The artistic process and the life of the artist are things that clearly fascinate Woody Allen, but outside of Stardust Memories, he’s mostly confined his insights to his films’ peripheral. In Crimes and Misdemeanors he was unafraid to take a long, hard look at our universe’s guiding moral systems, and numerous other movies contain equally thorough investigations of relationships, identity and happiness. Yet, for all the struggling novelists, playwrights and actors he fills his movies with, he’s never really given the eternal artistic struggle a focused investigation.
Bullets Over Broadway initially seems the be “that” movie (the film’s first spoken words are “I’m an artist!”), although it’s soon clear that it’s far more pulpy and comic in nature. Bullets Over Broadway is about writing in the same way that Star Trek is about space — it limits itself to the exciting truths, half-truths, and popular speculations that capture the imagination.
It came as a surprise to me, then, that despite a lack of real-world insight, Bullets Over Broadway is a movie made with incredible sincerity and conviction. There is an effortless mastery over the material absent from Don’t Drink the Water. It even makes the wonderful Manhattan Murder Mystery look a little sloppy by comparison.
The density of Bullets Over Broadway recalls Woody Allen’s late-’70s/mid-’80s period — it may not be as profound, but it reminded me of movies like Annie Hall and Zelig in the way it develops characters, sets scenes and tells a story without ever ceasing to be funny.
I didn’t notice it at the time, but Husbands and Wives was a movie that veered perilously close to something you might call “modern.” Manhattan Murder Mystery took a step back though, and Bullets Over Broadway is definitely entrenched in simpler times — so much so it even makes Broadway Danny Rose look jaded and newfangled. It has the feel of a serialized melodrama with larger-than-life emotion and a lot of broad, familiar archetypes.
It takes place in New York in 1929, and stars John Cusack as David Shayne, an aspiring playwright. As noted in every virtually other review of this movie, this marks the first time Woody Allen (now 59 years old) deemed himself too old to play “the Woody Allen part.” Many reviews also note the widely-circulated tale of John Cusack’s first day on the set — in which he acted like Woody Allen, but was instructed to stop, and play the part naturally as it came to him. This story smells suspiciously of bullshit. I’ve seen John Cusack in movies before; he doesn’t normally act like Woody Allen, but in this movie, he most definitely acts like Woody Allen. Maybe the real story is that Allen just told him to “act less like me.”
David Shayne is an up-and-coming screenwriter, so naturally Allen had to go younger, and he went much younger — 31 years younger, to be exact. Cusack is actually even younger than Allen was in his first ever film role (What’s New Pussycat), meaning this is the most youthful “Woody Allen character” yet captured on screen.
The idea of a distinctive, iconic actor directing others to duplicate his unmistakable presence is one that has fascinated pop-culturists for years. There’s something very bizarre about it all. I understand the write-what-you-know maxim, which leads to neurotic, flustered writers, but why do they also replicate Allen’s physical mannerisms and speech patterns? Perhaps it’s subconscious on Woody’s part, or perhaps, after all these decades, those mannerisms just translate more naturally into laughs for him as a director.
John Cusack’s particular variation on it is enjoyable. It’s distracting at first, because you get caught up not only learning his character, but assessing his impersonation skills. Although, simply by virtue of not actually being Woody Allen, Cusack eventually branches out and creates a character distinctly his own. He’s more charming and, shall we say, conventionally handsome than Allen, which makes him better equipped to play someone who’s able to rise through the theatre scene despite a lack of talent.
When we first see David, he’s quibbling with his agent (Jack Warden) about funding for his latest play. No one wants to pay for it, but soon he comes up with a solution: he gets backing from mob boss Nick Valenti (Joe Viterelli). The only catch is that they have to give a small part to Nick’s girlfriend Olive (Jennifer Tilly), a chorus-girl with aspirations of becoming a real actress.
David and his agent visit Olive and Nick, and David has a crisis of conscience. Nick barks orders over the phone to break peoples’ legs and burn down houses, making it difficult for David to convince himself that this is a legitimate business investor. Even worse, Olive reveals a dearth of acting talent and a lack of even basic comprehension.
In moments of difficulty, David consults with his friend Sheldon (Rob Reiner). Much of Sheldon’s dialogue seems to emanate directly from Woody Allen’s id. He offers up the movie’s most famous line — and one which many people interpreted as Allen excusing his still-recent scandal — when he tells David, “an artist creates his own moral universe.” Essentially, this gives self-proclaimed artists a pass on moral accountability. Sheldon also claims “guilt is petty bourgeois crap.” Then, cutting to the heart of the matter, he just says “you gotta do what you gotta do.” His character fascinated me, and I wish he’d had more screen-time, although it’s possible he would’ve worn out his welcome. Perhaps Rob Reiner should go on a speaking tour in character as Sheldon Flender. He’s basically Brad Goodman (the “do what you feel like” send-up of self-help gurus), but far more eloquent and authoritative.
Sheldon is also a paragon of artistic integrity. He writes a script every year and considers the fact that none of them have ever been produced to be a sign of what a true genius he is. If Rob Reiner isn’t up for the speaking tour, maybe someone could write a movie wherein he and Alan Alda (as his character from Crimes and Misdemeanors) are forced via extraneous circumstances to team up to solve a common problem. Hijinx would ensue as the hilariously mis-matched duo squabble and bicker but eventually learn important lessons. The Wacky Adventures of Sheldon & Lester. Make it happen, Hollywood (but give me story credit).
Sheldon is a uniquely Woody Allen creation, but most of Bullets Over Broadway’s characters are based on familiar archetypes. The most enjoyable of which is prototypical faded Broadway star Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest). Her roles are drying up a little, but David Shayne still sees something in her. He recruits her for the lead role in his play, and while she resists at first, she soon sees this ambitious young playwright as the potential savior of her career.
Shayne and Sinclair have a very Sunset Blvd relationship at first, although Helen Sinclair is still a decade of bad roles and alcoholism away from Norma Desmond. She proves that she’s still a very talented actress, and it turns out that it’s David who’s the talent-deprived one.
The role of Helen Sinclair is the kind of part actors must salivate over. Every moment is a showy one; grand, flamboyant gestures concealing great tragedy — it’s no surprise that Wiest picked up pretty much every major acting award. Allen, demonstrating a worrying lack of social awareness, wanted to offer Mia Farrow the role until he was talked out of it by Juliet Taylor. It’s hard to imagine Farrow playing someone so bold and theatrical, but then, it would’ve been hard to imagine Wiest playing her either. But, she does so, and does so very well, and I’m reminded yet again of how much better most actors are than their movies let them be.
David Shayne and Helen Sinclair, perhaps inevitably, have a brief romantic tryst. Their scenes together are quite funny, especially as David becomes increasingly despairing and Helen’s soaring ego reaches stratospheric levels. She shuts up his neurotic rambling by bellowing her catch-phrase (“Don’t Speak!”) and simultaneously using her hands to literally disable his speaking capacities.
Also: David Shayne has a girlfriend, by the way, so chalk up another infidelity story-line. Although, Dianne Wiest is 18 years older than John Cusack, so at least Allen’s usual May/November romance angle gets a gender inversion.
Joining Olive and Helen Sinclair in David’s play are Eden Brent (Tracey Ullman), an aggressively perky chihuahua enthusiast, and Warner Purcell (Jim Broadbent), an esteemed leading man who’s recently developed a bit of an eating disorder. These characters are not overly developed. In fact, they’re limited to a single characteristic, although fortunately, it’s a pretty hilarious characteristic in both cases.
At rehearsals, Olive is accompanied by Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), one of Valenti’s tough guys. He sits in the back row of the empty theatre while the actors rehearse, and he helps Olive with her lines at home. In the film’s first big twist, it’s revealed that, unbeknownst to himself or anyone else, Cheech is actually an incredible playwright. At first he just shouts out the occasional suggestion and David ignores him out of principle, but the cast starts to notice that, actually, his suggestions are pretty good. They certainly deflate some of David’s pretension, and they inject much-needed emotion and realism. Soon, Cheech is pretty much re-writing the whole play.
Cheech’s re-writes go over spectacularly, and the play is a big hit. David, meanwhile, learns an important lesson: for all his grooming and studying and integrity, he’s just not an artist. Some people, like Cheech, have it, while some people, like him, don’t. Their simple Trading Places-like story sort of acts out something Allen has said in interviews and in movies (like Husbands and Wives) many times: Allen believes that no one can train themselves as an artist, everyone either has it or doesn’t have it.
Anyway, Cheech’s play goes very well, the one hitch being that Olive is still making a mockery of his words with her terrible acting. Despite this, Valenti is demanding she gets more lines. This leads to the film’s second shocking twist. Cheech is in the midst of discovering a new calling, but has spent his whole life as a gangster, and can’t escape his old style of thinking. So he does what someone in his profession does when a person becomes a problem: he whacks Olive.
This plot development arguably verges on insensitive, but I found it very funny. Also funny is when David puts the pieces together and figures out what happens. It’s a well-accepted movie tenet that mobsters execute people who get in their way. But what if a gangster isn’t interested in territory, or alcohol, or gambling any more? What if he’s interested in the respectful delivery of his well-written dialogue? Wouldn’t the same logic apply? Part of the reason this plot twist is so funny is that makes a certain amount of twisted sense.
One thing I’ve praised Allen for previously is his impeccable eye for actors. Casting Chazz Palminteri as a disarmingly intelligent gangster and Jennifer Tilly as a squeaky-voiced bimbo seems like an obvious move, but only because the two have been typecast as such in the many years since. Allen picked them out of relative obscurity and launched them on a path to indelible careers of playing sensitive tough-guys and sultry airheads, respectively. It’s worth nothing that they were both (deservedly) nominated for Academy Awards.
Palminteri, in particular, ends up as the movie’s heart. Joe Viterelli plays the mob-boss as sort of a caricature, but Palminteri acts like he’s never seen a gangster movie before — he’s just a guy who grew up tough and happens to have an ear for how people talk. Tilly’s role is less demanding, but she gets maximum laughs out of the wannabe actress. She whines for a bigger part, then whines about having to memorize so many lines. The way Olive mangles David’s verbose, pseudo-intellectual dialogue makes for some of the movie’s funniest scenes.
And then there’s Jack Warden, Tracey Ullman and Jim Broadbent, three tremendous actors rarely given a chance to shine. In the rehearsals for Shayne’s play, pretty much the entire cast is assembled together. Seven great actors in broad, scene-stealing performances might seems like a train-wreck of over-stimulation, but the writing and timing are so nimble, it somehow works perfectly. There’s actually a thrilling sense of mastery — this is exactly the sort of directorial finesse that could have saved Don’t Drink the Water.
I haven’t spent much time praising the look of the film, but its period sets and costumes are lavish and convincing. Cinematographer Carlo Di Palma returns once again, this time abandoning the shakey-cam in favor of more traditional, framed shots. In a city with as much history as New York, I imagine there were lots of opulent 1920s banquet halls and theatres to choose from, although it’s not surprising to learn that this is Allen’s most expensive movie (surpassing Shadows and Fog).
This screenplay credit is shared with Douglas McGrath, and Allen recounted their collaboration in an interview with Eric Lax. The two knew each other socially (McGrath was married to Allen’s assistant) when McGrath was but an aspiring screenwriter with one movie under his belt (an adaptation of the play Born Yesterday, appropriately enough). McGrath apparently talked Allen into making this movie (Allen had come up with the plot outline, but wasn’t sure whether to go through with it), and pitched him “some ideas” for the story. I don’t know which ideas were McGrath’s, but there’s an important lesson here: marry someone close to Woody Allen, for it may one day net you an Oscar nomination.
As we roll through the mid ‘90s, we start to enter the Rotten Tomatoes® era of film criticism, in which enormities of opinion are routinely condensed into a single sentence. For example, 56 Bullets Over Broadway reviews of varying depth cumulatively amount to the following: “Some of Allen’s sharpest, most inspired late-period comedy.” In these modern times, as more and more contemporary reviews become available, I start spending more time thinking about my opinions in relation to others. So many of Bullets’ positive reviews praise it for its “personal” feel and its insight into writing. Personally, I didn’t see any of that, and I say that not as a criticism. Nothing past the first scene (a screenwriter and his agent arguing about money) is particularly realistic, and all of the developments take place mostly to generate drama and humor. Allen himself likened the movie to a “magic trick” — the build-up is the misdirection, and the plot twists are the reveal.
Roger Ebert asked, “What is the responsibility of the artist to his art?” A good question, but I don’t think Bullets Over Broadway is interested in answering it. A tough-guy goon reveals a sensitive side and considers a new life, but can’t keep his old mindset from interfering, and he ends up murdering an actress who butchers the poetry of his work. I don’t think this is supposed to teach us anything, I just think it happens because it’s lurid, exciting and funny.
The important thing to me is that it is exciting, and it is funny, and it’s part of one of the most entertaining Woody Allen movies I’ve watched so far. I’m reminded of something I wrote about Take the Money and Run (another great comedy): “to be considered a classic, maybe it’s good enough to just be very, very funny.”
- “I haven’t had a drink since New Year’s.”
“You’re talking Chinese New Year’s...”
- “That dame doesn’t have a nerve in her body. I don’t think her spinal cord touches her brain.”
- “You’re a genius. And the proof is that both common people and intellectuals find your work completely incoherent.”
- “I paint one canvas every week, take one look at it, and slash it with a razor.”
“In your case, that’s a good idea.”
- “We’re working on a vehicle for Helen. She plays Jesus’ mother. It’s a whole Oedipal thing — he loves her, wants to do in the father. Well, you can see the complications”
- “For me, love is very deep, sex only has to go a few inches.”
- “I can give pleasure many times a day.”
“What does quantity have to do with it?”
“Quantity affects quality!”
- In the original ending, Cheech lives on and word eventually gets out that he was the real brains behind the play. After a while in show-business though, he finds that it’s even more vicious and cut-throat than his last job, and can’t handle it.
- If you care about Academy Awards, this was a pretty significant movie:
- This was Woody Allen’s most Oscar-nominated movie ever, with 7 nominations (Annie Hall received 5).
- The only Oscar won was Best Supporting Actress, for Dianne Wiest. This was her second Oscar in a Woody Allen movie (she also won for Hannah and her Sisters).
- Woody Allen got his 11th screenwriting nomination, which tied him with Billy Wilder for the all-time record.
- Douglas McGrath is only the second person (after Marshall Brickman) that Woody Allen has shared a Best Screenplay nomination with.
- Allen also got a Best Director nomination, his fifth and, so far, his last.
- This movie’s abundance of nominations is probably due in part to the fact that this is Allen’s first film with Miramax, then headed by notorious Oscar hounds Bob and Harvey Weinstein. Allen actually lost his screenplay nomination to another Miramax movie — Pulp Fiction.
- Dianne Wiest also won a Golden Globe, Independent Spirit Award, Screen Actors Guild Award and National Film Critics Award for her performance.
- When Olive and Cheech arrive (late) for the first day of rehearsals, Olive says “I told you it wasn’t the Morosco!” The Morosco Theatre is where Don’t Drink the Water played.
- Woody Allen chose Chazz Palminteri after casting director Juliet Taylor showed him A Bronx Tale, Palminteri’s collaboration with Robert De Niro.
- Fans of television: Weeds star Mary-Louise Parker and Sopranos stars Edie Falco and Tony “Paulie Walnuts” Sirico all have small parts.
- Joe Viteralli and Chazz Palminteri re-teamed in the similarly mobster-themed comedy, Analyze This.
- Chazz Palminteri and Jennifer Tilly have recently been playing a married couple on the popular sitcom Modern Family.