Best Director Final 50: Woody Allen for Bullets over Broadway

WOODY ALLEN FOR BULLETS OVER BROADWAY (1994)

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The competition (Cliff: 5 for 5!)

Robert Zemeckis for Forrest Gump

Krzysztof Kieslowski for Three Colors: Red

Robert Redford for Quiz Show

Quentin Tarantino for Pulp Fiction

NOTE: dark blue text denotes individuals who won Oscars for the film being discussed, while light blue indicates those who were nominated.

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Bullets over Broadway begins with Al Jolson warbling “Toot, Toot, Tootsie,” the song that follows the famous (and, for Broadway, fateful) line, “You ain’t heard nothing yet!” in The Jazz Singer. Setting the credits to this song serves as a fitting memento mori for a vanished chapter in New York’s cultural history. As a writer, Allen crafts a charming show business satire that snuggles into the mythology of the Roaring Twenties, a tribute to Broadway’s last days as America’s undisputed cultural capital. What sets Bullets over Broadway apart, however, is the film’s superb production value, resurrecting the image of Broadway’s true heyday (long before its ballyhooed, midcentury Golden Age). This is no idle period piece; famous for romanticizing the New York of his present day, here Allen mounts a historical recreation to rival Gangs of New York or even the Godfather films in its richness. The production places as much emphasis on exploring the magnificent sets as it does on the gaggle of characters milling about the frame, and certainly more than the barely-glimpsed production fo Gods of Our Fathers. Allen’s Bullets over Broadway presents the Great White Way as a firmament of theaters, nightclubs, and penthouses, in which the people—and even the plays—are mere overnight occupants.

According to the usual metrics of Woody Allen’s work, this is another pleasing concoction. Allen’s screenplay (crafted in mysterious collaboration with Douglas McGrath) centers on the perversity of a creative process powered by accidents, schemes, and bad decisions, all within a narrative structure suffused with irony: characters miscast in their roles (on- and offstage), a work of art that improves as it strays from the original artistic vision, characters rewarded for their venality or punished for putting the art first. I was particularly struck by the emergent Salieri-Mozart dynamic between John Cusack’s oversensitive playwright David (a fun riff on how Barton Fink might have turned out back in New York) and Chazz Palminteri’s unflappable mobster Cheech. Their demeanors seem to have evolved in response to their miscast lot in life, and their at-first hokey collaboration leads to an ethical exploration that lends substance to the rest of the comedy. Meanwhile, the notion of the miscast role extends throughout the rest of the comedy, most notably to the wiles of the more literally miscast actresses—the deliciously high-handed Helen (a throaty Dianne Wiest) and insouciant Olive (a fearlessly adenoidal Meg Tilly). Jeffrey Kurland’s costume lend an extra layer of commentary on these characters, from Helen’s full suits of armor (complete with gloves and plumed hats) to mobster Nick’s array of dapper light colors.

Woody Allen is an innovative historian, drawn to depictions golden ages and compelled to take extra stylistic measures to capture to capture the feel on an era.  In Radio Days, this means an almost free-floating anecdotal narrative structure centered on the radio content itself, while The Purple Rose of Cairo yields a brilliantly reflexive rhapsody on the escapism of the movie theater and Midnight in Paris parades the personages of the Moveable Feast.  As a narrative, though, Bullets over Broadway resists such narrative acrobatics, a fractured fairy tale that snuggles neatly into the mythology of the Roaring Twenties in between decorative references to Cole Porter and Maxwell Anderson. Instead, the army of filmmakers working on this production make Allen’s film a feat of visual style, an onscreen world that subordinates even the antics of the comedic storyline. Allen’s famously reserved and minimalist directing comes to the fore in exploring the depth of his collaborators’ creations, in particular Santo Loquasto and Susan Bode’s sumptuous sets. Rather than expend their efforts in a few perfunctory establishing shots, Allen makes these shots the substance of the scene. Many play out in a single master shot, courtesy of (the lamentably un-nominated) Carlo Di Palma’s responsive mobile camera, hanging back at a distance to take in the entire scene. Most impressive of the single-take scenes is the one in Helen’s penthouse as she circles her spacious quarters (extravagantly, only seen this once), pridefully moving toward taking the lead role, as well as the final conversation, a hilariously triangular shouted discussion on the streets of Greenwich Village. Allen prefers to envision the old world of Broadway as a seamless whole, the playground conjured in countless stories of the good old days. It’s an impressively orchestrated recreation of a past New York, and yet another subtle rejoinder to Allen’s reputation as a writer first and a visual stylist second.

 

THE VOTE

The 1994 Best Director race was a masterstroke for the Weinsteins. In addition to lavishly campaigning Allen’s film to his sixth (and for a long time last) Best Director and beating his typical take of 1 to 3 total nominations, the Weinsteins also brought in a pair of polar opposite first-timers: neophyte Quentin Tarantino for his bombshell Pulp Fiction and foreign master Krzysztof Kieslowski for the conclusion to his magnum opus Three Colors trilogy, Red. Despite the worthy technical wizardry of Robert Zemeckis’ triumphant Forrest Gump and the thoughtful drama of Robert Redford’s Quiz Show, the vote comes down to Miramax’s flashily advertised auteurs. I’m slowly coming around to Kieslowski’s work as a director, and I recognize the profundity of his work in Three Colors: Red. However, I can’t deny the cocksure verve with which Tarantino set the tone for a decade or more of American indie cinema. My vote goes to Tarantino’s sprezzatura masterpiece, though I give kudos to Allen for creating such an impressive romantic vision of a golden age.

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