Jimmy and Bugsy
(on James Toback)


James Toback is a writer-director who may be better known for his interviews than for his films. For although his name has appeared in small print (if it has appeared at all) under the names and photos of Warren Beatty and Annette Benning on the covers of magazines like Premiere and Movieline, it has in fact been Toback doing most of the talking about Bugsy (1991), based on the real-life story of gangster Bugsy Siegel. As it turned out, Toback can only claim credit as the writer of the film. Beatty eventually handed the director’s job to Barry Levinson (Diner, 1982, Rain Man, 1988), after having promised it to Toback for many years. In fact, Bugsy is in many ways Toback’s dream project, the culmination of everything else he has done.


Toback has casually remarked that, for a while, he considered murdering Levinson in order to regain control of his dream; and, like with a lot of things Toback says, you can’t be exactly sure that he’s joking. A somewhat ragged legend of the American cinema – awarded the dubious honour of an exposé of his personal life in Spy magazine – Toback sure talks up a storm.


His life, as he tells and retells it, is a remarkable series of incidents lived at the very edge of sanity and safety. Throwing away a literary, cultured life at Harvard, Toback plunged into reckless gambling, drugs and booze. As an archetypal New Journalist in the Tom Wolfe school, he moved in with notorious black football star and movie actor Jim Brown, and wrote, as he calls it, a “self-centered memoir” titled Jim, tracing how he and Brown “got to the bottom of all sexual possibilities”.


In the course of an average interview, Toback can casually relate, say, his most horrendous LSD trip; his experience of near-drowning where he chose, in a split second, between life and death; and the existence of a certain personal list: “I have a list – which is short but very precise – of people whom I plan to do away with, if and when I do away with myself. In the week before I would end my own life, I would certainly plan on ending theirs”.


I must admit to a certain amusement when I read those reviewers who take the high moral ground and act startled, nay offended, that Bugsy seems to glamourise, even condone, the life of a gangster. Glamourising gangsterism is, after all, not exactly a new thing in popular fiction or cinema – where, more often than not, the usual ‘crime doesn’t pay’ sermon tacked onto the final scene serves as a kind of alibi, a cover under which filmmakers and audiences can safely hide their deep, illicit pleasure in what they have beheld.


But, even more to the point, there is not a single James Toback script or film which does not showcase dark, demonic, beautiful male or female criminals. From his scripts for The Gambler in 1974 and Bugsy today, through his own movies Fingers (1978), Love and Money (1982), Exposed (1983) and The Pick-Up Artist (1987), even his documentary (unseen in Australia) The Big Bang (1989): gangsters, terrorists, gamblers, smugglers, pimps and prostitutes abound.


Up until Bugsy, the key criminals in Toback’s films have usually been strange, shadowy, omnipotent beings off to one side of the plot – fantasy figures like Jim Brown in Fingers or Harvey Keitel in Exposed, against whom the neurotic hero measures himself, invariably coming up short. One wonders: are these neurotic heroes almost always stand-ins for Toback himself? For all Toback’s scripts and films are intense, psychodramatic fantasies, wavering between edgy neurosis and outright psychosis.


Conventional standards of morality, normality, security, happiness and so forth, never enter Toback’s imagined world. His characters rarely touch the earth; they live in a weird, all-consuming state of almost schizophrenic dissociation. The ad line for Bugsy reads ‘Glamour was the disguise’; whoever wrote this has a fine understanding of both Jimmy and Bugsy. For Toback’s heroes exist, very uneasily, on two distinct planes of reality (or unreality). On the one hand, there is the disguise, the persona, the mask presented to the world, in order, usually, to gain power over it. There is always, as the sociologist Erving Goffman once put it, a ‘presentation of self in everyday life’ and, for Bugsy especially, this self is a matter of glamour, style, poise, studiously designed and manufactured. As Toback is fond of saying, gangsters and actors have a lot in common, in that they are both, fundamentally, insecure.


So, on the other hand, what is behind the mask? A true, real, inner self? Not for Toback. Under Bugsy’s glamorous disguise, there is only pure madness, pure animality, pure violence. Fainthearted reviewers call the character an aberration of criminal capitalism, and Levinson describes him as a psychopath; but it’s clear that, for Toback, Bugsy is only an extreme existential metaphor for all us poor humans who are wild at heart, trying to cover our chaotic, unknowable core with manners, good looks and ideologies. That’s why Warren Beatty in the film looks in a mirror and slicks his hair back while he kicks the stuffing out of someone, or desperately practises his self-improvement elocution lessons on the way home from killing a best friend.


In Toback’s world, there are only impulses, and fantasies. In his masterpiece Fingers – on which I have written at length in the aptly named The Last Great American Picture Show (Amsterdam University Press, 2004) – he has a character repeat the motto he discovered in his own youth: “If you will it, you will have it”. That might sound like a bit of New Age Creative Actualisation, but in Toback’s version it carries a grimness, a manic desperation, and a certain jet black comedy which is the hallmark of his style. What could be more absurd and hilarious than Bugsy’s strange obsession with murdering Mussolini?


In fact, all fantasies in Toback films pretty much come to nothing. He once described the driving question of his work as: “Are you completely out yet?”. Meaning, have you done everything, exhausted everything, expelled everything from your manic self? The heroes in Paul Schrader or Martin Scorsese films also expel themselves violently, but there’s always the hope of a pay-off in redemption, purification or transcendence. What makes Toback’s vision truly amoral is that there is really nothing in life beyond a certain feverishly pursued but ultimately empty gratification. This is what Bugsy’s life – and his invention of Las Vegas – is a tribute to: eternal, empty gratification.


What passes between two people in love in Toback’s world is even stranger and more chaotic. For a time in his work, there was only the dissociated, lone nuts (like James Caan in The Gambler and Keitel in Fingers), and the cold, distant objects of their desire who they conquer for one terrifyingly ecstatic moment, before losing them forever (like Tisa Farrow in Fingers and Ornella Muti in Love and Money). In The Pick-Up Artist, a teen movie, as in Bugsy, we see Toback’s wild speculation on the possible nature of romantic love. And since life is one reckless gamble, and since no one has a Self, love is (logically enough) not going to be an easy proposition.


Yet one of the great achievements of Bugsy – and also what makes it so distinctive and original within the terms of the gangster genre – is that it shows you the tender bond that can prevail between two animals who deceive, manipulate and abuse each other as relentlessly and naturally as they breathe. Such is the romance of Bugsy Siegel and Virginia Hill.


Toback has never respected the rules of fictional or cinematic genres; indeed, he seems hardly to be aware of them. He always invents strange combinations of elements that are usually kept well apart: high culture and underworld low-life, or types of masculinity that are both sensitive and brutish. One of Toback’s trademarks is that, no matter how grand, high flown or existential his heroes, they’re always careful to keep track of little domestic details, like preparing meals for their invalid parents. A great set-piece in Bugsy tracks Beatty, in his floppy chefs hat, back and forth between his wife and children at one end of his home, and a phalanx of suited gangsters at the other.


For a fan like myself, it is of course a pity that Toback didn’t get to direct Bugsy – even though he seems entirely happy with the result, and concedes that the project may never have been realised without Levinson’s illustrious participation. Where Levinson is a slick director, Toback is raw. His films are eccentric, excessive, unsubtle, running on manic, neurotic energies. He compares the process of filmmaking to guiding a canoe around the rocks whilst flying down the rapids. This degree of recklessness on all levels is what makes Toback’s films extraordinarily interesting, whilst also limiting their success as fully formed works of art. Scarcely released in this country and little discussed, his films have perhaps finally found their most appropriate form of existence as strange, unsuspected marvels waiting to be randomly discovered on the shelves of video/DVD shops everywhere. Fingers has even returned to us – as it should – in a respectable DVD edition, with Director’s Commentary appended.


The great old Hollywood director King Vidor – who, as it happens, acts an hilarious portrait of senility in Love and Money – once developed what he called the iceberg theory of drama: one eighth on the surface, explicitly conveyed, and seven eighths hidden, merely suggested. Toback is no iceberg man, he’s the full eight eighths (as is said in The Band Wagon, 1953), all on the surface.


Except maybe for one scene in Bugsy, which is possibly the best scene Toback has ever dreamt up. Coming out of a jealous scene with Virginia with a gash on his head, Bugsy faces an unco-operative gangster cohort. Suddenly the film turns from hi-jinx to madness, as Bugsy raves, his face twisted. “Do you want to rape me?” he demands to know, before he forces the gangster down onto the floor to bark like a dog. Virginia is outside, listening, sober. Something’s happening inside her. When Bugsy returns to the dinner table, and manically starts forcing down his food, Virginia surrounds him, awkwardly at first, kisses him over and over, until finally they both crash to the floor, making love.


It’s a deep, disturbing, extraordinary scene. And it takes place right where Toback likes best to be: at that unknowable, impossible heart of darkness that is, for him, the human condition.


MORE Toback: Black and White, Two Girls and a Guy


© Adrian Martin March 1992

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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