Tuesday, June 18, 2024

I'll Watch Anything: BILLY BATHGATE

 by Adam Riske

In honor of Gangsters Day, I finally watched Billy Bathgate. Don’t be jealous.

Billy Bathgate has rolled around in my head for 33 years. It was a prestigious member of the “Movie I’ve Always Wanted To See But Never Got Around To” cannon alongside Nobody’s Fool (1994), which I also watched for the first time recently. I liked Nobody’s Fool quite a bit, but Billy Bathgate not so much. Truth be told, I can watch a failure like Billy Bathgate any day of the week. I’m an easy mark for star-laden, studio prestige pictures that announce their importance. It’s a capital letter Dustin Hoffman movie not long after his Oscar win for Rain Man in the gangster movie subgenre which was popular in 1991 with Billy Bathgate, Bugsy, and Mobsters gracing the screens just one year after Goodfellas and The Godfather: Part III.

An issue with Billy Bathgate is if you call your movie that, then you’re implicitly going to get two questions from audiences – Who is Billy Bathgate? Why should I care who Billy Bathgate is? The film Billy Bathgate kind of answers the first one but never convinces you of the latter. It would be easy to blame the performance of Loren Dean as the titular character if I hadn’t seen him bringing solid contributions to other movies like Apollo 13 and Mumford. But here he’s playing a wide-eyed kid from the streets that seems solely informed by old black & white gangster movies. The character leaves no imprint other than as a blank canvas for others to paint on. As the character eventually grows a spine later in the movie, it’s unconvincing. Billy Bathgate always comes across as a guy who could do what you tell him to do but once there’s no one left to instruct him he’d be completely out to sea. It’s a big, gaping hole in the center of the movie. His character is not too much unlike Henry Hill (played so memorably by the late Ray Liotta) in Goodfellas on paper, but Hill seemed capable and thrilled at being a gangster while Bathgate is stuck in eternal “intern who’s there because it will look good on his resume” mode.
This leaves a lot of room for the other actors to fill the open space. Dustin Hoffman is first in line for the opportunity and he’s amazingly good at playing someone who sucks. He’s almost too good at his job of being unappealing. Warren Beatty in Bugsy does a better job at playing a reprehensible man while still coming across as charismatic, while Hoffman is someone whose company I wanted to evade. I’m undecided if that’s the right choice for Dutch Schultz or not because he is towards the end of his period of power and influence, but he still needs to be charismatic enough where Billy Bathgate wants to commit his life to him. If Billy Bathgate’s goal is to de-glamorize the myth of the gangster I suppose it succeeds but the whole affair comes across mostly as a flat, run-of-the-mill gangster movie minus the pizzazz of Mobsters.

If you’re going to watch Billy Bathgate, the draw is the supporting cast. This is one of those early '90s movies where somebody you recognize and like appears in every scene including Steve Buscemi, Stanley Tucci, Moira Kelly, Kevin Corrigan, and Mike Starr. There’s also a trio of supporting performances that light up the movie every time they’re on screen in ways Hoffman and Dean do not. The first is Steven Hill (best known from Law & Order) as Otto Berman, who’s pretty much the mentor and confidant for Dutch Schultz. He’s the character who fills in Billy Bathgate (and the audience) on the world in which we’re inhabiting. Hill gives my favorite performance in the movie. He’s weathered and melancholy as he sees his generation of gangster approaching the inevitable circling of the drain. Other standouts are Nicole Kidman as the mob girlfriend of (first) Bruce Willis and then Billy Bathgate. It’s impossible to focus on anything else other than Kidman in her scenes, especially with Dean. It’s such a mismatch. This woman would eat this kid for lunch. It’s like a three-year old driving to drive a Porsche. Kidman has always “had it” and one of the joys of returning to her early work is seeing how great she is at elevating genre pieces before she became a lead in films herself.
Billy Bathgate also features a supporting role for Bruce Willis and it’s a bit sad seeing him on screen here like a remembrance of how endlessly charismatic he was early in his career. You keep wanting him to take over the movie from Hoffman and Dean so we can see the film from his point of view instead of theirs. I brought up Nobody’s Fool earlier for a specific reason. Both films feature great Willis performances and are directed by the same person – Robert Benton. This might make a good double feature, actually, but watch Nobody’s Fool first because you might get tired before the second movie and you’ll definitely want to skip Billy Bathgate among the two of them. In fact, just skip Billy Bathgate altogether. It’s got some good performances in it, but you can easily find better movies for Gangsters Day. I’d recommend pretty much any of the titles I referenced earlier in this column (yes, even Mobsters) or try something more exploitation-y like Family Enforcer (aka The Death Collector) with Joe Pesci and Frank Vincent. It’s on Tubi and is so good. Why didn’t I write about that instead?

No comments:

Post a Comment