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BULLETS OVER BROADWAY (1994)

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3-5 star | Dir: Woody Allen

“I don’t write hits. My plays are art. I write them specifically to go unproduced.”

Shadows and Fog, Don’t Drink the Water and Play It Again, Sam were Allen’s on screen adaptations of his plays. September was his Bergman-esque attempt to create the feeling of a staged play on film. But Bullets Over Broadway was his first time depicting the cut-throat and deceptive world of New York Broadway on the silver screen. It’s a fun 1920s period farce written (with co-writer Douglas McGrath) during the most turbulent period of his life, but set in a time that Allen has such an affinity for, almost as if an act of escapism: “It was just a great, colourful time. Everything was very glamorous. It was really highly sophisticated. So I like to set some of my films in those years, because it’s fun.”

Allen’s comedic introspective to the creative process begins with young playwright David Shayne (John Cusack), a man of unwelcome integrity and idealism in this industry. In order to get his Eugene O’Neill-lite new play God of Our Fathers produced, he makes concessions by accepting funding from mobster Nick Valenti (Joe Viterelli) in return for his wannabee actress moll Olive (Jennifer Tilly) getting a part in the play. As David succumbs to the glamour of leading lady Helen Sinclair (Dianne Weist), Olive’s bodyguard Cheech (Chazz Palminteri) turns out to be the true genius behind the typewriter. Shayne initially rejects the suggestions from “some strong-arm man with an IQ of minus 50”, but the dialogue and narrative plotting are revolutionized through the collaboration. He takes it from a “cerebral and tepid” draft where the “lucid” stage directions and the colour of the binder are the only things worth saving, to a genuine Broadway hit; the Belasco Theatre where David’s play is rehearsed and staged in New York is actually where Don’t Drink the Water finished its run in 1968 after 598 performances. In the process it quickly begins to pose questions on the moral authenticity of your art and how far you’ll go to protect it.

Allen has often chosen not to step in front of the camera in his films, generally in his more dramatic work where he recognises his limitations as a performer. But this is the first time Allen has written a role fashioned for his classic persona, yet passed it onto another performer. There is much of Allen in David Shayne, who is effectively placed as Allen’s surrogate in rejecting himself as an artist. Shayne has gotten away with selling his soul to the devil for the accolades he desires. But in battling between artistic license and artistic compromise, he eventually comes to the realisation that he’s a fraud and ends his career as an artist. Allen similarly appears to accept his limitations of not being able to match the quality of the directors that he idolizes and his incessant proclamations of never having made a great movie that he’s happy with. Yet he instead chooses instead to persist, year after year.

After TriStar reneged on their three film deal with a year to go, Allen’s (then) good friend Jean Doumanian – one of his closest confidants and companions since his early stand up days – brought in her production company Sweetland Films. Backed by her billionaire partner, they provided Allen with his biggest ever budget – a 25% increase to $20 million – and a considerably larger seven-figure directors fee than his usual union minimum. This extravagance was put towards the gorgeous period detail, helping it to become Allen’s most Oscar nominated film.

The only success of those seven nominations was Weist as the pompous dame, the second time Allen has led her to Oscar success after Hannah and Her Sisters. What a difference between these two performances, going from the sweet and charming Holly to the narcissistic and praise driven dame. Helen Sinclair is a casting choice against type, similar to Farrow’s in Broadway Danny Rose, but how superbly the tender and naturalistic performer takes to histrionics and broad melodrama of this diva is riotously entertaining: “They’re your words. I’m just a vessel – they fill me!”, “Oh, I don’t know which ex-husband. The one with the mustache.”, “No, no, don’t speak. Don’t speak. Please don’t speak. Please don’t speak. No. No. No. Go. Go, gentle Scorpio, go. Your Pisces wishes you every happy return. Don’t speak!

Helen Sinclair is a big enough personality to fill any film, but this is one that delicately balances an assortment of big personalities who are more than just caricatures placed together for comedic effect. The ensemble playing them are unanimously terrific: Tilly as the arrogant, attention seeking and out of her depth Olive; Jim Broadbent as the humble British stage star prone to uncontrollable phases of stress eating; Rob Reiner as the deluded intellectual (“An artist creates his own moral universe”); Harvey Fierstein as Sinclair’s suitably sassy agent; Tracey Ullman as the giddy co-star who eventually begins to resemble her ever-present chihuahua; and Palminteri as gangster turned brilliant playwright Cheech, whose straight talking knowledge of the real world transforms Shayne’s pretentious writing. There’s a even an amusing cameo from Stacey Nelkin, an actress who Allen began dating in 1977 when she was 17 years old and supposedly inspired the story of Manhattan.

Despite this array of superstars, the film suffers from their lack of sympathy. The entertainment derived from them is almost akin to watching a season of Big Brother that loses it’s spectacle appeal. The second act picks up the pace but for the comedic and thematic heights that Allen intends his big ideas to reach, it falls flat. The ending is also disappointingly wholesome and quickly resolved for an artist who takes great pleasure in presenting the painful truth to life’s consequences. Perhaps Allen’s personal strife at the time gave him the impetus to indulge in a happy ending, but I think that Cheech would have some unpleasant comments for Allen about this.

Part of Woody Wednesday. First viewing.

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