Saturday, October 29, 2022

Recasting 1994 (supporting): "Bullets Over Broadway"

For 1994 in this series, I've chosen my second of three roles originated by the great Dianne Wiest (Parenthood). Woody Allen's dark comedy Bullets Over Broadway takes place in Prohibition-era New York and follows an aspiring playwright, David Shayne (John Cusack), who, in order to get his latest play produced, has to say yes to casting a mob boss's girlfriend, Olive (Jennifer Tilly), in one of the roles. Wiest's character is Helen Sinclair, a past-her-prime alcoholic theater star who is cast in a lead role in the play. 

I watched the film for the second time this past week, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that I enjoyed it even more this time around. I hadn't quite remembered how snappy the dialogue was, and how many long takes many of the scenes incorporated. Despite Cusack's lead performance, this really does feel very much like an ensemble film. The characters are all so distinctly drawn (as eccentric as they may be), and as a group they weave together a fast-paced storyline from their individual narratives.  

Although Allen had Wiest in mind when writing the script, the character of Helen would've been a fun one for Streep to sink her teeth into. It's more than the fact that she's a bit larger than life. She gets to negotiate some interesting interactions as a romance bubbles between her and Cusack's young character, and in the relationships she settles into with her fellow, often grating, castmates. Her reactions to Tilly's character and the handful of scenes she has with Tracey Ullman are laugh-out-loud funny to me. 

But it really does boil down to the broad, dramatic and theatrical aspects of Helen that make her memorable. She's also very smart, and as a seasoned pro, is extremely far from naive. She doesn't hesitate to let her mind be known, as stinging as it may be to anyone in her way. Wiest's delivery of the line "Don't speak," has become iconic at this point. 

Of course, Helen is essentially manipulating her director in order to get him to implement the changes she finds necessary to make her character a passable one. And she's got the skills to do it. When mob strongman Cheech (Chaz Palminteri) ends up making script changes that everyone in the cast thinks are the director's, Helen and the rest of the cast's praise at the adjustments only serve in making David insecure about his possible lack of talent, as he realizes his work is second class to a guy's who barely learned to read. Lots for any actor playing Helen to do. 

Wiest's memorable portrayal stood out in this picture more than any of the other actors. While it's definitely a supporting character, in a different time and with Meryl in the role, I could almost have seen them pushing her in lead.  The movie was a huge critical success and a modest financial one. Wiest deservedly won her second Oscar for her performance, while both Tilly and Palminteri were nominated in supporting as well (neither winning). While Wiest missed out on a BAFTA nomination (not surprising to me as this is a VERY American film), she pretty much swept the awards season that year, also winning the Globe, the SAG (in its inaugural year), L.A. Film Critics Association, New York Film Critics Circle, and National Society of Film Critics awards, among others. 


  1. Wonderful choice Jeff, a really iconic performance in a smart and still enjoyable performance. Also gives me shades of Meryl's potential character from "Places, Please".

    For 1994 I am torn between two roles, both in brilliant Australian movies from the 90s.

    I need to rewatch the movie "Heavenly Creatures" but remember being very impressed by it (and the acting in particular) when I saw it many years ago. I had thoughts of Meryl perhaps playing the role of slain mother Honora, who unwittingly became the target of her daughter and her best friend. I fell Meryl could have brought a lot of gravitas to the project.

    My second idea was for a movie I adore - "Muriel's Wedding"! I am always heartbroken by the performance of Jeanie Drynan as Muriel's mum so I could not recast that. Instead I thought it would be fun to see Meryl in the small role of Deidre Chambers, the homewrecking mistress of the father! Always makes me chuckle when she just keeps turning up to events, as if by accident and the dad' s fake incredulity. Plus - Abba!

    I realise how improbable it is to have Meryl go all the way to Australia at this point in her life if she weren't the star, but had to go with the excellence of the movie over the power of the role.

  2. Two more great choices from films I haven't seen but am definitely aware of. You're giving me such a fun list of movies to add to my list! And I get the improbability of it, but this is all for fun and you never know what Meryl would've wanted to do for a great role. If/when she lived in Los Angeles, for example, it only would've taken five hours longer to get to Sydney than to London. She likely would've gone to the U.K. to film Remains of the Day. Yes, the two films you listed are supporting roles, but the "unlikely yet possible" scenarios are the most fun to imagine.