Thanksgiving special: Hannah and Her Sisters
By Evelio Zavala
In my opinion, Hannah and Her Sisters is the best Thanksgiving movie. Ever. None really come as close to Woody Allen’s 1986 classic. But to be fair, how many films are you quick to associate with the holiday? And which of them are good? Yes, I know taste is subjective, but bear with me.
If I had to think off the top of my head about good movies set during the holiday, they would be John Hughes’s 1987 buddy comedy Planes, Trains and Automobiles, Ang Lee’s 1997 dysfunctional family drama The Ice Storm, and, a more recent example, Trey Edward Shults’s 2015 directorial debut film Krisha. But these aren’t films readily apparent that we normally associate with the holiday. (Well, maybe Planes, but we’ll get into that.)
When Thanksgiving comes, we are often expressing, whether intentionally or not, these ideas: family, love, hope, the meaning of life, mortality, and, yes, gratitude. We are thankful for a lot of things, but rarely do we see a film fully personify these concepts.
Hannah and Her Sisters accomplishes this by telling the stories of, well, Hannah (played by Mia Farrow) and her sisters over the course of three Thanksgiving dinners. Only, this isn’t told linearly, or even restricted to just the siblings, but rather those associated with the three sisters. There’s Elliot, Hannah’s husband, (played by Michael Caine, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for this film) who has a crush on Lee, Hannah’s sister (played by Barbara Hershey). So the film is about an affair? Well, no. Because the film has several conflicts, there is no real main character, just a select group of characters. There’s Mickey, Hannah’s first husband (played by Woody Allen), a hypochondriac, who believes he’s dying but soon realizes, after his fears of a false tumor are gone, his life has no greater meaning beyond his time in the present. So the film is about a man searching for the meaning of life? Again, not exactly. There’s Hannah’s other sister Holly (played by Dianne Wiest, who also won an Oscar for this film for Best Supporting Actress), who might be the most complicated character in a Woody Allen film who wasn’t played by Woody Allen. She tries her hands at being an actress, then working with her friend in starting a catering business (the Stanislavski Catering Company, a cheeky name for an actor), trying out for musicals, before settling as a writer, but not before penning a play essentially about Hannah and their lives. And that's not to mention she's a recovering cocaine addict.
So…what is the film about then? In fact, with several storylines intersecting with one another, what is Allen trying to say?
What I forgot to mention is how Allen wrote this dense script, composed of episode vignettes and affording us voice-overs from these characters. We hear their thoughts, their frustrations, their plans, their insecurities, even flashbacks and imagined scenarios.
Hannah is often so independent and giving, others believe she has no needs and wants nothing in return. She has to help her sister Holly whenever she can, be it some money for the catering company or classes to be a writer, even helping her with dates by setting her up with Mickey—where their first date ends horribly, equally as tragic as it is humorous.
Elliot often lusts over Lee, while being timid and unsure about what he really wants. When Lee reciprocates, it causes a fallout with her relationship with Frederick (played by Max von Sydow).
Holly is holding onto something better and desperately trying to find herself and what makes her happy, even if it means constantly humiliating herself or getting humiliated.
Mickey begins looking for answers. He experiences a severe case of an existential crisis (although, it is Woody Allen). Mickey may be a successful TV writer, but what does he have to show for it? Hannah left him when the couple learned Mickey was infertile. He constantly worries about nothing (again, probably just Allen). Soon, Mickey tests other religions, hoping for some kind of proof in an afterlife or at least some kind of certainty.
Allen's screenplay (which earned him his second Oscar for Best Original Screenplay) gives us two years to follow their lives closely and see how their actions affect everyone. Whether it’s Elliot causing a strain on his own marriage thus hurting Hannah’s relationship with her sisters, or Holly constantly being aimless and feeling like she’s never going to meet anybody’s expectations, or even Lee waiting on Elliot to follow through on his advances and stop wasting their time.
In Hughes’s film Planes, Trains and Automobiles, we get a similar taste of stress when Steve Martin’s character is forced to make the trip to Chicago with John Candy. Although it is primarily a comedy, both characters understand they need each other in order to make the trip, but it’s Martin who realizes that after all that Candy has done, Candy has nowhere to go. It is through the journey, Martin learns to be compassionate and considerate of Candy, grateful for he’s done and thankful for being able to have a family to come home to during the holidays.
Allen’s film is the same, but touches on all I mentioned.
Hannah puts up with a lot, especially with her own parents, played by Maureen O’Sullivan (Mia Farrow’s own mother) and Lloyd Nolan (who passed away a year before the film’s premiere), but still holds her family close to home, grateful for the small moments of sanity she maintains and brings. Even with Holly, always willing to help, even if Holly fails. But no matter what, her sister will be there for her.
Elliot realizes he loves Hannah, and while he is too much of a coward to break things off with Lee, she finds another partner and has moved on from the affair (although I would’ve preferred Elliot to get the boot out the door, but life isn’t like the movies, even if we are watching one). He learns to appreciate and love Hannah for who she is and grows from it.
Holly’s hopes are realized when she bumps into Mickey one day, and the two open themselves up to each other: Holly with her play and Mickey by recalling his attempted suicide and how he finally came to an answer about finding meaning in his life.
In one of my favorite scenes, one that even manages to get me out of a depressed episode, is when Mickey goes to watch the film Duck Soup and comes away from finding any meaningful answer.
He thinks, “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. And then I started to sit back, and I actually began to enjoy myself.”
Not long after, the duo go out on a date, get married, and the film ends with Holly telling Mickey she’s pregnant. With death, comes new life. And after hearing this, Mickey can’t help but kiss and hold Holly in a close embrace.
After all the characters have gone through, all the emotions we’ve experienced, they have come out of the dark and into the light. Each character was at their low points and soon pulled through. They’re not begrudged by other’s actions, nor are they dwelling in the past. They’ve moved on, and are grateful for where they are now.
Hannah has a healthy relationship with her sisters, Lee has found love (so has Elliot), Holly has found her calling (and partner), and we are forced to reflect on ourselves. We become thankful for our own lives. We don’t live perfect lives with a perfect beginning, but we strive for a happy ending, thankful we met the right people, have the right people, or simply held onto a “maybe” and it has paid off.
These are my reasons why I think Hannah and Her Sisters is the best Thanksgiving film, and I’m thankful for this film’s existence and what it has given me. And hey, for all the gloom and misery it transpires, it is still a funny movie that leaves you with a smile on your face.
About the writer
Evelio Zavala is an aspiring filmmaker, writer, editor, and playwright. An avid reader, fellow film aficionado, D&D enthusiast, and podcast junkie. He lives in Chicago with his two cats. His one regret in life is he wasn’t born rich. He is studying Media Arts at Chicago State University.