"Bullets Over Broadway"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)
[This review will contain spoilers without proper warning. Please do not read if you have not seen this movie.]
The young playwright complains he will not pander to appeal to a commercial audience. The old producer tells the playwright he likes his new play, it is about something, but he can't produce it. He can't afford another flop.
So begins Woody Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway" (1994) a satirical look at the Broadway stage and America in the 1920s.
Although Woody Allen doesn't appear in the movie, his devoted fans will immediately recognize his voice in the young playwright David Shayne (John Cusack). David elaborates he wants to direct his new play as well, especially after his last two plays were flops. David says he had to sit back powerless and remain silent as actors changed his dialogue and directors misinterpreted his work.
This is not unlike Mr. Allen's own beginnings. Though Mr. Allen was first introduced to the public as a stand-up comedian in the 1960s, his first venture into films was as a screenwriter for the comedy "What's New Pussycat?" (1965). He also wrote his own lines for the spy spoof "Casino Royale" (1967). Mr. Allen has complained about both experiences and has cited them as his main influence for wanting to direct his own movies, as a method of self-defense.
Mr. Allen has often been accused of having all of his characters speak the way he does. When Mr. Allen does not appear in one of his movies there is usually a role believed to have been the role Mr. Allen would have cast himself in. From the very first scene it is clear David Shayne is the "Woody Allen character".
"Bullets Over Broadway", like so many other Woody Allen comedies, is much smarter than audiences may give it credit for, as serious ideas are discussed such as box-office appeal vs critical praise, which has more merit? What makes an artist an artist? Does society have preconceived notions about who is an artist and how they should look? And does an artist create their own moral universe? Should an artist's "bad behavior" be excused if they create great art?
That last point, critics of Mr. Allen, will argue is the main theme and justification of Mr. Allen's film and his defense for his own behavior. When "Bullets Over Broadway" was released it came off the heels of an ugly public dispute between Mr. Allen and his girlfriend, Mia Farrow with allegations that Mr. Allen had molested Ms. Farrow's adopted children. Mr. Allen denied all charges and the case against him was dismissed in court. Of course the allegations hurt Mr. Allen's public persona which translated into weak box-office appeal, which was never very strong for Mr. Allen to begin with. Was Mr. Allen telling the public, through "Bullets Over Broadway", I cannot be judged by the same standards as others. I am a great artist. My art must be factored into account when being judged.
In Mr. Allen's "Bullets Over Broadway" the theater is not unlike Hollywood as artist struggle to get their work produced. Producers want to put their girlfriends in roles. And everybody has ideas how to make something more commercial. In "Bullets Over Broadway" David Shayne is presented a Faustian bargain with the Devil when the old producer, Julian Marx (Jack Warden) informs him a gangster, Nick Valenti (Joe Viterelli) is willing to produce David's new play on the condition his girlfriend, Olive (Jennifer Tilly) is given a role. She is currently a chorus girl but has acting aspirations.
And so what is success worth to David? Is he willing to take the gangster's money? Will he surrender to the gangster's demands and provide Olive with a role? Inevitability the answer is yes. In order to live with his compromise David insist on casting Broadway legend Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest) and esteemed actor Warner Purcell (Jim Broadbent) in the lead roles.
With another filmmaker at the helm this plot set-up would be sufficient enough and "Bullets Over Broadway" would work as a behind-the-scenes look at the trials and tribulations of what it takes to get a Broadway show made. With Woody Allen, along with Douglas McGrath, co-writing the screenplay audiences could expect sharp, witty dialogue. And that would be enough to make a funny movie but Mr. Allen and Mr. McGrath have an ace up their sleeve and have created an additional twist. Nick Valenti informs one of the men who works for him, Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), to act as Olive's bodyguard while she attends rehearsals. And so Cheech sits in the back of the theater, day after day, listening to the actors speak their lines until one day he makes a suggestion which actually improves the play. Soon Cheech makes more and more suggestions which begs the questions, who is the real artist Cheech or David?
"Bullets Over Broadway" creates a lot of characters which serves as reflections for each other. For example David believes he is a great artist that the public has not learned to appreciate yet. Olive on the other hand also believes she has great talent which has not been discovered yet. Helen Sinclair was once an acting legend but now is known for being a drunk and an adulterer. She matches our perception of how an artist should look and act whereas Cheech is also an artist but doesn't meet our preconceived notions.
This is perfectly illustrated in the opening scenes of the movie. As David and Julian are discussing David's play Julian informs him he cannot produce it and David should not direct it, a big name talent behind it will make it easier to raise money. Julian tells David he doesn't realise what kind of tough world it is. The next scene shows Cheech shooting someone. It really is a tough world. Next we see Oliver perform a song with a chorus at a nightclub. After the show, backstage, she argues with Nick. Nick promised to make her a star. Olive feels her talent is wasting. This scene mirrors the earlier one between David and Julian.
There are even early comparisons between Olive and Helen. When they both first read the script they are disappointed with their offered roles. Olive is upset because she has not been offered the lead. Helen is upset because the lead character is not "sexy" enough for her. Both think of ways to make changes to the character and suggest them to David. David dismisses Olive's ideas because who is she? Olive is a nobody in David's eyes. David dismisses Julian's initial ideas too. Who is Julian? David dismisses Cheech's first suggestion. Cheech is a thug to David. None of these people have any artist merit in David's eyes. It is only when Helen makes a suggest David is responsive. Helen is a star to David. Her opinion matters. Helen is an artist.
"Bullets Over Broadway" at one point has David's girlfriend, Ellen (Mary-Louis Parker) muse to herself, do women fall in love with the man or the artist? Of course the flip side of that is do men fall in love with the woman or the artist? The audience sees this presented in the relationship between Helen and David. David clearly idolizes Helen and later claims he thinks he loves her but what is he in love with? The woman or the artist? Helen makes advances towards David. But is she using David? Is she responding to the man or the artist?
Woody Allen makes sure "Bullets Over Broadway" represents the time period quite well. Mr. Allen has always shown a good eye for details in all of his period pieces. Here Mr. Allen makes sure the music reflects the era by only using songs which were written in the 1920s. There are some original recordings - we hear Al Jolson sing "Toot, Toot Tootsie" and Eddie Cantor sing "Ma (He's Making Eyes At Me)" as well as modern recordings of classic songs from The Three Deuces Musicians. As well as excellent costume designs and set decorations, both of which were nominated for Academy Awards and help visually establish the time period.
Plus lets not over-look the most important aspect of "Bullets Over Broadway", it is funny! Helen brags she has not had a drink since New Year's Eve, to which someone tells her you mean Chinese New Year's right? Helen confirms and says yes but it has still been two days! Helen and David go out for a drink after rehearsal and she orders two martinis. David is impressed Helen knows what he likes to drink, afterwards Helen changes the order to three martinis. Then there is the character Warner Purcell, a compulsive eater. At first Warner looks nice and slim. He is on a strict diet but once the pressure of the play sets in with rehearsals we see Warner slowly start to eat more and more, hiding food from everyone else.
"Bullets Over Broadway" was nominated for seven Academy Awards including best director (Allen), best original screenplay (Allen & McGrath) and won one for best supporting actress (Wiest). It remains a fast, fresh and witty comedy from one of the greatest American comedy filmmakers working today. It is a highlight in a decade that saw Mr. Allen nearly routinely put out impressive films, the 1990s. Don't speak, just laugh!
p.s. "Bullets Over Broadway" was turned into a Broadway musical in 2014 with an adaptation written by Mr. Allen. It was not a success (it closed after 156 performances) but is currently on tour. Recently I saw the stage version in Chicago and must say it is an absolute disgrace. It is so bad it is actually hard to believe Mr. Allen had anything to do with. Not one single contribution made to the play was either funny or worthwhile. If anything the play reminds us just how good this movie really is especially with this terrific ensemble which also includes Rob Reiner and Tracey Ullman.