Thursday, January 3, 2008

Broadway or Bust

I watched Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway (1994) and Dorothy Arzner's Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) on the same day, and both deal with performing, so I thought it would be fitting to do one post about both of them.

I'm still pretty new to Woody Allen, but I'm growing to love him. It amazes me that he's always so different even though he has a distinctive voice (not his actual voice, but his writing voice - although his real voice is distinctive, too) and style. Bullets Over Broadway is a lot of fun. It's about a struggling playwright/director (John Cusack) who desperately wants to be an artist and maintain the integrity of his play, but he keeps having to make sacrifices because a) that's the biz, and b) his play is being financed by the mob. He's pretty much a blow hard, a real elitist, uptight, stuffy guy. The major compromise in his play is the casting of the mafia boss' girlfriend, Olive, played with squeaky enthusiasm by Jennifer Tilly. She can't act to save her life, and she's supposed to play a psychologist. Tilly's part-husky, part-baby voice is one of her greatest assets, and she exploits it to the fullest here. Dianne Wiest is stellar as an aging star (very reminiscent of Margo Channing or Norma Desmond), and she won as Oscar for her work.

But the real stand-out of the film for me was Chazz Palminteri. I had never seen him in anything before, but he's awesome as Olive's bodyguard, Cheech. It's an outstanding performance. He's forced to sit in on all the rehearsals, but as things progress, it turns out he's absorbed so much that he knows the play better than anyone else, including Cusack's character, David Shayne. He's a street-smart thug, but he's also a great writer. He starts working with Shayne and doing the re-writes, with David taking the credit until the very end. And the ending is a shocker. I'm not sure how I feel about the very end of the film, its last minutes, which of course I won't reveal. It lost me a bit, and I never really cared about Cusack's character. Palminteri is the film's heart, and when his storyline is over, it stops beating. But, up until that point, I don't even think Cheech could have written it better than Woody Allen did.

And now on to, insert big heaving sigh here, Dance, Girl, Dance, maybe the clunkiest movie about dancing I've ever seen. Even the commas in the title feel cumbersome. I call this one a "movie" with the greatest intention of insulting it. I don't even want to talk about it very much, because it doesn't deserve it. Maureen O'Hara is about as lively as a log as the main character, Judy O'Brien (ooh, they're both Irish!). She aspires to be a great dancer, but instead, she's caught up in a chorus line. And guess who's there with her? Lucille Ball. Her character's name? Are you ready? Bubbles. Sheesh. Lucy's actually the only bright spot in the movie. The rest of the acting is uniformly cringe-inducing. It's so mechanical. Bubbles is a slut, a real sexpot perfectly content being exploited by men. She's the main act. Her dancing is meant to be provocative, but it's actually pretty lame. Marlene Dietrich, she ain't. Judy follows Bubbles. She goes on so the men in the audience can laugh at her "serious" dancing and mock her.

There's one great moment where the film seems like it's trying to say something, about the feminist gaze and women being objectified, when Judy delivers a speech to the audience about how ashamed they should be of themselves for ogling women. It's rather empowering, but it's ruined when the audience applauds. They were just heckling her, and now they're converted? It's completely unconvincing. Then, Judy and Bubbles get into a catfight, and feminism is set back at least 20 years. It's like, "Hey, all women are bitches, after all!" And isn't the spectacle of them fighting what men want to see? It's shameful that a woman director, Dorothy Arzner, so rare back then, would produce such a piece of sexist trash. And the film is technically awful, but I don't even want to get into it. Lucy is the best actress in the movie, which I guess isn't saying much since everyone else is so bad. Regardless, she's vivacious and funny. It was at least somewhat entertaining when she was on screen, and it was refreshing for me to see after subjecting myself continuously to Mame over the past year. Stay away from this movie. It didn't make me want to Dance, Girl, Dance - instead, as a woman, it made me want to Puke, Girl, Puke.

Bullets Over Broadway: ****1/2 (out of 5)
Dance, Girl, Dance: * (out of 5)

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