Bugsy (1991): Barry Levinson’s Gangster Biopic, Starring Warren Beatty in Oscar Caliber Performance

Filmmakers seem to be fascinated with the character of Benjamin (Bugsy) Siegel, who briefly surfaced this year in The Marrying Man and in Mobsters, as one of the four young hoods on the rise.

With Bugsy, Barry Levinson’s new and highly entertaining film, Ben Siegel is assured an even more honored place in our popular consciousness. You may wonder: who wants to see another gangster film in a year that has already seen Martin Scorsese’s critically acclaimed GoodFellas, Coppola’s moderately respectable The Godfather, Part III, and Robert Benton’s disappointingly bland Billy Bathgate

Bugsy provides some answer to this question, by showing why Hollywood has always exploited gangster stories–they make good movies because they are exciting stories, with blood and guts, action and ferocious violence. The new movie adds to these ingredients naive idealism, romantic love and obsessive passion. Bugsy’s release marks sixty years since the first cycle of gangster heroes hit the American screen, making stars of such performers as Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar and Paul Muni in Scarface.

Bugsy will perform no such service for Warren Beatty, its leading man and co-producer. Indeed, it is hard to imagine the film without Beatty playing the ichnographic figure. If anything, the movie cashes in on Beatty’s established screen persona as a stud during the three decades of his career. And it provides some interesting parallels between the actor and his screen role. The 30 million dollar project has been incubating in Beatty’s mind for some eight years. Beatty was intrigued by the mutual fascination that has always prevailed between the mob and the film colony, two enterprises that thrive on (or cherish) celebrity and narcissism.

Bugsy offers a new take on the genre of crime-gangster movies. With few exceptions, most gangster films have revolved around Italian heroes. It is only recently that the role of Jewish gangsters in organized crime has received extensive attention–in film or in print. Bugsy’s release coincides with the recent publication of Robert Lacey’s detailed biography, Little Man: Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life. What is interesting about the current film is its portrayal of a business partnership among three very different gangsters: the Jewish Siegel and Lansky, and the Italian Charley “Lucky” Luciano (played by the late rock promoter Bill Graham).

Moreover, unlike other gangster films, Bugsy is not the story of the rise and fall of a tragic hero. The movie catches the mobster at the prime of his life, in the l940s, when he was sent to Los Angeles to seize control of the West Coast rackets. He begins an extramarital affair with Virginia Hill, a second-rate actress, with whom he charms his way into Hollywood society. She provides his inspiration to build the Flamingo, the first luxury resort-casino in Las Vegas, depicted in the film as an act of utmost commitment and obsession. His friends think he is crazy, but Bugsy is determined to build a gambling mecca in the desert.

An eccentric personality, Bugsy is presented as an entrepreneur, an original American dreamer–a soul mate to other quintessential American visionaries, like Preston Tucker, the car manufacturer. Unlike Billy Bathgate, in which Dustin Hoffman’s Dutch Schultz was humorless, Bugsy emphasizes the flamboyance that makes low life interesting. Bugsy depicts gangsterism as a glittering life style rather–with “occasional” outbursts of excessive rage. Siegel is full of contradictions: an aspiring movie stars, Bugsy practices elocution and he had lunacies as well–a good citizen, he plot to murder Mussolini through his connections.

The movie presents a whole gallery of Jewish gangsters, who differ in their personal style–the way they dress, talk, eat, and flirt. Beatty’s handsome looks and interpretation of the role reinforce the glamorized-romantic view of gangsterism, not unlike the l967 Bonnie and Clyde, which Beatty co-produced and starred. Bugsy is juxtaposed with Lansky, (masterfully played by British actor Ben Kingsley), who is presented as a shrewd, rational, down-to earth businessman.

Bugsy is a romantic fool, an idealistic dreamer, who actually doesn’t care much about money. If Lansky was the most sinister, Bugsy was the most charismatic among gangsters. But it is one of the film’s flaws that we do not really see much of Bugsy’s murderous side, of what would make

In one of the movie’s key scenes, Bugsy is at his Scarsdale home, wearing an apron and helping his wife o glaze the birthday cake for his daughter. Visited by Lansky and his fellows, he moves swiftly from the kitchen to the living room, and, at the same time manages to make desperate telephone calls to locate Virginia Hill.

James Toback has written a lively, wicked script that accentuates the story’s different moods of crime, black comedy, and romance. “Do you always talk this much before you do it” asks the sluttish Hill. “I only talk this much before I kill someone,” he coolly replies. But the movie fails to show what Bugsy saw in a woman, that his friends related to as a slut, particularly after she embezzles two million dollars from his fund. Consistent to the end, Bugsy is a romantic, not-too-bright fellow, blinded by a woman to the point of jealousy and obsession.

Bugsy perpetuates the gangster mystique in American mythology: It encourages the audiences’ voyeurism of a deviant world full of frills, thrills, and glamour. But it also highlights better than other films the contradictions inherent in such life style. Siegel is a charismatic, larger-than-life gangster, part murderer, part visionary.

In the hands of director Levinson, it turns to be the saga of a Jewish, whose ambition is to assimilate into American culture, but also have a share in the pie. Follows Levinson’s Avalon, in which he examined the Jewish immigration experience in Baltimore, Bugsy lacks the sentimentality that marked the director’s previous films (Rain Man). Levinson has concocted great performances from his supporting characters: Harvey Keitel, as gangster Mickey Cohen; Joe Montegna, as actor George Raft, a childhood friend of Bugsy’s, and best of all Elliott Gould, as Siegel’s crony Harry Greenberg,

However, glorifying the megalomaniac Bugsy, they take their approach to an extreme. At the very end, the audience is informed that Siegel’s 6 million dollar investment in Las Vegas has generated over 100 billion dollars. The viewers’ reaction to this dubiously moral message will depend on their image of the new city: Is Las Vegas the capital of the American Dream or the embodiment of American crass consumerism.