I’ve just booked a holiday to New York later in the year, so of course one of the things on the top of my list of things to see is the new musical version of Bullets Over Broadway. It shouldn’t be a surprise that this film has been given a big Broadway treatment since it is already a well plotted farce with outrageous characters galore. This could have been one of Woody Allen’s most popular funny movies – up there with Play It Again, Sam – if the subject wasn’t too esoteric. But if New York theatre and gangsters in the 1920s is your thing, plus a discussion around what makes an artist an artist, then this is a glorious film that ticks every box.
The story concerns an emerging playwright, David Shayne (John Cusack), who takes mob money to fund his latest play on the condition that he casts Olive, an airhead gangster’s moll (Jennifer Tilly), in a serious part. While he bemoans this casting choice, he is enamoured of the leading lady, Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest), self-described as ‘some vain Broadway legend‘. When Olive’s bodyguard, Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), starts making valuable suggestions to the script, David begins to question his own integrity, and as the play’s premiere approaches, various characters either compromise or don’t, with lethal results, to see their artistic vision realised.
The first line of this film is David announcing, ‘I’m an artist!’ and the last is him meekly admitting to his girlfriend, ‘I’m not an artist.’ So for all the wild plot machinations which I barely touched on above, that’s really what the film is about. David is earnest and desperately wants to be a writer but he struggles with his script, while for the untrained goon it all comes naturally. The dialogue scenes between David and his girlfriend (played by a mousy Mary Louise Parker) and his socialist friend (played by a hilarious Rob Reiner) bring this subtext to the fore, along with another theme about putting art above life. Cheech has no problem dispatching lives for the good of the play, while David is apoplectic at the thought.
Leaving these themes aside, what makes the film so enjoyable to watch and re-watch are the performances, (particularly Dianne Wiest who won an Oscar) of larger than life characters. As well as the leads meantioned above, Jim Broadbent and Tracy Ullman are both hilarious as actors in David’s play. The film looks great too with lavish period detail and recreated performances at The Cotton Club, and warmly shot by Carlo di Palma.
I always find this to be one of Woody’s best screenplays for its extremely tight structure. Not only does everything work and escalate like a good farce should, there is the added bonus of the style which walks a tightrope between comedy and gangster genres. Of course this isn’t the first film to do this; Some Like It Hot comes to mind. But here there is added pondering about the life of an artist to make it a Woody Allen film when all the laughs (and gunshots) subside.
Perhaps because I already have a soft spot for, or rather a completely useless knowledge of, the 1920s American theatre scene, Bullets Over Broadway is one of my favourite of Woody’s films. To date this is the last film he wrote with a collaborator, Douglas McGrath. What this co-writer brought to the process we may never know, but the result was an undeniably funny film that still entertains and has now produced a live musical version some twenty years later. I’m looking forward to seeing it.
Next week: Don’t Drink The Water