In the Woody Allen and Douglas McGrath 1995 film, Bullets over Broadway, fictional playwright David Shayne (John Cusack) is on par with fictional playwright turned screenwriter Barton Fink (John Turturro) in the Coen brothers’ 1991 film of the same name, Barton Fink. Each character is conflicted by the stereotypical questions that face all authors, such as:
• From where, what or whom does inspiration come?
• What constitutes art, one creator’s original idea or collaboration?
• What is the value of art or artist and how is that value recognized?
• In what ways does the art belong to the author as well as the audience?
• At which point does that private to public transference take place when dictated by capitalism?
• Does this transference to the public realm devalue the art, the artist, both or neither?
What makes each character’s experience realistic in both films is the fact that their moral and ethical struggles in relation to the convergence of idealistic art and life’s monetary motivation are born out of authentic human experience.
In Barton Fink, Barton wants to write for the common man, as though he were one himself. Fink’s character is portrayed naturally in the realistic New York setting but finds himself existing in an increasingly fictional head space, physical space and sense of time. Once he enters the stereotypical Hollywood film scene, questions of inspiration and collaboration stem from the triangular relationship between Fink and washed up but once popular W. P. Mayhew (John Mahoney) via Audrey Taylor (Judy Dench), their shared secretarial muse. Charlie (John Goodman), a “common man” and industry outsider, has many stories to share but is never heard by Fink. Charlie ultimately retaliates, usurping Audrey’s power as muse by presumably by killing her and taking it for himself. This event involves Fink, making him and Charlie co-conspirators in a personal drama that appears to successfully and collaboratively feed Fink’s writing process.
Still, throughout the film, Fink is trapped in sellout Hell, corrupting his “art” by writing for money as he plagiarizes his own genuine theatrical work. In the end, Fink is neither a personal or public success due to his refusal of “common man” inspiration, collaboration, his personal financial desires, and his ignorance of Hollywood capitalist pressure and control. Had Fink followed instructions in writing a Hollywood wrestling film, perhaps he would have been a success, but by whose standards, those of the artist or the Hollywood capitalist/Nazi, Jack Lipnick (Michael Lerner)?
Bullets Over Broadway addresses these same themes with a similar bent. Concessions are what ultimately make playwright/director David Shayne a success. His first two Broadway attempts are a failure and he blames this on his lack of artistic control via botched outside direction. What we learn, as he tries to keep a firm artistic grip through his own direction, is that only the collaborative effort between the producer, financial backer/mob boss and actors launches the ultimate success of “God of Our Fathers.”
The eventual collaborative writing process shared by Shayne and hit man Cheech (Chazz Palminteri) exacerbates the argument initially brought up by Shayne’s bohemian artist friend, Sheldon Flender (Rob Reiner). Flender speaks about writing from experience versus cerebral imagination, the constructed moral universe of the artist, and true art versus a vehicle for financial gain. In the end, Cheech is shot for killing Olive Neal (Jennifer Tilly), the horrific actress and mob boss’ girlfriend, for ruining the lines he wrote. Cheech’s immoral and exacting control over the final product are what do him in. With no regrets, even his last words offer improvements for the script. Finally, we learn of Cheech’s love and friendship for Shayne, the artist and not the man, when Shayne tries to console Cheech to the reply of “Don’t Speak!”
Ellen (Mary-Louise Parker), Shayne’s girlfriend, is the antithesis of actress and adulteress Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest). Helen no doubt seduces Shayne, the artist, strictly as an actress. She talks ad nauseum about script changes and artistic genius, speak poetic lines about the park, and acts her manipulative way to get what she wants, yet when Shayne tries share personal emotion, she begs him repeatedly, “Don’t speak!” Alternately, Ellen says, “I could love a man who isn’t an artist, but I could never love an artist who isn’t a man.” David Shayne is unable to resolve the differences between himself as artist and man. In the end, he discards his desire for fame and fortune and wins back Ellen’s personal companionship.
The singular twist in Bullets over Broadway is that the non-naturalistic acting becomes a double or even triple entendre. Each of the film’s actors (Dianne Wiest, Jennifer Tilly, Tracey Ullman and Jim Broadbent) is also a caricature of an actor (Helen Sinclair, Olive Neal, Eden Brent and Warner Purcell) playing a stereotypical stage performer in David Shayne’s play (Sylvia Posten, the psychiatrist, the other woman and Sylvia’s husband). When Helen acts her way through her personal life within the film, our sense of reality blurs. She is never out of character, on or off playwright/director/lover Shayne’s stage yet Woody Allen cast Dianne Wiest and John Cusack opposite their usual typecast roles. Olive’s performance when hiding love interest Purcell from mob boss Nick Valenti (Joe Viterelli) is more believable than her stage performance, but otherwise, who she is in “life” is exactly who you get on stage. Eden Brent is the only actress who offers the opposite, acting out a certain persona behind the scenes while playing the serious part of the other woman in the theater. Purcell too “acts” the part of a big strong man behind Olive’s closed doors, but his true fear is revealed when mob boss Nick shows up to retrieve Olive. Nowhere in our class viewing thus far have we seen such playful and in-depth handling of the casting process both for and within the film.
Overall, the message in Bullets over Broadway and Barton Fink is similar: Inspiration comes from a mix of living and reflection upon that living. Work can be produced through individual reflection or collaborative interpretation, although collaboration appears to be essential for financial success. Unless an artist goes public with their work, there is no way to gauge that success. Additionally, value comes in the form of critical review and fame as well as financial gain. Private to public transference takes place when the artist gives up full control, whether allowing for interpretation through direction or creating from the start with capital success in mind. This, for the artist, can have the effect of devaluing the art but, with the mix of many elements masking imperfections, the audience will buy and value the end product all the same.