BROADWAY DANNY ROSE (1984) – It’s always a dame

The following is my contribution to The Magnificent Mia Farrow Blogathon, being hosted by the blog Pale Rider on Feb. 9 & 10, 2020. Click on the above image, and read bloggers’ takes on the life and career of this legendary actress!

In the 1980’s, Mia Farrow not only had a relationship with Woody Allen, but she also appeared in and influenced the tone of his movies as much as Diane Keaton had in the 1970’s. Nearly all of the Allen movies in which she appeared showed the beatific effect she had on him at the time — we’ll here forego any commentary on their relationship’s tempestuous end — and any of those movies demonstrate how Farrow’s gifts complemented Allen’s confident direction. But for the sake of this blogathon, I’ve chosen to discuss the Allen-directed role that is most foreign to our view of the waifish Farrow: Feisty Tina Vitale in Allen’s broad comedy Broadway Danny Rose.

Allen plays the title role, a down-on-his-luck theatrical agent — his acts include a woman who plays drinking glasses, and a parrot that pecks out songs on a keyboard — who always loses his higher-end acts when they get successful and want to move on to more assertive management.

One of Allen’s more promising acts is Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte), a crooner from the 1950’s who is getting by on the fumes of his past success. When the nostalgia craze comes in the 1980’s, suddenly Lou is hot stuff again, and he lands a gig on a big-time TV special. For his TV appearance, Lou has only one major request for Danny — that he act as a “beard” and bring Lou’s extra-marital girlfriend, Tina Vitale (Mia Farrow), to the special’s taping for good luck.

As luck would have it, two-timer Tina discovers that she herself has been cuckolded by another woman, and when Danny comes to pick her up, Tina is in the middle of a volatile phone call with Lou in which she says to forgot about her attending the special. From there, Danny goes into the world’s longest panic attack, as he tries to make amends with Tina as well as keep himself and Tina from getting killed by a couple of Tina’s low-life mobster acquaintances.

As rich as the characterizations and setting are, there are really only two characters you remember vividly after the movie ends. Allen eschews his usual schnook persona, but Danny Rose appears to be a not-too-distant relative. He gesticulates endlessly like a traffic cop gone haywire, and he is forever spouting Jewish homilies to placate his enemies. He’s quite a hoot.

But the real revelation is Farrow (also a million miles away from our usual perception of her) as the gum-chewing, hard-nosed Tina Vitale. According to Allen, he based Tina on an assertive waitress at an Italian restaurant that he and Farrow used to frequent. Farrow casually observed that she’d like to play a woman like that in a movie. The irony is that, when Allen wrote the script and presented it to Farrow, she feared she couldn’t possibly do it justice!

Happily, Farrow was wrong, as she fully inhabits her role — bleached blonde hair, dark glasses, and all — and makes Tina funny and touching, even when she’s at her loudest and least sympathetic. In fact, she dons the role so well that the only time we’re aware it’s Farrow is when she takes off those big glasses and we see Farrow’s delicate features beneath.

Broadway Danny Rose is Allen’s happy valentine (probably unintended) to those fans who prefer to see him being just plain funny. He provides the movie’s laughs, and Farrow provides its heart.


ANNIE HALL (1977) – Still Woody Allen’s best movie

(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)

When all of the hype and the infamous history of its writer-director-star is removed, Woody Allen’s Annie Hall remains a superb comedy and a charming look at a romance that doesn’t last through the ages.

The core story involves the relationship between stand-up comedian Alvy Singer (Allen in, if not an autobiographical role, then surely a recognizable version of himself) and timid, flighty Annie Hall (Oscar winner Diane Keaton). The relationship has its ups and downs — first their meeting and courting (Alvy deftly manages his first kiss from Annie), their separation, their reunion at her behest, their growing apart from each other, and finally their non-reunion despite Alvy’s best efforts.

Two aspects of the film are most noteworthy. One is that, while Allen is usually adamant about not worrying whether or not he pleases his audience, here he uses just about every trick in the book to draw viewers into the story — trick photography, split screen, animation, and subtitles, among other methods. (Happily, the tricks all work.)

Secondly, while no one would mistake Allen for George Bernard Shaw, there is at least a thread of Pygmalion (or in a more populist mode, My Fair Lady) running through Annie Hall. The movie is subtle yet unflinching in its view of Alvy’s initial condescension towards Annie — making fun of her Midwest origins, urging her to read more serious books and take college classes — and in the way that Alvy starts to lose Annie as soon as she becomes more thoughtful and assertive.

Also noteworthy is the film’s supporting cast. Whereas in his earlier movies, actor Allen seemed to operate in a vacuum with anyone other than Diane Keaton, here Allen bounces off a noteworthy cast of contemporary performers — Colleen Dewhurst, Shelley Duvall, Carol Kane — and future stars such as Jeff Goldblum, Sigourney Weaver, and (in a particularly riotous cameo) Christopher Walken.

Detractors have stated that Annie Hall feels like a group of disparate elements randomly thrown together. (One reviewer said the movie was edited in the manner of “a nervous wreck packing” for a trip.) Yet this is obviously a reflection of Alvy’s declaration, in the movie’s opening monologue, that he is “sifting through the pieces of the relationship” to find out where it failed. And covering all of those bases makes the movie very satisfying — even from Alvy’s point of view. Although critics and viewers are quick to point out how bittersweet the ending is, by movie’s end Alvy feels richer for having had Annie in his life, even if she doesn’t remain there.

Is Annie Hall the Woody Allen movie for people who otherwise don’t like Woody Allen movies? Could be. It’s certainly a rare comedy that works to win over its audience by playing up to their intelligence rather than against it.

(For an in-depth look at the making of this movie, I highly recommend the out-of-print book When the Shooting Stops…the Editing Begins, written by Allen’s long-time [and Annie Hall] editor Ralph Rosenblum.)