By John H. Foote
29. BUGSY (1991)
Watching Bugsy again the other night it was impossible not to feel a pang that Warren Beatty’s volcanic, freight train performance of the celebrated mobster Bugsy Seigel failed to win the gifted actor, director, writer an Academy Award for Best Actor. Though Beatty is an Academy Award winning director for Reds (1981), an American masterpiece, he has made it no secret that he would be delighted to receive an Oscar for his acting. After seeing the film for the first time in 1991 I thought, even hoped, it might be for his stunning performance within this crime epic, but alas, Anthony Hopkins gave one of the greatest performances ever put on film in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), bumping Beatty to the side. Sadly.
Beatty was always the driving force of the film, commissioning the screenplay from writer James Toback on his own dime, and then waiting the five years it took the writer to complete the work. Knowing he did want to direct himself in this one, he hired Barry Levinson to helm the film, Levison having just won an Academy Award for Rain Man (1988), and then handed the director complete creative control. Well, as much complete as Beatty can give. Though it was said he focused on his performance, and I believe that, no doubt he offered some advice on the direction of the piece.
Most if not all the great actors are hyper aware of what they do well and what they struggle with, how they look and what their audiences expect from them. Warren Beatty is maniacally obsessed with all those aspects of his work and understands them innately. There were many pre-production conferences with Levinson, Toback, Beatty and the other actors in which no stone was left unturned in the attempt to bring to life one of the mob’s most dangerous killers. What Beatty made sure of was that the intellect of the man stood out, his seeing something in the desert no one else did, an oasis far from everything else, and went ahead to build it with mob money. That casino was the Flamingo, and that oasis became Las Vegas.
Bugsy Seigel did that.
When everyone, including the mob was telling him to let it go, he stubbornly forged ahead to create something special, by hook or by crook, something that would always be there, never seeing what it would become, which is of course one of the most famous destinations on the planet. Seeing it as a bright shiny light in the middle of the desolation of the desert, that is exactly what was created with Las Vegas. If driving to the city from L.A., you see the lights long before you arrive in the city, enticing you, almost daring you to find it. Flying over Vegas you see nothing for miles, and suddenly there it is as bright as the brightest bauble and then you are over it, back to darkness.
Bugsy Seigel created that, he had a dream and followed it, right to his murder.
The film opens with a display of Seigel’s ruthlessness, murdering a man who has stolen from him, shooting him in front of the employees and handing the dead man’s job to another, just as easy as any other day at the office. We then follow him to Hollywood where he hooks up with his childhood friend George Raft, now a movie star, to do some business in the city. But L.A.put its hooks into Bugsy and he did not care to ever go back to New York. He began making the rounds, while making plans to bring his wife and two children to the city, sitting in on movie sets with Raft, even wrangling a screen test, thinking he might get into movies. All the while everyone who encounters him genuinely fears him because of his fearsome reputation. When he decides to stay, he bullies a famous opera singer into selling him his home, though the terrified singer truly did not wish to sell. Partying with Raft, making deals with local gangsters, reporting back to his best friend Mayer Lansky (Ben Kingsley) about his progress in Hollywood, he finally encounters Virginia (Annette Bening), nicknamed the “Flamingo” due to her long spectacular legs. The moment he lays eyes on her, he must have her, though for Seigel to have someone is to possess them entirely, and Virginia is having none of that.
During trips back to New York Seigel has her followed, making mental notes about who to deal with when he got back. They eventually set up house together, sort of, and one night she hears the full extent of his madness when a man arrives at the house having stolen money from Seigel, and has no idea Seigel knows about it. He explodes in fury, a dangerous volcanic fury, that leaves the man on the floor barking like the dog Bugsy has told him he is. He humiliates the thief, but does not kill him, keeping him on so he will tell everyone not to do what he has done. Leaving the house, he knows he is a hair away from certain death.
Upon seeing a small gambling bar in the middle of the desert, Bugsy sees his dream. In the middle of nowhere he will build a world class casino, bring the best acts in Hollywood, attract the stars which will bring the people. The mob will finance the casino, but the building goes wildly over budget and out of control. Meyer Lansky visits him and lets him know the other mobsters are worried about how much the final price tag will be, and with that Seigel knows he is on thin ice even with his friends. Arrested and jailed for the murder of Harry Green (Elliott Gould), a simple-minded old friend, the casino is under Virginia’s watch to be built and she dives in like an old pro. However, when released, Bugsy is told she has bilked the mob and him for more than two million dollars, which she has put into a Swiss bank account. Called back to L.A. for a meeting, Bugsy is boarding the plane when she arrives, trying to give him back the money but he refuses, and heads to L.A.
There in his opulent home, watching his own screen test, over and over, he is shot in the head, killing him. Just like that Seigel is dead, and the Flamingo turned over to Lansky to operate. Virginia is out, and terrified she is next to be killed. We see what Vegas will become, growing an entire city around that single casino surrounded by desert, and we are told Virginia will kill herself several years later, but after returning everything she took to Lansky.
Beatty is the film, and without the stunning performance he gives, the film would be nothing. There are very few actors who could have portrayed this role with the same fury and passion Beatty put into it, perhaps Eric Roberts being the only one. Laser smart, Bugsy misses nothing, except when it comes to women, then he misses more than he should. He never realizes Virginia is stealing from them both he and the mob until it is too late and even then he does not take the money back, perhaps knowing he was going to his death. Beatty is imposing, a formidable presence in the film when angered, absolutely terrifying when that anger is in full bloom. We had simply never seen this side of him before and it was electrifying to see it. Body and soul, he was Bugsy Seigel and it was an astounding performance.
Surrounded by great actors, they too did remarkable work. Ben Kingsley’s Meyer Lansky was quiet and thoughtful, knowing temper tantrums were spectacles best left alone, but aware that for what Seigel allowed to happen, his oldest friend must die. It was business, nothing more. Calm, respectful of everyone, it is surprising that his calm is frightening?
I loved Elliott Gould as Harry Green, a mentally challenged man who was a liability from the very beginning and should have been killed a long time ago. He informs on the gang to the police and then runs right to Bugsy with a veiled comment that he knows about Seigel too. At the moment Bugsy knows he must die, and it must be him to kill him. Like a version of Lenny from “Of Mice and Men”, Gould portrays Harry as a gentle simpleton who knows more than he should and talks too much.
Harvey Keitel was a terrific Mickey Cohen who amuses Seigel with his courage. When summoned to him he is not the least bit afraid, and when challenged about what he took, he hits back with the truth. Seigel hires him on the spot and he becomes one of the most loyal men around Bugsy with radar about Virginia, he does not trust her, never did.
As Virginia, Annette Bening was outstanding as the small-time actress who stumbles onto a gold mine with Seigel and they are a match made for one another. Theirs is a volatile relationship and if he knew she was stealing, he never showed it, not until he knew, and by then it was too late. The look on her face when she is told he is dead is shattering because she must know she is responsible for the death at the end of the day. There are moments she is likable, others where she comes across as a covetous grasping woman, the kind you run away from.
Nominated for 10 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor (Beatty), Best Director, two nods for Best Supporting Actor (Kingsley and Keitel), Best Screenplay and four other awards, Bugsy was the year’s most nominated picture. On Oscar night it won just two awards, for Best Production Design and Best Costume Design, and The Silence of the Lambs swept.
For me it is among the finest gangster movies ever made and a terrific biography because no one is afraid to show what the character was, warts and all. Bugsy Seigel was a monster, a cold-blooded killer who would take out anyone in his way, without hesitation. It takes a very special actor to portray that kind of monstrosity and still make him likable.
Beatty did just that in an extraordinary performance in this exceptional film.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.