BUGSY lets Warren Beatty slam another home run as another flashy gangster from the past; in this elegantly produced, critically acclaimed 1991 period piece he riffs and rages as Brooklyn-spawned Benjamin Siegel, better known by the title moniker, though you would not want to call him Bugsy to his face unless first holding a loaded and cocked ‘roscoe’.
“Well, my oh my, you’re pretty ferocious for a mom’s concern, aren’t ya? The rest of the time you’re just some good-looking, sweet-talking, charm-oozing, fuck-happy fellow with nothing to offer but some dialogue. Dialogue is cheap in Hollywood Ben… why don’t you run outside and jerk yourself a soda?”
That’s starlet/moll/smart cookie Virginia Hill (Annette Bening), giving bunny-hopping Bugsy a taste of bedroom battles to come, after he begins pitching woo on the Hollywood set of a George Raft movie. Old neighborhood pal-turned-actor Raft (Joe Mantegna) knows L.A. mob bigshot Mickey Cohen (Harvey Keitel), with whom Siegel forges a partnership to keep peace, rake bucks and calm the bigger boys back in New York, like Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley). Dreaming large, Siegel hatches a wild scheme to rehab a casino in the Nevada desert, and develop a whole city around it. A criminal and entrepreneurial affair of love, money, vision, betrayal and bullets are the labor pains of baby Las Vegas.
The semi-factual script was written by James Toback, then pared down and reshaped by co-producers Beatty and Barry Levinson. Fresh from his superlative period piece Avalon, Levinson took the director chair. Long on Beatty’s wish list to add to his gallery of outsiders, Siegel’s dangerous dash and chutzpah were a glove fit of roguish charm and driven intensity for the charismatic star. Bugsy is more refined than the actor’s classic turn 24 years earlier as Clyde Barrow—and more explosive—and his desert dreams make the bank-bungling Texas punk look sadly puny. Beatty’s Bugsy wafts an aura of seduction melded from fearless certainty, street wit, volcanic anger, a bit of dopiness and the sort of boundless salesman energy that gets peoples needs to murmur “yes” when their intuition shouts”no”. Fine, just don’t piss him off. His Force-8 temper tantrum scold of Jack Dragna (Richard C. Sarafian) is one for the cooked books. *
Mantegna covers Raft as a ne’er-do-well-done-well, a limited talent who coasted a good while (paging Peter Lawford and Charlie Sheen); Keitel’s coarse Cohen is brutally practical, Kingsley’s patient Lansky an island of moderation in a sea of barracudas. Bening’s brainy been-around beauty makes her foil a scorcher, a sharp, sexy, slam-bang performance that did more than nail the character: she landed and tamed the World’s Most Active Bachelor.
Framed by rich lensing from Allen Daviau (Avalon, The Color Purple, Empire Of The Sun), and a restrained soundtrack from Ennio Morricone. Like Chinatown, The Godfather and L.A. Confidential, this sleek 149-minute look back at hoodlums with style benefits immensely from a wholly convincing feel for the period via the art direction and costuming, both of which nabbed Oscars. Nominations went for Best Picture, Actor, Director, Supporting Actor/s (Keitel and Kingsley), Screenplay, Cinematography and Music Score. Surprisingly, Bening was left out: she deserved to be on the list.
Produced for $30,000,000, it came in 24th place in the States, with a domestic gross of $49,100,000. With Elliott Gould (who doesn’t ruin things) as a sad sap stoolie, Bebe Neuwirth (a Countess who knows Mussolini), Lewis Van Bergen (as Joe Adonis), Wendy Philips and rock promoter Bill Graham, excellent as Lucky Luciano. It was the last film role for Graham,60, who died in a helicopter crash two months before the premiere. Lovebirds Beatty and Bening married three months after the wrap, and are still together, the ultimate playboy ending his historically diligent search with a star-crossed keeper.
* Bugsy Siegel had been ignored during the early 60s when there was a run of gangland bios, but he was the hood of the year in ’91, turning up in Mobsters (Richard Grieco) and The Marrying Man (Armand Assante). They were both duds; stick with Beatty & Bening. To tell Siegel’s story entire—prohibition days, Murder Inc, and assorted nefarious associates, let alone the busy Miss Hill’s connections—would take three movies, so Toback & Beatty wisely concentrated on the Hollywood, Hill & Vegas chapter. Naturally enough, the movie re-arranges some events, merges or omits others, and romanticizes to an extent, a given if you want audiences to stick with and care about some real-life miscreants.