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.

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015