Star Turnsnby David R. SlavittnBugsynProduced by Mark ]ohnsonnWritten by ]ames TobacknDirected by Barry LevinsonnReleased by Tri-Star PicturesnMeeting VenusnProduced by David PuttnamnWritten by Istvdn Szabo andnMichael HirstnDirected by Istvdn SzabonReleased by Warner BrothersnGangster movies show us an arc, thenparabohc rise and fall of a careernwhere ambition comes a-cropper, wherenthere is payment extracted by the inexorablenfates for the hubris of the protagonist.nBut in these terms, Bugsy is nongangster movie. Indeed, the closest comparisonnI can think of is Tucker, anothernfilm about the way America maltreatsnher visionaries. Benjamin (Bugsy—-butnnot to his face) Siegel is a gangster, anbusiness associate of Meyer Lansky andnCharlie Luciano, but at the opening ofnthe film he is already at the top, doingnwell, riding high, taking care of businessnand even bending the rules a little to accommodatenminor failures of faith andntrust of a nebbish old friend like HarrynGreenberg. (Elliot Gould as Greenbergndoes his best work in movies in years.)nWhat brings Bugsy down isn’t anythingnlike the unwritten moral code, the risksnimplicit in a career of crime, or the im­nplacability of the Fates and Furies. It’snworse than that. He is ruined by real estatendevelopment. His creation—thenFlamingo Hotel in Las Vegas—is a visionarynenterprise, and that, accordingnto James Toback’s screenplay, is enoughnto bring down anyone—hero, anti-hero,nor even ordinary human being. HadnSiegel only stuck to his nasty last, henmight have made out as well as Lucianon(who went off to retirement in Sicily) ornLansky who lingered on for years in Miami.nBut the vulnerabilities of legitimatenbusiness are too great for him.nNot that Siegel is such an astute businessman.nThe costs of the Flamingonescalate from a million to three and thennto six or so, of which sum Siegel’snparamour, Virginia Hill, turns out to havenskimmed a third. Ordinarily, Siegel wouldnhave noticed such peculation. It is dramaticallyndemonstrated that he can donquick arithmetic without taking off hisnshoes and socks. But he is bemused notnonly by the woman but also by his ownngrand idea of what he can do to the hugenopen space of America. He is dazzled andndizzied by the possibility of legitimatenprofits that are all but beyond calculation.nIt’s a wry and rueful kind of joke for anlarge movie to be making, but movies getnmade for odd reasons and thereforencan do improbable things—sometimesneven well. Here, at least a few of the motivesnseem clear. Warren Beatty, one of thenfilm’s coproducers, wanted to be BugsynSiegel, saw the part as right for him,nindeed as irresistible. Annette Bening,nBeatty’s wife, plays Virginia Hill, andnthey have some lively scenes together—nwhich surely didn’t hurt. James Toback,nthe writer who also appears in a minornpart, happens to be a compulsive gamblernwho has a thing about Las Vegas, ancombined loathing and fascination thatnmade the Siegel story numinous andninviting for him.nThe great scene in the film is one innwhich Beatty stands alone in the Nevadandesert and sees . . . nothing! All thisnnothing, waiting to be made into something.nMickey Cohen (Harvey Keitel) andnVirginia Hill are watching from the roadnand just don’t get it, because they seenwhat’s there, an expanse of arid land.nSiegel sees past that to pure possibility.nHe sees what isn’t there, and it is a grandnand funny moment. We know how it willnbe, how the electric power from HoovernDam will mn air conditioning that will innturn enable Las Vegas to happen. Wenknow then that Siegel’s madness—hisnnn”bugsiness”—is correct. But we can seenmore than Siegel does, for we realize thatnthe convention of this kind of filmnrequires him to die, and we also knownthat the Las Vegas he imagines isngoing to be tacky, shoddy, and asndreadful as it is wonderful.nA mark of the seriousness of this filmnis that it reminded me of Saul Bellow’snremarkable novella. The Bellarosa Connection,nin which there is a similar rhapsodynto the contradictions of grandeur andnsleaze that America perseverates. Bellownsays of his almost eponymous Billy Rosenthat he “wasn’t big: he was about the sizenof Peter Lorre. But oh! he was American.nThere was a penny-arcade jingle about Billy,nthe popping of shooting galleries, thenrattling of pinballs, the weak human crynof the Times Square geckos, the lizardngaze of sideshow heaks. To see him as henwas, you have to place him against thenwhitewash glare of Broadway in the weenhours. But even such places have theirngrandees—people whose defects cannbe converted to seed money for enterprises.nThere’s nothing in this country thatnyou can’t sell, nothing too weird to bringnto market and found a fortune on. Andnonce you got as much major real estatenas Billy had, then it didn’t matter thatnyou were one of the human deer thatncame uptown from the Lower East Sidento graze on greasy sandwich papers.”nSiegel, too, finds himself in a promisednland he can’t quite enter, or, worse, onenthat he ruins by entering. Beatty playsnSiegel with a zest that never worries aboutnthe camera’s candor. Risking unattractiveness,nhe manages to look coarse, innsome shots like Jerry Orbach playing a villain.nAnd he is all appetite. In one scenenhe humiliates an associate who has triednto swindle him, Meyer Lansky, and CharlienLuciano (not a good idea) and forcesnthe man to get down on all fours, barknlike a dog, grunt like a pig, and acceptna shower of blows and insults. Thesenexertions having whetted Siegel’s appetite,nhe returns to the dinner tablento wolf huge forkfuls of food—whichnis enough to arouse in turn Virginia Hill’snpassions, and she starts fondling andnnibbling him. They sink down to thenfloor together, pulling the tablecloth downnwith them and upsetting the food.nStill, Siegel has aspirations toward refinement.nHe dresses well, even foppishly,ncan exert a sunny charm, and evennalone is often engaged in peculiar projectsnof self-improvement, especially of his diction,nso that at unlikely moments he per-nJUNE 1992/53n