Twenty Dwarves Took Turns Doing Handstands on the Carpet


Continuing the look at the films of 1991, I turn to Bugsy.

Films about organized crime have served as a dark metaphor for the American rags to riches story almost since the beginning, from the Warner Brothers gangster films to the The Godfather. During the 19th and early 20th century, ethnic groups such as the Irish, Jews and Italians, who were denied access to legitimate corridors of power, used other means to achieve success, by skirting the law and giving the people what they wanted. While many of them were nothing but vicious killers, they have certainly captured the imagination of movie-goers, and continue to popular subject matters for film. This is certainly true of Bugsy, directed by Barry Levinson. In addition, Bugsy also uses another American motif, the reinvention of a person. Several times during the film Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel uses the phrase, “Everybody needs a fresh start.” No one wants more of a fresh start than Siegel.

As the film begins, Siegel is headed to Los Angeles as a representative of Meyer Lansky to muscle on in on the local syndicate. Siegel takes this opportunity to try and reinvent himself, from the street thug he was as a youth, to someone more debonair and sophisticated. When we first see him he is practicing his elocution, trying to get rid of his accent. But Siegel can not escape his past, which eventually brings him down.

I saw this film at the Loews 84th Street one December night, and watching it again I was reminded of how underwhelmed by it I was. Part of the problem is Warren Beatty’s performance as Siegel. While Bugsy was a guy who wanted to be a movie star but couldn’t hide his past as a hoodlum, Beatty is trying to play a hoodlum but can’t hide that he’s a movie star. He just infuses this role with too much glamour. I’ve never been a big fan of Beatty as an actor (I think he’s a better director). Also, and this isn’t fair, once you’ve seen The Godfather, any serious gangster picture is likely to come up short. The script is a little too glib, the direction a little too obvious (such as the scene between Siegel and Virginia Hall shot through a movie screen). I was also bothered by the usually great Harvey Keitel, who gives a cartoonish performance as Mickey Cohen.

I think the best performance in the film is by Annette Bening as Hill. Her characterization has some depth that the others lack. She’s a film extra and good-time gal who has the brains for something better, and Siegel gives her the chance, but she’s ruined by the association.

The film also has some glaring historical inaccuracies, but that’s too be expected in any film about real people. Most notably, Siegel was not killed immediately after the Flamingo opened, he got it about six months later. And whether the idea of Las Vegas as an entertainment Mecca was Siegel’s brainchild, well, that’s also debatable.


About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

4 responses »

  1. Can’t say I’m a fan of any of Beatty’s work except for Bulworth. They’ve all stuck me as well-meant, with some great performances, but mostly just glitzy and empty.

    Sort of like Danny DeVitos directing career. While I can find them interesting, there’s always something missing. Mostly just a heart, clichéd as it may sound.

  2. Bugsy was a classic and cinematic art. Beatty and Benning were nostalgic in pulling off the ERA and the broken love story mixed with aspirations of gangster turned actor was chutzpah. Bugsy reviewing his demo was brilliance. Also who doesn’t love the ‘higher calling moments’ of killing Mussolini? Respectfully, don’t quit your day job.

  3. You must be (or were?) A neighbor – I remember the 84th St Loews when it was an old movie palace having seen it’s better days 😄.

    I’ve never seen this film’til runout, and I agree with what your said – except for one gaffe; ‘that’s too be expected in any film…’

    It’s ‘to’, NOT ‘too’

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