One of the true facts about a great movie is that these things tend to focus on a specific person who might be considered anti-social in some circles while the delivery of the film itself whispers theories about a certain kind of society, past or present. If you can live with that criteria, then Bugsy (1991) qualifies as a great movie.
Director Barry Levinson and writers James Toback and Dean Jennings prove themselves to be dreamers not all that unlike the focus of this biopic. Levinson typically aims for the big message, just as he may be expected to do with his forthcoming film about Phil Spector. It isn't easy making a guy who does bad things seem good, as with Benjamin Siegel, any more than it will be to make a guy who did good things appear bad, as with Spector the record producer. But because Levinson worked with two writers who knew their material and because he had Beatty's financial support, he pulled off the surmountable task of portraying a man who boasted of twelve murders to come off as an eccentric many of us might have even liked to have known. By the time the nine bullets burst through the Los Angeles home near the picture's end, we feel as if we know him quite well, despite the movie's focus on the gangster's interest in Las Vegas.
Warren Beatty in the starring role embodies Siegel the dreamer, a man who cares very little for money--the reason all the other mobsters are in the business--but cares tremendously for his friends and even more for "building something," as Ben Kingsley as Meyer Lanskey puts it. What he built, or caused to be built, was Las Vegas, a city that I personally have never cared much for, and yet watching Siegel sweat out the details of the Flamingo Hotel and Casino, you can't help but hope that he manages to swindle all the wise guys necessary just to get the freaking place up and running. A few of the film's details are fudged, but not many, and those that are--the hotel opened the day after Christmas rather than Christmas day itself, and the opening date was changed many times; quite a few celebrities attended the bash and hundreds of townsfolk came out rather than the disappointing turnout featured in the film--those that are, I say, are necessary to move the story along, and this story movies just like any old time gangster picture to which grandpa ever thrilled.
Annette Bening, as Virginia Hill, the gangster's girlfriend, damn near steals the lens in every scene where she appears. Early on she trades lines with Beatty and both of them sound like the cheap Hollywood characters they apparently admire. By the middle of the film, however, this brand of mutual courtship and resistance has faded to black and we find ourselves not caring all that much about the wife and kids back home, a subject that brings us to the only real problem with Bugsy.
Most biographers imply or come right out and say that Benjamin Siegel, for all his charm and panache, was a wild-eyed sociopathic killer. Levinson gets the charm down and he captures the sociopathy well enough. But as seasoned audience members, we tend to prefer that our anti-heroes not come across as clowns. And Beatty breathes very close to Bozo Land on occasion, especially during a long scene at home while he and the wife, Esta (played with painful authenicity by Wendy Phillips), prepare for their daughter's birthday party when who should drop by but Ben Kingsley and a whole bunch of gangsters to whom Bugsy must convince in financing his desert-into-casino idea. Wearing a chef's hat and running or dancing throughout the house, answering phone calls and putting off his little girl, Beatty seems like a skillful buffoon rather than a mad man with a big dream. The scene throws off the darkest shadows of the movie, almost urging us to revisit those sinister moments in a lighter way. Levinson might say he did it that way on purpose. If he did, the effect is less than he might have hoped.
Otherwise, though, Bugsy shines, especially as the title character interacts with not only Bening but with Elliott Gould, playing an old friend named Harry Greenberg who has ratted out many mobsters, although not Siegel himself. When Siegel takes both Greenberg and Virginia Hill for a little ride, we can believe, love and fear every second of the entire Bugsy myth.
On a completely different subject, those of you accustomed to scrolling down to the basement section of this blog will notice that beginning today we have inserted some remarkably amusing bits of humor, labeled JOKE ONE through JOKE TWENTY-THREE. As the headings suggest, these are jokes, and as the word joke implies, they are funny. If you read them, you may laugh, out loud or otherwise. We'll change them up from time to time, so don't be a stranger, y'hear?
Also, please remember we're having our Summer Reading Spectacular on May 30.
And now, here comes the heat.