Historical Circuit: ‘Bugsy’ Still Holds Its Own 27 Years Later

The Academy Awards honoring movies from the 1991 film-year were the fourth I had sat through as a young movie-lover (save me your old man jokes). I remember the buzz at the time surrounding Warren Beatty and his performance in the film, “Bugsy,” as well as the chances the movie had to take home the coveted Best Picture prize – it was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and had just won the Golden Globe Award for Best Picture (Drama). The race seemed to be down to Barry Levinson’s “Bugsy” vs Jonathan Demme’s “The Silence of the Lambs.” Demme’s film had won a slew of critics’ prizes (including The National Board of Review), along with hitting all of the major guild prizes: the DGA, the PGA, and the WGA (the Screen Actors Guild wouldn’t exist for another four years, mind you).

Over a career spanning 59 years (and counting), Warren Beatty has been nominated for 14 Academy Awards, four of which have been for acting. He won one competitive Oscar (Director, “Reds,” 1981), and has been the recipient of the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award (2000), an honorary presentation set to recognize “creative producers, whose bodies of work reflect a consistently high quality of motion picture production.” And while he, and his film, would lose out to Demme’s “Lambs” on Oscar night, “Bugsy” is still remembered fondly among movie-goers, new and old to the film.

“Bugsy,” a crime-drama from director Barry Levinson (“Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Rain Man,”
“Wag the Dog”), portrays the story of iconic mobster, Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel (Beatty), and his love affair with actress Virginia Hill (Annette Bening). Screenwriter James Toback adapted Dean Jennings’ 1967 book “We Only Kill Each Other” for the big screen, with Beatty, Levinson, and Mark Johnson (no relation) producing the film for Tri Star.

While working for mob bosses Charlie “Lucky” Luciano (Bill Graham) and Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley), Siegel heads West to Hollywood, California to take possession of betting parlors controlled by Jack Dragna, known affectionately as “the Capone of Los Angeles.” He, along with new friend Mickey Cohen (Harvey Keitel), ousts Dragna and begins to establish a Western power via the casinos. Siegel, whose biggest weakness was always how loose he was with money (something that would foreshadow his doom), begins to spend money faster than he can make it, buying up property and automobiles, and living life like a careless playboy.

One day, while on a Hollywood film set to visit his pal, actor George Raft (played by Joe Mantegna), Siegel lays eyes on Virginia Hill (Bening), a gorgeous bit player with a list of lovers longer than her film credits (Siegel is no saint himself, as he is a wild philanderer with a wife and two children back home in New York). “The Flamingo,” as Hill is referred to (due to her long legs), is the girlfriend of Joey Adonis, an “associate of an associate” of Siegel’s. While their chemistry is instantaneous, Hill plays hard to get, and the two play cat and mouse at it as Siegel spends the first half of the film vying for her affection. Their affair finally becomes realized in one of the film’s best shots by five-time Oscar nominee, cinematographer Allen Daviau: a silhouetted kiss behind a projector screen (pictured).

While on business in Nevada to visit a gambling joint in 1946, Siegel develops the idea of a hotel-casino in the middle of the desert. But Siegel, a determined, violent, hysteric, powerful man with severe trust issues, becomes overwhelmed while trying to balance his marriage/family vs his growing love interest with Hill; his mobster ties vs the business he’s trying to build in Las Vegas; and a half-brained plan to assassinate Italian Dictator, Benito Mussolini.

Siegel acquires one million dollars from his mob pals, and begins development in the desert, with Hill in charge of accounting and finance. He lovingly names the hotel-casino “The Flamingo,” in her honor. His initial cost of expense skyrockets to three million, as his mob partners grow increasingly concerned with the project. Siegel will stop at nothing to ensure his dream is completed, including selling off all of his shares, leaving him to take no profit in its construction. Tensions reach a boiling point when the budget balloons to six million, and matters only worsen when his ill-brained plan to open the hotel-casino on a rainy Christmas night results in total failure. Tormented by his downfall, and heart-broken by the realization of why the price of his hotel-casino kept increasing, Siegel returns to his home in Hollywood to be gunned down by his old friends.

But Siegel was right, as we now know all these years later. He knew what the dreams of America were built on: sex, romance, money, adventure. And so he built a monument to all of those things – a Garden of Eden in the middle of the Mojave desert.

By the film’s release in 1991, Siegel’s six-million dollar vision had generated over 100 billion dollars. The casino business in Vegas continues to thrive, earning an estimated 9.5 billion dollars per year.

While “Bugsy” would justifiably lose the Academy Award to “Silence of the Lambs,” and Beatty would lose the Lead Actor contest to Anthony Hopkins for the latter film, “Bugsy” remains a film worth going back to 27 years later.