Director: Barry Levinson
By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
December 20, 1991
"Bugsy," the exuberantly elegiac new Barry Levinson film starring Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, is a great gangster picture, with all the visceral excitement of a classic mob saga. But that's just its jumping-off point. It's also a salute to old Hollywood glamour, to the genre and the movies in general, and an elegant eulogy for the passing of those glory days. Not since the "Godfather" films has a gangster movie had this kind of spirited intelligence and depth, or worked on so many levels. It's a lofty, intoxicating achievement, smoothly polished, thrilling and funny.
The movie's opening scenes hit you like an amphetamine jolt; they're jagged and lean, with a greyhound's turf-gobbling pace. And the stylized gangster patter that screenwriter James Toback has given the characters comes spitting out of their mouths like verbal machine gun fire.
Beatty's Benjamin Siegel (don't call him Bugsy) sloshes around at the film's center like a beaker of nitro. A Brooklyn-born, Jewish dead-end kid, Siegel has a wife, Esta (Wendy Phillips), and a couple of kids in Scarsdale, but he doesn't shrink from the spotlight like his soft-spoken boyhood pal Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley); he's a dapper hood with bespoke tailoring, a soft spot for the ladies and a vicious flair for the dramatic. He likes to make a scene. Calling on a Los Angeles kingpin whose operation Siegel's East Coast partners have their eye on, he gives the boss two choices. The first choice is he can go to work for Siegel. "And the second choice?" he asks. "You can shoot me," Siegel answers, handing the man his gun. "You've got 5 seconds to make up your mind."
Money doesn't interest Siegel; he's flamboyantly reckless with his cash, picking up a lavish Beverly Hills mansion and a snazzy roadster for a stay in California that's scheduled to last four days. Siegel conducts his life as if he were the star of his own gangster movie, and when he arrives in Hollywood, the land of dreamers, he feels right at home.
After watching his friend George Raft (Joe Mantegna) at work on the set of his new film, he's enraptured by the business; he even thinks that maybe he ought to give this acting thing a tumble. During that sound stage visit, though, he lays eyes on a bit player named Virginia Hill (Bening), and immediately his thoughts are otherwise occupied.
You have to reach back a long way into movie history -- to, say, the sassy first meeting between Bogart and Bacall in "The Big Sleep" -- to find an opening romantic salvo as sexually supercharged as this one. After first establishing that he's married, Hill says, "Now, what exactly does Mr. Esta really want from Miss Virginia?" To which he whispers back, "Mr. Esta is having a great deal of difficulty trying to imagine anything he doesn't want from Miss Virginia."
This jousting match takes place against the artificial backdrop of a film set, and it underlines the reverberations that Toback and Levinson have created between real life and movie life. The picture isn't simply about Siegel; it's about the symbiosis between the famous mob figures and their Hollywood counterparts, and the ricochet manner in which art imitated life and, in return, influenced life when the gangsters themselves began to ape the flashy moves they'd seen on screen.
But not only is "Bugsy" a hall of mirrors, with Raft imitating Siegel imitating Raft. The famous mobster's grandiose -- and ultimately fatal -- dream of building a luxurious casino in the vast nowhere of Las Vegas can be seen as an allegory to the megalomaniacal follies of visionary filmmakers. It could be seen as the Francis Ford Coppola story "Tucker" with tommy guns.
Siegel's initial deal with his mob partners is to build the "Flamingo" for $1 million. But soon, 1 million becomes 2; 2 becomes 4; and 4, finally, 6. To finish his dream project, he sells everything he owns, including 400 percent of his own shares. So what if he has nothing left in the end. It's the idea of the thing. "If you're going to do something, you might as well do it right," he says.
Both Beatty, who was scoffed at as mad when he put himself on the line to make a 3 1/2-hour epic about an American communist, and Toback, who wrote about his own gambling obsession in his script for "The Gambler," are working from firsthand experience. The movie bears their personal stamps (though, perhaps, their smartest move was to place their story in the hands of an accomplished pro like Levinson).
Ever since "Fingers" (1978), Toback has been obsessed with the idea of the gangster artist, and as writer here he accomplishes what he could never pull off as a director. Siegel is Toback's ultimate psychopathic genius, the killer who creates.
Bugsy is an artist without an art, and he enters into the project with missionary zeal. His partners think he's crazy, and undoubtedly he is, though not about Vegas, which ultimately turned out to be a gold mine for them. Vegas was Siegel's masterpiece -- but giving birth to it killed him.
Maybe because Siegel's story has so many parallels with his own, it brings out the absolute best in Beatty. After "Dick Tracy," it seemed that Beatty was finished as an actor; as the comic strip hero he seemed to want to hide from the camera, to flinch whenever it drew him into focus. But "Busgy" refutes that notion completely.
Beatty has never shown as much sheer delight in performing as he does here. As Bugsy, he's completely uninhibited. Beatty's never played a character that allowed him to show as many sides of himself as this one does. He can be ferociously scary, with the veins in his forehead dangerously close to exploding; or -- particularly in his scenes with Bening -- a smooth romancer; or a flouncing, self-parodying buffoon. In one extended sequence -- perhaps the movie's best -- he chases around in a ridiculous chef's hat, a consummate farceur. It's a hilarious performance, but the dangerous, loony edge is always there.
The rest of the cast is equally superb. As Lansky, Kingsley is drolly subdued, but with a formidable twinkling gleam of intelligence in his eyes. As Mickey Cohen, Siegel's right-hand man in Hollywood, Harvey Keitel gives a hair-trigger performance as a volatile tough guy. Mantegna's performance is a small but memorable one, and the late Bill Graham is equally vivid as Charlie Luciano. Even Elliott Gould makes a swift but indelible mark.
The classiest of the bunch, though, is Annette Bening. As the also-ran starlet, she's slinky and enticing, but she's been both before (most notably in "Valmont" and "The Grifters"). Here, she's playing a woman with a voracious appetite for life, and she shows something new. As Hill, she reveals both the uncompromising toughness of a woman who's used sex to get what's she's wanted out of life, and the vulnerability that comes from knowing you can go around the track only so many times before the mileage starts to show. Siegel is a romantic, but there's not an ounce of dewy-eyed nonsense in Hill. And this is what makes them such a fascinating movie couple. Maybe she loves him and maybe she doesn't, but never once is there any doubt who has the upper hand.
"Bugsy" is one of the year's most bracing, entertaining movies; even though its gait falters some when the scene shifts to the desert, there's a palpable tension in nearly every scene. Levinson's direction is as expert as it is self-effacing; he squeezes every drop of juice out of Toback's script. And his actors too. "Bugsy" is the story of a tragically flawed hero, and without Levinson in charge it might have been a tragically flawed movie. As it is, it's darned near perfect: violent, sexy and knowingly smart.