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Fame is a funny business

The cult of celebrity is Woody Allen's latest target.
Over the past decade or so, Woody Allen has slipped into a pattern. He shoots what is referred to as the "Woody Allen Fall Project" in the autumn; he edits it in the winter and spring, and he releases the film the following autumn, after a preview at the Venice Film Festival, which Allen has always preferred to the glitzier Cannes. By the time it opens, he is back in New York, shooting the next film.

Allen's latest offering - out in America this week and set for UK release in early 1999 - is called Celebrity. The director's thoughts on the film are contained in a terse, five-line directorial statement: "Celebrity is a comic film about the phenomenon of celebrity in America, a phenomenon that has reached hysterical proportions. (Even a fellatrix can achieve nationwide notoriety in this day and age.) It's told through the personal stories of two people and through them the audience encounters celebrity in all its forms, from nationally known ones to privately celebrated types. I shot the film in black and white for no thematic reason but only because I find black and white films beautiful and grew up on them."

What Allen does not say is that in the very casting of the film he is using celebrities to make a point about celebrity. The cast list reads like a Hollywood agent's dream team: Kenneth Branagh, Judy Davis, Leonardo DiCaprio, Melanie Griffith, Joe Mantegna, Winona Ryder, Charlize Theron. Even Donald Trump gets a look-in.

The film centres on Lee Simon (Kenneth Branagh), a restless journalist who dabbles in travel writing and star interviews while trying to get his novel finished and his film script pitched. Lee Simon is also Woody Allen - and so Branagh becomes Allen, mimicking his accent, copying his every hesitation and mannerism.

Interviewed in Venice after the press showing in September, Branagh claimed that his transformation into Allen was about more than just proving to us that he could do it. "It's pretty much impossible to play against his comic voice," he said. "He'll give you a line reading and he'll do it and you'll do him, copy him." It is certainly true that all those hesitations are rigidly scripted. A friend once found the shooting script of a Woody Allen film lying in the gutter of a New York street where the director and his crew had been filming. And she realised that nothing was left to chance: there, sure enough, were all the "yes but but"s and the "No, I don't, I don't, no, it's not like, hey"s that we hear on screen.

In Celebrity there are television priests and celebrity hostages. In a TV studio, Ku Klux Klan members rub shoulders with a rabbi and an obese teenage acrobat - all guests brought in to feed a talk show's insatiable appetite for sanitised controversy and containable deformity. A screen diva, played by Melanie Griffith, takes Lee Simon back to the house where she grew up so that he can "get some colour" for his interview - and while there she does a Lewinsky on him ("I'm my husband's from my neck down"). Leonardo DiCaprio plays Brandon Darrow, a Hollywood product who has reached the apex of fame and fortune far too young. He copes with the pressure by taking a lot of cocaine, trashing hotel rooms and girlfriends, rushing off to boxing matches and, if offered the choice between four-in-a-bed sex and a good night's sleep, plumping for the former every time.

I was about to say that this is easily DiCaprio's best performance since What's Eating Gilbert Grape, but the genius of Allen's new film is that it makes one realise how much such comments - indeed, this whole article - is a part of the process. Playing a spoilt young star in the new Woody Allen film is exactly what his career needs. Woody gets Leo for a risible fee, and Leo gets the kudos of showing everyone what a good sport he is, not to mention a good actor - and so the film feeds off the very phenomenon it is satirising. Or to put it another way, it has its cake and eats it.

Branagh believes that Celebrity's satirical breadth saves it from this charge: "It seems to me that he lays everyone bare. No one really comes away unscathed - not actors, not journalists, not media people. And yet I don't particularly feel he's savaging any of them ... he's certainly x-raying them, but ... it seems to me he's recognising a certain human frailty, vulnerability."

This is the key to what could be a turning point in Allen's career. Rather than forcing the medium to fit the message, expressing his darker moods in intense Bergmanesque dramas like Interiors, he is sticking with the medium of fast-paced comedy and forcing it to contain an increasingly wide range of messages.

In that four-in-a-bed sex scene, Allen-Simon-Branagh is paired up with a bimbo who tells him that she, too, is a writer. "Oh yes," says the nervous journalist. "Who do you write like?" "Have you heard of someone called Chekhov?" asks the bimbo, uncertainly. "Like him."

'Celebrity' will be released in 1999.