Now that Broadway has become a tourist attraction on an artistic par with the South Street Seaport rather than one of the cultural and intellectual centers of New York City, you don’t see Hollywood exploiting the Great White Way like it used to. Nostalgically, Woody Allen has fashioned his BULLETS OVER BROADWAY in the mold of the classic backstage movies of the 1930s. Bullets Over Broadway not only nods to such revered chestnuts as STAGE DOOR and 42ND STREET, celebrating those movies’ conventions while overturning them, it also pays at least conceptual homage to such later, more cynical paeans to Broadway as ALL ABOUT EVE and THE BAND WAGON.
In Bullets, director and cowriter Allen plays on his audience’s presumed knowledge of the all-but-extinct subgenre, taking time-honored situations to the point of absurdity. Set in the 1920s, the film kicks off with the ranting of young playwright David Shayne (the very funny John Cusack), a self-proclaimed ”artist” who refuses to compromise his work in order to get it produced. What follows, of course, is a series of compromises — the first, and direst, being the casting of obnoxious, talentless chorus girl Olive (Jennifer Tilly) in one of the play’s pivotal roles. Since 42nd Street is the place where, according to the eponymous song, ”the underworld can meet the elite,” the play’s backer is a mobster who has promised to make his girl a star. Complicating matters further is Cheech (Chazz Palminteri), a hitman assigned to watch over Olive during rehearsals. At first he snarlingly belittles Shayne’s play, but he ends up making such trenchant criticisms that Shayne decides to take him on as a secret collaborator. Eventually Cheech takes over entirely and creates a terrific show — except that Olive’s still in it.
That’s the big picture. One of Allen’s briskest yet densest movies, Bullets teems with little subplots, the funniest being Shayne’s manipulation at the hands of stage diva Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest, in a no-holds-barred, Oscar-winning performance). But its main concern is the Olive dilemma, which leads to the question: Dying for your art is one thing, but how about killing for it? Many critics saw this art-and-morality subtext as Allen’s oblique response to the flak he took in the wake of recent scandal. But if Bullets Over Broadway is trying to make a serious argument, and I don’t believe it is, it fails — to me the plot seems too cartoonish to support any big philosophical point.
Though nobody actually gets rubbed out in All About Eve, this story of fresh-faced Eve (Anne Baxter), who claws her way to the top at the expense of fading star Margo Channing (Bette Davis), has its share of character assassinations. Writer-director Joseph L. Mankiewicz packs the film’s 2 hours and 18 minutes with so much emotional intrigue and provides his fully fleshed-out characters with such sharp dialogue that the whole thing races by as breathlessly as Speed. At the same time, Eve (which won six Oscars) is more resonant than Bullets, because the characters are more realistic and their trials are more familiar. Since Eve was made at the onset of Broadway’s final great decade, it’s one of Hollywood’s ultimate valentines to the Great White Way — but like Bullets, it’s a valentine laced with poison.
Far less toxic is The Band Wagon, Hollywood’s last great musical tribute to Broadway. Deceptively simple, it depicts the efforts of a group of troupers — spearheaded by washed-up movie song- and-dance man Tony Hunter (Fred Astaire) — to rescue a show from the pretensions of the ”genius” who has concocted a ponderous mess, a thread Allen pulled to create his Bullets plot. While the deliriously colorful musical numbers are Wagon‘s main attraction, its message — that art, whether high or popular, requires damn hard work — is always rippling below the glittering surface.
Compared with the acerbic All About Eve, and even with the ebullient Band Wagon, Stage Door is a kinder, more sentimental backstage yarn, focusing on the dreams of a group of actresses living in a boardinghouse. One of them, Terry Randall (Katharine Hepburn, in a role that defined her film persona), is a debutante who wants to make it without her family’s help. Supported by a group of wisecracking would-be divas (Ginger Rogers, Lucille Ball, and Eve Arden), she achieves her goal, but not until she has run a gauntlet of betrayal and tragedy.
One might expect, given its status as the granddaddy of backstage sagas, that 42nd Street would seem creaky. Happily, that’s hardly the case. The first picture to showcase the insanely baroque choreography of Busby Berkeley, 42nd Street still enchants today because it focuses on the story — subsequent Berkeley musicals used increasingly flimsy and indifferent plots as scaffolding for his set pieces. And since 42nd Street was made before the censorious Production Code was established, it’s quite racy as well, featuring women of easy virtue and double entendres galore. Everybody knows the story — naive chorine becomes overnight sensation — but its telling has all the vulgar vitality that Warner Bros.’ pictures exuded back then. And despite the pep of the musical numbers, the movie ends on a rather downbeat note. Nevertheless, 42nd Street, like the aforementioned titles, provides compelling testimony as to why Hollywood moviemakers once believed there was no business like show business.
Bullets Over Broadway: A- All About Eve: A The Band Wagon: A Stage Door: A- 42nd Street: A