Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project – aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface? – to the extent of his playing a title character a decade-and-a-half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow the impact of star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its merits (including a screenplay from James Toback chock full of incident), never really quite feels focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.
But then, leanness, precision and focus have never really been Barry Levinson’s deal. He’s good with character and with actors, to the extent that the alchemy of performance and story hit its resounding sweet spot with deserved Best Picture and Director wins for Rain Man, but he’s otherwise marked out by being a seamless journeyman, not so very far from Rob Reiner (who also saw a successful spate during the period of Levinson’s zenith).
You look at Levinson’s best work from the ’80s – Diner, Tin Men, Rain Man, even the very patchy Good Morning, Vietnam – and they’re characterised by the unobtrusive anonymity of a director who knows not to get in the way. Certainly, there’s nothing in them to suggest he’d be ideally placed to turn in outright genre fare such as a gangster movie (any more than for an Amblin fantasy effects piece, Young Sherlock Holmes). This flitting would lead to uneven results throughout the course of the next decade, with the likes of Disclosure, Sphere and Bandits; in retrospect, it doesn’t seem so surprising that he hasn’t had a hit in a decade, as if his top-of-the-world run was a fluke (ditto Reiner).
Levinson started out as a writer, so he certainly has a sense of a scene, but there’s also a sense of someone trying too hard when it comes to impressing artistic stylings onto Bugsy, most notably the meta element of filmmaking (Bugsy’s first meeting with Annette Bening’s Virginia Hill on a film set, their making out in silhouette against a projection screen). With the support of a mediocre Ennio Morricone score, one that serves only to remind one of other, superior mob movies (The Untouchables, Once Upon a Time in America, even State of Grace), Bugsy lacks a sense of urgency or danger in the mob element. At least, until very late in the day, and even then, almost nonchalantly. It also seems to believe we’re as invested in the Bugsy-Virginia romance as Beatty clearly is in Bening.
The strange thing about the film is that there’s no shortage of really good material here, even while it fails to come together as a whole and leaves you curiously unaffected. Unaffected aside, that is, from being slightly askance at the manner in which, come the final titles, we are presented with the vindication of Bugsy’s big Vegas idea, an idea that really came from William Wilkerson, who doesn’t get so much as a mention; the Flamingo Las Vegas Hotel Casino, which devoured spiralling costs to the tune of $6m and eventually got Siegel whacked, has since made $100bn. You see, Bugsy’s a visionary hero.
Purportedly, the now persona-non-grata Toback lost all his research on Siegel, and under the clock of a threatening rival project, Beatty asked him to knock something together based on what he remembered. The result features some marvellous material for the producer-star, from Bugsy’s elocution practice, to his screen test, to his precision with regard to language, be it the wrath visited on those calling him Bugsy (“A bug is a colloquialism”) or misused words (“Uninterested. Disinterested is impartial. Uninterested means not interested”). Then there’s his crazy desire to kill Mussolini (Ben Kinsley’s Meyer Lansky implores him never to tell anyone else this as it makes him look like a nut) and the observation early on that comes back to bite him: “Ben has one problem – he doesn’t respect money”.
But set down the they are by Levinson, they seem like vignettes rather than acting in the service of a greater story. A scene where Bugsy, sporting a chef’s hat, must juggle making food for his daughter’s birthday with selling the Flamingo idea to Meyer and fielding calls from Mickey Cohen (Harvey Keitel) is entertaining, but there’s never any mistaking what it is: a lower-energy riff on Henry Hill’s last day of freedom in Goodfellas.
It takes a while for Bening to unpack a character in Virginia Hill, having to play someone Bugsy may or may not fully know and given dialogue such as “Why don’t you go outside and jerk yourself a soda” (fittingly, this comes shortly after the line “Dialogue’s cheap in Hollywood, Ben”). The makers settle on Hill having genuine affection for Siegel, but there are some rocky scenes, such as her making love to him while he’s stuffing his face. Keitel’s Cohen is even more of an age aberration than Beatty’s Bugsy, but he’s great; both he and Kingsley were Oscar nominated, but Keitel has the edge due to being awarded the more substantial character. There are also notable bits for Elliott Gould, Joe Mantegna (as George Raft) and Bebe Neuwirth.
Beatty might well have thought he was going to finish the night with the big one (Anthony Holden tells it that way in The Oscars – The Secret History of Hollywood’s Academy Awards), what with Bugsy being the most nominated film that year (at ten) and his attracting additional attention in the season’s run up for finally settling down as a father and husband. Particularly so with Dick Tracy having been a technical awards-only fizzle the year before (perhaps most shocking about all this was the surge in profile, the increasingly inactive star releasing two movies in consecutive years).
And yet, the same would hold true for Bugsy, claiming only art direction and costume design (the traditional go-to territory of the period piece). The Wilkinson controversy hadn’t done it any favours (although, pretty much any factually based nominee must expect such scrutiny), while Holden suspects voters might have regarded it as the account of “a somewhat two-dimensional, cardboard cut-out gangster, despite the hype suggesting that Beatty the actor had never shown more range”.
I think it’s more this: Levinson, as is his wont, failed to create a movie with a sufficient point of view – aside from suggesting a vague, misplaced ennoblement – and the story similarly lacked a punch. Both were in thrall to their star – his romance, his scene-stealing – whereas Levinson’s earlier successes had blended the elements of character, story and star power cogently. Bugsy is thus handsome but hollow.
If Beatty had gone to, say Brian De Palma, then it might have been a different story. But De Palma is the star of his films. Levinson managed a couple of minor hits during the subsequent decade – Disclosure, Sleepers, Wag the Dog – but none of them felt fully formed either. He has since become more associated with big-screen dreck (What Just Happened, Rock the Kasbah), while eking out a comfortable TV biopic niche (You Don’t Know Jack, The Wizard of Lies, Paterno) with the likes of Pacino and De Niro. Beatty mustered three more pictures (flops Love Affair, Town and Country and the potent Bulworth) before his recent, seemingly-forever-vaunted Howard Hughes jaunt, the dud Rules Don’t Apply. I don’t expect to see anything further from him any time soon, if ever, so Bugsy will go down as his last realistic hope of (further) Oscar recognition.