Warren Beatty certified his stardom by playing a gangster (in the 1967 classic Bonnie and Clyde), yet he remains the least ferocious of American actors. On some level, a Beatty performance is always a seduction. When we watch him on-screen, his dreamy ingenuousness — the faraway gaze, the aw-shucks Mona Lisa smile, the way he delivers his lines in an earnest, soft-voiced murmur — dovetails with his reputation as the most legendary lothario in modern Hollywood. There’s a spiritual question mark at the center of Warren Beatty: He acts like someone who has already conquered everything he could imagine and is now asking, ”What comes next?” As Ben ”Bugsy” Siegel, the visionary gangster hero of Barry Levinson’s Bugsy, he isn’t really believable as a man who lives by threats and mayhem, yet he has an authentic yearning quality, a brightly lit passion. His Bugsy, who invents Las Vegas (not the place but the concept), gets so caught up in his reverie of American monetary glory that he finds himself tossing away his life just to attain a dream.
Stylish, clever, and fast on its feet, Bugsy is a movie of vast scope and many small pleasures, a lavish, beautifully designed epic that never quite decides what it wants to be. Is it an old-fashioned melodrama or a newfangled character study? A bit of both, it turns out. In the early ’40s, Ben Siegel — who gets completely enraged if anyone calls him Bugsy, a nickname he considers tacky — is dispatched by his close friend and associate Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley) to take control of the Southern California syndicate. Bugsy has been living with his wife (Wendy Phillips) and two daughters in the New York suburb of Scarsdale; in Manhattan, there are plenty of eager women to fuel his appetites. Hollywood, though, casts its own lure. With its mansions and stars, its decadent, burnished sunshine, it’s a larger-than-life paradise, a place without limits. Bugsy instantly knows he’s home.
Cruising through a star-studded section of town, he knocks on the door of a famous opera singer, offers effusive (and heartfelt) praise for his voice, and then announces, casually, that he’s going to buy his house — right now. This witty scene, which Beatty plays with impish surprise, encapsulates the childish spirit — the ”I want what I want and I want it now!” grabbiness — that just about defines a mobster.
Bugsy lets cash flow through his fingers, yet he’s no petty vulgarian. As conceived by screenwriter James Toback, he’s a self-improvement junkie, a man who has made transcending his own roots into an obsession. Bugsy peppers his conversation with 10-dollar words like ”epiphany,” and he practices tongue-twisting enunciation exercises, trying to wipe away all vestiges of lower-class diction. Everything he does is a matter of reaching higher, further up into the stratosphere of greatness. During a trip through the Mojave Desert, he gets the inspiration to invent a city, a legal oasis of gambling and vice, and quickly sets in motion his plan for the spectacular Flamingo Hotel. As the price tag keeps escalating (from $1 million to $6 million), Las Vegas becomes his brilliant, self-destructive folly, a money pit in the sand.
Bugsy is at its best when Bugsy is ruminating on his Vegas fantasy. At the heart of the movie is a splendid joke: that Bugsy Siegel doesn’t really think he’s a gangster. In his own eyes, he’s an audacious creator, a gun-totin’ Howard Hughes. If the movie is finally a bit of a lark, that may be because Beatty is so airy and refined, so temperamentally aristocratic, that he never does seem quite like a gangster. And so we miss the comic grandeur of Bugsy’s illusions about himself.
On the set of a new movie starring his childhood pal George Raft (Joe Mantegna), Bugsy catches the eye of Virginia Hill (Annette Bening), a leggy starlet who happens to be the girlfriend of one of his crime-world associates. Toback’s script lays on the snarling film noir double-talk, the sound of sexplay fueled by lurid anger. For Bugsy and Virginia, romance is power: That’s what makes it exciting. Beatty and Bening — a superb tigress — enact the love-hate routines as efficiently as possible, yet many of their scenes have a tinny self-consciousness. In reality, of course, gangsters like Bugsy Siegel did imitate the movies (which, of course, were imitating them), but Bugsy walks the line between archetype and cliche.
A couple of the supporting actors sizzle. Harvey Keitel has a good time playing Mickey Cohen as a gutter thug with a short fuse. Explaining to Bugsy why Virginia is just a ”tart,” he’s so vulgar he’s funny. And the late rock promoter Bill Graham, as Charles ”Lucky” Luciano, performs with a magnetic, dark-tempered fury. Unfortunately, these actors, with their bottom-line aura of danger, have the effect of making Beatty seem that much more harmless. When Bugsy forces an associate who’s betrayed him to get on the floor and bark like a dog, Beatty lacks the essential undercurrent of low viciousness that would let us know Bugsy treated people that way because a part of him enjoyed it. What’s finally missing from Bugsy is the dirty, low-down kick of the crime genre — the quality that marked last year’s The Grifters, and that was there in The Godfather, too. Levinson would like to be ”bad,” but his approach is reverent, ironic, tasteful. He’s made a gangster movie that, for all its lithe pleasures, enunciates too well. B