FILMS

A Hollywood hoodlum

Bugsy Siegel had big visions—and big rages

Brian D. Johnson December 23 1991
FILMS

A Hollywood hoodlum

Bugsy Siegel had big visions—and big rages

Brian D. Johnson December 23 1991

A Hollywood hoodlum

FILMS

Bugsy Siegel had big visions—and big rages

BUGSY

Directed by Barry Levinson

Gangsters and moviemakers have enjoyed a long-standing romance with each other’s worlds. And perhaps no gangster has ever been more infatuated with Hollywood than Benjamin (Bugsy) Siegel, the flamboyant 1940s racketeer who cultivated the image of a star and the ambitions of a studio mogul. Siegel was the American dreamer who created Las Vegas—by building its first gambling palace, a lavish hotel in the middle of nowhere. He was also a sociopathic killer. Now, Warren Beatty portrays him as a darkly romantic hero in Bugsy.

It would be easy to dismiss Bugsy as a phoney Hollywood movie. Beatty seems an unlikely choice to play a Jewish gangster. The script is riddled with the kind of clever dialogue that happens only in movies. And Oscar-winning film-maker Barry Levinson directs with a studied slickness. But Bugsÿs artifice has a seductive resonance. The film is, after all, about contrivance—about the folly of a man who lived and died for delusions of grandeur. The story is compelling. At times, it is wickedly funny. And Beatty gives the most intriguing and complex performance of his career.

Focusing on the final years of Siegel’s life, the movie begins with his takeover of the Los

Angeles rackets and ends with his 1947 death in a gangland slaying. In Hollywood, the debonair gangster buys, bullies and charms his way to celebrity status—to the horror of his mob cronies back east, who value anonymity. Siegel socializes with the stars, notably actor George Raft Qoe Mantegna). He dreams about becoming a star himself—going so far as to appear in screen tests—and even hatches a crazy plot to assassinate Mussolini.

In romance, Siegel is just as impulsive. Leaving his wife and two children in New York City, he has a tempestuous love affair with starlet Virginia Hill (Annette Bening). She becomes his partner in constructing the Las Vegas hotel that bears her stage name, the Flamingo. The budget soars, driving his Mafia colleagues deeper into debt, and Siegel’s desert dream becomes his undoing.

As the story unfolds, the gangster’s reckless ambition and blind love make him increasingly vulnerable. Levinson gradually softens the movie’s dark edges, while the tidal rhythms of Ennio Morricone’s score induce a slurred sentimentality. In the final scenes, the momentum slows. There is a runway embrace right out of Casablanca. And when tragedy finally strikes, the director leaves Bening sitting for an uncomfortably long scene with her mouth halfopen, as if her mind had turned to the next page of the script and found it blank.

Bugsy tries hard to be a love story, with a lot of overcooked chemistry between Beatty and Bening (now pregnant with his daughter). But some of the movie’s most honest and tender scenes are between men. Ben Kingsley brings a commanding dignity to the role of Meyer Lansky, Siegel’s loyal Mafia cohort. Elliott Gould, rescued from the what-ever-happenedto bin of faded stars, steps brilliantly out of character to play a poignant half-wit named Harry. And as Siegel’s lieutenant, Mickey Cohen, Harvey Keitel is leaner and meaner than ever—a barracuda with a sense of humor.

Beatty, meanwhile, effectively plays off his own legend. His Bugsy is an overextended ladies' man, brimming with boyish charm. He puts on a chef’s hat and becomes an awkward buffoon as he tries to juggle an unexpected mob visit with the serving of his daughter’s birthday cake. But in a twinkling, he can descend into vicious shrieking rage. And the contrast is terrifying. In one devastating scene, he kicks a man to death at a Latin nightclub, his polished shoes flashing to a Cuban beat.

Never before has Beatty allowed himself to appear so nasty on screen. And he is eerily good at it. As Siegel, he has created a mature complement to the role that launched him as a producer and a major star, the bank-robbing outlaw in Bonnie and Clyde. But unlike that 1967 classic, Bugsy glamorizes entrepreneurial vision rather than outlaw violence. Siegel’s manic devotion to creating a promised land of entertainment in the desert makes him a martyr to show business—a hero Hollywood can truly appreciate. And now, he has finally fulfilled his dream of making it in the movies.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON