By John H. Foote
14. BULLETS OVER BROADWAY (1994)
The surprise hit of the 1994 movie season was Woody Allen’s excellent comedic farce Bullets over Broadway set during the Great Depression in the grand world of old Broadway in New York City. Unlike his previous films, his best ones, this one is less about relationships than it is about the impact and circumstances of those relationships. His greatest work redefined the American romantic comedy – Annie Hall (1977), Manhattan (1979), and Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) – but here he went for farce, sometimes broadly, brilliantly acted by the entire cast.
Allen sat this one out as an actor, casting John Cusack in the part of David, the young playwright/director seeking great success on the New York stage. The trouble is his previous two plays were failures and raising money to do his play is not easy. But his wily agent Julian (Jack Warden) raises the funds, though he is loath to say just what needs to happen to get the money. David is horrified to learn that the funds have been acquired by promising a plum role in the play to a brassy, vulgar, untalented dance hall girl named Olive (Jennifer Tilly), the moll of a local gangster who gets his girl whatever she wants. The only person he can share this information with is his girl, Ellen (Mary Louise Parker) who believes him to be a true artist waiting for his breakthrough.
Let me give you some idea of how dumb Olive really is. Told to charm the director she shakes his hand and repeats “charmed, charmed” throughout their meeting. She screams at the maid for drinks, them demurs back to David, “Charmed”, before turning like a raging lioness on her boyfriend to get something she wants.
Olive is quite the girl, screeching at the top of her lungs to get what she wants, stomping around like a rhino in heat to have her demands met, nothing is ever good enough for her and the mob boss she sleeps with cringes like a terrified puppy during her rages. Cast as a psychiatrist in David’s play she clearly does not have the talent nor the intelligence (remotely) to do the part (asking what this means and that means) but if he wants the money for his play he must make it work. What David does not count on is having Cheech (Chazz Palminteri) along for the rehearsals as Olive’s bodyguard and to make sure she gets the number of lines she expects. She has actually counted the lines to decide who should get what!
Ironically, she is surrounded by Broadway royalty including the grand dame of the American theatre Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest), a vain and whip smart actress who understands exactly how to get what she needs from her director and her playwright. She consumes martinis like they were water, and is nearly constantly soused, but not that you would ever know it. By now booze must inhabit her veins as much as blood. She starts in on David right away, soothing him and getting small changes made in her character, allowing her character to become more sexual, less maternal, far less grandmotherly. The more time David spends with Helen, the more smitten he becomes with her to the point she exclaims to him often, “Don’t speak! Don’t speak!” when he professes his undying love to her. She does not wish to hear it because she knows she is playing a game that he is not a part of, for him it is real. For her it’s about the role being shaped to her liking.
Warner Purnell (Jim Broadbent) is a respected actor with a penchant for arriving to rehearsal slim but cannot stay away from the food table. By the opening he has gained a huge stomach and makes clear his appetite keeping chicken legs in his jacket pockets. He develops a dangerous appetite for Olive, making out in their dressing rooms, flirting with a death sentence. Eden Brent (Tracey Ullman) is a bright, giddy and excitable actress, given to fits of crying who brings her tiny, noisy dog everywhere she goes, and shows up for the first day bearing gifts.
As Helen manipulates David to get her way in the script, her character becomes much more sexual, and gains more scenes. When the idea to cut some of Olive’s scenes comes up, David is threatened by Cheech, who makes clear none of her lines or scenes are to be touched.
David falls in love with Helen, leaving Ellen to have her own affair with the rotund writer Sheldon (Rob Reiner), a very good friend of David’s.
When the actors complain that David’s dialogue is not how people talk, they are stunned when the mobster Cheech has a gift for writing dialogue. He sees things honestly and tells them the same, becoming first an ally, then a friend to David and then a protector of the play. He slowly realizes Olive is ruining the play with her shrill lack of understanding of her part, though as the boss’ girl he can say nothing. Things get so bad Cheech can barely listen to her ruining what he now calls “his play” and rather than allow Olive to destroy the work when it opens, Cheech takes her to the docks and shoots her dead.
Stunned that she is killed, David nonetheless replaces her with a real actress who will honor the work and the dialogue. Stricken with the realization he is a failure, David decides he wants to stop writing and directing for the theatre, he is done. In the end he finds it too violent and dangerous. Cheech is killed by his boss when it is discovered he killed Olive, leaving David heartbroken that a true artist has been killed.
Bullets over Broadway came out of left field for Allen, a surprise hit with audiences and critics that caught even Woody Allen off guard. Co-written by Douglas McGrath, the film caught the flavor of the thirties and the theatre to perfection, including the very pretentious actors of the time. Listen to Helen Sinclair’s speech about the old theatre they are working in “this church…” she speaks with hushed tones, the others in awe of her. Within seconds she is demanding something like a bossy jail guard used to getting her own way.
The performance of Dianne Wiest is absolutely magnificent, one of the greatest examples of performance art seen on the silver screen. From the moment she appears, all eyes go to her, and to think Wiest did not think she could do the role! She had won her first Academy Award with Allen in Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) and when he approached for this, she suggested he go see Meryl Streep. No chance, says Woody, you are Helen. She took the part, of course, and proceeded to win every single award for Best Supporting Actress given by every awards guild or group including both the La and NY York Film Critics groups, the National Society of Film Critics, the Screen Actors Guild, the Golden Globe and the Academy Award. My only gripe is that I believe her role was the lead, not supporting, but Harvey Weinstein promoted her as supporting, so that was what she won.
She ennobled the cinema with this performance which was a privilege to experience; this is among the finest three performances ever given by an actress.
Wiest dominates every scene she is in, daring the audience to fall in love with this vain, alcoholic who is forever at home on the stage. That is her world, where she feels safest. She is forever an “actress” always on, even when speaking in everyday terms forever “acting”. Pretentious to a fault, vulgar, tough as nails and more than capable of seducing the young director with compliments to get her way, taking him into her bed for good measure. For two hours Wiest is a grand old dame of the theatre, and we cannot take out eyes off her. She is breathtaking.
John Cusack is terrific as David, capturing the neurotic side of David his girlfriend knows, that terror stricken little boy striving for greatness. Obviously the surrogate for Woody himself, Cusack nails the character as Woody would, shaking and in a full-scale panic most of the time. Cusack does not imitate Allen as Kenneth Branagh did in Celebrity (1998), poorly I might add, but captures the essence of Allen’s character within David. He is very nearly ill when he hears a gangster is financing his work, even worse when he meets Olive, part of the financing package and without a shred of talent on the stage. Given her looks and body there is no doubt Olive has other talents, seen only by the mobster.
Chazz Palminteri is a miracle as Cheech, the towering, glowering killer sent to babysit Olive at rehearsals. He sits quietly in the audience until he can hear no more and speaks up about the dialogue, his suggestion making perfect sense to everyone. Feeling undermined, David pouts until he realizes Cheech is making his play better. Palminteri would enjoy a few strong years as an actor, nominated for Oscar for this, and then another success with Robert De Niro’s A Bronx Tale (1993).
As Olive, Jennifer Tilly is a scream. Hysterically funny because her character is genuinely stupid and does not know it (nothing funnier than a dummy who thinks they are bright), and her attempts at serious acting are hilarious. But then she speaks as Olive and we see the horror that she truly is. Of course Cheech has to kill her and when he does, no one misses her. That takes real courage to play a character to be killed that no one will miss. Tilly too was nominated for an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress, a surprise but not undeserved.
In all Bullets over Broadway was nominated for seven Academy Awards including the three aforementioned plus Best Director for Woody Allen, Best Screenplay, Best Production Design and Best Costumes. Miss Wiest was the only winner.
It remains one of Allen’s funniest yet lesser known films. For me, having a background in the theatre, I love it because I know people like those in the film, though I am not always proud to admit that. Vanity runs deep among theatre people, and Allen uses that fully to his advantage in the film and to great comic effect. How perfect he merges the world of theatre with the mob as both have people ruthless and cold blooded.
A comic masterpiece. Not to be passed by. It never stops and takes place within gorgeous sets and in stunning costumes. Masterful.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.