Director: Barry Levinson. Cast: Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Harvey Keitel, Ben Kingsley, Joe Mantegna, Wendy Phillips, Bebe Neuwirth, Elliott Gould, Richard Sarafian, Bill Graham. Screenplay: James Toback.

Bugsy is as luxuriant, entertaining, but ultimately hollow a venture as the Las Vegas casino resorts envisioned by Bugsy Siegel himself. Director Barry Levinson, producer-star Warren Beatty, and a talented crew of colleagues bring consider panache to a gangster-land biography that lacks only a reason for being. We learn a fair amount about the details of Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel's life—including his dislike for the nickname that now defines his legend—but a great big question the film does not address is, "So what?"

If Dick Tracy was Beatty's chance to poke fun at his own pop-cultural association with cops and robbers, Bugsy is a less tongue-in-cheek, though still gamefully droll chance for Beatty to don again the sharp duds of the '30s and '40s and show us what Clyde Barrow might have become with better connections and a few more years. Ben Siegel is from the get-go a more exuberant figure than Clyde was, and James Toback's original script introduces him via a quick hit-job on a man who has stolen from Bugsy and his cohorts, including Ben Kingsley's Meyer Lansky.

"I bought you a present," Ben tells the clearly (and appropriately) unnerved object of his visit; when the giftbox opens to reveal several fine shirts and neckties, Bugsy explains, "I thought you might want the shirt off my back. You want the shirt off my back?" The man doesn't live much longer, and no one in his office makes a muscle to stop Mr. Siegel as he fires his gun and exits the building in full view of all their work stations.

Bugsy already has a rooster's swagger and an unapologetic hedonism as the picture begins, but as the story moves forward, we come to understand that his pride and carelessness may have less to do with any remarkable personal attributes than with one of two conciliating circumstances. One is that he doesn't happen to have drawn the ire of Meyer, or Charles Luciano, or any of the pals who, it seems more and more, could dispose of him fairly easily if they were so inclined. To some extent, then, Bugsy is a sort of waiting-game in which Beatty's character indulges his tastes and follows his whims until the inevitable friction with his mob associates; only then is his mettle as a "pro" truly tested.

His gentlemanly mettle, however, is put to a severe challenge much earlier on, a confrontation of which the stakes should not be underestimated. While visiting his actor friend George (Joe Mantegna) on a movie set, Ben makes the acquaintance of Virginia Hill (Annette Bening), a character whose credentials or experience in Hollywood are never fully elaborated but whose history of sexual liaisons within the mob is quite explicitly stated. In addition to her romantic history, though "romantic" is not a term that seems to apply much to Virginia, her intelligence, loyalty, and demand for mutual respect are also prominent character traits from her first meeting with Bugsy, when he obviously believes his comely charm will easily impress her. "Dialogue's cheap in Hollywood, Ben," she tells him. "Why don't you go outside and jerk yourself a soda."

Toback frequently passes Bening these juicy lines, but much remains frustratingly vague about Virginia Hill nonetheless. What does happen to her Hollywood career after she eventually falls for Ben, and why does she to begin with? Virginia comes across both in the script and in Bening's committed performance as a woman of fierce independence, but Bugsy eventually says little about her except in relation to Ben and his projects. Bening is onscreen a great deal, certainly more than any other performer besides Beatty, but, disappointingly after her lively introductory scenes, she increasingly represents Ben Siegel's lover more than she does an autonomous personality.

The shortcomings of her characterization are all the more obvious because, among all of Bugsy's plotlines and supporting players, she has the greatest potential to add a distinctive flavor to the film, which never differentiates itself particularly well from the countless other entries in the gangster film genre. Seemingly aware that their material has no center, no cornerstone, Levinson and cameraman Allen Daviau attempt to use movie-making itself as the visual and thematic metaphor to anchor and justify their rather moorless project. Early in the picture, Ben makes a private screen-test that he carefully prevents anyone else from seeing. Whether to test his own charisma, or try to gain access to the Hollywood scene, we are never quite sure why Ben filmed the test which, when we do see it, shows him far more rigid and self-conscious than he ever is in life.

The general inference we draw is that Bugsy always saw himself as a star, and by courting an actress, by purchasing extravagant homes and amenities, and by mounting the $4.5 million Flamingo Hotel project that ultimately ruins him, the character betrays an ongoing need to demonstrate his "star quality," his self-perception as someone to be watched. Daviau takes that screen-test as the visual inspiration for the whole picture's photography, and shot after shot of Bugsy and his interactions swirl in the kind of silvery, smoky lambency we traditionally associate with film projecters.

Ben Siegel conducts his entire life, it seems, as a series of "scenes" he intends as grand climaxes, but as each project backfires—the hotel, the romance with Virginia, a daffy plan to shoot Mussolini—he finds that he has pushed almost everyone he knows off the stage of his dizzying, directionless one-man show. It's an interesting idea, and because Daviau—as well as art director Dennis Gassner (The Hudsucker Proxy) and costume designer Albert Wolsky (All That Jazz), both Oscared for their work here—are all such expert craftsmen, the film achieves and maintains the zesty momentum and high glamor for which it aspires.

Unfortunately, though many of us can sympathize with Ben Siegel in thinking his life bigger and grander than it really is—who among us doesn't occasionally think our lives would make for great drama?—his gradual realization of his own smallishness is not particularly dramatic. Perhaps this is because, even after Ben can no longer afford to view himself as the conquering hero he would like to be, the film doesn't give any clues as to how Bugsy does ultimately perceive himself and his achievements. Nor does any consensus exist among the film's gallery of supporting players as to how Bugsy stands in all their eyes. Not one person in Bugsy, including Siegel himself, develops a discernible perspective on who the man is, and as a result, the whole picture waffles between a detached distance from, an indulgent bemusement with, and a strained heroizing of its subject. None of these attitudes seem particularly appropriate to this day-dreaming hood, who is not mysterious enough to treat with determined ambivalence (in the way that, say, Spielberg could afford to treat Oskar Schindler) but too marginal to make much of a big deal about, or to allegorize into any larger statement about gangsters, lotharios, even failed entrepreneurs.

Still, Levinson and Toback work with enough style and energy that you shouldn't be sorry for the two and a quarter hours you spend watching Bugsy play out. In addition to Beatty and Bening, who are charismatic both individually and as a team, Harvey Keitel has a particularly good time playing Mickey Cohen, a mobster who robs Ben so capably and audaciously that, rather than have him killed, Ben takes him on as an advisor. Wendy Phillips also has a few good scenes as Bugsy's jilted wife Esta, who would accept the idea of a divorce much more readily if her husband had the backbone to verbalize the failure of their marriage, to put his request into honest, dignifying words.

Bugsy barreled into the 1991 Academy Awards with ten nominations and a Golden Globe victory as Best Picture under its snazzy belt, only to go 2-for-10 in its categories and miss out on all the post-Oscar box-office the studio clearly hoped for. Like Ben Siegel and his Flamingo Hotel, Bugsy might have been a more successful project if its creators and investors had thought longer and harder about what they were making and whom they intended it to reach. Still, also like the Flamingo, there's much fun to be had at Bugsy, if elegance, precision, and energy are enough to satisfy your tastes. B

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Director: Barry Levinson
Best Actor: Warren Beatty
Best Supporting Actor: Harvey Keitel
Best Supporting Actor: Ben Kingsley
Best Original Screenplay: James Toback
Best Cinematography: Allen Daviau
Best Art Direction: Dennis Gassner & Nancy Haigh
Best Costume Design: Albert Wolsky
Best Original Score: Ennio Morricone

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Director: Barry Levinson
Best Actor (Drama): Annette Bening
Best Actor (Drama): Warren Beatty
Best Supporting Actor: Harvey Keitel
Best Supporting Actor: Ben Kingsley
Best Screenplay: James Toback
Best Original Score: Ennio Morricone

Other Awards:
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Picture; Best Director; Best Screenplay
National Society of Film Critics: Best Supporting Actor (Keitel; also cited for Mortal Thoughts and Thelma & Louise)
National Board of Review: Best Actor (Beatty)

Permalink Home 1991 ABC Blog E-Mail