Bugsy (1991): Warren Beatty Plays the Gangster as Clown in Levinson’s Biopic

Is there need for another gangster film in a year that has already seen Scorsese’s critically acclaimed GoodFellas, Coppola respectable but moderately successful The Godfather III, and Robert Benton’s disappointing Billy Bathgate?

There seems to be a fascination with Benjamin (Bugsy) Siegel. He has already become part of the popular consciousness. Siegel, a charismatic, larger-than-life gangster, part murderer, part visionary. His character briefly surfaced in The Marrying Man and in Mobsters, as one of the four young hoods on the rise.

The film’s sharp script was written by James Toback. The dircetor-producer team of Barry Levisnon and Mark Johnson (Rain Man, Avalon) lined up an enviable cast: Annette Bening, a nominee for The Grifters, as Bugsy’s love interest, actress Virginia Hill.

And the supporting cast couldn’t have been better chosen: Harvey Keitel as gangster Mickey Cohen; Joe Montegna as actor George Raft, a childhood friend of Bugsy’s who robbed elbows with the mob; Elliott Gould as Siegel crony Harry (Big Greenie) Greenberg; Ben Kingsley as Siegel’s mentor Meyer Lansky; and rock promoter Bill Graham as Lucky Luciano.

In the hands of director Barry Levinson, it turns out to be an exploration of an immigrant’s attempt to assimilate and have a share in the pie. It makes sense that it should follow Levinson’s previous, semi-autobiographical endeavor, Avalon, in which he examined the Jewish experience in Maryland.

That said, in Bugsy, Levinson displays for the first time in career instincts for pop trash, and he gets pulpy, energetic performances from his stars.

In the tradition of old crime-gangster films, the film, whose story begins in 1945, takes a romantic view of the gangster. The release of Bushy marks sixty years since the first major cycle of gangster movies hit the American screen, making stars of their performers: Jimmy Cagney in The Public Enemy, Edward G. Robinson in Little Ceasar, and Paul Muni in Sacrface. But, with few exceptions, most gangster films have revolved around Italian heroes. It was only recently that the role of Jewish gangsters in the American organized crime has received extensive attention in film or in print. Indeed, Bugsy follows the recent publication of Robert Lacey’s detailed biography Little Man: Meyer Lansky and the Gangster Life.

Bugsy is as much about style as content. The movie presents a whole gallery of Jewish gangster, who differed not only in terms of their successful operations and monetary acquisitions, but in their personal style–how they dress, talk, walk, eat, socialize, flirted, etc. In this respect, Bugsy may have been one of the most charming gangsters. Though the movie presents Bugsy’s display of rage, Warren Beatty’s looks and interpretation support more the glamorized-romantic rather than the cold-blooded view of the mafia.

Bugsy is juxtaposed with Meter Lansky (masterfully played by British actor Ben Kingsley). Lansky is presented as a shrewd, rational, down-to earth businessman, who excels with number and deals; Bugsy is a romantic fool, dreamer, a visionary, who actually doesn’t care much for the money as such. If Lansky was the most sinister, Bugsy was the most charismatic. And it is a flaw of the film that we do not really see much of Bugsy’s dark side, of what would make

In one of the movie’s central (and most entertaining) scenes, Bugsy is at his Scarsdale home, wearing apron and helping his wife to 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 a telephone call to locate the disappearing Virginia Hill.

Bugsy perpetuates the gangster mystique in American mythology, though in different way than other movies. It highlights better than previous films the contradictions inherent in such life style, the efforts to assimilate.

Bugsy catches the mobster in the prime of his life, in the l940s, when the NY underworld kingpin came to LA to set up the West Coast operation for the mob. He begins an extramarital affair with Virginia Hill, a second-rate actress, with whom he charmed his way into Hollywood society. It was then that he was inspired to build the Hotel Flamingo (so called because of his nickname for the long-limbed Hill), the first luxury resort-casino in Las Vegas. Located 10 miles from the nearest building, the Flamingo paved the way–with a little help, as Siegel foresaw, from the Hoover Dam, the development of air conditioning and the growth of air travel–for the gambling Mecca as we know it today.

His friends thought he was crazy, but Bugsy was determined to build a city in the desert; the Flamingo was the first seed. For Siegel, becoming a gangster was not a matter of conscious choice. “If Bugsy had been educated, he would have been a mad inventor,” says producer Mark Johnson. He was an eccentric personality, an entrepreneur.

Beatty, who with Levinson and Johnson is also producing the film, views Siegel as an iconographic figure, reflecting the mutual fascination that has always prevailed between the mob and the film colony. Beatty sees similarity between the two enterprises, as both are based on narcissism. Gangsters are also romantic tragic hero and Beatty is perfectly cast, cultivating the image of stud for three decades of his screen career. The movie celebrates Beatty’s 30-year career as a movie star, ever since he appeared opposite Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass.

In the name OF Authenticity, Beatty’s clothesCustom designed by Woolskin, were virtually copies of those sported by the gangster himself. Everything, from the cigarette lighter to cuff links, was monogrammed Bugs-style. There is emotional affinity between Beatty and the role he plays–his vision as a producer-director-actor, taking on ambitious projects like Reds or Dick Tracy. His passion for film, his will, his perfectionism

Hollywood has exploited gangster stories to its advantage. They make good movies, they are exciting: there is plenty of blood and guts, action and violence in the movies

Beatty portrays gangster Benjamin Siegel and Annette Bening his girlfriend Virginia Hill. The movie is due out just before their baby; they met and fell in love on the set. Bening’s pregnancy forced her to pull out of a plum role in Batman II (she will be replaced by Michelle Pfeiffer).

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 do the same 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.

The movie offers 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 celebrities 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
him such a mobster.

In one of the movie’s key scenes, Bugsy is at his Scarsdale home, wearing an apron and helping his wife to 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.