In 1986 Michael Caine won an Oscar for his performance in Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters, but his commitment to the filming of Jaws: the Revenge prevented him from collecting the award in person. Jaws: the Revenge ranks among the worst movies of all time and Caine has been castigated for his part in it. (“I haven’t seen it,” he said once when asked about the fishy Jaws “sequel”, “but I have seen the house I bought with my paycheck for it, and that’s lovely.”) That this terrible film cost him the full glory of his Oscar night tells us something about Caine’s direction in the 80s: The man was overworked. He made 22 films in that decade with the vast majority of them being hackneyed B-movies that, had they been released in this day and age, would be left to fester in the bargain bucket of your local Asda with the rest of our culture’s detritus. This reckless approach to his craft makes you wonder how much money he owed and to whom.
Woody Allen was enjoying quite a different run of form in the 80s. Hannah and Her Sisters marks a real peak in the director’s output. The string of critically acclaimed films that runs from the stylistically audacious Zelig (1983) to the majestic Radio Days (1987) shows Allen at the height of his artistry while these films also reveal something that Allen is rarely celebrated for – his versatility. This may be a slightly contentious thing to say in the presence of anyone who finds Allen unbearable. His films are usually criticised for being derivative riffs on themes that he’s exhausted over his 50-year career as a comedian and filmmaker. If you don’t get the joke, or are simply bored by it, the films – so the theory goes – unravel as there’s little else holding them together. Caine’s performance in Hannah and Her Sisters shows how great a writer, comic and – most importantly – a director Woody really is.
Hitchcock said that actors are like cattle – they are only as good as the direction they are given. In Hannah and Her Sisters, Caine’s performance suggests an addition to this thought – that actors are rarely better than the scripts they are given. If the 80s can be thought of as a desert of crap in the geography of Caine’s career then Hannah and Her Sisters, 1983’s Educating Rita and 1988’s Dirty Rotten Scoundrels can be thought of collectively as an oasis. Caine’s excels in each of them because he was given interesting and complicated characters to play, which shows what can happen when a good actor finds a great script, even if most of the time they seem content with the steady cash-flow of mediocrity.
In Hannah and Her Sisters Caine does not even have a lead role. The film thrives on a stellar ensemble cast and Allen, Farrow, Hershey and Wiest enjoy the majority of the screen time. Caine is also given the least likable character in the narrative – he plays the philandering, bumbling and self-absorbed Elliot who could easily have become the butt of the film’s joke, it’s pathetic and vilified bad guy. Somehow, though, Elliot is almost charming in his awkward deceitfulness, like a love-struck David Brent. His scenes are arguably the funniest and there is a great sense of bathos to them because Caine resists turning Elliot into the clown that he probably is. This isn’t to say that we don’t laugh at Elliot – his scenes are some of the funniest – it’s just that we don’t really want to see him destroyed for his transgressions. Ultimately we sympathise with him which is a rare thing in any film, let alone one that deals with the sort of self-absorbed, bourgeois Manhattanites who populate Allen’s version of the city.
Elliot also provides a perfect counterpoint to Allen’s character, who delivers his punch lines with the measured timing of a stand-up comic. Elliot is a far more subtle source for laughs as his scenes rely on him being oblivious to the reality of his behaviour. Caine suits this role perfectly because he doesn’t have to crack jokes – he is the joke and he plays it with nuance and empathy. If you’ve ever seen Kenneth Branagh in Allen’s Celebrity you’ll know what sort of calamities can occur when an actor misjudges this. Caine’s performance reminds me of Anthony Hopkins in Allen’s You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010), where Hopkins plays an ageing and vain divorcee who falls in love with a gold-digging prostitute. Both Caine and Hopkins bring a sense of understated irony to their roles that Woody’s hyperactive American characters rarely possess, which is as much a testament to their acting as it is to Allen’s versatility and direction. Allen shows how receptive he is to the nature of the roles and what his actors can bring to them. His characters are never just vehicles for delivering punch lines.
Although Allen and Caine are both recognised as respected elder statesmen of cinema, we don’t celebrate Allen in the same way we would a Scorsese or a Spielberg. His films have taken a dip but recently he seems to have hit a good streak. Midnight in Paris is reportedly his most successful film ever, but in most people’s eyes he’s still paying for the sins of flops like Scoop and The Curse of Jade Scorpion, but even this seems excessive – he’s no lightweight. Maybe Allen’s paying for other, more personal, transgressions that the public and the press are yet to forgive him for. Caine, on the other hand, enjoys the dubious status of an English national treasure where we are prepared to indulge his political rants as though he’s a much-loved grandparent showing early signs of dementia. The fate of these two icons would have seemed odd in 1986 when Allen was making masterpieces and Caine was churning out dross but even now it strikes me as odd – why don’t we revere Allen? His statue should stand alongside the likes of Chaplin and Marx – he invented a form of cinema that is completely his own. His is a style that is as subtle as it is studied. Hannah and Her Sisters is a testament to his mastery of dialogue and narrative but it also shows how he is able to combine the language and imagery of American comedy with the immediacy and ambition of European cinema. And besides, no matter what you think of Allen – his films or his personal life – he has never made a film as bad as Jaws: the Revenge.