1986 Supporting Actress Smackdown

Friends, I have had an absolutely wonderful time touring through 1986. The films nominated for Supporting Actress? Almost uniformly great, with one glaring exception that’s fully balanced out by the sheer perfection of the lineup’s best entry. The other films I’ve watched this month? Pretty fucking great, with outstanding work across a fantastically wide sample of genres. I only wish I could’ve seen more films. Go check out the Supporting Actress Smackdown, which just went live – each panelist offers a fun, engaging read of the nominated performances, and I look forward to checking out the podcast soon. Browse through my Twitter thread of everything I watched for this retrospective after, why don’t you. And if you didn’t see them earlier, read my write-ups of five incredible, overlooked actresses over at The Film Experience using the links below!

Cathy Tyson in Mona Lisa
Jenette Goldstein in Aliens
Straight Best Friends: Tilda Swinton in Caravaggio, Audra Lindley in Desert Hearts, and Kathy Kinney in Parting Glances

Crimes of the Heart

Tess Harper and Diane Keaton in Crimes of the Heart

A fortuitous movie to watch first, in that Bruce Beresford’s Crimes of the Heart is the worst film nominated in this category. Glad to get that shit out of the way! You can see how Crimes fits snuggly into a lineage of Southern women’s melodramas that garnered the Academy’s attention in the ’80s and early ’90s: Terms of Endearment, Places in the Heart, The Trip to Bountiful, Steel Magnolias, Fried Green Tomatoes, Driving Miss Daisy (which Beresford also directed). I’m probably missing a few titles, to say nothing of how the glorious, unnominated Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean should actually be the standard-bearer all of those films need to measure themselves against. But to contextualize Crimes of the Heart’s nominations does nothing to explain how it’s just the worst, pitched to an unpleasantly shrill pitch in its direction that the weaknesses of the script and cast are flagrantly on display. Maybe Beresford though this would be the best way to power through Beth Henley’s original, overrated play, which she adapted for the film without much alteration. You get the sense Sissy Spacek, Jessica Lange, Diane Keaton, Tess Harper, and Sam Shepherd had a pretty fun time hanging out together onset, but in no way did this translate into any tangible sense of fun for me. I bet you already intuited they all have different Southern accents, but I figured I should say it.

Crimes of the Heart revolves around the Magrath sisters, Lenny (Keaton), Meg (Lange), and Rebecca (Spacek). Rebecca also goes by Babe, and took the name Babe Botrelle when she got married. Babe is currently in jail after shooting her husband in the stomach and leaving him to writhe in pain on the floor of their dining room while she made a nice, tall pitcher of lemonade before she called an ambulance. This little incident has summoned Meg home from an uneven Hollywood career, and back into the interests of former beau Doc Porter (Shepherd, who had recently begun a relationship with Lange that would last until 2009), who’s been married a city girl for several years but may still hold a torch for her. Just like Babe, Lenny has never left home, and chose to dedicate her life to taking care of their sickly grandfather. She’s also entombed herself in premature spinsterhood, fearing no man will love her because she will likely never have children. Lenny’s only source of company besides is the virulently inhospitable and tragically named Chick Boyle (Harper), who has all the misplaced airs of The Help’s Hilly and the bitchiness of Steel Magnolia’s Ouiser without any sense of why someone would put up with her company.

It’s not clear why Babe has shot her husband, and won’t be for about the first half of the film, where we’re asked to treat her sexual relationship with a 15 year old black boy as a quirky escape from a boring life rather than, y’know, a grown woman taking advantage of a minor. Meanwhile, Meg has a moonlit reconnaissance with Doc and Lenny frets that her infertility will keep her loveless forever. Chick sometimes shows up to be abusive and is abused in turn. Most of this never really gets off the ground. For all the mordant themes surrounding its characters, Crimes of the Heart sugar-bakes its story with intolerably saccharine hokeyness. The threat of Babe going to jail is virtually absent when the investigation isn’t the focus of a scene, and the way it’s dealt with is about as repugnantly glib as the inciting incident. It arguably succeeds on whatever shrill, inauthentic wavelength it’s set for itself, but that’s not an argument I want to make, or an achievement worthy of commendation. It’s not an incompetently crafted film, but fulfilling such a misguided vision is hard to appreciate.

Spacek’s the only actress (maybe the only artist in general) who figures out how to give her character a peculiar oddball energy that registers for the camera while matching the text’s broad comedy and edges of suicidal dissatisfaction. She’s a scream as she tells her lawyer the story of shooting her husband, and she finds the right groove to connect with Lange and Keaton as individuals and as a sisterly unit. Lange, burdened with some truly hideous bangs and eyebrows so blonde they either blend into those bangs or don’t actually exist, is most compelling on a metatextual level. Watching Lange decide how much to commit to a co-star, to her own character, to each line of dialogue, is the most interesting tension in her performance, though she comes alive nicely opposite Spacek and Shepherd. Ragging on Harper feels almost cruel, both because her performance is so joylessly repellent to sit with and because the film itself seems to abhor her character. Still, it’s Diane Keaton who earns worst in show honors without really having to fight for it. Her big freak-outs are histrionic even by the film’s misguided standards of human behavior, and her final reconciliation is unearned because Keaton never makes us believe Lenny’s paralyzing anxieties to begin with.

Children of a Lesser God

Piper Laurie and Marlee Matlin in Children of a Lesser God

I thought a lot about direction when watching Children of a Lesser God. This inevitably stems from Randa Haines belonging to an unenviable club of female directors whose films were nominated for Best Picture without receiving a corresponding Best Director citation. Direction is also the overriding source of my problems with Children of a Lesser God, which follows such a tonally rigid structure of the romantic drama that it doesn’t address the immediately recognizable fractures in the romance between deaf janitor Sarah Norman (Marlee Matlin) and the slightly older hearing teacher James Leeds (William Hurt) who’s the newest hire at the deaf private school Sarah works at. James’s romantic pursuit of her is inextricably tied to his interest in teaching her to talk and read lips, in taming and owning this fierce, intelligent woman whose independence he senses is not as stalwart as it seems. Sarah stubbornly refuses to learn lip-reading in the belief that it’s not her obligation to make herself legible to a hearing world that isn’t interested in learning sign language. This refusal is as much a strategy to protect herself from failing and looking ugly before an audience she knows already looks down on her, to say nothing of how entering a relationship with James allows keeps her from sorting out her discontents with her own life and let her pin her unhappiness on someone else.

These dynamics are virtually stated outright in a late-film fight between the couple, and this powerfully staged and acted sequence ultimately feels frustrating because the fault lines they describe are present from the outset of their relationship but aren’t really acknowledged by Haines’s direction. It’s not even clear if the film sees these statements as honest assessments of these character, rather than toxic barbs between lovers in the heat of a destructive argument. There’s a more generous reading of this tension, where Children of a Lesser God vests itself in the wrongheaded romantic ambitions of two people who choose to give it a go anyways. Perhaps Haines wants to ironically emphasize the skeeviness of Hurt’s seduction and Sarah’s acquiescence by filming it so handsomely and scoring it so earnestly (the music is handily my least favorite part of the film). I don’t completely buy this interpretation, but one of Children of a Lesser God’s most unusual strengths is that the foundational problems in James and Sarah’s relationship feel organically incorporated into their dynamic once the film decides to recognize them. The ugliness is as much the point of the story as it is a point of contention for the viewer to gauge. I wish the score was so lopsidedly in favor of their love, but what can you do?

I also thought a lot about Children of a Lesser God as an adaptation, as the original play was one of dozens of plays and books I read in high school and undergrad (back when I regularly read source material) in anticipation of eventually seeing the film. Like Crimes of the Heart, the original playwright was involved in writing the film’s screenplay. Unlike Crimes, the screen adaptation is a noticeably different beast than the play, excising key stage supporting characters and subplots while resizing the roles of Dr. Curtis Franklin (Philip Bosco) and Mrs. Norman (Piper Laurie). All the scenes of James teaching are original creations, while several good zingers made the final cut. I had misremembered the film’s bizarre, Sophie’s Choice/Room-style structure of filtering itself through the male lead’s perspective to justify objectively the female lead’s mysteries, but the play manages to give James and Sarah fairly equal footing in their story. James is still the one addressing the audience and speaking her dialogue, but the play doesn’t operate from his perspective quite like the film does.

Marlee Matlin and William Hurt do impressive character-building in the leading roles, but the filmmaking doesn’t flesh their work out as much as it could. Hurt is ideally cast as a corny/slimy teacher who wants to improve his students but maybe thinks he’s better than they are, someone who can be tender with a lover but also possessive of them like a prized pet. Matlin, a deaf performer making her acting debut (Matlin is still the only deaf performer to win an acting Oscar), reaches even greater heights than Hurt in the film’s later passages. She’s best at carving out Sarah’s bullish self-righteousness without forgoing her contradictory desires, but she’s less assured in the film’s hour. Neither the actress nor the film can fully persuade us why Sarah would give in to James’s badgering. Worse, the blocking frequently makes it difficult to see Matlin’s face and hands while she’s signing. I don’t know why the film kept the play’s conceit of James repeating the words Sarah signs out loud rather than use subtitles for her dialogue (or all of the dialogue), but Children of a Lesser God in its original form is not accessible to deaf viewers.

Piper Laurie’s performance, which might be the best in the film, is certainly the least encumbered by her director. Her inveterate toughness keeps her passages from being too sentimental, and her delicacy with tone and characterization ensures Mrs. Norman isn’t reduced to an origin point for all of her daughter’s neuroses. She’s come to understand how poorly she treated Sarah in her youth, and has neither relinquished her shame nor chosen to wear it for anyone who comes asking about her daughter. I like that her signing is a little rough around the edges, like she’s fallen a bit out of practice but never forgotten the motions (had Mrs. Norman given up on Sarah returning home?). Laurie, without ever showboating, finds more in Mrs. Norman than another actress might have uncovered, layering her scenes and giving her leads a challenging presence to interact with. It’s the kind film-elevating work this category was meant to recognize, and I’m happy she was nominated.

The Color of Money

Paul Newman, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, and Tom Cruise in The Color of Money

In the larger context of Paul Newman and Martin Scorsese’s careers, I understand why The Color of Money doesn’t have a particularly glowing place in the canon. As good as Newman is, his return to the role of “Fast” Eddie Felson isn’t as electrifying as his first outing in The Hustler. The stature endowed by winning the Oscar makes Newman’s largely entertaining star performance look a bit paltry – it’s not up to the high bar set by many of Newman’s unrewarded turns, or by the unusually strong crop of Best Actor nominees and overlooked leading men of 1986. It surely doesn’t help that The Color of Money bears almost no formal or narrative ties to The Hustler, the 1961 classic it’s ostensibly the sequel of, beyond Newman’s character, and could otherwise proceed just fine if the main character was named Freddy Elgarr and played by Roy Scheider.

All that rightly said, and if this precludes The Color of Money from being a snazzy two hours for you, so be it. For me, the film succeeds as a good time that offers plenty of ambitious, low-key pleasures without pretending it’s deeper than it is. Scorsese isn’t straining for import, and his collaborators play around with the sandbox of pool matches and the warring, conspiratorial, surprising personalities that make up the film’s lead trio. We get a quick bit of business establishing who our protagonists are. Eddie Felson (Newman), a retired hustler who’s now the money for up-and-comers in Chicago, takes interest in the arrival of hotshot nine-ball player Vincent (Tom Cruise) and his manager/girlfriend Carmen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). Eddie decides to take the two on as his apprentices: Vincent will learn how to hustle like Eddie used to, and Carmen will learn how to direct him, how to size up opponents and set up their hustles. Eddie proposes to take them to a nine-ball tournament in Atlantic City. The two take some persuading but they’re impressed by Eddie’s hustling skills, and Eddie further goads Vincent by suggesting Carmen will leave him if he doesn’t swim for bigger fish. For his part, Eddie is aroused by the potential in both players, and is eager to get back into the swing of a game he’s long abandoned.

For the first two thirds of its runtime, The Color of Money thrives as a showcase of its three stars playing with and against each other as they travel from Chicago to Atlantic City, hopping from pool hall to pool hall in order to make money. It helps that the matches themselves are so excitingly shot and edited by Michael Ballhaus and Thelma Schoonmaker. We see enough of the actor’s bodies in some shot to assure the audience that yes, that’s really Paul Newman and Tom Cruise making those expert shots. But The Color of Money will forgo showing the players with that level of physical attention, and shapes its cutting, shooting, and soundtracking rhythms to evoke the tangible energy of the pool games, be it a dominating, victorious hot streak, or the draining shame of losing a match, either because you’re purposely throwing it or because the other guy is just better than you are. It’s stylish as hell, and keeps finding new ways to surprise us from game to game.

The craftspeople have as much fun with these showcase set pieces as they do teasing our expectations of relatively simple scenes. I love the first scene of the movie, following the moody prologue narrated by Scorsese himself. Ballhaus’s camera pans down a bar, traveling over shining bourbon glasses, lit cigarettes, and a pile of twenty dollar bills as Eddie talks up some alcohol filler he’s peddling to an unseen party. We follow his silver-ringed hand as he lifts up a shot glass to the lips of a gorgeous woman (Helen Shaver, the star of Desert Hearts), and then Ballhaus turns to Newman’s face, as handsomely aged as any wine. It’s only after the shot ends that we realize the woman is the joint’s bartender, and that the pool hall they’re in is riding a decorous edge of looking just nice enough to reveal they aren’t especially high class – why else have arcade games? I’m impressed with the different atmospheres Ballhaus endows each of these spaces, taking advantage of the different glares of artificial versus natural lighting, all clouded in cigarette smoke. Boris Leven and Karen O’Hara’s deservedly nominated production design deserve equal credit for giving each pool hall and dive bar and hotel such distinct textures in decor, scale, architecture, and class.

All of these technical pleasures hold even when the film dips in quality. Scorsese and Newman can’t give Eddie’s crisis of confidence the pathos it needs, meaning a suddenly fun movie has to show its lead moping around and getting himself into shape before entering the climatic nine-ball tournament he was originally driving Vincent to. Their inevitable, climactic game isn’t quite the showdown plenty of sports films muster, though perhaps the length of your average pool game isn’t as hospitable to that sort of confrontation. And yet, the film follows this match with an unexpected gut-punch, one that might have hit harder if Cruise was operating at Newman’s level. Cruise’s Vincent falls somewhere in a continuum of blank, handsome whiteness like Kyle McLaughlin in Blue Velvet and Charlie Sheen in Platoon: he’s attuned to the film’s vibe, but there’s not really an arc happening despite everything telling us Vincent is responding to Eddie’s teachings, even if he’s not listening to Eddie. Far more rewarding is Forest Whittaker’s boisterous, single-scene performance as a pool player whose friendly match with Eddie ends with him hustling the old man blind.

He nearly swipes The Color of Money for himself, and easily would have if not for Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio’s potent, insinuating performance as Carmen. Mastrantonio takes a largely silent, observant character and makes her watchfulness more engaging than any pool game, without mistaking that watchfulness for being blank or colorless. Her posture during matches looks so relaxed she might as well be day dreaming, yet every flicker of her eyes is alive and focused. Her face is incredibly expressive when she allows it to be. Best of all is the way Mastrantonio shows Carmen is always watching, studying, and reacting to what Eddie and Vincent are doing without indicating what exactly she is taking away from them, or what she thinks of their actions. Carmen is always her own person, rather than an audience surrogate, and this leaves the door open to some fascinating questions. How much is Carmen learning from Eddie? What does she store away, and what’s discarded? Is their first appearance in Eddie’s pool hall one long con to get her and Vincent to Atlantic City? Or is she flying by the seat of her pants? Is she trying to seduce Eddie, or does she not take him seriously enough to close the door after she gets out of the shower? Mastrantonio creates the film’s most exciting character by making the blanks in her biography charismatic as all fuck, while still meeting the demands of her scenes and creating a specific, compelling, not entirely readable person. She doesn’t conspicuously chart an arc from novice to expert, but leaves room for us to speculate her skill, reveling in her victories and tripping with her when she blunders. There’s simply no better show in The Color of Money than watching her face and gait as she slouches in a chair, and if that’s not actressing on the edges, I don’t know what is.

A Room With a View

Helena Bonham Carter and Maggie Smith in A Room With a View

I had an absolutely wonderful time with A Room With a View. I expect I’ll like it even more on rewatch, even if I have to wonder why I didn’t like it now the way I’m predicting future me will. Maybe I’ll simply remain at this precipice of loving it without going all the way. This might also be a simple case of “I read the book before watching the film and that has, to whatever degree, impacting how I watched it”, although I want to stress any dissonance between the version of this story in my head and the version that Esmail Merchant, James Ivory, and Ruth Prawler Jhablava isn’t an inherent knock against the film. On the contrary, the first shots of the Italian countryside are breathtaking. Tony Pierce-Roberts’s cinematography has a knack for showing off the beauty that A Room With a View’s characters constantly seek out while showing exactly how they relate to it, be it towering history to be studied or a jewel-green field to steal a kiss in or a dank little room with a view of a cramped, sunless alleyway. The look of the film is exquisite, without prettying up some character’s lack of money. Everyone is fantastically tailored, even if they’re fairly ridiculous people. Sometimes the period literary drama copping the costume and set design prizes at the Oscars can feel like leaning on defaults, but it’s richly earned here.

In a similar vein, it’s a treat to finally see these characters in the flesh. Helena Bonham Carter’s face is the right match for Lucy Honeychurch’s mixture of naïveté and exploratory impulses. Similarly, Maggie Smith slips quite comfortable into the role of poor Charlotte Barlett, Lucy’s cousin and chaperone who has given up on finding love. We intuit she’s been burned before by a suitor years and years ago, but Charlotte doesn’t go into much detail on that history. She does bring it up whenever she wants to caution her cousin from making rash, youthful decisions like going out by herself or trusting a man to keep quiet about a kiss, just as Charlotte passive-aggressively wields her kindness and poverty and age and responsibility to get what she wants. Smith doesn’t lean into the comedy of this as much as someone else might have, and her performance is remarkably sincere in painting the tiny, often sad life of a woman who is rapt to novels full of the kind of romance and adventure she views herself as no longer capable of having.

We meet these characters on a holiday pilgrimage through Florence, going through the same motions and hotels and tourist spots as most of the Brits traipsing through Italy. They are upset to learn the room they’ve been promised has a horrible view – or, as they put it, no view at all – and have taken this as proper British women do, by complaining to their friends at dinner. While their companions listen and share their own gripes, the politesse of their helplessness is rudely disrupted by Mr. Emerson (Denholm Elliott), who offers from the next table that he and his George (Julian Sands) can swap their rooms with Lucy and Charlotte. Charlotte is aghast, and doesn’t trust his offer until she’s been assured by some third parties that Mr. Emerson has the confounding disposition of saying exactly what he means, without any ulterior motives or deference to social niceties. Lucy and Charlotte take him up on his offer, and spend the rest of their time in Florence in close proximity to the Emersons. Lucy will experiment with the boundaries of her independence, while Charlotte spends her time running around with her friend, romance author Eleanor Lavish (Judi Dench). Eventually the two return to England, Charlotte banished to whatever hovel she lives in while Lucy returns to her mother (Rosemary Leach) and brother Freddy (Rupert Graves). She also comes home to her fiancé Cecil Vyse (Daniel Day-Lewis), and begins steeling herself for the ordeal of that marriage until the Emersons move quite close by, and Lucy begins to seriously consider if her burgeoning feelings for George are worth throwing her whole life into uncharted waters.

It’s amazing how much personality and human texture A Room With a View is able to coax out of its characters without pretending for a second that we are watching anything as austere as Howards End. As with The Color of Money, this is a fairly slight story, though this never seems to preclude the Merchant-Ivory team from investing this scenario with as much consciousness towards the intricacies of human behavior and how one must decide which values to shape themselves in service of. “These values” being the various, often conflicting responsibilities laid out by family, class, social standards, art, love, and truth. There is every potential for this to become a more serious film that simply pretends it isn’t a comedy of manners, yet A Room With a View firmly contains itself as a story about a young woman of some means contemplating who she is and who she wants to be. Yes, this decision is framed by whether she’ll pick the wealthy cad or the liberated free spirit, but neither man feels like a shorthand for the sort of life Lucy wants. In a sense, there’s almost no question of who she would prefer, because George’s value of truth and beauty is as throughly and instantly apparent as Cecil’s moneyed unpleasantness. The only question is whether or not she’ll have the guts to do it, and following her thought process is gratifying to watch.

It helps that the whole film is treated with such care by its artists, who find plenty of space to draw out the material’s distinguishing features. Prawler-Jbatha’s script is handily the most accomplished in that year’s Adapted Screenplay lineup, and every Merchant-Ivory collaborator does a remarkable job of filling out these characterizations through dress, hairstyling, lighting, and performance. As much as A Room With a View is unambiguously Lucy’s story, plenty of characters are gifted with a real, complex perspective. You can spend a scene enjoying in a character’s antics and wondering with baited breath if this person or that one will show up unexpectedly. There’s even room for some classy, flesh-and-blood homoeroticism when George, Freddy, and their friend Reverend Beebe (Simon Callow) go skinny dipping in a pond. The deeply unselfconscious display of naked bodies running around and wrestling in the water is predictably eye-catching, but so is the laughter and easy camaraderie of the men as they chase each other and splash around. They’re just guys being dudes, delighting in each other’s bodies, and the awkward, frazzled excitement when the Honeychurches and Cecil stumble upon them and avert their eyes as the men get dressed caps the scene perfectly.

Carter and Sands achieve handsome, capable performances that are nevertheless largely outclasses by their co-stars. If that’s the worst thing I can say about any of the actors, that’s a great ensemble. Smith’s performance, as previously stated, is unexpectedly sincere, and her underplayed humor and remarkable stillness is probably the single element of A Room With a View I’m most curious to revisit. Elsewhere, Graves has a lot of fun with his rambunctious character and bizarrely powerful hairdo. Simon Callow is attractively warm as one of Lucy’s many friends and advisors. Patrick Gofrey, Judi Dench, Fabia Drake, and Joanna Henley do sterling work as Lucy and Charlotte’s compatriots in Italy. Daniel Day-Lewis is pretty merciless in embodying what a heel Cecil is, but his jokes land all the better for giving him a firm point of view, and he’s still able to evoke a small, sad glimpse of sympathy when he’s left alone to tie up his shoes. Rosemary Leach’s detailed, observant turn as Lucy’s mother is my second-favorite piece, while Denholm Elliott’s red-faced Mr. Emerson is an absolute dream. The character is known for his disinterest with social niceties that get in the way of easy happiness, for holding certain ideas of what men and women need to be content, and for raising his son towards the higher responsibilities of truth, art, and history. Elliott does not mistake a no-nonsense figure for one lacking in emotion or sincerity, and he reveals himself to be the voluptuous, muscular heart of the whole film. A Room With a View is stuffed to the gills with pleasurable, insightful figures and quietly impressive film craft, yet I’m not sure anything has lingered with me quite like Elliott has.

Hannah and Her Sisters

Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey, and Dianne Wiest in Hannah and Her Sisters

God I love this film. I know I still have a few major Allens to see – Sleeper, Manhattan, Crimes and Misdemeanors, what have you – but I feel quite confident in stating that this is my favorite Woody Allen film (with props to Annie Hall, The Purple Rose of Cairo, and Husbands & Wives). It’s a gorgeous time, standing as both the apex of Allen’s filmography and the platonic ideal of multi-character stories, interwoven lives, personal peccadilloes, romanticism, anxiety, humor, and location-specific beauty that his other films aspire for. Hannah is either a tremendously funny film that leaves plenty of openings for fraught lives and personal crises, or a razor-eyed drama that’s also alert to how folks are still colorful and alive even as they suffer another unexpectedly setback or finally boil over. It’s neck-and-neck with fellow 1986 films The Green Ray and Aliens as three of the very best films ever made.

The image that heads this little review is the only scene of Hannah where all three sisters are clearly visible in the frame together. The lunch scene two-thirds into the film is the only other instance where all three of them hang out together, which I know I knew already from watching the film, but it’s still surprising that the titular roles don’t spend as much time together as they do apart, navigating their own stories or riding around in someone else’s. But then again, there’s no doubt that these characters have spent plenty of time in each other’s company that the audience simply isn’t privy to. One of the many pleasures of Hannah and Her Sisters is how adeptly it’s able to suggest that these characters all have vibrant, interesting lives that only occasionally take center stage in the film, leaving room for us to fill in the gaps on what they’ve been up to and for the talented cabal of artists to show how much they have or haven’t changed since we last saw them.

They’re obviously given lots of material through Allen’s writing and direction, which has never been this generously accepting of so many different personalities existing in tandem with his own voice, rather than having to filter or cramp themselves through his perspective. There’s some nastiness at the edges that hint towards Allen’s less appetizing instincts, particularly a joke about pedophilia that at least benefits from being tasteless in context. Still, even these few squicks point towards how Allen is genuinely intrigued by his character’s foibles, rather than cruelly judgmental of them, or elevating some character’s woes but putting down others. No one’s the caricature a lesser Allen film might have indulged in. Every character, from the five folks who trade POVs across the film to bit players like Joanna Gleason’s ruffled wife, caught off guard by a friend’s offer and even more concerned by her husband’s consideration of it, emerges as fully-rounded figures. You could easily imagine half a dozen more scenes where they have to deal with the events we’re told happens to them off-screen.

I should probably get to those five folks, shouldn’t I? There’s Hannah herself (Mia Farrow), who’s the irreducible center of her entire family. She doesn’t really get an arc like her siblings do, but she does tend to everyone else’s stories. She visits her parents (Lloyd Nolan and Maureen O’Sullivan, Farrow’s real-life mother) after her mom falls off the wagon, she tries suss out why her husband is suddenly so distant, she occasionally acts the leading role in major theatrical productions when motherhood isn’t as all-fulfilling as it basically always is. Hannah is endlessly competent, a giving and reliable source of support for loved ones in distress, knows exactly what she needs and when, can sound rude when she doesn’t consciously mean to, and doesn’t want to share her problems with others the way they do with her for fear of burdening them. Other characters are put off by how little she seems to need anyone, reading her concerns as harsh critiques from an individual who might as well be a paragon next to their mess. Farrow avoids turning Hannah into this figure, keeping her a stalwart, internal figure who nevertheless can’t suss out the source of every problem in her home. I love this whole cast, but nothing about Hannah shot up in my estimations quite as much as Farrow’s carefully sculpted centerpiece.

Then there’s Lee (Barbara Hershey), who’s living with an older, profoundly cynical Scandinavian painter (Max von Sydow), though she’s starting to question their relationship now that she’s no longer stimulated by him intellectually, artistically, or sexually. As with Marlee Matlin’s Sarah, we get the sense that Lee is semi-content with orbiting a man who she believes can enrich her understanding of the world in exchange for the definition his presence gives her. There’s Holly (Dianne Wiest), a former drug addict and active depressant who is starting a catering company with her friend April (Carrie Fisher) while desperately trying to get an acting career on Broadway off the ground. There’s Elliott (Michael Caine), Hannah’s husband, who is dissatisfied with his marriage and becomes smitten with Lee. And there’s Mickey (Woody Allen), Hannah’s first husband, a hypochondriac TV executive who may finally have a real disease to worry about, and takes some unexpected measures to reassure himself that life has a purpose.

Mickey will mostly exist in his own world, only occasionally bumping up against the other characters, yet his quest is as significant and entertaining to Hannah’s overall fabric as the other four leads (and make no mistake, I consider all of these characters leads). His frantic search for higher understanding is more overtly comedic than Holly’s series of reinventions or Lee and Elliot’s attempts to rekindle something in themselves by having their affair, yet he’s still on a functionally similar journey as them. Lee and Elliot get a proper romantic drama, while Holly flits around with different companions and occupations.

If I’ve saved the three of them for last, it’s because their performances are my favorite of this god-tier ensemble. Caine’s performance encapsulates everything charming and off-putting about his persona, giving real weight to a man who is deciding if recommitting to his marriage is worth dealing with the pain of telling his wife he’s seeing her sister. Hershey’s piquant, radiant naturalism communicate’s Lee’s ambivalence and honest desire for a happiness she hasn’t grasped. Her affair with Elliot has a nice, tentative buildup that’s consummated with a rejuvenating bliss, only to be snuffed out by the fear of discovery and hurt that was already present in their risky first kiss. She’s probably my MVP of this cast, give or take Wiest’s surprising, funny, and sympathetic turn, which ranks among the very best performances to win the Supporting Actress Oscar. Everyone manages to poke fun at their characters without being disrespectful, but Wiest makes Holly a rattle-bag of barely sustain hope with plenty of anxieties bubbling underneath while still sticking by her sobriety, her careers, her awful clothes, her disappointments. When everything starts going right for Holly, her glee is infectious. When Hannah hands her its last 20 minutes, it feels perfectly earned.

Hannah weaves their perspectives together while still presenting an aesthetic strategy that’s both controlled and accommodating of rangy, unexpected accents. The soundtrack has room for concert pieces and jazz riffs, and film gives equal time to a punk concert in a dive bar, an opera, and a Cole Porter number in a fancy restaurant. Carlo Di Palma’s camera will hold shots for an entire scene, observing characters as they float around an apartment and try to suffer an unspoken tension. These shots are all the more interesting for being choreographed to the blocking of the actors and their voice over narrations, turning what must have been a tightly controlled set piece into an entirely naturalistic encounter. All of this is cut together by Susan E. Morse, smack in the middle of her 20-year collaboration with Allen, who knows how to maintain the rhythms of individual scenes, immediately vital events, and off-ramp detours into city architecture, while adding every moment up into one cohesive, complex experience.

Still, the very best thing about Hannah and Her Sisters is how it builds from an already perfect film to something even better than perfect. A hastily planted kiss and an unexpectedly transformative lunch were the two moments I felt how Hannah had managed to reconfigure and enrich its stakes while still holding onto everything already precious about it, but you could pinpoint any number of scenes as the one that made you realize how special it was. I just love this one, y’all. Y’all??? This movie rules.

Other Options

Wiest is absolutely my favorite of the five nominees. I’d argue all three Sisters (as well as Caine and Allen) as leads, meaning Mastrantonio would probably get my actual vote. But as I stated at the top, the 1986 vintage has four durable, exciting nominees representing films that deserve our continued engagement and celebration. It’s a damn shame Cathy Tyson’s enigmatic turn in Mona Lisa missed out (I choose to blame this on Tess Harper), but if that’s the absolute worst thing I can say about the group, so be it. I’m curious who else was in contention for the fifth Supporting Actress slot besides Barbara Hershey in Hannah and Her Sisters, who won Supporting Actress at BAFTA despite not being a supporting player. Was Judi Dench a near-miss for A Room With a View? Could Jenette Goldstein have coattailed Sigourney Weaver’s miraculous Best Actress nomination for Aliens? Were either of the Blue Velvet women in contention? I’d imagine the Supporting Actor field has a wider swath of plausible sixth-spots, but you know me. Much happier in this category. And without further ado, my own lineup would be:

Joan Allen, Manhunter
Jenette Goldstein, Aliens
Kathy Kinney, Parting Glances
Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, The Color of Money
Cathy Tyson, Mona Lisa

Honorable Mentions: Rosemary Leach (A Room With a View), Laura Dern (Blue Velvet), Chus Lampreave (What Have I Done To Deserve This?!), Maggie Smith (A Room With a View), Tilda Swinton (Caravaggio), Bette Midler (Ruthless People), Audra Lindley (Desert Hearts), Piper Laurie (Children of a Lesser God), Veronica Forqué (What Have I Done to Deserve This?!), Judi Dench (A Room With a View), Elizabeth Perkins (About Last Night . . . .), Carrie Henn (Aliens), Carolyn Purdy-Gordon (From Beyond).

Apologies to Elizabeth Peña in Down and Out in Beverly Hills, Grace Jones in Vamp, Helen Mirren in The Mosquito Coast, Yolande Mureau in Vagabond, Winona Ryder in Lucas, Ellen Barkin in Desert Bloom, Sally Kellerman in That’s Life, Lonette McKee in Round Midnight, and the various actresses of Club Paradise and True Stories. I don’t know if I’d call Isabelle Rossellini’s carnal, wounded, deeply upsetting performance in Blue Velvet lead or supporting, so I’ve left her off the list entirely, but she’d either be on this ballot or a very high runner-up if I put her here. The tough, engaging ensemble of Working Girls wasn’t Oscar-eligible until 1987, but Ellen McElduff’s petty, self-deceiving madame would be up for consideration. But who else am I missing? Who am I undervaluing? Who would make your lineup? And where on earth should I start for the next Smackdown in 1937? Thanks for reading, and have a good day!

Other smackdowns this season

1946 | 1998 | 1986

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