Levinson directs Beatty in 'Bugsy'

PORTRAIT OF A MOBSTER WHO WAS ALSO A VISIONARY

September 01, 1991|By Elaine Dutka | Elaine Dutka,Los Angeles Times

Mojave Desert, Calif. -- If the name Ben "Bugsy" Siegel isn't yet a part of the popular consciousness, before year's end it should be. For Siegel -- a charismatic, larger-than-life gangster who was part murderer, part visionary -- is quickly becoming a staple in Hollywood's larder.

Siegel briefly surfaced in last spring's "The Marrying Man" and reappeared in the recently released "Mobsters" as one of four young hoods on the rise. But as befits a man with more than a trace of megalomania, he'll have a movie to himself when Tri-Star's "Bugsy," directed by Baltimore's Barry Levinson, hits the screen at Christmastime. The $30 million project has been incubat- ing in the mind of Warren Beatty, who plays the gangster, for eight years, and has been a constant companion to screenwrit- er James Toback for seven.

When the director-producer team of Mr. Levinson and Mark Johnson ("Rain Man," "Avalon") joined the project last summer, they lined up an enviable cast: Annette Bening, an Academy Award nominee for her work in "The Grifters," as Bugsy's love interest; Harvey Keitel as gangster Mickey Cohen; Joe Mantegna as actor George Raft, a childhood friend of Bugsy's who rubbed elbows with the mob; Elliot Gould as Siegel crony Harry "Greenie" Greenberg; "Gandhi's" Ben Kingsley as Siegel's mentor Meyer Lansky; and rock promoter Bill Graham as syndicate kingpin Lucky Luciano.

"Bugsy" catches the mobster in the prime of his life, the 1940s, when the New York underworld boss came to Los Angeles to set up the West Coast operation for the mob. It was then that the dapper Siegel began an extramarital affair with Virginia Hill, a second-rate actress, with whom he charmed his way into Hollywood society. It was then also that he was inspired to build the Hotel Flamingo (after his nickname for Hill), the first luxury resort-casino in Las Vegas, Nev.

Located 10 miles from the nearest building, the Flamingo paved the way (with a little help, as Siegel foresaw, from the Hoover Dam, the development of air conditioning and the growth of air travel) for the gambling mecca as we know it today.

"Friends thought he was completely crazy," says Mr. Toback during a break in filming earlier this summer. "But Bugsy was determined to build a city in the desert. He thought of the Flamingo as a seed."

"If Bugsy had been educated, he would have been a mad inventor," adds producer Mark Johnson. "He was more a builder than a destroyer."

"Bugsy is the perfect embodiment of the mutual fascination that has always existed between the mob and Hollywood," says Mr. Beatty, who with Mr. Levinson and Mr. Johnson is also producing the film. "Hollywood has exploited the hell out of gangsters over the years. They have all the elements of drama: a clear objective, a clear obstacle to what they do, plenty of blood and guts. . . . The narcissism of Hollywood is a mirror image of the narcissism of the underworld."

But "Bugsy," Mr. Levinson insists, won't be just another in a long list of gangster movies. "The key is in the storytelling. If I feel that I've seen a movie already, I have no interest in doing it. I try to find something slightly 'out there,' something I have to reach for.

"The challenge is to deliver what's up in my head," the 49-year-old writer-director adds. "That's what I'm always chasing, but it's very elusive."

Mr. Beatty, stretching his acting muscles after playing the decent, upstanding "Dick Tracy," relishes the fact that, this time around, directorial responsibilities fall to someone else. "It feels wonderful to have an audience, people to play off," he says. "The difference between directing yourself and being directed, if you'll excuse the analogy, is the difference between masturbation and making love."

Mr. Johnson calls the production team an unusually complementary one: "We have a very interesting threesome here," he says. "Barry, who synthesized the script and brought his usual sense of humor to the project; Toback with his wit, anger and understanding of obsession; and Warren, one of the brightest, most politically informed minds around."

Ms. Bening is luxuriating in what Mr. Levinson terms "that rare woman's role that encompasses every adjective you can think of." (Especially rare, he might add, in the bulk of his films, for women barely register in such Levinson hits as "Diner," "Rain Man" and "Good Morning, Vietnam.")

"Films generally aren't about words but about visual images," the actress says. "But the richness of language and repartee makes this one seem like a play. . . . Virginia is a full-blown woman with her own agenda. I love her volatility, her fallibility, the way she and Bugsy seduce and battle with each other. The two of them are voraciously romantic. She's the catalyst, the one who gives him the fire to seek out his dream."

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