Before I delve into the scariest time of year over the course of a six part series for Halloween, let’s give a fond farewell to Sin City, pitting two movies about the history of Las Vegas. One’s take is very spurious and the other is surprisingly faithful to the truth.
Directed by Barry Levinson and produced by Warren Beatty, the man playing the titular Jewish gangster, Bugsy is a film not unlike the portrayal of the central figure. An experience that can win you over with sheer swagger, confidence and unflappable personality. Behind closed doors, it becomes a rougher time, where it’s harder to tell what is actually good in a takeaway that comes across poorly.
Bugsy Siegel is an up and coming star in the Jewish Mob, something that I at first didn’t believe existed. I assumed figures like Siegel, Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley) and Mickey Cohen (Harvey Keitel) were part of the Italian-American mafia everyone knows. Despite their names clearly not being Italian.
I also thought, due to historic persecution of those Semitic that Jews in America would do everything in their power to put their best foot forward. Sort of like how Irish-Americans took on police work, to better ingratiate themselves among the rest of the Americans, namely those dastardly Anglo-Saxons. Well, then again, persecuted minorities do get involved in crime when other opportunities are either limited or outright kept from them.
Despite being a criminal figure more than willing to lay a few slugs into anyone that gets in his way, he’s also a loving family man who clearly loves his two daughters. That itself doesn’t stop him from getting some ladies on the side. Won’t stop him from falling in love with a scarlet-clothed dame from Los Angeles.
Upon getting to LA and schmoozing his way into the good graces and eventual partnerships of enemies like Mickey Cohen, he soon realizes upon a business trip to Las Vegas that, wouldn’t you know it, a piece of desert land near Vegas would make for a swell place for a drink, a smoke and some gaming tables, among other accommodations.
It’s here that we witness, of all things, a compelling underdog story for a historic mobster play out. The rest of the Jewish mob including his mentor figure Lansky express doubts over a potential boondoggle being made near a dust-strewn gambling town with their money. His infidelity with Hill starts to make it harder for his wife and children. And there’s the constant friction between “Nice” Bugsy and “Rough” Bugsy troubling a relationship he earnestly pursues with Virginia.
Knowing the actual history of Bugsy Siegel (Warren Beatty) after the fact makes me wish this was something akin to Tarantino’s Once upon a Time in Hollywood. A historical piece with staggering attention to getting the little details of the period right while eventually revealing itself as a piece of knowing fiction. Yes, it is true that Bugsy Siegel is one of the key architects of the Vegas that we’ve come to know today. Yes, he was indeed whacked by the ‘ahem’ “Kosher Nostra” for failing to live up to the expensive investment that is the Flamingo Hotel and Casino.
Yes, he certainly had an extramarital affair with Virginia Hill (Annette Benning) when Siegel went from New York to LA to expand the business of the Jewish side of organized crime. But as far as I can tell, that’s where the film stops caring about the truth.
Just how Bugsy screws up the timeline of events is where that sinking feeling you’ve watched a historically careless piece of Hollywood comes in. It reminds me of Gibson’s Braveheart though the timeline liberties that film take makes Bugsy appear reserved. The date of the Flamingo’s opening was not the day of Siegel’s assassination. It was the second opening the following year.
Midway through the movie, Bugsy has to kill one of his mooks, Harry Greenberg (Elliott Gould, last covered in Ocean’s 11), for failing just one too many times. The film portrays it as an awkward car ride with Bugsy, Greenberg and Virginia. Virginia does not realize Harry’s being driven to a whacking by her gentleman love. At a trainyard, Bugsy and Harry go for a walk with the former demanding Virginia stay at the car.
Virginia obliges and then an expected crack (by the audience) is heard. Bugsy returns to the car by himself with Virginia wondering where Harry is. For the purposes of the film, it’s to show Virginia how cold her criminal boyfriend can get.
This whacking of Harry Greenberg is depicted as occurring in 1945. Siegel, alongside two other goons did the deed in 1939. Bugsy hadn’t even met Virginia yet. There’s also the evidence that suggests that one of the factors that led to Bugsy’s own whacking was from Hill herself. What is ultimately portrayed as an earnest love story with sweeping romantic gestures is hiding that perhaps those two didn’t really love the other as much as Levinson and Beatty would have you believe. Virginia Hill’s own date of death as brought up in the film’s closing crawl is wrong by a good several decades.
It makes other details of the story that I didn’t research or find out about themselves more suspicious. Did Bugsy die like he does? Was he even killed for the reasons espoused by the movie? Did he and Mickey Cohen really become friends? Were they even partnered?
Aside from how often Hollywood can notoriously get it wrong, on purpose or by carelessness/ apathy, why would an accomplished director like Levinson and Beatty, a man who starred and directed in a fairly accurate dramatization of American Communists Jack Reed and Louise Bryant, do this?
Well, it might be because Bugsy can be read more as a story about Warren Beatty than Bugsy Siegel. What cinches it is that Beatty and Benning would be married the following year, in a marriage that endures to this day. It’s a story that could be read as representing Beatty’s own struggles to overcome the Hollywood system to do the stuff he wanted to do with his career, like the aforementioned Reds. That there’s an intentional interplay between the Mob in LA and Hollywood adds to this.
This isn’t the first time a work of art supposedly about a real life figure or set of figures was in turn a stealth self-commentary about the artist. Hayao Miyazaki’s last film (for the time being) is less about the real history of a man called Jiro Hirikoshi. It’s more about Miyazaki himself and how his artistic ambitions the world came to love may have come into conflict with the personal aspects of his life. It can also be an allegory for Japan’s own fraught history in the modern period.
The Wind Rises places the real life of Hirikoshi third in priority but to Studio Ghibli’s credit, they made no effort to hide that it was a fictionalized account. Considering that animation company’s prevalence for fantasy, it is fitting.
As a film in which you willfully ignore all considerations to historical fidelity, it is a well crafted work, perfectly in line with the quality you expect from the man behind pictures like Diner. Beatty, despite being several years older than Siegel was when he took the big sleep is a genuinely entertaining figure. He sweeps you up in just the energy of his idealized depiction of a fella that was all by means not as good as this film infers. Basically, he seduces you like he seduces Virginia.
So, in that framing, Bugsy can be called an acceptable piece of historical fan fiction.
Call it a case of covering ass if you want, but Scorsese’s take on the Vegas life of Frank Rosenthal and the gambling “skimming” scheme he helped cover for sets off on a foot that is meant to reassure historians watching they aren’t in for another “loose retelling” of the past. 1995 was a notorious year for films that did so with Braveheart and Disney’s Pocahontas being the worst offenders and I do mean offensive. Not surprising then that both movies starred Mel Gibson, a man who loves to direct or be part of movies that don’t care that much for the truth as The Patriot and Apocalypto will attest.
Casino is in the same vein, almost to a fault, of other Scorsese historical flicks about combining real events with crime. His magnum opus for this type of film and in general, is Goodfellas. Sure, they were inaccuracies there if only because the truth was even more graphic that even Scorsese got nervous. Later on, The Wolf of Wall Street. This trilogy of movies involve a criminal protagonist, in this case Sam “Ace” Rothstein (Robert DeNiro), narrating to the audience their life story or at least the parts that involve an ill gotten gains lifestyle and eventually culminating in downfall.
Goodfellas’ Henry Hill, Casino’s Ace and Wall Street’s Jordan Belfort are destined for that downfall in the movie. It happened more or less in real life. Scorsese had decided to essentially remake Goodfellas twice where aside from the sheer craft of his style and that in spite of all three of these movies being lengthy, having yet a paradoxically bracing, quick pace, what makes this repeat performance work is that there is a unique true to life set of details to the latter two movies.
Goodfellas was about a man who famously always wanted to be a gangster living out a gangster life. Wolf of Wall Street is about a stock broker running a company off of lies and corruption with the biggest s**t-eating grin ever on his face while doing so. Casino is both about a man who was genuinely good at running a casino fair and square and could’ve have kept doing it if one, he didn’t let his lust for a chip hustler bleed in with his unwise friendship with a mafia man running his own string of crimes in LV, and two, there wasn’t that whole skimming the winnings thing happening for the Chicago Outfit of the Mob.
Remember about that best foot forward I brought up at the start? The film opens saying that it is “inspired by true story” rather than “based”. In spite of what turns out to be a pretty faithful retelling of the rise and fall of Frank Rosenthal, Scorsese renames all the characters such as going from Frank to Sam and even adds in historic events that happen after the story of Rosenthal/ Rothstein had concluded but more on that later.
You get both a pretty good retelling of the past and yet ultimately still a knowing piece of fiction so you know in return that this is not 100% up to the truth. The best example of Casino actually taking stark liberty is with the characterization of Sam Rothstein and his eventual wife Ginger Mckenna (Geri McGee) played by Sharon Stone.
The film portrays Rothstein as indeed a mob scumbag but an intelligent one and not without a few redeeming qualities. Ginger is portrayed as an ultimately vain, riches-hungry woman who ultimately becomes possibly more unlikable than the character you’re meant to hate and/or fear, the guy played by Joe Pesci. She does terrible things during the course of the movie, such as tying up her and Sam’s daughter and a bed and acts more or less as the real catalyst that begins the downfall of the operation Rothstein is protecting at the Tangiers Hotel and Casino (based on the Stardust). Of course, Ginger’s behavior is hardly the only thing that brings down the operation and Ace and Pesci’s Nicky Santoro ( Anthony Spilotro) are also guilty of contributing to it.
The unfortunate truth and this might be one of the bigger reasons Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi (based off of his own book like with Goodfellas) changed names and made the disclaimer at the start is that the personalities of the real life figures DeNiro and Stone play are almost reversed.
Frank Rosenthal, as far as history can tell us really had no redeeming qualities. He was an abusive, vain, possessive piece of shit who tormented Geri. Geri, by comparison, while obviously still a woman caught up in the hedonism of the Vegas and mob life, was considered by those who knew her a compassionate, friendly and entertaining person. She was a person many would say did not deserve the miserable drug-addled end she faced and well, even Stone’s liberal take known as Ginger probably didn’t deserve it that bad too.
So, yeah, making the male mobster more tame and the relatively innocent female lover he had worse than she was can make one tighten their collar. One scenario that happens early on, during the Scorsese patented montage where Ace demonstrates how he operates the Tangiers is based on a historical event that was by Casino’s release recent history.
A Japanese businessman does incredibly well and all but but clears the house with his success. Not letting a guy like that make off with that amount of winnings, he has his plane back to Japan (which is owned by Ace) pretend to have a malfunction so that the guy is now stuck in Vegas. He then is returned to the Tangiers and Ace graciously welcomes him back and offers a rematch, all so he can get the businessman’s massive earnings back. What a cad.
If you were alive and old enough in the early to mid 90s, unlike me, that may sound familiar. Well, this little skit in the film is taken from Donald Trump trying to get back the winnings that all but bankrupted his struggling hotel/casino, the Taj Mahal. Instead of sabotaging the ride home for Akio Kashiwagi, he called him on the way back and convinced him to return with no extra expense back to the casino for a rematch. Don’t remember if our future fascist President succeeded in getting his winnings back, but that was a recent story that found itself added in to a story that occurs earlier. Why did Scorsese do that? As one way to show how expertly Rothstein went about running the Tangiers.
So, yeah in spite of the questionable characterization of two of the central figures and transplanting a 90s gambling story into one set only in the 70s and 80s, Casino will serve you well more or less as a real retelling of the last time the mob had a confirmed presence in the day to day operations of anywhere in Sin City. While Bugsy told a fallacious beginning to Vegas and the Mafia’s ties, Casino will tell you it’s end, and decides to showcase the crazy things that happen along the way, some of which may surprise you as not being the invention of Hollywood screenwriters but genuine fact.
I recommend watching this after you read this blog entry to the end, but here is the Casino episode from the Youtube channel series History Buffs, who will do a far more through job of explaining where Casino does right by you the filmgoer and the few where it doesn’t.
Anyhoo, it’s time to now talk about Casino as a film-watching experience. Some consider Casino to be a lesser version of Goodfellas yet anything but a bad one. Some see it as being just as good and certainly as entertaining. I fall more into the latter category as one, I was genuinely captivated by Scorsese’s proven style of direction and was honestly glad to have well, Goodfellas again, but different.
It doesn’t hurt that his direction of the actors is ever fantastic and helped dispel a rather unpleasant notion I had about Sharon Stone. This could be a consequence of having not seen, well, any film of hers but she was known for extremely good reason as one of the sex symbols of the 1990s. Basic Instinct all by itself can be proof of that. But there was plenty of other films where her sex appeal was used as major factor for the movie or at least she was in a film that involved her getting busy. Sliver, Year of the Gun, The Quick and the Dead among others involve Ms. Stone in… intimate moments of celluloid.
There’s indeed a sex scene here, but it’s 4 seconds long, shows no nudity and involves Joe Pesci so it is not remotely titillating. Here, Scorsese gives Sharon Stone a chance to act and despite playing an inaccurate representation of a real person gives I would dare argue the best performance in the film. I thought to myself, “She deserves an Oscar for this” and she was indeed nominated for Best Actress.
To be fair, part of what made her role as Catherine Tramell in Basic Instinct unforgettable wasn’t just what she physically showed audiences and she showed more than what was common in 1992. How she acted as Catherine as a bona fide femme fatale made her. She had to be a good actress to make Basic Instinct work in the way it ultimately did, whether you like that or not.
Of course, while DeNiro’s performance is essentially flawless, as the guy has made playing an Italian-American mobster down to a science, Joe Pesci and his always profane voice helps too in making Casino a film I honestly find as good at least in entertainment as Goodfellas. Goodfellas still has the edge because for the kind of gangster film it was, it was new, it was fresh. It essentially helped form the modern way we tell Mob stories, the successor to The Godfather movies in that respect. I doubt there would’ve have been the Sopranos if not for both Goodfellas and Casino.
Casino could edge out Goodfellas for brutal violence. The two scenes best known for such content are also two of the best remembered scenes in the film. Wonder why? There’s the horrifying torture scene involving a guy who gets his head in a vise by Pesci’s Nicky. This is after one of his…vital parts got ice picked. He then gets one of his eyes loosely popped out. This is the scene that Scorsese claimed he was willing to sacrifice to avoid an NC-17 rating, or at least he would trim it down because important plot details are involved there. To his surprise, the MPAA let the whole scene go uncut.
The other violent scene is the part where Joe Pesci plays a role he is familiar with, whether it’s in a Scorsese film or in a Christmas themed kids movie: getting the living hell beat out of him. Unlike the traps of Kevin McCallister, which indeed would’ve been lethal for the Wet Bandits especially in the second film, Nicky Santoro’s mostly true to life miserable method of death involve lots and lots of baseball bats. The inaccuracy comes in that the real life death was again, even more terrible.
On one last note and this is something History Buffs informed me of, unlike Joe Pesci’s casting as Tommy DeVito which really didn’t look close to the real person he’s based on, Pesci looks disturbingly close to Tony Spilotro. I can’t speak for how Spilotro sounded in life but wow, Scorsese didn’t just bring back Pesci because he needed someone to play the violent, unhinged wiseguy, he found a part he was physically born to play.
Of the films I watched for my Vegas deep dive, I will indeed place Casino as being the best overall movie. It doesn’t hurt that it actually gave a history lesson about a place I visited, all to see for the first Gorillaz on the stage. If you have three hours, you won’t need to have your head put in a vise to see it as a no-brainer.
Next time: PART 1 of 2022 HORRORTHON