By Simon Miraudo
August 20, 2013
Play It Again is a weekly feature in which our classic-film connoisseurs revisit a revered motion picture from the annals of movie history, to see if it holds up… or if it has aged terribly. And yes, it takes its name from a famously misquoted Casablanca line (hey, whatever; it fits!).
Barry Levinson‘s Bugsy will reignite your passion for inventive foul-mouthery, so inventively crafted and spitefully delivered are its swears. “You can suck that apology right out of my d***.” “Pull it out then.” That’s just one friendly exchange from the film, courtesy of screenwriter James Toback. Though the visual style evokes those classic mob pictures of the 1930s and 40s, the language is more modern – even David Milchian – with a flair for the theatrical. For instance, an intentional mispronunciation of “Countess” becomes a brilliant, cutting slur.
Warren Beatty stars as real-life mobster Benjamin Siegel (don’t call him Bugsy), a New Yorker who made California his home in the 1930s, fell for actress Virginia Hill (Annette Bening), and even conspired to kill Mussolini. Though the people of Italy beat him to the punch on that last thing, it would have been an easier task to accomplish than the courting of the barb-tongued Hill. “Why don’t you go outside and jerk yourself a soda?” she tells him. This thing really is very quotable.
Beatty, also a producer, declined to helm the project, citing his presence in nearly every scene as an impediment. However, for a control freak like he, it’s hard to discount his involvement throughout the creative process. Though neither Toback and Levinson are slouches in their respective departments, both would likely have had to acquiesce to Beatty if ever there was a disagreement. Bugsy ultimately scored 10 Oscar nominations, but it was bested in all categories except Art Direction and Costume Design. (Harvey Keitel and Ben Kingsley both competed for Best Supporting Actor, by playing made men Mickey Cohen and Meyer Lansky respectively.)
Released one year before Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, it’s impossible to say what kind of influence it might have had over that other, more culturally significant flick. Yet, one scene seems like a direct inspiration: at home one evening, Bugsy frantically tries to prepare dinner for his family and celebrate his young daughter’s birthday whilst also wheeling and dealing with some surly colleagues in the adjoining room. Not quite as frenetic – or coked up – as the similar sequence from Goodfellas, it still feels like an antecedent.
So, while Bugsy may look bland and stuffy and clichéd from its packaging, the actual product is vastly more electrifying. Bening’s spunky performance is the perfect foil for Beatty, whose incandescent charisma can’t even be dulled by his character’s corrupt, murderous, jealous ways. In one particularly ugly moment, Bugsy viciously beats a betrayer, before sitting down at the dinner table to stuff his face. It contradicts the Beatty we know as an icon, even though he spent much of his career working to alter our perception of him as a pretty boy. He was a talented actor, but a bigger star, and that has always been the invisible asterisk next to his name on every feature.
More than twenty years after its release, the flick’s status has diminished, not unlike Beatty’s other efforts, such as Reds and Heaven Can Wait. Why aren’t they in the pantheon along with their contemporaries? Perhaps because Beatty always shone brighter than the projects he was involved with; the ultimate curse of this supremely talented individual. After all, what is Bugsy’s lasting pop imprint? That this was the set on which Beatty met his future wife Annette Bening, and his insatiable lust for every member of the opposite sex was finally quelled.
Bugsy is available on Quickflix.