Dianne Wiest's Chutzpah Lands Her a Juicy Role

DIANNE WIEST, currently starring in Woody Allen's comedy, ``Bullets Over Broadway,'' was reluctant to pick up the phone and call the director.

Her two young daughters were tucked into bed, so she had some time to herself. Still she didn't call her longtime friend even though she has made five movies for Mr. Allen, and won an Oscar in 1986 as best supporting actress for his ``Hannah and Her Sisters.''

``Since becoming a single mother,'' Ms. Wiest explains, ``my priorities have changed. When I was 20, I was so obsessed with being an actress, I should have worn a sign around my neck reading, `If I fail, I'll die.' That's not true anymore.

``As a single parent, raising Emily, 7, and Lily, 3, I have to think about providing for them. When you have children, one thinks in terms of money, which of course a Woody Allen movie doesn't give you, then in terms of art.

``I reasoned I have enough money, now I need a little art.'' Wiest then called Allen and told him she wanted to be in his next film.

``Sure. I'll write something,'' Allen responded.

He went to his idea drawer, which was piled high with bits of paper from menus to programs on which he had scribbled story ideas. On the inside cover of a matchbook, he had written, ``Broadway and gangsters - Roarin20s.''

Later, Allen called Wiest. He and Douglas McGrath were writing a script for Miramax, and he saw her as one of the leading characters, Helen Sinclair, a self-obsessed diva with a fondness for the grape.

``I was delighted,'' she says. ``I would have done a cameo if Woody had suggested it. I knew whatever he wrote, it wouldn't be a car-crash movie, but about thinking adults.''

Now you'd think having a role especially written for you, the work would fit as smooth as silk. ``More like glass,'' Wiest interjects. ``The first few scenes, I just couldn't get a handle on this character. I knew it wasn't going well, and when Woody told me, `Something's wrong. Go see the dailies [the first footage, delivered a day after shooting] and figure out what needs to be done,' I had thoughts of the role evaporating.

``The change came when I was having costume fittings with designer Jeffrey Kurland, who is also a good friend of Woody's. I confided to him that I had looked at the dailies, and I didn't know how to fix it.

``Jeffrey continued pinning the costume, and affecting a deep whiskey baritone voice said, `Darling, you look divine.' I thought he hadn't been listening to a word I'd said. But I good-naturedly replied, lowering my voice into that same baritone range, `Divine, indeed!' ''

Then it hit. The minute she used that voice, she knew that was what her character needed. A stage actress of that era would be so huge and indulgent of her own ego, she'd have an overly affected throaty voice.

``The next day, when I said my first line of dialogue, I used that voice,'' she recalls. I didn't even look at Woody, I knew I had it. He reshot those first scenes, and we were off and running. Throughout the entire movie, he never gave me eight lines of instruction. He'd just say, `the voice,' and I knew I was slipping into my natural delivery.''

Why are Wiest and other players so eager to work with Allen? ``He gives us such freedom. The script he's written, the cinematic words, are not sacred to him. He's open to any ideas you have. Often he'll incorporate a suggestion, or throw out his words and use yours.''

She offers this example: ``The last scene in `Bullets Over Broadway' between John Cusack and Chazz Palmintari was strictly improvised on their part. It wasn't even scripted, yet Woody liked what they did, and it's in the movie.''

Flash back to when Wiest was a little girl living in Nuremberg, Germany, and aspiring to be a ballet dancer. Later, her teacher in a United States school cast her in a play, and the seed was planted. Flash forward to the night she won the Oscar. ``I thought my life was changed, that producers would be ringing my phone off the hook, and vans filled with script offers would be rolling up my drive,'' she says. ``It didn't happen. What did happen was it gave me credibility: It said `you're certified.' ''

Today, she's in an advantageous position. Her connection to Allen and the cachet of a well-regarded movie may open the way to even more diverse roles.

Recently she starred in the baseball comedy ``The Scout,'' but only after the producer proposed to film it in five days so she wouldn't have to uproot her daughter from first grade.

It's obvious Dianne Wiest already knows what her biggest role is: Mom to Emily and Lily.

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