Clothes Make the Mob in ‘Casino’ : Director Scorsese Sought an Authentic Look That Required Lots of Bad Rags From the ‘70s and an Army of Minor Players From N.Y. Streets
During the opening credits of “Casino,” Martin Scorsese serves up an image of Robert De Niro nearly as memorable as the car bomb that hurls his character, Sam (Ace) Rothstein, into the air moments later. Decked out in a coral jacket with matching apricot shirt, tie and socks, the Vegas mobster fairly radiates “cocky” and “flamboyant.”
From costumes to casting, the look of “Casino” was crucial to Scorsese, a director renowned for his dazzling visual sense. For this three-hour portrait of the underbelly of Las Vegas, he hired more non-actors--regular folks--than he had for any previous film. Casting directors combed the streets of New York and New Jersey to round up background players and secondary characters--each of whom had to be outfitted. And since no one thinks of the 1970s as “period,” says costume designer Rita Ryack, the challenge was greater than anyone had assumed.
“It was triage,” recalls Ryack, whose credits also include “Apollo 13" and Scorsese’s “Cape Fear.” “The first three weeks we shot in the casino from midnight to 10:30 a.m. and shopped and fitted the rest of the time. We were really punchy, crying a lot and quitting several times a day. Though things got a lot more civilized by the time the set moved to Sam’s house, we still went violently over budget.”
More than 7,000 extras--from go-go girls to hotel clerks--had to be clothed at a cost of $150 to $200 each, much higher than the Hollywood norm. And, though the 30-plus outfits worn by hustler-turned-trophy-wife Ginger McKenna (Sharon Stone) were a mix of vintage and custom-made, all of Rothstein’s 70 costumes--not to mention those worn by Joe Pesci, Don Rickles, Alan King, Kevin Pollak and James Woods--had to be “built” from scratch. Long, pointed, locked collars separated the older, more traditional Wise Guys from the up-and-comers. Solid ties conveyed a sense of slickness. White or light beige clothing provided visual counterpoint to the brutality of certain scenes.
“These characters, for the most part, were low-life people who worked their way up the gambling hierarchy,” observes co-costume designer John Dunn. “Presentation was more important than ability when it came to reinventing themselves.”
Authenticity was heightened by casting real-life veterans of the Strip. Ffolliott (“Fluff”) LeCoque, company manager of the “Jubilee Show” at Bally’s for 22 years, displayed the necessary toughness to land the $522-a-day part of a real estate investor trying to strong-arm the mob. A slot manager at Caesars Palace and a shift manager at the Golden Nugget portrayed two of De Niro’s henchmen. And John Bloom, who played the none-too-swift relative of a local politician, is a Dallas-born, Arkansas-raised writer who made his name as the syndicated columnist/cable TV movie host Joe Bob Briggs.
“After I got the part and flew out to Vegas, I went to the mall to buy some shoes,” recalls Bloom, who was called in to read after the director spotted him on the Movie Channel’s “Joe Bob’s Drive-In Theater.” “ ‘What are you doing out here?’ this salesman, a guy with a really great face, asked me. I told him I was in ‘Casino'--and he said he was in it, too. Scorsese’s talent is taking people off the street with a certain kind of energy and look.”
Secondary parts were cast with the likes of Rickles, King and Dick Smothers--Vegas performers who had played the Sands and the Dunes. For the Midwest mobsters, the filmmakers scouted out New York-area churches and put out feelers to the Italian Seaman’s Club, the Italian Actors Union and the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Assn. Joe Rigano, a New York City borough coordinator who plays mobster Vincent Borelli, heard of the tryouts from a friend at the Sons of Italy. Pasquale Cajano, who plays mobster Remo Gaggi, was an announcer for Italian television for 28 years and hosted a Little Italy festival when Scorsese was a child.
Someone who utters one word is as important as any in the film, maintains casting director Ellen Lewis (“GoodFellas,” “The Age of Innocence”), who had 120 speaking parts to fill. Rather than looking for some “John Gotti/mob boss” stereotypes, they kept an eye out for nondescript “neighborhood” sorts. “If it doesn’t feel real, it throws off the balance,” she says. “There was a story behind nearly every person in the movie which added to the performance.”
Dressing them up, however, was a double-edged sword. Costumes are least effective when calling attention to themselves--a definite risk when conjuring up that time and place.
“It was a gaudy, trashy period--a time of great excess,” Dunn says. “The fashion world was trying to foist the idea of better-living-through-chemistry fabrics on us. We paid a fortune to rent bad ‘70s clothing--shiny Qiana material, platform shoes, bell bottoms--things we all donated to the Salvation Army. We actually reveled in the horribleness of it all.”
De Niro and Ryack headed for Florida to meet with the real-life ex-mobster on whom Rothstein was based. Opening his closets, thumbing through his photo albums, meeting with his shirt-makers, they got a sense of the man. Scorsese not only attended all of the actor’s fittings but stepped outdoors with De Niro to see how the light caught the fabric. He also participated in the morning ritual of selecting the ring and watch to be worn each day.
“As Rothstein acquired more power in the gaming industry, his look became more flamboyant,” Ryack says. “Though the loud print linings in De Niro’s jackets were never on display, it was important for an actor like him to know that they were next to his skin. No one else could pull off audacious clothing like that without appearing cartoonish. De Niro still seemed sexy and dangerous.”
Stone’s wardrobe reflected Ginger’s rise from hustler to married woman with money to spend--losing much of its polish as a drug-induced deterioration set in. Bob Mackie, whose revealing designs put Cher on the map, was a staple. So was Stone’s favorite gold Bulgari jewelry, $2 million of which was on loan for a day. Though an entire line of boots was constructed for the actress, casino specialty shops filled the bill when it came to Vegas “classics” such as suede mules with Lucite heels.
Accompanying Rothstein to the “Man of the Year” dinner, the actress appeared voluptuous in an elegant form-fitting flesh-colored gown adorned with gold beads and sequin grapes. During her rebellious “I Am Woman” phase, Stone returned home in a black satin suit with aggressive shoulder pads and pointy boots. When drugs took hold, Ginger surfaced in a tacky pearlized gold leather motorcycle jacket with beige suede reptile insets. Pants were intentionally baggy to reflect the character’s weight loss.
Bloom remembers the moment that the director’s obsession with imagery first hit home. His character, sporting lamb-chop sideburns, was dressed in a hokey, wide-lapel Western-cut suit set off by a bolo tie. Standing next to him was De Niro in an outfit that defined “urban” and “slick.”
“Scorsese, looked us up and down, broke into a smile,” Bloom recalls. “ ‘That says it all,’ he said.”