Theatre in Film: Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
Written by Ashleigh Gardner
October 5, 2016
Welcome to Part IV in Performer Stuff’s Theatre in Film series. In this installment, we feature films from 1989 to 1995 that focus on interpersonal relationships within theatre — the love, the complications, and the comedy that inevitably occur when actors, directors, playwrights, and technicians share the same space for extended periods of time. We continue Part IV with the 1994 Woody Allen backstage comedy, Bullets Over Broadway.
Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
Director: Woody Allen
Starring: John Cusack, Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Tilly, Chazz Palminteri, Jim Broadbent, Tracey Ullman, Joe Viterelli, and Mary-Louise Parker.
It’s 1928, and young, inexperienced playwright David Shayne (John Cusack) needs to find the money to produce his play, God of Our Fathers on Broadway. Unfortunately, he has to agree to cast Olive Neal (Jennifer Tilly), the girlfriend of mobster Nick Valenti (Joe Viterelli), in order for Valenti to hand Shayne any money for the production. Olive has always wanted to be an actress, and she is a disaster onstage from the moment of the first read-thru. To make things worse, Olive’s bodyguard, Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), refuses to leave the rehearsal or stay out of Shayne’s directorial choices. Shayne, admitting he’s sold out to the mob, gets caught in an amusing spiral of self-doubt and guilt and begins an affair with his older, alcoholic, self-absorbed leading lady, Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest). Additionally, Olive herself begins an affair with the play’s leading man, Warner Purcell (Jim Broadbent), putting herself and Warner at risk of being “offed” by Nick Valenti’s men.
Cheech, having seen what a disaster rehearsals are, begins making suggestions for improvements to the script. Shayne, somewhat open to Cheech’s ideas, befriends the gangster and accepts some rewrites from Cheech, claiming them as his own. When the actors praise Shayne for his improved script, Shayne begins wondering whether or not he’s really an artist, and his moral compass begins to shift as his desire for admiration and respect outweigh the truth of what’s right and what’s wrong.
Why it matters:
One of the most fun backstage comedies within the past 20 years, Bullets Over Broadway was nominated for six Academy Awards and, as of today, holds a 96% on Rotten Tomatoes. Besides standing out as an excellent example of how difficult it is to get funding for a personal project in the arts, Woody Allen’s film helps audiences witness the kind of relationships theatre-types must endure on and offstage, not to mention the consequences of severing ties with influential community leaders.
Theatre is an industry that requires a lot of convincing: actors must convince the audience that characters are real people, the playwright and director must convince the audience that the story is plausible, techs must convince everyone that everything backstage is going smoothly (even if it’s not), and actors must sometimes convince each other that they like each other offstage, not to mention convincing the audience that their characters are thick as thieves. In an industry where working with people directly is the primary responsibility of all involved, complications can arise when one individual doesn’t like someone else.
As actors, singers, techs, and directors, we work with people we’ve never met all the time. When we meet them for the first time at an audition or at the first read-thru, we’re putting our trust in them that they have our backs during the production (if we’re cast at all). And if we find out that the person playing opposite us in the show isn’t who we would ideally want, a shift of perspective sometimes has to take place in order for us to work with them in a professional manner. For David Shayne, his professionalism is required in the theatre. He may be pummeled to death by Cheech or murdered by Nick Valenti if he upsets or fires Olive. But then again, his professionalism isn’t required outside the theatre. His emotional recourse is having drinks with his leading lady, Miss Sinclair.
Shayne’s internal struggle to admit that the show’s rewrites are actually Cheech’s also presents a dilemma that so many playwrights experience throughout their careers. Oftentimes, writing credit may never even be given to the person who came up with the bulk of the story to begin with. Additionally, the playwright may find themselves questioning their own talent: “Are these my words? If they’re not, why is my name on the bill? Ultimately, whose ideas are these, and how should credit be presented?” It’s a tough decision to make, especially if the actual editor of rewrites doesn’t want any credit, just like Cheech refuses recognition for his edits.
Bullets Over Broadway transcends time to address backstage theatre culture in ways that encompass reputation and ethics, and though the film is a comedy, the events presented in Allen’s script fall close to home in some situations where the outcome is more dramatic than farcical.
This film is the first featured in Part IV of “Theatre in Film”. See below for the others in Part IV.
- A Chorus of Disapproval (1989)
- Noises Off (1992)
- Vanya on 42nd Street (1994)
- A Midwinter’s Tale (In the Bleak Midwinter) (1995) (Coming soon.)