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Thursday, June 23, 2022

June 23, 2022: Las Vegas Studying: Vegas Films

[On June 20th, 1947, mobster Bugsy Siegel was killed in Beverly Hills. So for the 75th anniversary of that murder, I’m going to AmericanStudy Siegel’s role in the development of Las Vegas, along with other contexts for that tellingly American city. Leading up to a weekend post on Vegas in song!]

On what we can learn about the city from a handful of feature films.

1)      Viva Las Vegas (1964): I can’t lie, Elvis Presley films have always seemed to be to exist as vehicles for, well, Elvis Presley, as well as for specific songs (for example, the performance of “Viva Las Vegas” in this movie is certainly impressive, but Presley’s character is supposed to be a race car driver, not a musician!). Moreover, the screenplay for this film was apparently written in 11 days, before which time there had been no Vegas connection whatsoever in the planned movie. Yet despite those factors, I’d say Viva represents an early and striking image of Las Vegas as the place where dreams come true, an enduring, idealized counterpoint to the Sin City symbolism I wrote about in yesterday’s post.

2)      Honeymoon in Vegas (1992): Those dreams aren’t just financial or individual, of course—they are also romantic, as illustrated by the city’s ubiquitous quickie wedding chapels. Of the many films that explore the city’s romantic allure (including Viva, with Ann-Margret central to Presley’s character’s dreams), the James Caan-Nicolas Cage-Sarah Jessica Parker-starring Honeymoon in Vegas stands out because it utilizes Las Vegas iconography so fully—right up to a conclusion featuring a pack of skydiving Elvis impersonators! Cage’s character has a fear of skydiving but goes through with it for love, which parallel’s the film’s overall message about the interconnected power of love and Las Vegas (he promised his mother on her deathbed he would never marry, but is willing to do so in Vegas).

3)      Leaving Las Vegas (1995): Just three years later, Cage would star in one of the bleakest Vegas films (and American films period) ever released. Leaving Las Vegas does feature a central romance and one potently connected to the city at that, as Cage’s depressed alcoholic writer Ben Sanderson meets and falls in love with Elisabeth Shue’s cynical prostitute Sera. But without spoiling all the details, I’ll simply say that the film’s romance ends just as tragically as do these two characters’ individual arcs—and while tragedy isn’t limited to any one setting, in this case the tragedies do feel interwoven with the excesses and horrors that lie beneath the city’s glamorous façade.

4)      Showgirls (1995): From Oscar-winning tragedy to Razzie-winning farce, AmericanStudies really does contain multitudes. I’m not gonna try to rehabilitate the reputation of Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls, truly one of the worst films I’ve ever seen (and featuring a central performance from another Elizabeth, Berkley, that is, let’s say, less good than Shue’s). But I think many of those badnesses do directly correlate with the city in which every second of the film’s action takes place (Berkley’s Nomi arrives in Vegas at the start and departs it at the conclusion): ridiculously over the top and cheesy and fake and yet impossible to turn one’s eyes away from, even as we know we’re throwing our money away on something thoroughly debauched and debased and destructive (at least to our sense of good taste, if not indeed to our dignity).

5)      21 (2008): The Vegas heist thriller 21 is a much much better film, but is problematic for two distinct and even more troubling reasons: it “whitewashed” many of the real people on whom its story is based, casting white actors to play Asian American figures; and it stars the now-disgraced sexual predator Kevin Spacey (although at least he plays a despicable villain). The first reason in particular might warrant staying away from the film and reading the source material, Ben Mezrich’s Bringing Down the House (2003), instead. And in any case, both these stories, like all the Vegas-centered heist and con tales (of which there are many), reveal a deep-seated collective desire to take down the house, despite the oft-repeated reality that the house always wins. Both of those ideas have a great deal to tell us about not just Vegas, but all of America.

Last Vegas context tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Las Vegas contexts, histories, stories you’d highlight?

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