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
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Arts and Entertainment
I am flute: Azeem Ward and his now-famous instrument
music
Arts and Entertainment
A glass act: Dr Chris van Tulleken (left) and twin Xand get set for their drinking challenge
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
MIA perform at Lovebox 2014 in London Fields, Hackney

music
Arts and Entertainment
Finnish punk band PKN hope to enter Eurovision 2015 and raise awareness for Down's Syndrome

eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
William Shakespeare on the cover of John Gerard's The Herball or Generall Historie of Plantes

books
Arts and Entertainment

Game of Thrones review
Arts and Entertainment
Grayson Perry dedicates his Essex home to Julie

Potter's attempt to create an Essex Taj Mahal was a lovely treat

tv
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the original Swedish version of the sci-fi TV drama ‘Real Humans’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hugh Keays-Byrne plays Immortan Joe, the terrifying gang leader, in the new film
filmActor who played Toecutter returns - but as a different villain in reboot
Arts and Entertainment
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jessica Hynes in W1A
tvReview: Perhaps the creators of W1A should lay off the copy and paste function spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Power play: Mitsuko Uchida in concert

classical
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

    Please save my husband

    As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada
    Birthplace of Arab Spring in turmoil as angry Tunisians stage massive sit-in over lack of development

    They shall not be moved: jobless protesters bring Tunisia to a halt

    A former North African boom town is wasting away while its unemployed citizens stick steadfastly to their sit-in
    David Hasselhoff's new show 'Hoff the Record': What's it like working with a superstar?

    Hanging with the Hoff

    Working with David Hasselhoff on his new TV series was an education for Ella Smith
    Can Dubai's Design District 'hipster village' attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?

    Hipsters of Arabia

    Can Dubai’s ‘creative village’ attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?
    The cult of Roger Federer: What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?

    The cult of Roger Federer

    What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?
    Kuala Lumpur's street food: Not a 'scene', more a way of life

    Malaysian munchies

    With new flights, the amazing street food of Kuala Lumpur just got more accessible
    10 best festival beauty

    Mud guards: 10 best festival beauty

    Whether you're off to the Isle of Wight, Glastonbury or a local music event, we've found the products to help you
    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe

    A Different League

    Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe, says Pete Jenson
    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey - Steve Bunce

    Steve Bunce on Boxing

    Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey
    Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

    Abuse - and the hell that follows

    James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
    Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

    It's oh so quiet!

    The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
    'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

    'Timeless fashion'

    It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
    If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

    Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

    Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
    New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

    Evolution of swimwear

    From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf