Woody Allen broke out of a directing funk with this classic underworld comedy, a Runyonesque look at the guys and dolls of 1920s Broadway. The film grabbed seven Academy Award nominations, with Dianne Wiest winning an Oscar as Best Supporting Actress.
Wiest gives an over-the-top and totally hilarious performance as Helen Sinclair, a boozy, aging diva who is cast as the leading lady in a play by struggling Greenwich Village writer David Shayne (John Cusack).
Shayne is the neurotic central figure in the movie, the role that Allen would usually play himself. This time, he stuck to directing (and cowriting with Douglas McGrath). It was a wise choice.
While played for laughs, Bullets Over Broadway does have a serious underlying theme: how far is an artist willing to go to ensure the integrity of his art? The question is raised early in the film when Shayne and his Village mentor and rival, the bombastic Sheldon Flender (perfectly portrayed by Rob Reiner), are sitting in a café discussing their craft.
This is Woody Allen, the writer, and director, taking a not-so-subtle shot at the self-indulgent and self-absorbed actors, writers, and directors in the entertainment industry.
“I have never had a play produced,” Flender boasts. “That’s right. And I’ve written one play a year for the past 20 years.”
“Yes,” says Shayne, “but that’s because you’re a genius. And the proof is that both common people and intellectuals find your work completely incoherent.”
Flender then poses the hypothetical: “Let’s say there was a burning building and you could rush in and you could save only one thing—either the last known copy of Shakespeare’s plays or some anonymous human being. What would you do?”
He and Shayne both agree that you save the Bard’s work, everyone else be damned. The artists talk at great length about the value of what they and the greats who have come before them have given the world.
But it is a mobster—from their perspective a “Neanderthal”—who ultimately faces that dilemma and makes the film’s life-or-death decision over the integrity of his art.
The gangster faced with the artistic crisis—and who also fires most of the bullets in Bullets Over Broadway—is Cheech (Chazz Palminteri). One year after his highly acclaimed performance as mob boss Sonny LoSpecchio in A Bronx Tale (which he also wrote) and a year before his role as a U.S. Customs agent in The Usual Suspects, Palminteri turned in an understated but dead-on (no pun intended) portrayal of a mobster out of his element but not in over his head.
Cheech is assigned as the bodyguard to Olive (Jennifer Tilly), the Mafia moll, and aspiring actress who has been guaranteed a key role in Shayne’s play because her boyfriend, mob boss Nick Valenti (Joe Viterelli), has put up the cash to finance the production. (We also have to wonder if Allen wasn’t tweaking Jack Valenti, the longtime president of the Motion Picture Association of America, by giving his surname to a mob boss.)
Most of the action takes place during rehearsals as the cast—Helen, Olive, leading man Warner Purcell (Jim Broadbent) and costar Eden Brent (Tracey Ullman)—run their lines and bicker over everything from stage direction and their characters’ motivations to Brent’s incessantly barking Chihuahua, Mr. Woofles.
Shayne agonizes over having sold his artistic soul to a mob boss and is racked with additional guilt because he is cheating on his long-suffering girlfriend, Ellen (Mary-Louise Parker), with the much older but famous Helen Sinclair.
Sinclair clearly plays to Shayne’s vanity, telling him at one point, “We’re having dinner Sunday with Gene O’Neill. He’s heard your writing is morbid and depressing. He’s dying to meet you.”
Cheech watches it all unfold while periodically dispatching rivals for his mob boss. But he also begins to make plot suggestions and to rewrite dialogue for Shayne. The play, in fact, finally starts to work because of Cheech’s suggestions. Shayne, at first reluctant, quietly agrees to rework his “masterpiece” with the mobster—the ultimate ghostwriter.
During a meeting in a pool hall where he hangs out, Cheech tells Shayne that his story is good, but his dialogue is weak.
“Nobody talks like that,” he says in thick gangsters. “You don’t write like people talk.”
Cheech agrees to fix everything wrong with Shayne’s play, taking a paper and pencil and going to work while assuring Shayne that no one will know.
“Where I come from, nobody squeals,” he says.
As the play steadily improves, Cheech becomes more invested in the production and more aghast at Olive’s show-stopping—and not in a good way—performance.
“She’s killing my words,” he tells Shayne. “I can’t have her ruining my show.”
He quickly amends the comment to “our show,” but Cheech’s point is clear: someone needs to do something about Olive, even if she is his boss’s girlfriend.
When Olive has to sit out a performance during a pre-Broadway run in Boston and an understudy takes over her role, the play gets even better. And Cheech gets even more frustrated.
Just how far will an artist go to ensure the integrity of his work?
The last straw comes when mob boss Valenti tells the play’s producer, Julian Marx (Jack Warden), that he wants Olive to have more lines. With the play about to open on Broadway, Marx tries to explain that last-minute changes and additions could upset the staging and confuse the cast. But Valenti, who meets with Marx in the nightclub where Olive used to dance, doesn’t want to hear it.
“Let’s avoid confusion,” he says. “She gets some new fuckin’ lines or I’ll nail your kneecaps to the dance floor.”
Cheech, of course, has other ideas.
HIT: As with almost any Woody Allen movie set in New York, the music perfectly captures the mood, era, and pacing of the story. From Al Jolson’s “Toot, Toot Tootsie Goodbye” to Dick Hyman’s rendition of “Thou Swell,” the soundtrack provides a trip back in time. Other recordings come from Duke Ellington, Bix Beiderbecke, and Red Nichols & His Five Pennies.
MISS: Hard to find a miss unless you’re one of those gangster movie purists who believe there’s no room in the genre for comedy.
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: Dianne Wiest won an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress twice, each time in a Woody Allen film. The first was for her work in Hannah and Her Sisters. For her second Oscar statue, Wiest beat out Jennifer Tilly, who was also nominated for her performance in Bullets Over Broadway. Palminteri was nominated for Best Supporting Actor, with that award going to Martin Landau for his work in Ed Wood. The movie also got nominations for Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction-Set Decoration and Best Costume Design.
BEST LINE: A somewhat inebriated Helen predicts that Shayne will be the toast of Broadway once the play debuts. “The world will open to you like an oyster,” she says, then has second thoughts. “No, not like an oyster. The world will open to you like a magnificent vagina.”
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “[Woody Allen] successfully reinvents himself as a comic philosopher, finding wicked humor in questions of artistic life or death. . . . Bullets Over Broadway is a bright, energetic, sometimes side-splitting comedy with vital matters on its mind, precisely the kind of sharp-edged farce he has always done best.”—Janet Maslin, New York Times
DON’T FAIL TO NOTICE: The name of Shayne’s play appears on a theater marquee several times during the film. Its title, God of Our Fathers, is a nice twist on the title of what we consider the all-time greatest mob movie.
“I KNOW THAT GUY”: A hitman who appears early in the movie and is later sent to deal with Cheech is played by Tony Sirico, who will forever be remembered as Paulie Walnuts from The Sopranos.
REPEATED WATCHING QUOTIENT: Any time you’re looking for a laugh. Bullets Over Broadway offers a series of vignettes, each one worth watching on its own.
BODY COUNT: Twelve.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”