Many films explore the theme of creativity, including biopics of artists, writers and performers, but one of the liveliest genres is the backstage film.
Ever since 1928 when “Broadway Melody” became the first talking picture to win a Best Picture Oscar, filmmakers and audiences have been captivated by the drama, heartache and joy that comes from putting on a show.
Early film musicals were almost exclusively backstage epics, including the iconic “42nd Street” (1933), in which chorus girl Ruby Keeler must go on for the injured leading lady on opening night. Warner Baxter’s director sends her out on stage with the famous line, “You’re going out a youngster but you’ve got to come back a star!”
“Stage Door” (1937) follows a houseful of aspiring actresses including the very young Katharine Hepburn, Ginger Rogers, Lucille Ball, Eve Arden and Ann Miller. Their rapid-fire repartee comes fast and furious, and Hepburn utters her famous line, “the calla lilies are in bloom again.”
Mel Brooks’ “The Producers” (1968) stars the great Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder in the title roles, attempting to bilk investors by staging the worst play ever. Unlike the overblown, cringe-worthy musical version (2005), the original film is a black comedy gem.
“All That Jazz” (1979) is Bob Fosse’s autobiographical musical fantasia that stars Roy Scheider as a brilliant, self-destructive director / choreographer. The film reflects Fosse’s obsession with the dark underbelly of show business that he also explored in “Cabaret,” “Lenny” and “Star 80.”
“Bullets Over Broadway” (1994) is Woody Allen’s hilarious valentine to the theatre. The perfect cast includes John Cusack as an aspiring playwright, Oscar-winner Dianne Wiest as a Broadway diva, Jennifer Tilly as a talentless gangster’s moll, and Chazz Palminteri as a hit man with the soul of a poet.
“Moulin Rouge” (2001) is Baz Luhrmann’s frantic musical fever-dream of “truth, beauty, freedom, love” — and putting on a show. It bombards the senses with color, farce, spectacle and dance, but Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor play the star-crossed lovers with such conviction that they ultimately break your heart.
“Shakespeare in Love” (1998) is the wildly fictionalized romantic comedy about how Shakespeare (Joseph Fiennes) was inspired to write “Romeo and Juliet.” The film’s seven Oscars included Best Picture, Original Screenplay, Best Actress for Gwyneth Paltrow (as a cross-dressing actress) and Supporting Actress Judi Dench as Queen Elizabeth. Although short on historical accuracy, the film is an irresistible theatrical romp.