In Bullets Over Broadway, John Cusack plays a playwright named David who wants so badly to be an artist and to have success that he is willing to compromise the quality of his play by casting a mob boss’ young girlfriend to get the mob boss’ financing for the otherwise unbankable play.
The first thing David says in the film is “I’m an artist.” He thinks he’s an artist, but he’s also actively fighting to be considered an artist by people outside of his immediate social circle.
At first David is told there’s no funding for work like his, but when Olive (the girlfriend of mob boss Jack Valenti) wants to get into acting, Valenti finances the play himself. It’s made immediately clear that Olive can hardly act, and this is a huge problem for the reputation of the play. Not only that, but she’s stubborn, and she’s constantly shadowed by Cheech, there to protect her at all times.
Cheech begins to interfere with the production, causing hold ups that are made worse by the sensitive egos of all the actors and of David as well. On multiple occasions David quits, only to eventually realize that Cheech has some good ideas for the play. It turns out that Cheech has a gift for writing, something David is incredibly envious of yet he partners with Cheech all the same.
The play gains momentum, now with the entire cast onboard with the new direction of the story. The only problem that remains is Olive’s terrible acting. Cheech becomes so invested in “his words” that he can’t bear to see Olive butcher them so badly, so he kills her.
Early in the film, at an intellectual jerk off session that is dinner, David and Sheldon (Rob Reiner) along with their girlfriends discuss the importance of art. Sheldon boldly declares that in the event of a fire, it would be better to save a Shakespearean play than an anonymous human being. His basic argument is that art is life. David clearly admires Sheldon or at least pretends to. David tells Sheldon he knows he’s a genius because neither the working class nor the elite understand his plays. To them, genius is defined by inaccessibility.
So as David’s play goes along, he gets more and more success by being practical rather than stubborn. He’s growing. Whereas once he was rigid to his script, now he adapts it based on the suggestions of those around him. This is all because he wants the play to be successful, and to him success is popularity, in other words accessibility.
David literally gets sick when early on he realizes he’s selling out by allowing himself to be forced to cast Olive in a prominent role. At the same time he just continues on that route.
So when Cheech murders Olive, thus preserving his work, David is horrified even when Cheech says he did it for both of them. David knows the success of a play isn’t worth a human life.
So at the end David leaves behind his broadway success and chooses to be with his girlfriend whom he was briefly estranged from.
So the story is about finding fulfillment. David is an artist, and he has a strict definition of success, just like Sheldon, but their definitions are different. The message of the film seems to be that to be an artist means giving up something. That could be David’s relationship with his girlfriend, or full control of his play, or Olive’s death, partially at his hands.
Those are mostly extreme examples, but they paint a portrait of an artist facing constant battles, having to pick one thing or another. On the other hand you have Sheldon who never has to deal with that because he accepts that his work will never be produced, but he’s okay with it. Sheldon is so wrapped up in his small universe in which he is God. He rather keep it all to himself than try to share it with the world.
So maybe that’s what art is, it’s shared. David gives it all up, but he does find success, just not the success he wanted. The play’s success means good things for the cast, but David doesn’t want to give up control the way he had to. He ends the film by saying “I’m not an artist,” and it’s safe to assume that’s because he’s given up the fight.
But I think this is a black and white view of what it means to be an artist. There’s a middle ground between Sheldon’s small world of absolute control and David’s battle to avoid compromising his play. There’s the man in the corner writing by himself and the collaborative side of working with other people. There are benefits to both, I’m sure, but there’s also a middle ground. This film seems to show the drawbacks of each way of working.
Taking a step back, this film is much more broad than Allen’s previous film, Manhattan Murder Mystery. Where it felt like there was a lot of improve in MMM, there seems to be no improv here. Everything feels more conventionally staged, and all the dialogue works like notes in a song. The timing has to be right, and everything must be delivered in order, unlike MMM where characters could talk over each other.
The staging of Bullets Over Broadway felt like a play itself. The shots were a little wider, and characters moved carefully in the scene, timed out to line up with specific camera movements.
If you make a list of Allen’s films up until this time, you can break them down into different categories. The most prominent of these (and my personal favorite) types is when Allen acts in his own films, there’s improv and it’s grounded in reality: Annie Hall, Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, Crimes and Misdemeanors (to a degree), Husbands and Wives and Manhattan Murder Mystery.
These films all take place in a world we’re familiar with. Crimes and Misdemeanors is the only one that strains credibility with the murder plot, but the other half of the film is just another relationship comedy between Allen and Mia Farrow.
Another category includes Bullets Over Broadway and Broadway Danny Rose and Radio Days. You might also be able to put The Purple Rose of Cairo here as well and maybe even A Midsummer Night’s Sex Comedy. Maybe Alice as well. This is a rough list, but most of these films are more overtly comedic, leaving you feel like you watched a long sitcom episode. That’s also a broad generalization, but the characters in these films generally seem to bounce back more quickly because their character types, more easily defined by one trait rather than nuanced, complex characters as in his other films (Annie Hall, Hannah, Manhattan, etc.)
I guess another way of looking at it is that the films in group 1 deal with characters who probably go to therapy, and the characters of the films in group 2 act on their impulses rather than trying to understand them. In group 2, you have a character who wants something, so they go about trying to get it. In group 1 you have characters who want something, so they struggle to figure out why they want it and then sometimes they go get it.
The early comedies of Allen’s career are in their own category (What’s Up, Tiger Lilly? to Love and Death, 1966-1975), but they’re more similar to group 2.
In a way, these films of the 90s are a return to his earlier comedies, but they’re handled more deftly and with a more properly defined structure.
One last note to think of this. The films in group 1, when you watch them, they make you feel like you’re right there amongst the characters. In Husbands and Wives the camera bounces and swings around to follow the action. You’re just trying to keep up as the viewer. In the films of group 2, everything is staged like you’re looking into a diorama. Think of the film within the film in The Purple Rose of Cairo when the characters became self-aware. The camera was in a set position, and each character was arranged so they were clearly visible and could talk to the camera. Their attention is completely directed towards the audience. Again, this contrasts with the elevator scene in MMM that I highlighted yesterday, because in that scene you notice Larry and Carol are faced away from the camera/audience almost the entire time. In those group 1 films, they don’t care where the audience is, they instead just act out the story and we are thrown in there to just be around them. They don’t care about us. Another example, only because I just remembered it, is this scene from Hannah and Her Sisters:
Michael Caine has his back to the camera the entire time. That technique is used because we’re in Caine’s headspace. Hannah and Her Sisters is broken up into chapters, organized around one character, and in this case it’s Caine confessing to Hannah’s sister that he loves her. We don’t need to see Caine’s face because we already know what he feels and where he’s coming from. The point of the scene is to see how Hannah’s sister takes it.
Contrast that with this scene from Radio Days, the following year:
In this shot, with Allen’s narration, we are shown a setting foreign to us. It’s not about the characters so much as the character of the room. That’s why the camera pans around and all the carefully choreographed movement within the scene is staged to be visible to the camera, even angled towards the camera.
I’ve probably used enough examples, but I’ve got one final yet unnecessary point. In the group 1 films, we know the world already, so the story is about the characters involved in that world. In the group 2 films, while still character-based, we spend time being introduced to the world they occupy: their apartments, their homes, where they spend their time, etc.
This might seem odd since I did put Manhattan in group 1 even though that is a story about Manhattan. I don’t have a good argument. Manhattan is just about the Manhattan we know, but it’s shining a light on a sort of subculture we may not know.
Again, I might just be talking out my ass, but this is how his films feel to me. I’m not sure exactly where Stardust Memories fits in. It’s kind of its own film, but I’d place it in group 1 probably.
Look what I just found. Apparently they made Bullets Over Broadway into a music, and Zach Braff (who made his feature film debut in Allen’s previous film Manhattan Murder Mystery) played the lead:
Up Next: Duel (1971), The Mighty Aphrodite (1995), The 400 Blows (1959)