(USA 1986 105m) DVD1/2
E.E.Cummings, page 112
p Robert Greenhut d/w Woody Allen ph Carlo di Palma ed Susan E.Morse m various art Stuart Wurtzel
Woody Allen (Mickey Sachs), Mia Farrow (Hannah), Michael Caine (Elliot), Dianne Wiest (Holly), Carrie Fisher (April), Barbara Hershey (Lee), Lloyd Nolan (Evan), Maureen O’Sullivan (Norma), Max Von Sydow (Frederick), Daniel Stern (Dusty), Sam Waterston (David Tolchin), Tony Roberts, Julie Kavner, J.T.Walsh, John Turturro,
As soon as one sees those plain white credits on a black background accompanied by instrumental versions of old ditties we know we’re back in Woody territory. To be honest, his directly previous run of films, from A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy through Zelig, Broadway Danny Rose and The Purple Rose of Cairo were quite underwhelming. But perhaps they were necessary steps on the way to this, his third – and to date last – masterpiece, seven years after his second, Manhattan. Like all his best films, it’s a homage and love letter to so many things, a nod to everything from Bergman to Chekhov, and a billet doux to his beloved Manhattan. Its intricate, delicately plotted narrative is worthy of Dickens, let alone Chekhov, but its depiction of a close-knit family and their overlapping love affairs is quite delicious, if faintly incestuous when analysed in full. A film summed up perfectly by Barry Norman as “not exactly a comedy, but a very funny drama.”
Around thanksgiving time a family gathers together. Hannah is the talented ex-actress daughter of Evan and Norma, the former the patient husband to a self-absorbed alcoholic wife. Hannah is married to Elliot, a successful financial adviser, who in turn is becoming obsessed with Hannah’s sister Lee. Hannah’s ex-husband Mickey is a supreme hypochondriac who still visits Hannah to see their children, but has problems finding a partner. Finally there’s Holly, a neurotic drug addict who also struggles to hold onto a man and who has stifled ambitions to be a writer.
It’s probably fair to say that Allen never again so successfully managed such an eclectic cast, in which the entire ensemble is note perfect. Before we even come onto the leads, what about Von Sydow’s cynical, self-obsessed artist, Waterston’s opera-loving architect, O’Sullivan (Farrow’s real-life mother) as the lush matron, Nolan as her long-suffering husband, Marge Simpson herself – Julie Kavner – as Allen’s assistant, and Fisher’s pretentious friend who’ll do anything to impress a man? To which we must add Farrow, a martyr figure to end them all who doesn’t realise her own seeming infallibility. All her family members appreciate her being the rock on which their lives are built, but who resent it at the same time; her seeming to need so little in return for giving them so much. It’s certainly her best performance in Woody’s films. She is matched by another Woody favourite Wiest, in her first of two Oscar-winning turns for the Woodster, hysterical in certain scenes with Holly (think of her snorting up in a classy Manhattan nightspot and Allen’s retorting “do you carry a kilo around in your pocket?”). Allen himself is not too much to the fore, staying rather on the fringes, but for all his trademark hypochondria, Mickey is one of his more genuine characters, personified in his eager listening to Wiest’s reading of her written piece and ensuing praise. Somehow, though, it’s Caine you remember most, this bumbling delusional fool, realising the impossibility of his affair with his sister-in-law (“easy, you’re a financial adviser, it doesn’t look good for you to swoon”), his tongue-tied attempts at being casual in the book store (“I read a poem of you and though of his”). Add to this di Palma’s lovely almost picture-card shots of Manhattan and Morse’s memorable montages set to the tunes of Kern, Porter and Rodgers and Hart and you are in dreamland. How is it possible not to love a film where, after a hysterical aborted suicide, Allen rushes into a movie theatre and puts the world in its rational context after watching Duck Soup? Or one which gives Nolan the chance to play ‘Isn’t it Romantic?’ as his last moment on film (he died before its release)? “We all had a terrific time” reads the first caption. Indeed we did and always will.