While rewatching the TV series Broadwalk Empire, I was reminded of the film Bugsy, which I’d seen 15 years ago, and so decided to rewatch this as I was curious to see how the film, about the infamous gangster celebrity Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel, compared in the canon of Hollywood biopics about the mob.
Produced and starring the legendary Warren Beatty, and directed by Barry Levinson, whom at one when I was younger had been one of my favourite directors. I’d thought his films Diner (1982), Good Morning Vietnam (1987), Rain Man (1988), The Natural (1984) and Avalon (1990), had a humour, poignancy and originality to them unlike any other Hollywood director during the 1980s. I’d thought Bugsy and Tin Men (1987) were his only real dissappointments up until Sphere (1998), Toys (1993) and Bandits (2001): although I’d enjoyed Toys for its absurdity.
With a cast led by Hollywood icon Warren Beatty with supporting actors that included Harvey Kietel, Elliot Gould, Ben Kingsley and Annette Benning, and a script by James Toback (Tyson, Fingers), it’s odd that the film should be so dull and unwatchable.
Arguably, Toback’s concept for the character was that Siegel he had a personality disorder with fits of bipolar levity and depression. Whether or not this is true doesn’t matter, as we’d seen similar larger-than-life characters in films such as Scarface (1983), Raging Bull (1980) and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), that were all box office hits and received widespread acclaim.
Seeing it again, it occured to me that the key problems were this; Toback’s script is cliched and predictable; Levinson’s direction is slow and lacks action; Beatty’s performance is a gross caricature, as are most characters in the film. It’s especially strange because Beatty already starred and directed a homage to old Hollywood Noir/gangster films the year before with Dick Tracy (1990), a comic book hero, so I don’t understand why he decided to do another film about nostalgia.
Bugsy was also released the year after Scorsese’s Goodfellas (1990), which had a similar plot, but depicted the criminal’s descent into hell in an entirely different way. The main distinction I found between Goodfellas, Scarface and The Godfather, was that in each case the aspiring gangster looks into the world from the outside, and this functions as both a moral compass and voyeur. For example, in Goodfellas, Liotta’s character Henry Hill is always shown helping his criminal friends, De Niro and Pesci, rather than leading them. Similarly, Al Pacino’s roles in Godfather and Scarface are characters ambitious to get inside, but then once the characters have taken power we watch revert back to watching them from the outside as they lose control.
I think Bugsy fails because the film wants us to like and sympathise with Siegel, who already has power whilst embarks on his self-destructive journey to build a new Las Vegas, even while he’s tormenting his friends and enemies. Perhaps this could’ve worked had Beatty not played the character as a hissing scoundrel, a performance that lacks either the coolness of Al Pacino in Godfather or the deadly charm of Liotta in Goodfellas. Beatty’s not dissimilar to Pacino’s performance in Dick Tracy, which itself was a parody of the villains he’d played in Scarface and Godfather. Another good example is James Gandolfini’s role as Tony Soprano in The Sopranos. As a violent but likable mob boss and family man Gandolfini was mesmerising, and as a television series allowed us to gradually peel back the layers of the character.
As a writer Toback seems fascinated by the psychology of powerful men who show a dark side and a voracious sexual appetite. Problematically, Levinson has a skill for dramatic storytelling about ordinary, mundane characters, and I believe he’s always sympathetic to his characters in away which reminds me of the great Russian writer Chehkov. He seems uncomfortable handling a character as explosive as Siegel (who beats anyone that dares call him ‘Bugsy’), so Levinson makes him talk fast and tell jokes like Cary Grant, but which undermines the cruelty of Toback’s writing.
Even the normally excellent Kietel, Benning and Kingsley, feel like they’re playing in different films. Kietel is convincing, but mumbles his dialogue and looks ridiculous in his prosthetics. Benning seems to be channelling Lucille Ball, stamping her feet and throwing breakables, inciting Beatty to scream lines like ‘tell me who you fucked?!’. Kingsley seems to be trying to steal every scene by not blinking and speaking very slowly and quietly, but this can’t work since Beatty ruins these scenes with odd gestures like chewing carrots (Bugs Bunny?).
Levinson and Beatty go even further by filming all the scenes in a cloudy, golden tinge, presumably meant to imitate the glamour of old Hollywood, but this feels too contemporary and lacks the dingy, brownishness of films like Miller’s Crossing, Chinatown, The Untouchables, LA Confidential and The Godfather; and which arguably were more accurate.
I get the feeling that Levinson, although he clearly loves characters and storytelling, just isn’t interested in genre the way Spielberg, Scorsese or Tarantino have shown. After Bugsy he’d go on to direct Robins Williams again in Toys, a bizarre children’s comedy romance with a science-fiction element, but also a commercal and critical failure. After this he’d direct Disclosure, a big budget a Fatal Attraction-type sci-fi thriller starring sex symbols Demi Moore and Michael Douglas, and Jimmy Hollywood, a low budget comedy about an unemployed actor. After came the big budget film Sleepers (1996), which had an ensemble cast that included Brad Pitt, Kevin Bacon, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and Jason Patric, a part-crime thriller and part-courtroom drama, and which recieved some critical success. Then came Wag the Dog (1997) and Sphere (1998), the latter was a sci-fi horror by the Westworld/Jurrassic Park author Michael Crighton, which had a big budget and a-list cast with Dustin Hoffman, Sharon Stone and Samuel L. Jackson, but flopped at the box office and received poor reviews.
I think he redeemed himself with the dark political satire Wag the Dog, as he seems to have better success with smaller films and is fortunate to enlist the talents of stars like Hoffman and De Niro. For some reason, he’s always been lucky with attracting big stars, even when his films are mediocre.