Though it’s plainly obvious to anyone who’s ever seen a Woody Allen film, the point must still be made: in his ability to direct actors—or at least, to direct great performances—Allen has few peers in contemporary American cinema. The Essentially Woody retrospective offers more than ample evidence, packing at least a dozen great performances into three short weeks, from Mia Farrow’s fragile loveliness in The Purple Rose of Cairo through Gena Rowlands’s restrained desperation in Another Woman to Alan Alda’s riotous idiocy in Crimes and Misdemeanors. Of course, Allen can’t take all the credit, since he tends to work with exceptional performers on a regular basis, but still, it took a special talent to direct then-future Bride of Chucky, Jennifer Tilly, to an Oscar nomination, a feat he achieved with the 1994 backstage period comedy Bullets Over Broadway, which stands as one of the director’s funniest and most accomplished films of the past two decades—cleverly written, beautifully designed, and well-shot, to be sure, but a movie that truly soars on the quality of its extraordinary performances.
An ensemble piece in the truest sense of the word, Bullets Over Broadway boasts at least a half dozen inspired comic turns (in practically any other film, Jim Broadbent, Rob Reiner, and Tracey Ullman would all be the scene stealers; here, they’re amusing diversions). Still, towering above them all is Allen-mainstay Dianne Wiest as the boozy, aging Broadway star Helen Sinclair. Wiest had previously brought a wounded, human quality to films like Radio Days and Hannah and Her Sisters; here she bursts into the film, hurling a script down a flight of stairs, “You must be joking!” Wiest’s Helen is a thunderous presence, her narcissism, insecurity, and theatricality providing the center of gravity for the play within the film and the film itself. Her over-the-top bravado swept almost every supporting actress award that year (on the male side, Martin Landau, who should’ve received every award on the planet for Crimes and Misdemeanors, picked up equally well-deserved accolades for his work in Ed Wood); a decade later, I remain convinced that Wiest’s performance is one for the ages—endlessly quotable (“Don’t speak!”; “The world will open to you like an oyster. No, not like an oyster. The world will open to you like a magnificent vagina!”), side-splittingly funny, and absolutely transfixing.
The performers have the benefit of a deft and clever screenplay, co-scripted by Allen and Douglas McGrath, which tackles serious intellectual issues (Do artists create their own moral universe? Where do an artist’s aesthetic commitments end and ethical responsibilities begin?) with a playful dexterity. Bullets Over Broadway takes an amusing enough setup—a mobster bankrolls a lousy play so his mistress, herself a lousy actress, can have her big break—and twists it into a richly textured morality play. When it first came out, many critics were quick to read Bullets Over Broadway as Allen’s mea culpa, his artistic response to the well-publicized affair that had tarnished his public reputation a few years prior. Personally, I think that’s too easy: Bullets Over Broadway may have asked the same ethical questions that were dogging Allen himself during those tumultuous years (after all, he’s always been an extremely personal filmmaker), but like his best work, it leaves the tough questions unanswered—it’s a cry of moral confusion masquerading as a titter of delight. Today at Film Forum.