It was 20 years ago last week that Universal released Casino, Martin Scorsese’s eighth film collaboration with Robert De Niro and his second with writer Nicholas Pileggi. To this day, one of those movies that I’ll leave on whenever I come across it on cable. At the time, it was a (very) modest success, opening fifth at the box office, but going on to gross $116 million worldwide and earning a Golden Globe win and a Best Actress nomination for Sharon Stone. (She lost to Susan Sarandon in Dead Man Walking, a classic Oscar robbery.) Then, as now, it seemed destined to be overshadowed by its older brother, Goodfellas. Released five years earlier, Goodfellas also starred Joe Pesci and Robert De Niro, and also had Scorsese and journalist Nicholas Pileggi adapting a Pileggi book about the mob. Casino was a sequel in everything but name. “It’s like a trilogy,” Pileggi says on the film’s DVD commentary. “Mean Streets was just kids. Goodfellas, it was like the kids from Mean Streets growing up, the middle class. But [Scorsese] was also fascinated by the top world of the mob, and that of course was Casino.”
I’m not here to argue that Casino is better than Goodfellas. It’s not. It’s not as tight as Goodfellas, it’s less fun, and it’s not quite as funny or quotable. There are some logistical reasons for that. Where Goodfellas was adapted from a published book, Wiseguy: Life in a Mafia Family, with its narrative structure left largely intact, Pileggi worked on the book and movie versions of Casino simultaneously. “Goodfellas was a finished book. With Casino, it was still like a pile of notes,” says producer Barbara De Fina.
Scorsese and Pileggi were still trying to figure out Casino‘s structure right up until release. The early scenes, of De Niro and Pesci explaining the skim, originally existed without narration, until test screenings convinced Scorsese that it needed voiceover to help explain it. Pileggi was writing new narration and actors were recording and re-recording new voiceovers long after principal photography had wrapped. Watching the film now, the opening is so breezy and rhythmic that you almost don’t notice that a full 30 minutes are devoted to straight-up exposition. Yet the film mostly manages to distract you, with all the colors and lights and the ever-present music. Sort of like a casino.
As Scorsese says, it was all about excess. Excess in the clothes, excess in the sets, excess music, excess voiceover. Joe Pesci’s character actually dies mid-voiceover, crying “Arrghhh!” as the first aluminum baseball bat hits him. As far as I know, that’s still the only death-while-narrating scene in cinema. Excess heaped on excess makes you feel lost and queasy after a while, which is probably what keeps Casino from being as crowd-pleasing a movie as Goodfellas. But that’s also what makes it honest. Casino is disorienting by design. If Goodfellas is about gangsters fighting their way to the top, Casino is its corollary, about gangsters getting everything they wanted and being undone by it, of having their cake and eating themselves sick. Which also makes it the perfect Vegas movie. Getting to the end of Casino feels just like being in Vegas a little too long, hungover in the airport waiting for a Sunday afternoon fight.
In Casino, being a gangster doesn’t look so cool anymore. That’s rare among mob movies, and even among Scorsese movies. Ace Rothstein (based on the real-life character Lefty Rosenthal) has all the money in the world, even goes quasi-legit and is basically given a license to steal, and it still doesn’t look all that fun. “They were given four casinos to run, and these casinos bring in millions of dollars a day. And they still screwed it up, because these guys always screw everything up,” Pileggi says. “It all started with the explosion of Lefty Rosenthal’s car. To us, that was the culmination of what Las Vegas had become and was no longer.”
The “love stories” in Casino and Goodfellas underscore the themes: Goodfellas is about young love, that excitement of initial attraction. All those voiceovers about Karen and Henry Hill finding some weird thing a turn on — the weight of his gun, the angry look on her face. In Casino, Ace Rothstein pitches marriage to Ginger (Sharon Stone’s character, based on Rosenthal’s wife, Geri McGee) like it’s life insurance. “Neither of us are getting any younger.”
It’s not the romantic, sexy kind of love, and it all goes downhill from there. The whole movie is basically about toxic relationships coming undone. (Ace’s relationship to Ginger, to Nicky, to the mob as a whole; the mob’s relationship with Vegas.) In the same way, it sort of represents the crumbling of our love affair with the mob. Most mob movies tack on a cautionary conclusion no one remembers at the end of a two-hour wealth-porn montage interspersed with stylized killings; Casino is one of the few mob movies in existence that might actually put you off the whole thing. It’s the mafia movie equivalent of your dad catching you with a cigarette and then making you smoke the entire pack.
The Definitive Pesci-De Niro Movie, The Definitive Sharon Stone Movie
One area where Casino does eclipse Goodfellas is in the acting. Pesci and De Niro are playing characters similar to their Goodfellas characters, but they’ve evolved and become more complex, both individually and as a team. If Pesci and De Niro in Goodfellas are the first Clash album, Casino is London Calling. Scorsese allowed more improv in Casino than he ever had before, and their improvising makes some of the best scenes. The early scene where Pesci stabs the guy at the bar in the neck with a pen, for instance, apparently came out of an improv they did while shooting Goodfellas. And Nicky Santoro (Pesci’s character) mocking the guy while he bleeds out on the floor, is one of Casino‘s signature moments. “You hear a little girl, Frankie? What happened to the f*ckin’ tough guy that told my friend to stick it up his f*ckin’ ass?”
That De Niro and Pesci are in peak form makes it that much more incredible that Sharon Stone still manages to steal the movie. Hers is one of those performances that come along only once every few years, that can only happen when actor and character come together just so. And it almost didn’t happen. (Other actresses considered for Ginger reportedly include Kate Capshaw, Melanie Griffith, and Nicole Kidman. Debra Messing auditioned.) As Sharon Stone tells it in the DVD commentary, she was scheduled to audition for Scorsese twice, and he canceled both times (the second apparently because his train had broken down). She started to think he was deliberately blowing her off, and stopped taking his calls until, finally, he had to track her down at a restaurant. There, according to Stone, Scorsese showed up wearing a white suit, and talked to her for an hour, breaking down every role she’d ever played, even the movies she thought no one had seen.
This story, by the way, all sounds very dramatic. Very Sharon Stone. That it took such special attention to get her to even be in the movie makes her sort of perfect to play Ginger. Stone, even then, was somewhat infamous for being difficult, as illustrated by Joe Eszterhas’ anecdote about the crew of Basic Instinct taking turns peeing in the bath tub she was shooting in that day. True or not, her public perception made her even more perfect to play a character who’s transparently high maintenance, yet clearly worth all the trouble. Ace Rothstein likes her partly because she’s a challenge. And Casino seems to capture Stone in all her nuance, letting her go huge without hitting a sour note.
“I think for a long time people just did not know what to do with me. I looked like a Barbie doll and then I had this voice like I spend my life in a bar, and I said things that were alarming and had ideas that didn’t make sense. And finally I got together with Marty and Bob and they were like, ‘Give it all to us, baby, just let her rip if you’ve got it, we want it, let’s see what you can do.'” [Observer, 1996]
In contrast to De Niro and Pesci’s freewheeling, ping-pong back-and-forths, much of Stone’s performance comes down to her physicality. Her tottering around the yard in her huge heels, flinging plants at the door of Ace’s house. (Stone describes Ginger as “a horse on roller skates.”) The way her head cocks to the side when she’s really pissed (augmented by that pixie cut she has towards the end of the film, that sort of makes her look a little like a trimmed carrot). And especially the scene in the house with Ace about to meet with his banker, where Ginger strolls in drunk in the middle of the morning, not throwing a full tantrum, but wanting to make juuust enough of a scene to embarrass him.
“Peek a boo, you f*cks, you.”
There’s a specificity to the dialogue in Casino that puts it head and shoulders above most other mob movies. It’s such a singular vernacular stew, the confluence of Chicago gangsters, Vegas lounge acts, and the Western hicks, townies, and nuts who lived out in the desert before the casinos showed up. This manifests almost from the first scene, where Rothstein and Nicky Santoro’s voiceovers are guiding us through the casino skimming process. As the guy with the cash briefcase strolls through the casino in a gorgeous tracking shot, Pesci starts his explanation with “Now dis old Mormon f*ck here…”
I doubt many people had ever heard that combination of words before. No film can match Casino for colorful racial slurs, and Pesci’s r-heavy, ermahgerd Chicago accent renders even the most spectacular vulgarity hilarious. Lines like, “I hadda coupla sand n*ggers out dere — you know, Arabs.” And “You call my friend a faggot? You tell him to go f*ck himself?” when Santoro is on the phone with Ace, finding out how Ace ejected one of Santoro’s guys for putting his bare feet up on the poker table.
To be fair, the humor of that exchange is more about the look of miffed personal offense on Pesci’s face — like he’s positively mystified by his underling’s lack of decorum, clutching his figurative pearls over it — combined with the fabulously vulgar dialogue, rather than the dialogue itself. Ditto the scene where Ginger is outside Santoro’s restaurant (The Leaning Tower), making a huge scene, screaming about snitching to the FBI, screaming “I want that Jew bastard killed,” all while Santoro stands outside the doorway, his arms folded calmly across his chest, chewing a toothpick, trying to keep it cool in front of his customers. “Uh huh. Yeah. Okay. Yeah, sure. Okay, yeah, see ya later,” like he’s trying to cut short a phone conversation, rather than throw a coked-up hysterical woman threatening to finger him for a murder out of his restaurant. Scorsese has said that Casino doesn’t have a plot, and maybe so, but it has some incredible sketches.
In another scene, when De Niro’s character is firing his incompetent casino manager (the act that ends up bringing him down), he calls him “a f*ckin’ Momo,” yet another slur I hadn’t even heard before that point (or since, come to think of it). That line, and almost all of the dialogue, has that unmistakable ring of authenticity to it.
“I got these guys on tape,” Pileggi says. “No film school in the world — you can’t recreate the way a gangster from Chicago talks. It’s priceless.” They even had guys in the witness protection program who’d actually committed murders advising the filmmakers on how they did it. With Casino, Pileggi and Scorsese had access to an extent that wasn’t previously thought possible, even on Goodfellas. “I wouldn’t have gotten the access that I got unless people heard that it was going to be a movie,” Pileggi says, “After the movie was announced, people who slammed doors in my face all of a sudden were calling me up asking if they could meet Bob and Marty. To a certain extent, which people you have access to determines the story. And so then who gets the Pulitzer Prize for journalism? The writer or Robert De Niro?”
Casino’s Best Sketches
No other movie combines intense brutality with provincial pettiness quite like Casino. And just like in Goodfellas, the scene that Scorsese’s real mom is in is probably my favorite. In Casino, she plays the mother of Artie Piscano (played wonderfully by Vinny Vella), the mobbed-up Kansas City deli owner who ends up bringing down the Vegas mob through the sheer detail of his constant bitching. As we watch him walk around the store complaining (at one point knocking over some olive oil, another unscripted moment Scorsese couldn’t help leaving in), Catherine Scorsese sits there counting money, losing track every time Artie swears.
Her reactions are everything. And apparently, entirely natural. The only direction Martin Scorsese gave during the scene, according to producer Barbara De Fina, was to “react naturally.” And so, with Vella improvising a long string of gripes, Scorsese simply shot his mother’s natural reaction to swear words. Like so much else in the movie, it’s the spontaneity of it that make it so memorable. It’s the opposite of contrived. (I’ve never been able to watch this scene without seeing my grandma.)
Catherine Scorsese died just two years after the release of Casino, and between Goodfellas and this, I truly believe she deserved some kind of lifetime achievement Oscar for perfect cameos.
Another perfect cameo: Casino‘s blackjack dealers, for which Scorsese, typical of his strategy in making Casino, recruited actual Vegas blackjack dealers. (Fun fact: Ace Rothstein’s lawyer in Casino was played by Oscar Goodman, Anthony Spilotro’s actual lawyer, who later became mayor of Las Vegas from 1999-2011).
Even aside from Joe Pesci at peak Pesci, improvising non-stop abuse (“Look at dis f*ckin’ beaut dey put in here now”), there’s the beautiful interplay of reaction shots between the two dealers and the pit boss. And as if getting reactions that perfect out of non-professional actors wasn’t kismet enough, the card Pesci flicks at The Beaut ends up hitting him right in the bow tie, lodging face up between the second and third shirt buttons. There’s no way they could’ve planned that, because how many takes would it have taken to make it land just like that? It’s perfect.
Likewise, in a movie full of incredible outfits, probably the most memorable sartorial scene is when Rothstein meets with the county commissioner. Rothstein’s wearing a sky blue shirt/suit combo, with epaulet-like buttons on the shoulders, with matching socks and boxers. Which of course we learn when De Niro gets up from his desk to retrieve his pants from the closet, where he keeps them to keep from ruining the crease.
According to costume designer Rita Ryack, they built all of De Niro’s costumes from scratch, more than 70 suits in all. (Casino had the biggest budget Scorsese had ever worked with up to that point.) De Niro’s wardrobe in this particular scene is so ridiculous that you barely even notice the county commissioner, played by L.Q. Jones, who’s wearing snakeskin cowboy boots, a feathered cowboy hat, and jeans with pleats in them. Of the flashy Vegas clothes, Scorsese says, “I thought the look itself should be a provocation.”
Jones was a familiar face, known mainly for his work in Sam Peckinpah films. His casting creates a collision between the worlds of American West and the world of the mafia, both on the screen and through the associations we have with each actor. Scorsese did something similar in casting Vegas stars Don Rickles to play the casino manager (“Billy Sherbert”), and Dick Smothers as a Nevada state senator. With Rickles, the irony of the world’s most famous insult comic playing a role in which he does nothing but be constantly berated, literally kicked around, and hit with a phone is almost sickeningly rich. Too much. But it’s a Vegas movie — all that over-the-top stuff fits. Too much is just right.
A True-Crime Horror Movie
I was in middle school when Casino came out, and I saw it in the theater. If you asked me the last film that legitimately gave me nightmares, it’s probably Casino. While a lot of gangster movies, even Scorsese’s (especially Scorsese’s?) make beating people up and shaking them down seem like a wacky good time, there’s an unblinking awfulness to the violence in Casino. I’d probably already seen Pulp Fiction 10 times by the time I saw Casino, and was already pretty desensitized to filmed mayhem. It still shook me up.
Part of the reason it’s so disconcerting is that not all the violence is graphic and terrifying. Some of it is still hilarious. The scene where Joe Pesci kills Philip Green’s ex-business partner (she’s sued him and now the casino has to open their books) is almost a Three Stooges bit. Pesci, looking like an agitated bowling ball, runs in wearing his goofy cat burglar outfit, shoots her three times in the head with his little .22, and then tenderly smoothes her hair, allowing her head to rest just so, while the blood leaks out of her mouth looking almost peaceful. The film offers no explanation of why Santoro treats this woman with such contradictory pseudo-compassion, despite including voiceovers explaining virtually everything else.
Contrast that comical murder with the scene where the card cheat gets his hand bashed. The guards lay his hand flat on the table, and before you have a chance to anticipate what’s coming, the ball peen hammer shoots in abruptly from out of the frame and smashes the hand three or four times with no cuts. Wham! Wham! Wham! It’s insanely realistic-looking, shockingly so even 20 years later. (Incidentally, some of the real security guard extras they used in the film said this punishment would’ve been “getting away lightly.”) With Casino, the revulsion to violence comes naturally, because Scorsese isn’t depicting the “horrors of violence,” per se, only a world that’s lost all moral compass. The brutality is scary, but even more so is its unpredictability.
The film’s coup de grace of brutal violence is when Nicky Santoro puts the guy’s head in a vice. It seems gratuitous, but again, has the ring of authenticity to it. This was a real thing that Anthony Spilotro did. It came directly from Pileggi’s interviews with the people who were around at the time. In the commentary, Scorsese talks about experimenting with different eye prosthetic effects, and how difficult the scene was for test audiences. According to both Pileggi and Scorsese, the scene’s key line is Santoro telling the guy “don’t make me have to do this,” a plea that makes it possible to empathize with him even while he’s doing something monstrous. It wasn’t the graphic eyeball-popping that was so disconcerting to people, according to Scorsese, it was the look on Pesci’s face while he’s doing it. “It’s the humanity he still has while behaving like an animal.”
For me, the most nightmarish visual comes at the end, after the gang has beaten Nicky and his brother Dominic into unrecognizable mush with bats in the cornfield, and then thrown them into the shallow hole while still breathing. There’s the practical effect of the misshapen, blood-covered faces, and then that moment where the shovel full of dirt goes on, and some of the dirt goes in the guy’s mouth and there’s a puff of dust coming out of his mouth as it fills his lungs. I don’t think anything that’s not a horror movie has had that level of attention paid to practical effects before or since, and the fact that it comes in a hyperrealistic mob movie depicting real events is the stuff of nightmares.
“You think you want to be the Godfather?” Pileggi says. “You think you want to play in that world? Well, this is what it’s like. These people are really brutal. They just don’t feel your pain. They feel their pain, but they don’t feel any pain in other people.”
As Scorsese tells it in the commentary, “For me, the end of [mob-run Vegas] is like the closing of the American frontier.”
Which goes a long way towards explaining why Casino could never be as crowd-pleasing as Goodfellas. It’s hard to make a life-affirming movie about disillusionment and the death of optimism, even if it was the optimism of the underworld. Casino ends on a fittingly bittersweet note, with footage of Vegas’s old casinos being demolished, and the junk-bond financed pseudo-amusement parks that were built in their place. Ace Rothstein is about as wistful for the good old days as Henry Hill is at the end of Goodfellas, but unlike Hill, Rothstein doesn’t sound like he’s in any rush to relive them. It’s a more honest sort of nostalgia.
Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.