Billy Bathgate (1991) from Johnny Web (Uncle Scoopy; Greg Wroblewski)

When talkies first came on the scene, Hollywood filled America's theaters with musicals. When the novelty of singing pictures wore off, they turned to gangster films. To the people of the 30's, the previous decade, that crazy time after WW1 and before the stock market crash, was the ultimate symbol of better times, a nostalgic "good old days" for people who were ravaged by the Great Depression and the beginning of a new reign of terror in Europe. Just saying the magic incantation - "The 20's"  - conjured up images of helium-voiced floozies dancing to jazz, free-flowin' hootch, tough-talkin' mobsters, liberated society dames, Lindbergh, Babe Ruth,  - a carefree, optimistic lifestyle that seemed like a long-forgotten dream in the 30's.

On the other hand, the bad guys were different. They lived the good life in the 20's, and they kept on living it even after the Crash. To impressionable youngsters, the gangsters represented an escape from the misery of the streets and the oppression of the system. The names themselves carried a certain sassy cachet - Pretty Boy, Dutch, Machine Gun, and Lucky - they had a mountain of money, they seemed glamorous, and their lives seemed to possess romance. For kids in the streets, absent a good education or a fortunate upbringing, a life in the rackets seemed like the perfect escape from a life of selling apples and working in a sweatshop. Those early gangster movies seemed to stress the kids' choice between the honest life and the rackets. The elegantly tailored gentleman gangsters were very visible in the ethnic neighborhoods, and were role models for many boys in the community. Capone himself, like many other boys his age, earned pocket money by running errands for a popular local mobster (in his case, Johnny Torrio).

In the typical movie version of the gangster story, there was often a priest or policeman who asked the beloved gangster not to seem so romantic to the kids, and the best movie gangsters did what they could to keep the good kids from following their paths. Who can forget Cagney making the final walk to the "chair," pretending to be yellow so the Dead End Kids would stop idolizing him?

This movie is one of those 1930's films. In fact, it is quite a good 1930's film, with the additional bonus of a nudity level not permissible in the 30's. Unfortunately it was made in the 90's. It completely lacks the realism of modern films, and is most noticeably lacking the irony.


Nicole Kidman does two scenes in which she is fully naked.
  • In the first, she drops her towel in front of a mirror.
  • In the second, she goes skinny dipping.

Both involve frontal nudity. There is also a clear well-lit (albeit brief) look at her bottom.

Billy Bathgate is the designated wide-eyed kid, and we see the story unfold through Billy's eyes. Billy doesn't really have a distinctive personality, or add any quirky point of view. He is just the designated observer.. He goes to work at the lowest level for Dutch Schultz, and happens to be there when Dutch rubs out a double-crosser (Bruce Willis, squinting and smirking as only he can). Dutch and the kid both inherit Willis's moll, a rich and gorgeous Manhattan socialite (Nicole Kidman) who maintains a sham marriage to a powerful man while she slums with the toughest gangsters she can find. Dutch intends to explore her body until he tires of her, at which point he plans to dispose of her because she knows too much about the murder of the double-crosser. Billy, on the other hand, gradually falls in love with the classy dame. Dutch's empire dissolves in front of Billy, while the lad plots to save the life of the woman he loves from the gangster to whom he owes his life and loyalty.

The film looks great and is performed well. In addition to Willis and Kidman, Dustin Hoffman plays Dutch Schultz, Steve Buscemi plays his top hit man, and Steven Hill is his financial guru. It is based on a period novel by the respected E.L. Doctorow (Ragtime). The script is written by Tom Stoppard (Shakespeare in Love). The director is Robert Benton (nominated for five Oscars for screenwriting and two more for directing). Kidman is beautiful and naked. It should be an excellent movie, despite the rumored arguments and problems during filming.

DVD info from Amazon

  • widescreen format, 1.85

It is a pretty good movie. Unfortunately, it takes itself too seriously, uses a syrupy retro musical score, is short on humor, and follows the standard gangster formula. So maybe it's not as good as it should have been -  but it is still a good old-fashioned movie. In spite of the film's drawbacks, I enjoyed it. There's nothing you haven't seen before, but it's all done well.

The Critics Vote

  • Roger Ebert 2/4

The People Vote ...

  • with their dollars: budgeted at $40 million, a troubled production which probably went way over the budget, it garnered only $16 million at the box.


IMDb guideline: 7.5 usually indicates a level of excellence, about like three and a half stars from the critics. 6.0 usually indicates lukewarm watchability, about like two and a half stars from the critics. The fives are generally not worthwhile unless they are really your kind of material, about like two stars from the critics. Films under five are generally awful even if you like that kind of film, equivalent to about one and a half stars from the critics or less, depending on just how far below five the rating is.

My own guideline: A means the movie is so good it will appeal to you even if you hate the genre. B means the movie is not good enough to win you over if you hate the genre, but is good enough to do so if you have an open mind about this type of film. C means it will only appeal to genre addicts, and has no crossover appeal. D means you'll hate it even if you like the genre. E means that you'll hate it even if you love the genre. F means that the film is not only unappealing across-the-board, but technically inept as well.

Based on this description, this film is a C+, a solid 30's-style gangster film, starring Dustin Hoffman, Steve Buscemi and Bruce Willis, with Nicole Kidman stark naked on two different occasions. For me, that's enough for an enjoyable watch. The film is not innovative, and is not without weaknesses, but if you like that kind of film, or if you would like to see a modern interpretation of it, this is the film for you. 

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