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Friday, November 9, 2007

Sister Acts, Part 2 (originally published 2/00)

Although the temptation to get involved in other people's personal problems is sometimes hard to resist, most of us have learned the hard way that there are certain relationships with which you interfere at your peril. Mostly they are family relationships - husband and wife, parent and child, and siblings. No matter how well you may know two siblings, for example, as individuals, you may be sure that there are facets of their relationship with each other of which you are utterly unaware. Much of what they have shared will be forever inaccessible to you. Even if they tried to share these confidences with you, you would lack the emotional and experiential context to understand them as the siblings themselves do.

Fictional siblings, on the other hand, are another matter. A skillful screenwriter can both expose the secret ties that constitute a sibling relationship and provide us with the context in which to understand them. That's what Delia and Nora Ephron have attempted to do with their latest film, "Hanging Up," which centers around the relationship between three very different sisters. As we saw last week, the Ephron sisters are far from being the first to build a film around the ups and downs of sisterhood. Here are a few more sister movies to look for on home video.

"A Stolen Life" (1946). One of the most interesting kinds of sisters to make a movie about is the sister from Hell. Not surprisingly, Bette Davis was exceptional in this type of role. In "A Stolen Life," she plays a dual role as twin sisters, one nice and unassuming and the other spiteful and self-centered. The mean sister, Patricia, wrongs the good sister, Kate, by stealing away the love of Kate's life for no other reason than because she can. Kate resigns herself to losing the man she loves to her sister until Patricia is suddenly and accidentally washed overboard in a boating accident. Because the two sisters were alone in the boat when the accident occurred, Kate sees an opportunity to take on the identity of her twin. Davis would subsequently play another twin from Hell in "Dead Ringer" (1964) and the ultimate sister from Hell in "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" (1962).

"Hannah and her Sisters" (1986). Writer-director Woody Allen builds one of his most engaging films around three sisters played by Mia Farrow, Barbara Hershey, and Dianne Wiest in this involved but engaging tale of a New York show business family. The sisters work at staying close, gathering periodically to share a meal and catch up, but what remains unspoken are the romantic intrigues going on among their spouses and/or lovers. The impressive supporting cast includes Michael Caine, Max von Sydow, Maureen O' Sullivan (Farrow's real-life mother), Lloyd Nolan, and, of course, Allen himself.

"Crimes of the Heart" (1986). Playwright Beth Henley's Pulitzer-winning play, adpated for the screen by Henley herself, provides a showcase for the talents of Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange, and Sissy Spacek. As the Magrath sisters, Lenny, Meg, and Babe, these three talented actresses make the most of a script that encompasses both drama and comedy. Burdened with all the Gothic angst of which Southern families are capable, at least in Southern fiction, the sisters cope as best they can with everything from Babe's recent arrest for shooting her husband to the memory of their mother's suicide, which occurred in the very house in which they have gathered.

"The Whales of August" (1987). In this quiet but captivating film, movie veterans Bette Davis and Lillian Gish play two elderly sisters living on the coast of Maine. As they approach the end of their lives, Sarah (Gish) has resigned herself to caring for Libby (Davis), who is blind. When a charming man, played by Vincent Price, comes into her life, Sarah must choose between personal happiness and sisterly responsibility. Watching these three old pros at work is a rare treat, especially since director Lindsay Anderson apparently had the good sense to stay out of their way.

These films, and many others like them, have the virtue of satisfying our desire to be in the middle of someone else's business while insulating us from the associated risks. Especially on the thin ice of sisterly conflict, they truly are the safe alternative to meddling.

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