Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)


This superb light comedy is Woody Allen’s best movie, a period piece more than holding up because it is likely a movie more precious than ever, ageless through the twenty-seven years since its release (that sure sign), a sentimental, idealized and largely affirming drama about the lives of a few New York City archetypes–theater people, showbiz people, financial people, lost Broadway dreamers–near the end of the twentieth century. It’s not really New York; it’s finally a sheltered dear place, Allen’s Eden, his Best of All Possible Worlds, that preserves a lovely dream of life in a dreamed New York. It is a still-beautiful paradaisical world, but one echoing of departing grandeur, one in decline, one fading, as Hannah and Her Sisters opens. The real heroes, mainly ghosts who haunt this dying spellbinding world after having created it in the 1920s to the 1950s in their music, are composers and performers of the Great American Song Book, its engrossing pages slowly turning in the Golden Age of Broadway Musicals, the Last of the Still Live Performers closing the show in Hannah to include the swinging, rousing big bands of Harry James and Count Basie, the bracing mambo jazz of Hilton Ruiz and, holding forth all those years at his Steinway in the Cafe Carlyle, the late great Bobby Short singing Rogers and Hart, Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, Burke and Van Heusen, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin and the other (K)Nights of the Sound Table in those idyllic days: Bobby, a great stylist, let the wonders of the music speak for themselves.

Put otherwise: Allen gives us the Dreamy New York Showtime Musical Culture dramatized by Allen’s enchanted life within it with its thrilling musical score made up of Broadway Blockbusters and Variety Chartbusters and of the improvisational homages thereto by the Downbeat and Metronome jazz angels bringing eternal life to Allen’s music score composed by the Great Dead.

Hannah and Her Sisters is much purer and likely to prevail than Neil Simon’s fine comedies about the same world, his peak such drama probably being The Sunshine Boys.

Looking back over Allen’s uneven movie-making, you have to think that in Hannah and Her Sisters everything comes together and works. Hannah seems a clue to the problems in most of the too-many movies by Allen: He hasn’t changed his dream; but perhaps New York, his New York, is the only place where all lines up for him. Many of his other movies are failed impositions, worlds that he could never have made into the Best One.

Hannah and Her Sisters will carry you far from Dread History, though as a matter of Benign Neglect or Merciful Omission.

It will carry you from the ordinary travails, the daily blues of regret, Allen allows into his refuge, and largely as a matter of Immersion, or perhaps better Baptisim, in the music of the period Allen reveres.

Allen makes sure here. He stages the telling moments in Hannah and Her Sisters, the essence of the movie, in one inspired short scene that is a perfect story unto itself, a marvel of a central incident: Lloyd Nolan and Maureen O’Sullivan, superb as Hannah’s parents, Evan and Norma, New York stage and TV veterans with hit shows to their credit in the Olden Days of the Great Broadway Musical in the 1930s to the 1950s (and now doing commercials), who have had many rocky times, have a signature reconciliation staged in their Manhattan apartment where they have one of their periodic lacerating spats about their younger days of alcohol and philandering and petty jealousies about each other’s talent, yet one in which Evan settles matters by going to a piano in their apartment and playing the Rogers and Hart ballad, “You Are Too Beautiful,” whereupon the gorgeous, stirring music, a beautiful nostalgia in itself (“Do you remember this?” Evan asks a becalmed Norma), restores a cherished sense to the up-and-down sweep of their lives together.

Perhaps it was an inspiration of Allen’s during shooting, for it has the sense of a last-minute grafting onto the storyline, but Allen reinforces his nostalgic, gentle magic about the New York Dream Life with a slow meditation on New York City architectural wonders, a tasteful tour conducted by Sam Waterston as an architectural prominent who appears at a party and afterwards gives the tour for the benefit of one of Hannah’s sisters and a friend of hers.

Every main character in Hannah and Her Sisters gives a memorable performance: Especially Dianne Wiest, Michael Caine, Nolan, Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey and, in a brief clinic on great acting, Max von Sydow.  Caine, in the flustered first moments of his confession on a ragged New York street of his forbidden love for his wife’s sister (Hershey), is peerless.


Here, from the original score of Hannah and Her Sisters, is the solo piano rendition of “You Are Too Beautiful.” You will hear British pianist Dereck Smith’s fine solo piano version that Lloyd Nolan “plays” in Allen’s movie; note that Smith’s version has also been used subsequently in a late reissue of a Chaplin movie:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8IShzxmRWEc&list=PL-otyZu3OaU9LxuRZ2baJoCMyLfbOp2dZ&index=8

And here is the wonderful Bobby Short playing and singing Cole Porter’s 1934 song, “Miss Otis Regrets”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gMLjkIbDid8

Here is the mamba jazz of Hilton Ruiz which is bracing after some very bad rock and roll sounds which offend Allen: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bAtilaUUdVs