars along with Mia Farrow as Hannah, Michael Caine as her husband, and Barbara Hershey and Dianne Wiest as her sisters.
The film's ensemble cast also includes Carrie Fisher, Maureen O'Sullivan, Lloyd Nolan, Max von Sydow, and Julie Kavner. Daniel Stern, Richard Jenkins, Fred Melamed, Lewis Black, Joanna Gleason, John Turturro, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus all have minor roles, as do Tony Roberts and Sam Waterston, who have uncredited cameo appearances. Several of Farrow's children, including a pre-adolescent Soon-Yi Previn, have credited and uncredited roles, mostly as Thanksgiving extras.
The film was for a long time Allen's biggest box office hit, without adjusting for inflation, with a North American gross of US$41 million. Adjusted for inflation it falls behind Annie Hall andManhattan, and possibly also one or two of his early comedies. Midnight in Paris recently surpassed Hannah and her Sisters' box office. Hannah and Her Sisters won Academy Awards forBest Original Screenplay and for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress, the first film to win both supporting actor awards since Julia in 1977, nearly nine years before, and the last until The Fighter over two decades later.
The story is told in three main arcs, with almost all of it occurring during a 24-month period beginning and ending at Thanksgiving parties hosted by Hannah (Mia Farrow) and her husband, Elliot (Michael Caine). Hannah serves as the stalwart hub of the narrative; her own story as a successful actress (a recent success as Nora in A Doll's House) is somewhat secondary, but most of the events of the film connect to her.
An adulterous romance between Elliot and one of Hannah's sisters, Lee (Barbara Hershey), provides the main romantic entanglement of the film. Elliot attributes this to his discontent with his wife's self-sufficiency and resentment of her emotional strength. Lee has lived for five years with a reclusive artist, Frederick (Max von Sydow), who is much older. She finds her relationship with Frederick no longer intellectually or sexually stimulating, in spite of (or maybe because of) Frederick's professed interest in continuing to teach her. She leaves Frederick, much to his sorrow, after he discovers (through intuition) her affair with Elliot. For the remainder of the year between the first and second Thanksgiving gatherings, Elliot and Lee carry on their affair despite Elliot's lingering inability to end his marriage to Hannah. Lee finally ends the affair during the second Thanksgiving, explaining that she is finished waiting for him to commit and that she has started dating someone else.
Mickey (Woody Allen), as both the former husband of Hannah and the eventual husband of Holly, is shown primarily in scenes outside of the primary story. All of the scenes that take place outside of the 24-month period of the primary story involve flashbacks from Mickey's previous marriage to Hannah, Hannah and Mickey's struggle with infertility, his subsequent role as a surrogate father to Hannah's children, and his first date with Hannah's sister Holly (Dianne Wiest). Aside from these flashback scenes, Mickey is depicted within the timeline of the main story dealing with hypochondria, his professional and creative conflicts in the television industry, and an existential crisis that leads to unsatisfying experiments with religious conversion toCatholicism and an interest in Krishna Consciousness. Ultimately, an unsuccessful suicide attempt leads him to find meaning in his life after unexpectedly viewing the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup (part of the 'joyous' declaration of war sequence is featured) in a movie theater. The revelation that life should be enjoyed, rather than understood, helps to prepare him for a second date with Holly, which this time blossoms quickly (and mostly off-screen) into love and marriage.
Holly's story is the film's third main arc. A former cocaine addict who is depicted as the more insecure and least talented of the three sisters, she's an unsuccessful actress who shifts from one career aspiration to another in order to find success. After borrowing money from Hannah, she starts a catering business with April (Carrie Fisher), a friend and fellow actress. Holly and April end up as rivals in auditions for parts in Broadway musicals, as well as for the affections of an architect they are each attracted to (Sam Waterston). Holly abandons the catering business after the romance with the architect fails and decides to try her hand at writing. The career change forces her once again to borrow money from Hannah, a dependency Hannah perhaps welcomes and Holly resents. She writes a script inspired by Hannah and Elliot, which greatly upsets Hannah. It is suggested that much of the script involved personal details of Hannah and Elliot's marriage that had been conveyed to Holly through Lee (having been transmitted first from Elliot). Although this threatens to expose the affair between Elliot and Lee, Elliot soon disavows disclosing any such details. Holly then sets aside her script due to Hannah's objections, and instead writes a story inspired by her own life, which Mickey reads and admires greatly, vowing to help her get it produced and leading to their second date.
A minor arc in the film tells part of the story of Norma and Evan (played by Maureen O'Sullivan, Mia Farrow's actual mother, and Lloyd Nolan, who were both in Never Too Late 20 years earlier). They are the parents of Hannah and her two sisters, and still have acting careers of their own. Their own tumultuous marriage revolves around Norma's alcoholism and alleged affairs, however, the long-term bond between them is evident in Evan's flirtatious anecdotes about Norma while playing piano at the Thanksgiving gatherings.
By the time of the film's third Thanksgiving, Lee has married someone she met while taking classes at Columbia, meanwhile Hannah and Elliot have reconciled their marriage. The film's final shot reveals that Holly has now married Mickey and that she is pregnant.
Part of the film's structure and background is borrowed from Ingmar Bergman's Fanny and Alexander. In both films, a large theatrical family gather for three successive year's celebrations (Thanksgiving in Allen's film, Christmas in Bergman's). The first of each gathering is in a time of contentment, the second in a time of trouble, and the third showing what happens after the resolution of the troubles. The sudden appearance of Mickey's reflection behind Holly's in the closing scene also parallels the apparition behind Alexander of the Bishop's ghost.
Hannah and Her Sisters opened on February 7, 1986 in 54 theatres, where it gained a stellar $1,265,826 ($23,441 per screen) in its opening weekend. When it expanded to 761 theatres on March 14, it garnered a respectable $2,707,966 ($3,809 per screen). it went on to gross $40,084,041 in the US (including a re-release the following year), and remains one of the highest-grossing Woody Allen movies.
Hannah and Her Sisters has a 'fresh' 93% Rotten Tomatoes rating and an average score of 8.4/10 based on the reviews of 42 critics. It also has a 90/100 weighted average score on Metacritic, which translates to "universal critical acclaim". The film received seven Academy Award nominations including Best Picture. Woody Allen received two Academy Award nominations, winning one for Best Screenplay, Original and he earned a nomination for Best Director. His work on the film was also recognized with two BAFTA Awards.
Michael Caine and Dianne Wiest won Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress, for their portrayals of Elliot and Holly, respectively. Hannah and Her Sisters was the last film to win in both supporting acting categories until The Fighter in 2011. The film was also Oscar-nominated for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration and Best Film Editing.
In France, the film was nominated for a César Award for Best Foreign Film.
Critics Siskel and Ebert each rated the film among the top three of the 1986 film year; Ebert's 1986 review of the film called it "the best movie [Woody Allen] has ever made." Vincent Canby, of the New York Times, gave the film a highly favorable review, going as far as to say that it "sets new standards for Mr. Allen as well as for all American movie makers."