Friday, April 23, 2010
To Soften The Impact
It’s about nine years now since a new Warren Beatty film has opened in theaters and as time goes on with the actor heading well into his seventies it’s looking increasingly likely that we’re not going to get any more. It’s a shame, not only because I don’t want to see the guy go out with the disastrous TOWN & COUNTRY but because it would be nice to think he’d have at least one more home run left in him. Doesn’t he ever look at somebody like Clint Eastwood and get inspired? It makes sense that he would have had something in the pipeline during the past several years but maybe it wasn’t something that he wanted to go through the struggles of getting made in this business that has changed so much. Maybe he’d called in all his favors already. Maybe he just felt like staying home with his kids. He’s hardly a hermit and clearly leaves the house every now and then like if Annette has a premiere or something. He’s older, sure, but still looks ok if you ask me. Maybe he just doesn’t want to do it anymore. Hey, he’s allowed.
BUGSY was released at Christmastime 1991 and came at a period of surprisingly heavy activity for the star as if he’d realized that after sitting out much of the 80s he finally needed to make sure that people remembered who he was. Along with Oliver Stone’s JFK, also released that month, BUGSY was considered to be one of the front-runners for the Oscars until both wound up sideswiped by the sweep of THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS which had come out way back in the previous February. The film received widespread acclaim but only really did middling business, maybe becoming better known in the long run as the film where Warren met co-star Annette and lived happily ever after. Directed by Barry Levinson with a screenplay by James Toback that was years in the writing and Beatty serving as one of several producers, BUGSY is a film that I’ve always admired but have never felt particularly passionate about. It’s definitely good enough to warrant repeat viewings over the years, which is something I’ve done, and there are strong moments throughout but I always feel kind of lukewarm to it in the end as if the passions felt by its characters never manage to translate for me. The scenes play, the images hold, the dialogue crackles and the Morricone score lingers in the brain but something always feels like it just misses greatness. I still like it watching it now and there’s certainly nothing wrong with saying that a film is simply good, not in this day and age. I suppose that to me the final result just feels too much like an attempt to cover a lot of narrative ground with something getting lost along the way and it comes off feeling maybe a shade too polite.
In the 1940s famous gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel (Warren Beatty) takes a trip out to California to take care of some business, at the firm instructions of old friend Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley) to be back in New York in a few weeks. Attracted to the Hollywood scene, as well as to beautiful starlet Virginia Hill (Annette Bening) he impulsively buys a Beverly Hills house and decides to stay awhile, ignoring his wife and two daughters. Joining up with famous movie star buddy George Raft (Joe Mantegna) and local enforcer Mickey Cohen (Harvey Keitel) Siegel makes his presence known in the L.A. scene while ultimately winning Virginia over when on a trip to Nevada to check on a local concern, gets what he believes the ultimate idea, ‘the answer to the dreams of America’: a hotel and casino in Las Vegas named the Flamingo designed to cater to anyone’s desires and though the project is budgeted at $1 million it soon becomes clear the extent to which Siegel, with Virginia by his side, will go to realize his ultimate goal.
BUGSY is completely and totally exquisite in every single scene, with an immense degree of confidence evident in the filmmaking, beautiful dialogue by James Toback (make no mistake—this is the best work of his career) as well as an always intriguing chemistry between the two leads, yet I still feel kind of cool towards the whole thing. Barry Levinson is wonderful with actors and there are sparkling moments throughout like Siegel watching closely as George Raft shoots MANPOWER or his attention to detail as the Flamingo is built but it at times feels like a film that is being directed by someone sitting in an easy chair, or maybe in the back of a stretch limo, and there’s an undeniable distance I feel in the way things are often staged. Looking at it now with some distance the degrees of stylization makes me wonder what kind of job Coppola might have done as director—perhaps during his for-hire years when he dropped the ‘Ford’ from his name—with even the eccentricities of some of the casting coming off as similar to his approach to things. This brief daydream makes me imagine how Coppola could have even used this as an opportunity to do right what went wrong with in the final result of THE COTTON CLUB but in 1991, fresh off THE GODFATHER PART III, I imagine that the man was done with gangsters by that point. Reading a simple article on Bugsy Siegel would reveal how many deviations from fact this film takes but it could be possibly seen as more a story about Warren Beatty and his pursuit of perfection, as represented by the Flamingo, while finally finding his perfect partner in the person of Virginia Hill/Annette Bening who the casino in question is essentially named after.
It’s very easy to read just about any of Beatty’s characters through the years as representing the actor and his life in some way (except for maybe ISHTAR’s Lyle Rogers and I’ll bet somebody could succeed in finding parallels even there) so seen as a Beatty-infused look at 40s Hollywood may be the best way to consider BUGSY and it’s place in the careers of everyone involved all these years later. Impeccable to look at in every possible way, I still get lost in Allan Daviau’s cinematography and Dennis Gassner’s production design which makes some use of actual L.A. locations—like the legendary Perino’s Restaurant, since torn down—as well as the immensely impressive recreation of the Flamingo out in the desert. In some ways the sublime score by Ennio Morricone—if your film is going to be high-class, why not go all the way to Rome and get the most high-class of composers?—epitomizes some of my feelings. The steady, dramatic sections go perfectly with Siegel’s obsessive behavior (it’s no surprise that both Beatty and Levinson used him on subsequent projects) making for the ideal musical counterpoint to hearing ‘twenty dwarves took turns…” over and over. But the more romantic moments, clearly meant to move me deeply, mainly remind me how I never feel particularly emotionally involved in the story of the fiery passions of Bugsy Siegel (“Ben. BEN.”) and Virginia Hill. The music is haunting, yes, but I’m not particularly haunted when I hear it in this context (it works beautifully on the album) and in the end as I try to figure out what to make of the endless close up of Annette Bening before the credits quickly roll I find myself thinking the whole thing is good, nice, smooth, a well-crafted piece of work. There’s no feeling that I’ve seen something genuinely extraordinary like what I get from a film like BONNIE & CLYDE, SHAMPOO, REDS or, yes, BULWORTH (interestingly, BUGSY is paced much more leisurely than many of the other films he was directly involved with making) something which would make me feel like those involved put their blood and sweat into this, that it mattered more than anything else on the planet. That missing passion which I find myself wishing from this movie is probably more responsible than anything for the slight feeling of emptiness I always get when the credits roll.
The most recent DVD, released several years ago, is an extended cut adding about fifteen minutes and is worth checking out for any fan of the film. None of what’s added feels necessarily like a revelation but the material, while not always crucial to the story, adds a certain amount of depth to Siegel’s behavior. With more detail given to some sections, overall the film plays a little smoother now, with the possible exception of one scene near the end that tonally just doesn’t seem right and, unless I’m missing something also seems to place Kietel & Mantegna in two different places on the same night. The film has also had some added interest for me through the years due to it’s portrayal of Bugsy Siegel’s suburban New York home in Scarsdale, the town where I grew up. This much about the story of Bugsy Siegel is certainly based in fact although unfortunately no actual filming took place in the town. I can remember the local paper reporting at the time that overtures made by the film’s producers were rebuffed (the desire possibly arose from Co-Producer Charles Newirth having grown up there as well) and the production went elsewhere—that lake Siegel drives past during the film’s opening doesn’t resemble anything I ever encountered while living in the area. But since the Warren Beatty incarnation of Bugsy Siegel is heard to be muttering “Scarsdale” over and over again at the moment when the ultimate dream of Las Vegas comes to him (I somehow doubt this incident has much basis in fact) has always struck me as particularly amusing.
Beatty is compelling every step of the way, yet I somehow still look at the most intense moments of his portrayal as coming off like eccentricities rather than the behavior of someone who is genuinely dangerous, even during his most frightening moments. But if anything, as Beatty repeats “Twenty dwarves took turns…” over and over again throughout I believe in the intensity of his obsessions, which is probably what matters most of all. Annette Bening at this point was during a hot period where she seemed to specialize as the younger love interest of older actors (playing opposite Robert DeNiro in GUILTY BY SUSPICION and Harrison Ford in REGARDING HENRY during the same calendar year) yet the undeniable maturity she possessed even at that age never really made it an issue. Meeting Beatty put an end to all that for a few years as they started their family (which included having to turn down BATMAN RETURNS) but she’s simply dynamite here, making Virginia Hill into someone you could believe would catch Siegel’s eye and make him obsessed on first glance, following through on all the promise she displayed in the previous year’s noir-tinged THE GRIFTERS. She was nominated for that film but not for BUGSY which is as much of a surprise as anything—the way she paws at Beatty as he scarfs down that Shrimp Scampi says as much about the relationship these two have as any of their impeccable dialogue ever does. Kingsley and Kietel did get Oscar nominations (so did Beatty—the film got ten in total) and they’re quite good but more impressive are certain people who pop in smaller roles. Elliott Gould is particularly excellent as Siegel’s sad sack New York associate Harry Greenberg who is forever a few steps behind everyone else and the added subtext of the one-time star Gould playing opposite a contemporary who is still big so many years later brings a great amount of resonance to their scenes. The always enjoyable Bebe Neuwirth is a lot of fun as Countess di Frasso who Siegel hoped would be the key to his plan to execute Mussolini, Wendy Phillips brings needed dignity to the also-ran role of Esta (“E-S-T-A”) Siegel and Richard Serafian (director of VANISHING POINT) is terrific as a fellow tough guy who winds up terrorized by the even tougher Siegel’s near-insanity. Rock promoter Bill Graham, who died shortly before this was released, is ideally intimidating as Charlie Luciano (he feels like one of the casting choices Coppola might also have made) and familiar face Don Calfa of RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD and “10” turns up among the hoods. Playing the legendary George Raft, Joe Mantegna is a very good actor but I’m not sure he’s good enough to convince me that he could ever be that wooden onscreen.
“Looks matter if it matters how you look,” spits out Virginia Hill at one point and, much as the tagline on the poster reads “GLAMOUR WAS THE DISGUISE” it’s a piece of dialogue that focuses on the beauty, or lack of beauty, that we are presented with in BUGSY. Even while watching some of it now I find myself drawn into that luxurious sheen, struck by how alluring some of it is. The way Siegel tells Harry Greenberg to “Bend your knees” as he jumps off the train, the huge sound of those lights being shut off on the set of MANPOWER as Virginia walks away from their first meeting, Ben Kingsley’s Meyer Lansky trying to explain the behavior of his friend, the way Beatty playing Siegel compulsively, obsessively, glares at any particular person in his sights. Am I resisting it? Am I being overly critical? Can’t I see how good this movie really is? It truly is an impeccably layered piece of work with an undeniable sense of time and place, a film everyone involved with should be proud of. If I feel like something is missing from the end result then it might just be me. It might just mean that all I need to do is see it again, to continue obsessively examining it the way I do certain other Warren Beatty movies, just as I hope that there will still be one more in the future that I’ll get to do that with. Maybe one day I’ll think that it’s a masterwork. And if I still think it’s just a very good, well-designed piece of work, well, there’s nothing particularly wrong with that. But when seeing a film about someone who refuses to allow his vision to be compromised in any way, no matter what it takes, that passion is what I wish I could take from it and that’s what I feel remains allusive to me about BUGSY, a story of passion found within glamour which feels a little too much to me like a beautifully designed museum piece.