Set in 1920's New York City, this movie tells the story of idealistic young playwright David Shayne. Producer Julian Marx finally finds funding for the project from gangster Nick Valenti. The catch is that Nick's girl friend Olive Neal gets the part of a psychiatrist, and Olive is a bimbo who could never pass for a psychiatrist as well as being a dreadful actress. Agreeing to this first compromise is the first step to Broadway's complete seduction of David, who neglects longtime girl friend Ellen. Meanwhile David puts up with Warner Purcell, the leading man who is a compulsive eater, Helen Sinclair, the grand dame who wants her part jazzed up, and Cheech, Olive's interfering hitman / bodyguard. Eventually, the playwright must decide whether art or life is more important.
There's a line in the film when two artists (so called!) are talking to each other in a café:
"The thing about an artist is that we have to right to create our own moral universe!"
That line defines this film in so many ways. And you can take that line's intention in many ways too. It's written and performed as comedy but there's also that subtext that many so called artists really think exists. From my experience the less artist you are, the more you think things like that line. People who says things like that are what I like to call "wankers". Taken from British slang, it defines that person in so many ways without having to get too wordy about it.
BULLETS OVER BROADWAY takes us into the world of Broadway and the mafia. Well at least Woody Allen's 1920s version of that world. Both professions have a sense of entitlement with the rest of society. They live by their own rules and most of the time they succeed because of that. Or they get burned out and die an early death. Woody Allen's satire of the early 20th century New York City is perhaps his greatest cinematic achievement.
Woody is smart enough to understand that his personality and vibes doesn't fit into this period of society, so he doesn't put himself in the movie. Which is very smart. But there is still a lot of his personality in BULLETS OVER BROADWAY as when I first watched this film on TV years ago, I knew that this was a Woody Allen directed film. I missed the credits and always felts that Woody Allen feel throughout and I wasn't shocked when seeing the ending credits. It got me wondering why.
Perhaps because Allen is the master at uncomfortable comedy. His leading man (usually himself) is always a moderately successful person who always seems to be at the short end of every single conversation and encounter he faces. The famous lines in this film is the "Don't speak. Don't speak" exchange between Diane Lane's actress character and the writer/director character played by John Cusask (filling in for Allen's usual role). Cusask is never able to get his point of view across to anyone in the film as everyone is always interrupting him.
And his own Broadway play gets re-written by a mafioso soldier who is always around during rehearsal because the boss' girl is one of the actors in the play. He makes a suggestion during rehearsal that nails the problem with the play, and through a series of interactions, he then becomes the main "artist" of the story. Cusask's character gets pushed out of his own creation because this mafia guy, who never even graduated from High School, is more talented than he is.
And in the end he understands that he's not a true artist. Kind of tragic but very real.
I think that's what Woody Allen is trying to say. In order to be an artist you have to have your own sense of entitlement and confidence. You must believe that your story is 100% right and that the world needs to see you creation. There's a bit of ego needed for every artist, just like a mafia soldier needs too. Because if you don't have that ego confidence, you're doomed to fail or even get killed by the system of both organizations.
But you also have to find balance inside of that ego or else you'll get too carried away and you'll get chopped off by the knees. Broadway/Hollywood doesn't like an ego driven artist and either does the mafia. You must understand your place.
So before any artist begins, they must understand if you really are an artist or not. Because a lot of people think they are, but they really aren't. That's what Woody is saying. Only the real artist should apply and if you can't handle the mess that will always be encountered on your path, then please don't begin the process. And if you're an idealistic and you don't think this is true, then you're in a whole lot of trouble!