Saturday, February 11, 2012

Director's Spotlight #4.9: Woody Allen's Broadway Danny Rose

In the world of film, it is not the actor, nor the screenwriter, nor the producer who makes or breaks the movie. Whatever their contributions, it is ultimately the director who is the sole author of the film. Every month, Director’s Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on a few items in the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. February’s director is comedy legend Woody Allen.  Next up, 1984’s Broadway Danny Rose.

Grade: 89 (A-)
Zelig, Woody Allen’s astonishing technical and artistic achievement, took so long to finish that Allen wrote and shot its follow-up, Broadway Danny Rose, during its post-production. Broadway Danny Rose is less ambitious than its predecessor, but no less noteworthy. For its story, Allen went to his origins as a comedian and stage performer. A loving and nostalgic tribute to vaudeville and the stage, Broadway Danny Rose is the second of four nostalgia-based films Allen released in the 80s, and it’s one of his strongest.
Danny Rose (Allen)is a hapless manager of low-rent comedians, singers, ventriloquists, and other acts (a blind xylophonist, piano playing parrots, a one-legged tap dancer). Rose has become a legend amongst local comedians, and a group of them gather in at New York’s Carnegie Deli and tell their favorite Danny Rose stories. One has a tale to beat them all: Danny Rose manages Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte), an egotistical, temperamental, alcoholic lounge singer who had one hit ages ago. When Danny books Milton Berle’s nostalgia show for Canova, it looks like the two have finally got a break. Lou just has one request: that Danny brings his brassy New Jersey mistress Tina (Mia Farrow) along the way. Danny and Tina get into trouble when one of Tina’s old beaus, a gangster, thinks Danny is the man Tina left him for, and a hit gets put out on him.
Broadway Danny Rose has the zany energy and zippy pacing of one of Allen’s “early, funny” films and the grounded maturity of Annie Hall and Manhattan. Allen brings out plenty of his great zingers (“he’s a horrible, dishonest, immoral louse…and I say that with all due respect”) to play a man who desperately wants to please as many people as possible (a scene where he tries to win over a group of gangsters is priceless). It’s one of Allen’s most ingratiating performances: he wants everyone to have a good time and every single one of his acts to succeed, even though most of them are clearly talentless. Allen’s performance recalls Jack Lemmon as a deeply likable man whose desperation is so winning, it’s sad to see that he’ll never get his big break. It’s one of Allen’s warmest performances in one of his warmest films.
That warmth extends to Forte’s singer, a bum and an egotist who thinks he’s still at the top of the world. He does some lousy things to people (cheats on his wife, meets another agent behind Danny’s back), but he’s not a bad person; he’s just another one of Allen’s misfits, and when he gets a break, he has to take it all the way. As a side note: the role was almost played by Sylvester Stallone, who had previously been given a bit part in Bananas. Stallone would have killed the part, but he turned it down, saying that his new movie Rhinestone, co-starring Dolly Parton, would give him a chance to sing and a bigger part. It was perhaps not the finest decision of Stallone’s career.
Mia Farrow steals the film, however, as Tina. Farrow is a wonderful actress, but more often than not she played characters filled with overwhelming sweetness being overcome by the world (Rosemary’s Baby, The Purple Rose of Cairo). Tina is a whole new side of Farrow: a tough-as-nails “Italian broad” who’s far tougher than any of the gangsters or alpha males she comes across (she’s introduced yelling and threatening to stab Lou with an ice-pick). She wears sunglasses everywhere she goes, no matter the situation or time of day. She don’t take no shit from nobody. Only at the end of the film, after she’s fallen for Danny and feels terrible that she helped Lou find another manager, do we see her without the sunglasses, and Farrow’s wide-eyed, expressive face takes over. It’s a great comedic performance, but there’s heart behind it.
Shot in gorgeous black-and-white by Gordon Willis, Broadway Danny Rose pays tribute to the wonders of the stage, the classic comedies of the Marx Bros. (who also started on stage), and the gangster movie (Allen’s Fellini-esque gangsters predate the gangster parodies of John Huston’s Prizzi’s Honor and Jonathan Demme’s Married to the Mob). It’s a rare case of a film’s bookend scenes (the comedians in the diner) work to serve its story of everyday people in show-business. It isn’t Allen’s deepest film, nor his most ambitious, but it’s a hilarious, wonderful ride all the same, and hey, Danny Rose got a sandwich named after him (Carnegie Deli reportedly still has the Danny Rose sandwich). The film’s hard-luck performers and escapist glee serves as a great precursor for Allen’s next film, the gorgeous The Purple Rose of Cairo.

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