Manhattan (1979), Deconstructing Harry (1997)
It’s not a terribly original bit of analysis to affirm that Hemingway has not had a great acting career in film, or that she didn’t fulfill the promise she made in her beginnings, when she seemed to have beauty, intelligence and talent to spare and got so many nominations for awards, including one for the Oscar just in her second film for the big screen, Manhattan. Following that impressive beginning, she had to wait three years to have her next film released, and then went on to making Star 80 (a cult film only nowadays). After that, again the long wait for projects, the TV, and forgotten roles in forgotten films that balanced that early taste at the best awards with the bitter after taste of two back-to-back Razzie nominations. From there, the relative but still indubitable oblivion.
Watching Manhattan again, it’s still difficult to imagine how such slow but steady languishing could happen. Perhaps part of the problem was that she was difficult to cast: she was only 16 when Manhattan was shot and, despite playing a role that required a special maturity, despite the fact that she captured the hearts of an audience that was mostly older than she was, she looked and sounded like she was indeed, only 16. After a role like that, one couldn’t imagine her playing a normal adolescent, as her image was closely linked to the precocious, mature, clever Tracy; but she was 16, she looked like a 16-year-old girl, and her voice was as sweet and innocent as a teenage girl’s voice normally is. You couldn’t cast her as a normal teenager, but you couldn’t cast her in leading lady roles, either.
Yet there’s a consolation for this: if she became so attached to that persona, it’s because she played it so exceedingly well that people identified the actress and the character. Maybe this hurts some careers, but at least we know that performances like Anthony Perkins’ in Psycho, Louise Fletcher’s in [One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest or yes, Hemingway’s in Manhattan[ will be considered as some of the finest examples of the art of acting for many years to come.
Hemingway created a template for a role that Allen has tried to use again in some of his later films, and she set the bar so high that, although arguable, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that she has not been matched by her successors. Hemingway’s Tracy was the first “nymphet” in Allen’s filmography, and the role/concept would re-appear in different incarnations, the most obvious one being Juliette Lewis’ Rain in Husbands and Wives, and less obvious ones being the women played by Mira Sorvino in Mighty Aphrodite, Samantha Morton in Sweet and Lowdown, Charlize Theron in Celebrity or Scarlett Johansson in Scoop, even though in the last case the openly sexual component of the early nymphets was finally sublimated into a screwballesque friendship.
Still, Hemingway’s model remains the most natural, the most believable and realistic, and the most charming, although I want to underline how that charm is never forced or underlined: her Tracy doesn’t try to be sweet, wise-beyond-her-age and loveable at all costs, no. In Hemingway’s hands, she seems naturally mature, and there’s never a false note in which she winks to the audience, trying to make obvious that she’s so clever and witty. In the same way, she never underlines the character’s youth or enthusiasm, letting it spring naturally.
In Allen’s canon it’s extremely difficult to single out performances, because in his hands many thespians have delivered career-best performances. I must confess that, in such canon, I initially didn’t pay much attention to Hemingway’s work, generally focusing on the long-time muses Farrow and Keaton, or on the showier work of some ladies in more openly comedic, sometimes even outrageously funny roles (Judy Davis in Husbands and Wives, Tracey Ullman in Small Time Crooks, Wiest in Bullets over Broadway…). But over time, after having seen many times many of his films, I’ve found myself drawn to this subtle, low-key, perfectly modulated work. Scenes such as the one in which Isaac first breaks up with Tracy are among the most genuinely touching in the director’s filmography, and it’s thanks to how honestly and pristine the quiet suffering of Tracy, the quiet suffering of Hemingway, comes across.
It’s a pity that Hemingway’s career didn’t go to the further places one could have expected after her promising beginnings, but it’s beautiful that she at least has such a high peak, that she has one work that has become a template so hard to imitate. It’s also beautiful that Allen acknowledges it, as shown in the gift he gave to her in 1997, with a role in his great Deconstructing Harry, when her career was nowhere.
Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)
Barbara Hershey’s face, intense but somehow vacant, looking directly into the camera, occupies the very opening moments of Hannah and Her Sisters. Hershey played just this one role for Allen, but in his canonical 1986 picture about the ups and downs of family life she became a clear entry into the catalog of his most potent and dangerous leading ladies. Lee is the bait that lures her sister Hannah’s compulsive husband (Michael Caine) away for a year’s affair and sets the overriding question of the film in motion: can self-sufficiency be a bad thing?
Lee is young and fragile compared to the rest of her family. She has a history of substance abuse and she is involved with a controlling older man (Max von Sydow). Confronted with Elliot’s overwhelming desire, she submits, we might guess, more from repressed curiosity than specific passion. When Elliot openly reveals his feelings for the first time, the two confer in hushed tones outside Lee’s apartment. She tries to reassure herself that she isn’t to blame, talking about her sister and saying “we’re very close”, which sounds a lot like denial. Hershey makes Lee seem sincere, though, a mixed-up girl simultaneously threatened and a little excited at the thought of breaking ties with her suffocating life and violating her chronically stable, emotionally sacrosanct sister.
The flaws of the characters involved do not undercut the drama of the feelings at hand. Rather, they bring what is already a situation fraught with betrayal into sharper focus. Hershey and Caine (Caine won an academy award for his role), may seem selfish, but they are also thoroughly convincing. Allen gives his customary care to Hershey’s sexual presence on screen to ensure that the guilt and shame of their affair hits home with the audience. In his interviews with Eric Lax he compares her entrance in Hannah and Her Sisters to Scarlett Johansson’s in Match Point and Christina Ricci’s in Anything Else as pivotal moments in which actress and character alike are unveiled for the first time and the mood is set for the rest of her performance.
To Elliot, Lee is as vulnerable as she is desirable and the opening sequence elicits that dual nature. There is indeed something of the predatory, furtive male glance in the way the camera follows her through the wall with Elliot’s voice-over praising her beauty. Allen emphasizes Hershey’s ragged looks and wild hair with what had become, for him, a rare use of the close-up. She is self-evidently the perfect vehicle for Elliot’s wanton daydreaming, and a symbol of all the sexual hang-ups which would haunt the director’s life and work.
For Hershey, Hannah and Her Sisters marked a culmination of her long struggle to gain recognition in the ‘70s. For Allen, it was hailed as a return to form. It has come to define the Woody Allen Picture of the ‘80s: domestic, feminine and sensitive to an extreme. Hershey’s performance is essential to all that, for hers is the face, not of temptation, but of the compulsion to abandon the safety of household life for the danger of something rash.