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Bugsy: Extended Cut

There was a period of about 15 years when Warren Beatty was one of the major players in Hollywood, not just iconic royalty like his good friend Jack Nicholson, but a writer-producer-star who had the clout to get any project he wanted financed and distributed. After an early career as a pretty-boy male ingénue (a mangenue?) in films like The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone (1961) and Lilith (1964), his complex performance in Arthur Penn's groundbreaking Bonnie and Clyde (1967) — which he also produced — gave Beatty a new rep as a serious thespian. What followed was a decade-and-a-half of Beatty steering his own career by writing and producing most of the projects in which he starred, from 1975's Shampoo, which he co-wrote with Robert Towne, through The Fortune (1975), Heaven Can Wait (1978), his Communist Revolution epic Reds (1981), the absurdly under-appreciated Ishtar (1987), and the simply misbegotten Dick Tracy (1990). Beatty dusted himself off after the critical lambasting those last two vanity projects received and immediately followed with Bugsy (1991), his $30 million biopic about Benjamin 'Bugsy' Siegel, a picture that had been percolating in Beatty's brain for some eight years, and a project that benefited greatly from the popularity of Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas, which had been released the year before. Bugsy is significant in Beatty's career primarily for two reasons — a lifelong ladies' man, he met his wife Annette Bening on the film, and afterward he slowed the pace of his career considerably. He produced and starred in just two more films in the '90s (the 1994 remake of Love Affair with Bening, and the comedy Bulworth in 1998), followed by the critical and commercial failure Town and Country in 2001. Of course, the man is now entering his later years, causing some to believe that he's enjoying a well-deserved retirement after five decades on screen.

Written by James Toback and directed by Barry Levinson, Bugsy is, above all, a showcase for Beatty, who plays Siegel as an energetic, charismatic sociopath whose thirst for money, fame, and attention is almost poignant in its intensity. The film skims past Siegel's roots as a cold-blooded gangster and focuses on the final years of his life, when he became a Hollywood celebrity and built a casino in a hot, dusty little nowhere town called Las Vegas. His fascination with glamour extends to his immediate infatuation with starlet Virginia Hill (Bening) and his friendship with movie star George Raft (Joe Mantegna) to his obsessive dream to create the world's finest casino — naming it the Flamingo, which was the leggy Hill's nickname — in the middle of the barren Nevada desert. But Siegel's high profile angers his New York mob colleagues Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley) and Lucky Luciano (famed rock promoter Bill Graham, surprisingly good), as does his increasingly over-budget expenditures on the hotel, which eventually leads to his downfall.

*          *          *

Big, opulent, glitzy, and glamorous, Bugsy serves Warren Beatty well. In classic movie-star fashion, he really only has one character in his bag of tricks, and he manages to mold the gangster's particulars to his own screen persona nicely. His Ben Siegel can be seen as a logical extension of John McCabe in McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), who dreamed of building a whorehouse while pining for his beautiful business partner; of his hairdresser George Roundy in Shampoo, who was utterly unable to control his worst impulses; of hustler Nicky Wilson in The Fortune (1975), who was motivated entirely by lust and greed; and of John Reed in Reds, who risked his life with his need to change the world. Few actors can pull off sly boyishness well (especially in their 50s), but it's that quality that makes Beatty's Siegel both likable and tragic, in spite of being a neurotic monster. The real surprise, though, is Toback's witty, crackling script, which gives Beatty, Bening, and the film's other actors (including Harvey Keitel as gangster Mickey Cohen, as well as Elliot Gould and Bebe Neuwirth) not just great wisecracks and snappy comebacks, but turns of behavior that belie real complexity. The film also looks beautiful, thanks to cinematographer Allen Davieu (Avalon, Empire of the Sun), and it boasts a stunning score by Ennio Morricone. If Bugsy is Warren Beatty's last big film, he certainly could have gone out on a worse note — it was nominated for ten Academy Awards, winning Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design.

Sony Pictures Home Entertainment's two-disc "Extended Cut" DVD release of Bugsy offers up a crisp anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with rich color saturation and deep blacks, while the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio is very good — Morricone's score never has to battle with dialogue, and there's an interesting subtlety to the mix, with ambient sounds and background noises often playing at a nice soft rumble behind the main-channel talk. This version of the film has 15 minutes added back to the run-time, and it's seamless — often, "director's cuts" on DVD are merely a gimmick to sell folks another copy of a movie they already own, but here the replaced footage enhances the picture as a whole. Disc Two offers the bonus features — the excellent documentary, "The Road to Damascus: The Reinvention of Bugsy Siegel," which is anchored by a round-table discussion with Beatty, Levinson and Toback (90 min.), two deleted scenes, and the entirety of the Beatty-as-Siegel screen test, of which portions are used in the film. Keep-case.
—Dawn Taylor

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