'Bugsy': Warren Beatty & Annette Bening Lack of Chemistry Hurts Gangster Biopic

Bugsy Annette Bening Warren Beatty
Bugsy with Annette Bening and Warren Beatty.

Barry Levinson's 1991 best picture nominee Bugsy is the next feature in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' “Great To Be Nominated” series. The glitzy Bugsy Siegel biopic will screen on Monday, Aug. 13, at 7:30 p.m. at the Academy's Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.

Cinematographer Allen Daviau and writer James Toback, both of whom were nominated for Oscars, along with actor Don Calfa (Louie Dragna) and casting director Ellen Chenoweth will take part in an onstage discussion following the screening.

Bugsy focuses on the loves and dreams of gangster Bugsy Siegel, who spent much of his time during the 1940s beating people up, committing cold-blooded murders, and cavorting with Hollywood actress wannabe Virginia Hill. He's also credited with the urban development of a desert patch that would eventually turn into the city of Las Vegas.

If only Bugsy the movie had been as mesmerizingly tacky and tasteless as The Strip. In his projects – e.g., Bonnie and Clyde, Reds – Beatty has always had a penchant for romanticizing the men he portrays. Whether or not they have sexual dysfunctions or other kinds of hangups, the producer-actor (and sometimes director) wants us to love his deeply flawed characters.

That approach worked for the most part in Reds because in that romantic-political drama history was dealt with seriousness, but it was less effective in Bonnie and Clyde (as a film, not as a cultural phenomenon) and it's a complete failure in Bugsy. For one, Beatty's Bugsy is much too calculatedly charming for both his own and the film's good, while neither the actor nor Toback's screenplay succeeds in conveying the complexities of the charmingly evil, dreamily jaded gangster. Compounding matters, Beatty, then in his early 50s, looks much too old for the part. (Bugsy was murdered at the age of 41.)

Worse yet, this Disneylandesque biopic consists of a series of poorly directed sequences that don't quite jell. Most of the cast flounders, save for Annette Bening, who is quite effective as the cunning Virginia Hill despite her lack of on-screen chemistry with Beatty, and for Elliott Gould's excellent cameo as a dim-witted mobster.

Allen Daviau's dreamlike cinematography is gorgeous, and so are the highly stylized sets and costumes – but they all give the impression that Bugsy is set on some other planet.

Bugsy received a total of 10 Academy Award nominations, winning Oscars for Art Direction (Dennis Gassner; Set Decoration: Nancy Haigh) and Costume Design (Albert Wolsky). The other nominations were for Best Picture (Mark Johnson, Barry Levinson and Warren Beatty, producers), Actor in a Leading Role (Beatty as Bugsy Siegel), Actor in a Supporting Role (Harvey Keitel as Mickey Cohen), Actor in a Supporting Role (Ben Kingsley as Meyer Lansky), Cinematography (Allen Daviau), Directing (Levinson), Music - Original Score (Ennio Morricone) and Writing - Screenplay written directly for the screen (James
Toback).

Two Oscar-nominated shorts – Stephen Kessler's Birch Street Gym and Christopher Hinton's Blackfly – will be screened prior to the feature.

Tickets are $5 for the general public and $3 for Academy members and students with a valid ID. Tickets may be purchased by mail, in person at the Academy during regular business hours or, depending on availability, on the night of the screening when the doors open at 6:30 p.m.

Tickets also may be purchased online at www.oscars.org/events. There are no minimum order requirements and no transaction or processing fees. Tickets may be purchased online until noon PST on the day of the event.

Curtain time for all features is 7:30 p.m. and pre-show elements will begin at 7 p.m. The Academy is located at 8949 Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. For more information, call (310) 247-3600.

James Toback at Academy 'Bugsy' screening

Aug. 14 update: Neither stars Warren Beatty and Annette Bening, nor director Barry Levinson were in attendance at the “Great to Be Nominated” screening of the 1991 biopic-cum-crime drama Bugsy, which took place this past Monday, August 13, 2007, at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills. Bugsy screenwriter James Toback, however, was there, and so was cinematographer Allen Daviau, actor Don Calfa (“Louie Dragna”), and production manager Charles Newirth.

Besides Beatty, Bening, and Levinson, also missing in action at the Academy's Bugsy screening were cast members Ben Kingsley, Elliott Gould, Joe Mantegna, Richard C. Sarafian, and Bebe Neuwirth.

Writer-director James Toback movies

According to the IMDb, James Toback has worked on about a dozen films in the last three decades. Besides Bugsy, which earned him a Best Original Screenplay Academy Award nomination, Toback's most notable efforts are the Karel Reisz-directed crime drama The Gambler (1974), starring James Caan as a literature professor who also happens to be a heavily indebted gambling addict; and the psychological crime drama Fingers (1978), which he also directed, and in which Harvey Keitel plays a small-time thug with a talent for music. In 2005, Jacques Audiard remade Fingers under the title The Beat That My Heart Skipped / De battre mon coeur s'est arrêté, starring Romain Duris in the old Keitel role.

Toback's other efforts as a writer-director were less successful. Those include the drama Exposed (1983), starring Nastassja Kinski, Rudolf Nureyev, and Harvey Keitel; the crime comedy The Pick-Up Artist (1987), with Molly Ringwald and Robert Downey Jr.; and the dramatic comedy Two Girls and a Guy (1997), with Downey Jr., Natasha Gregson Wagner, and Heather Graham.

'Howards End' is next in line

Next in line in the Academy's “Great to Be Nominated” series is James Ivory's 1992 period drama Howards End, starring Best Actress Oscar winner Emma Thompson, Anthony Hopkins, and Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Vanessa Redgrave.

 

Bugsy images: Courtesy of the Margaret Herrick Library / © A.M.P.A.S.

James Toback Bugsy screening photo: © A.M.P.A.S.

'Bugsy': Warren Beatty & Annette Bening Lack of Chemistry Hurts Gangster Biopic © 2004–2018 Alt Film Guide and/or author(s).
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1 Comment to 'Bugsy': Warren Beatty & Annette Bening Lack of Chemistry Hurts Gangster Biopic

  1. Carrie

    Wow I couldn't disagree more. I thought Benning and Beatty had a ton of on screen chemistry! I thought he looked fine for the role because even though he was in his early fifties (bugsy died at 41) bugsy was a hardened criminal who aged faster than a pampered hollywood actor… the looks were probably about right. I also think that their chemistry was so great on the movie it led to their eventual marraige! (they are still together today)