The Great Scenes: “Helen Sinclair’s Introduction” from BULLETS OVER BROADWAY

Movie: Bullets Over Broadway (1994)

Spoiler Level: None

The Setup: Up and coming playwright David Shayne (John Cusack) is making every compromise he can stomach, including casting a mob boss’s girlfriend, to get financing for his new play God of Our Fathers. One compromise Shayne doesn’t want to make is the casting for his leading lady. He’s decided to go after the aging star Helen Sinclair (Dianne Wiest), a once revered actress who has begun to descend into alcoholism and obscurity. In this scene, Wiest receives the news from her agent that she’s been offered a lead role by an unknown playwright, an invitation she isn’t immediately thrilled about.

Why It’s Great: Few career “character actresses” have ever had as impressive a run as Dianne Wiest had from about 1985 to about 1998. During that period, Wiest became a go-to gal for slightly offbeat female roles and found particular success working with Woody Allen, winning her first Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for playing the kooky Holly in Hannah and Her Sisters. Her performance as Helen Sinclair in Allen’s period Broadway comedy remains likely her most memorable role to date, spawning a cult catch phrase (“Don’t speak!”) and reminding American audiences that Allen was still capable of making a broadly appealing comedy.

Wiest has more fiery and more quotable scenes than this but her introduction to us here as she fusses at her agent Sid (Harvey Fierstein) gives us a perfect look at the brilliantly garish facade that Helen has created for herself. That facade slowly breaks down as the film goes on but she’s at her most outrageous when she’s boozed up and refusing to acknowledge that she isn’t the star she once was. Delusional egomaniacs like Helen are slam dunk opportunities for Allen to drop in some of his brilliant and hilarious dialog:

“Look, I haven’t had a drink since New Year’s Eve.”
“We’re talking Chinese New Year?”
“Naturally. Still that’s two days, Sid, you know how long that is for me?”

It’s classic, Marx Brothers-style patter like that which makes Bullets Over Broadway a favorite for many Allen fans like me. While Allen’s writing style is known for being ultra-modern and self conscious, he’s always had an affinity for classic, Vaudevillian comedy writing and Bullets Over Broadway, along with Allen’s other period work, provides the perfect showcase for Allen’s primary talent, which is joke writing.