Billy Bathgate

The Devil Says

See It

(But only Kidman's nude scenes need your complete attention)

Billy Bathgate is the story of teenager Billy (Loren Dean), and his interactions with the violent and unpredictable Dutch Schultz (Dustin Hoffman), the cool killer Bo Weinberg (Bruce Willis), the wise criminal lieutenant Otto Berman (Steven Hill), and the beautiful and sexy Drew Preston (Nicole Kidman). That’s unfortunate since Billy is desperately, mind-numbingly, bash-your-head-against-a-nearly-dry-cement-sidewalk kind of dull. Everyone else is interesting, and any of them would have been a better choice to make the lead in a film. But we get Billy. Drab, non-entity Billy, who watches exciting times from a distance. And we watch him watch them.

For everyone not up on their gangster history, Dutch Schultz was a real New York crime boss in the ‘20s and ‘30s, and Billy wasn’t. Real that is. He’s a fictional creation of novelist E.L. Doctorow, who specializes in weaving invented characters into actual events. As for Schultz, he was a violent, vicious man that seemed to be constantly at war with other bosses. And no, I never met him and did not influence his life (I’m always asked that when someone goes bad). He did have an accountant named Berman and a gunman named Bo, and the movie does relate the fates of all. However, the details and timing of events are twisted around, and of course, there was no fifteen-year-old kid (he looks older in the movie) hanging at the actual Schultz’s shoulder.

The story of the last few months of Dutch Schultz’s life, filled with cruel, bloody murders, backstabbing, corruption, and legal battles involving tax evasion, is the stuff of a great gangster film. This isn’t that film. Oh, we get the murders, etc., etc., but we’re never a part of the action. Dustin Hoffman inhabits Schultz, making him a little charming and a lot scary (for those of you who aren’t immortal). It is his best work since The Graduate. Bruce Willis is suave, Steven Hill is absolutely believable, and Steve Buscemi is…well, Steve Buscemi, which is always a good thing for a movie. But Billy (can’t really blame Dean’s lackluster performance as there was no way he could have put life into the part) muffles the effect of all of their work.

Which means it all comes down to Nicole Kidman. Drew Preston, married to a powerful, homosexual mover-and-shaker, is a charming but spoiled socialite who enjoys slumming. She starts with Bo, and along the way spends time in Schultz’s bed as well as Billy’s. Kidman is as delectable as ever. She’s sexy, no question about that, but more than that, she’s a living work of art. And like the best art, I don’t get tired of watching her—when it is her that I’m seeing and not a bunch of cloth. She obliges in Billy Bathgate, appearing naked several times. It is those moments that make Billy Bathgate memorable.

With superb cinematography, sets, and locations that recall the 1930s, a great cast, and a fascinating story, Billy Bathgate can rise only to the level of a so-so gangster picture, and it is thanks to Kidman, that it manages even that.

Sins (What does this mean?)

Pride Nothing.
Sloth Nothing.
Avarice Nothing.
Gluttony Nothing.
Aesthetics Kidman is a work of art.  Classical sculptures have nothing on this girl. 
Surrogate Cruelty A man gets beaten to death, another gets cement shoes, and a third has the trigger pulled with the pistol barrel in his mouth. Also, a gangland slaying and shootout.
Thought Nothing.
Humor Nope.
Lust Full nudity from Nicole Kidman makes me smile. There's also a mild sex scene.

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Film Info

Director: Robert Benton

Writer: Tom Stoppard

Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Nicole Kidman, Loren Dean, Bruce Willis, Steven Hill, Steve Buscemi, Stanley Tucci

Runtime: 106 min