Jennifer Tilly and Tracey Ullman
Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
Volcanic, ribald, and just a little maladroit, Tilly has spent the last 20 years sketching character after character in some of the strangest, most off-the-wall projects Hollywood has gotten away with. Perhaps best remembered as one-half of the most infamous lesbian crime duo of all time in the Wachowskis’ sensational Bound, she gets her kicks out of playing killer dolls in horror sequels (1998’s Bride of Chucky) or evil queens in uncompromising auteurist experiments (Terry Gilliam’s Tideland). A collaboration with Woody Allen, then, comes across on paper like at best an impulsive experiment and at worst a really terrible joke; certainly the last two words one would associate with such a partnership would be “Oscar nomination”.
Bullets Over Broadway, Allen’s farcical examination of the unlikely intersection between theatre and organized crime in the Roaring Twenties, thrives off breaking as many rules as possible, and as such, Tilly’s abrasive, boozy, totally uproarious wannabe-actress Olive Neal doesn’t just work, she soars. A quirky, anomalous jewel in the Allen canon, Bullets over Broadway can be approached in numerous ways: with its wide cross-over appeal, abundance of belly laughs, and razzle-dazzle cast of actors rarely associated with Allen (the exception being Dianne Wiest, of course), it makes a solid case for the Woody Allen Film For People Who Don’t Like Woody Allen Films; however, as one of his last films to enjoy passionate and just-about universal praise, Bullets Over Broadway also represents the end of (or perhaps a brief journey back to) the Golden Age of Woody; a period in which critical acclaim was a given, not a frequently-elusive goal. Regardless, it’s certainly one of his funniest and most durable works, and it’s at its most confident and hysterical whenever Olive appears onscreen.
Tilly’s vocal and physical talents match her character deliciously well; her shrill squawk of a voice can make a throwaway jab at her maid (whom Olive incredibly seems to perceive as a rival) sound as absurd as her butchered delivery of the already-moronic dialogue from ‘Gods of Our Fathers’, the stage production on which the plot is centered. Her body language is even better: even when Olive is fluttering around in the corners of shots or behind other characters, she exudes a kind of manic, appropriately-nauseating energy; Tilly is aided in this endeavor by Jeffrey Kurland’s outrageous costumes, but one should not underestimate the amount of guts it takes not just to make, but to wear outfits made entirely out of pink feathers.
Olive is not a particularly likeable character, and Tilly knows better than to undermine Allen’s writing by overemphasizing her sympathetic elements, but she also pulls off a difficult paradox of keeping the audience invested and interested in Olive even as she becomes increasingly stupid and insufferable. In other words: Tilly gives us a whole world instead of a caricature, milking laughs out of nearly every second of screen-time, keeping Olive’s desires and fears and epiphanies and insecurities tangible without resorting to cruelty, and still operating as part of a greater ensemble. A total knock-out of an oddball supporting turn by an actress who knows “odd” better than just about anyone else.
Bullets Over Broadway (1994), Small Time Crooks (2000)
Central to Woody Allen’s film work is the fact that he began his career as a comedian, and still essentially is one. His respect for jokes and joke-telling is evident in a film like 1984’s Broadway Danny Rose, where a group of comedians tell the story of an entertainer they knew, but really is evident in most of his films, in the way he works one-liners into dialogue. It’s also in his casting. He routinely casts comedians, even as characters that aren’t purely comedic. He appreciates the talent it takes to make people laugh.
By 1994, when Allen cast her in Bullets Over Broadway, UIlman was already an established TV comedian, first in her native UK and then in the US on the The Tracey Ullman Show, the variety show that introduced The Simpsons. Ullman made her name as a quick-witted comedian. Her place within the ensemble cast of Bullets Over Broadway, set in the ‘20s New York theater scene, relies on that same quickness. Her character, Eden Brent, is one of a group of actors who each carry themselves in a larger-than-life way, hiding their inner feelings behind dramatic gestures and mannerisms.
Ullman plays this role to a hilt, entering the film with her little dog in tow, speaking quickly, throwing out niceties, laughing in a high-pitch, nervous way, and following up ridiculous comments with a laughed “just kidding!” She “has a wonderful vivacity”, the playwright (John Cusack) decides, as he was meant to. Her character’s entrance is contrasted with that of Olive Neal (Jennifer Tilly), the gun moll, untrained in acting, who makes all the wrong moves, awkward as most of us would be. Ullman’s character represents someone who has learned the ways of the theater world. When challenged by someone with an even more hardened theatrical exterior (Helen Sinclair, the role for which Dianne Wiest won her second Oscar, both for Woody Allen films), Brent breaks down, demonstrating the fragility we already sensed. Ullman’s physical habits feed our understanding of the character: her nervous hand motions, duplicitous smile, the way she plays at bashful by twirling in a circle at one point.
That ability to wrap a character’s story and personality in a colorful comedic personality was taken to a higher level when she was given a starring role by Allen in 2000’s Small Time Crooks. Seemingly playing against type as working-class New Yorker Frenchie, she’s really tapping into the chameleon-like characteristics of her comedy routines. Both Ullman and Allen are playing types out of our Hollywood imagination: lovable blue-collar buffoons, an ex-con and a former stripper trying to make their way in the world. The film jokes on their naiveté, tackiness, and discontent, but it’s the acting that turns these caricatures into people. Their quick back-and-forth, Ullman staying right with Allen comically, helps us with the lovable part, especially the way they laugh at each other and at themselves.
They seem like equals: in age (though Ullman is 20-plus years younger, in Allen’s world that’s close to equality), in sense of humor, in intelligence (both are dumb on the surface, certain the other one is dumber, but of course reveal a level of understanding and common sense, or at least goodwill, that the more educated around them don’t have), and in their position within the plot. The storyline is quintessential Hollywood—in short, mo’ money mo’ problems—but also quintessential Allen, in the way one half of a couple perceives that life could be better, tries to make a change, and in the process comes to see they were wrong, while spurring the other half to decide that they, too, deserve to have a better life. It’s Husbands and Wives, but with a happier result; comedy over tragedy.
Ullman’s place in the plot is key. It’s her emotional journey that the movie mostly follows. The way she and Allen act together, though, is what makes the most impact. Their reconciling at the end is among the more tender moments in Allen’s films. It’s the final of a string of similar moments between them, scattered throughout the film. A key one early in the film for its cinematic value is their conversation on a rooftop, against the setting sun, captured beautifully by Allen and cinematographer Zhao Fei.
“All that matters is we have each other,” is the film’s final sentiment, and it’s touching in the context of two fools who know they’re each others fools, and who sometimes manage to fool the foolers. It’s Ullman’s Frenchie who embodies this. The way she laughs at her husband (of 25 years) and his stupidity in a way that’s caustic but loving is a recurring action throughout the film, representative of its inherent kindness.