Bugsy (1991)

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*. Wait a second. Did somebody, somewhere, at some point in time, actually think this was a good movie?
*. I guess so. It was nominated for 10 Academy Awards (it won two). My DVD has a pull quote from Time Magazine calling it “the best picture of the year,” and another from David Denby saying it’s “the most entertaining and exciting American movie of the year.” So I guess there were some people who took it seriously.
*. I take it seriously too, because it asks me too. It’s a prestige picture, a historical biopic with A-list talent, and every bit as bad as that sounds.
*. I don’t know if Beatty’s performance is that bad or if it’s just a case of him being miscast. He isn’t convincing at all as Bugsy Siegel. He doesn’t have any sense of danger or threat about him, which means that when he breaks into violence he just seems like he’s throwing a tantrum.
*. I’m not putting him down, but Beatty does have a funny face and a funny voice and delivery. This worked in Bonnie and Clyde because that was a movie with a strong comic cast to it. Here he just seems too light for the part.
*. As with most historical biopics, the story is told in a way that is numbingly conventional. Having Siegel and Virginia kiss for the first time in silhouette is hokey as hell. Then to cut to a slow pan over their discarded clothes lying on the floor until we see them lying together in bed take the cliché up (or down) to another level.
*. There doesn’t seem to be any originality, or indeed any sign of life in the movie. You would think Siegel’s epiphany in the desert would be rendered in some particularly memorable way, but instead it’s just him in (another) silhouette against a pretty sunset.

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*. Or take the scene where Beatty beats the hell out of a fellow gangster in a room adjoining a dance hall, with the music ramped up to play over the violence and the violence intercut with scenes of people on the dance floor. How many times has that been done?
*. Or take the ending, with bullets symbolically tearing off the Flamingo sign from the model of the hotel, and then shattering the glass over the framed picture of Virginia. Do you get it? Do you get it? Those are all of Bugsy’s dreams being destroyed!
*. All of the other “big” scenes are similarly uninspired. They just go through the motions in a contrived and obvious way and the audience is a mile ahead of where everything is going. Two examples: (1) The birthday scene, which is just used to show how Siegel’s business is interfering with his family life. It’s all very obvious, and yet this scene takes forever to play out. (2) The scene where Siegel takes Greenberg for “a little drive.” Meaning he’s going to kill him. We even go through an argument between Siegel and Virginia about how Siegel doesn’t want her to go with them. Do you understand, Greenberg? Do you? Apparently he’s the only one who doesn’t, and again the scene plays out just as expected.

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*. Why would Annette Bening have even wanted the role of Virginia Hill? Hill is a selfish, slutty nag, flying into violent tantrums over nothing at all every chance she gets. Aside from the fact that she actually cooks and serves a delicious meal to her man, which is not something I thought most mistresses were up for, I can’t see what the attraction is.
*. No, her reversal at the end, with that Casablanca moment by the plane, doesn’t change my mind. Not that I believed in it anyway.
*. Historical accuracy. Is it important? Yes and no.
*. I think the matter of accuracy is important here because what the movie changes goes to the very heart of its romanticized vision of Siegel. In brief, the real Flamingo Hotel was the brainchild of William Wilkerson, “the man who built Las Vegas.” As far as I can tell, Wilkerson isn’t even mentioned in the film. This allows the movie to present Siegel not as a mobster (we hear nothing of his rise through the ranks of Murder, Inc.) but as dreamer, a Hollywood impresario building his fantasy oasis in the desert, totally oblivious to mundane matters like money. As Lansky puts it in the film, Siegel doesn’t respect money, deriding it as “dirty paper.”
*. This is all done to make Siegel a more attractive character, but it’s a total whitewash. As Beatty has observed, Hollywood has always loved gangsters and gangsters have always loved Hollywood, and this is a movie about that romance. But in this case love is not only blind but profoundly dishonest.
*. Gangsters have also always been fashionable. I think it may be an Italian thing. But here they’re only fashionable. Everyone looks like they’re just playing, or auditioning for, the part of boss. The point seems to be that none of it is real: Vegas was always just a movie. So how can you accuse a movie like this for being a lie? The simulacrum, that ersatz oasis rising like a mirage out of the desert, is all.

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