After writing, directing and starring in one of the most politically intriguing films of the 1990s, Bulworth, Warren Beatty vanished. He only resurfaced in 2001 in the deplorable Town & Country, which had been finished since 1999. There was no loud announcement of quitting Hollywood, he just stopped acting and started complaining about the Governator.
A consummate leftist, Beatty was always into politics and into political filmmaking, or films that took on big topics at least. So, the question must be asked why he would decide to star as one of the most flamboyant, vain gangsters of all time, Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel. Not only did he act in the film, he was the reason it started. Beatty wrangled up James Toback to write the thing and then snagged Barry Levinson to direct the picture, and decided that the focus of the film should be the end of Siegel's career/life.
To quickly recap, Bugsy Siegel (Beatty) bullied his way into L.A. in the forties, leaving his wife, Esther, and two girls at home on the east coast, waiting for their weekly calls. In Hollywood, he got notorious hood Mickey Cohen (Harvey Keitel, all business) to be his right-hand man and started an obsessive relationship with Virginia Hall (Annette Bening), a ballsy actress. He began a crackpot scheme to turn the desert into the epitome of money, looks and class, with his friends Meyer Lansky (a subtle Ben Kingsley) and Lucky Luciano (Bill Graham) bankrolling the venture with him. The initial flop of Siegel's first casino, The Flamingo, is what the film pre-supposes was the reason that he was shot to pieces in his near empty L.A. home. Ten years later, the $6 million he put into the casino would reach profits of over 100 times that figure.
As a gangster epic, the film doesn't fly, but that isn't what Beatty, Toback, or Levinson were looking to make. Beatty often said in interviews that he thought Siegel was an actor who became a gangster by accident. The film plays better as a slyly dark dramedy about the seduction of looks and, of course, Hollywood. Siegel was in the ultimate catch-22: Hollywood couldn't accept him because of his violent reputation and gangsters couldn't accept him because he was too flashy and a big show-off. Toback's deft script takes cunning skill in showing that Siegel was in love with his image, but not his life. Whether he was worrying about his picture looking good in the paper or obsessively watching his own screen test, Siegel was all about the outer. Levinson is also devilishly clever, building up his obsession with Hall and using it to show off how he used his gangster image to snag her. In a riveting scene, Beatty makes a major L.A. boss crawl around on his knees, bark like a dog and squeal like a pig while Bening listens outside of the door. The minute he exits the room, she is all over him as if he had just bathed in pheromones.
There's no arguing that the film's main goal is to entertain, but the statements on how we are pulled into the image and not the persona are gripping and endlessly provocative. Beatty, firing on all cylinders, somehow gets the over-the-top, likable personality of Siegel and still makes it believable when he beats the daylights out of Hall's ex-beau when he labels her a "slut". His match is off-screen wife Bening, who has never been sexier and is able to mix tough attitude and weak greed into an excellent portrait of a conflicted woman. The actors fly under Levinson, who follows none of the normal biopic or gangster clichés and finds a rhythm and narrative construction all his own. In seeing the distracting, destructive nature of vanity, the film fascinates itself, and the audience, with a simply stated, terribly complex question: why can't we look away?
The new extended edition DVD inserts 15 extra minutes of footage into the film, additional deleted scenes, a making-of featurette, and the real Bugsy Siegel's screen test.