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Leaving Las Vegas? Hardly. : The desert city--whether as a metaphor for despair, a window on America or a fashionable slice of exotica--is hotter than ever with filmmakers. Viva, indeed.

<i> Sean Mitchell is an occasional contributor to Calendar</i>

Nicolas Cage parachuting in a white Elvis suit onto the parking lot of Bally’s Hotel, Robert Redford as Sonny Steele atop a lightbulb-festooned stallion making his way through a crowded casino, Al Pacino as Michael Corleone looking unhappy in the sun as he arrives on the Strip to take care of family business, Sean Connery as 007 motoring a lunar module through the desert near a Howard Hughesian compound, Warren Beatty as Bugsy Siegel wandering into the scrub brush toward a vision of the Flamingo Hotel, and Elvis as himself onstage, fat and spangled.

These are some of the enduring images of Las Vegas in the movies through the years, from “Honeymoon in Vegas,” “The Electric Horseman,” “The Godfather,” “Diamonds Are Forever,” “Bugsy” and “Elvis--That’s the Way It Is.”

There are many more, certainly, and they have been supplemented this year by shots of Elizabeth Berkley lap-dancing naked in the back room of a strip club in “Showgirls,” Nicolas Cage (him again) roaming the Strip in search of booze and oblivion in “Leaving Las Vegas” and most recently Robert De Niro’s powder-blue-blazered casino manager Ace Rothstein enthroned above the gaming tables as the symbol of cool mob efficiency in Martin Scorsese’s “Casino.”

And there are more to come. The city is the setting for the upcoming releases “The Great White Hype” from Fox; “Mars Attacks!” from Warner Bros.; “Sgt. Bilko” from Universal, starring Steve Martin; “Bogus” also from Universal, starring Whoopi Goldberg; “Feeling Minnesota” from Fine Line, starring Keanu Reeves; “Gun Down” from New Line, and “The Winner,” starring Rebecca DeMornay.

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It all adds up to a picture of . . . what? There are other desert oases, other centers of gambling and entertainment. But for filmmakers, as for the public, Las Vegas has tendered an aura of something exotic that can’t be found anyplace else. It may be a tasteless, over-amped fantasy world of licensed depravity but all the more reason it is one of the mythic American locales, its blinding night-scape of neon as instantly recognizable as the Statue of Liberty or the Hollywood sign.

“For anything involving risk, it gives you an instant jeopardy,” says Andrew Bergman, who directed “Honeymoon in Vegas” (1993), about a marriage-phobic guy who bolts to Vegas to conquer his phobia but is cheated out of his fiancee and wallet by a gangster. “You walk into Vegas and the chances that you’re going to be bankrupt rise--unlike if you suddenly arrived in Cleveland or Atlanta. By nature those cities wouldn’t mean anything in the story’s equation. You show up in Vegas, it means, oh, this person may soon be broke.

“And it’s a place that certain people love, it’s their milieu,” he says, referring to the gaming gangster played by James Caan in his film. “And for a place that’s so basically hideous to be anybody’s natural environment is also fun.”

Las Vegas as an idea, a state of mind, evidently is so evocative that filmmakers have used the city as a story setting without even going there, witness Francis Ford Coppola’s “One From the Heart” (1982), shot on sound stages in L.A., and George Stevens’ “Only Game in Town” (1970), starring Elizabeth Taylor and Warren Beatty, which was shot in Paris. And those who do go there often just shoot the stack of neon signs that line the main drag to establish the setting and then get on with their generic stories of romance, crime or high jinks, often involving gamblers and chorus girls.

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The name itself, Spanish for “the meadows” and today completely incongruous (we’ll have to take their word for it), nevertheless lends a patina of fringe behavior to almost any subject. You can get married on the spot in Maryland, just as in Nevada, but try selling the title “Honeymoon in Baltimore.”

There’s Reno and Atlantic City, but Las Vegas has the desert and the heat and complete isolation. Going there almost qualifies as science fiction: You get on an airship, you land in a special airport which itself is lined with slot machines. It’s a place where, the thinking goes, you can get anything you want, provided you have a Gold Card. Greed is in the air, along with the sensory deprivation of never knowing if it’s night or day inside the casinos.

“I think it was pretty essential for our story because of the sort of icon that it is,” says Mike Figgis, the British director of the widely praised “Leaving Las Vegas,” the transcendent downer adapted from a novel by the late John O’Brien about a burned-out screenwriter who picks the city as the setting to drink himself to death in a month. “Which is nothing to do with the reality of what it really is,” Figgis says, “which is whatever anybody wants it to be, I suppose, depending on how much money you have and who you’re with, what drugs you’ve taken.

“I think it’s a very different place for Americans and non-Americans. I think it occupies a necessary ‘enjoyable garbage’ position in a lot of Americans’ minds--a place to go and be bad. In a short amount of time. Get your sin out of your system. I think O’Brien had in his mind that it was the place a sick elephant would want to go and die.”

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Partly because of his low budget and partly because of his script, Figgis never got permission to film inside any of Las Vegas’ casinos and, in fact, had to travel to Laughlin to use the casinos there for interior locations. At the last minute he did get clearance from the police to shoot exteriors on the Strip where Nicolas Cage as Ben and Elisabeth Shue as Sera, the hooker who loves him, wander in the night, cut loose from the tether of ordinary life.

Figgis has taken some criticism that he made the city look too beautiful under the circumstances and sweetened his tragedy with jazzy standards sung by Sting and Don Henley. “I wasn’t particularly interested in showing Vegas in one way or another,” he says. “It happened to be where the story took place. That’s where the writer of the novel set it.”

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According to the Nevada Film Commission, there have been as many as 200 feature films with Las Vegas as a significant setting, dating back at least to “Las Vegas Nights,” a 1941 film starring Bert Wheeler and the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra that predates Bugsy Siegel and the rise of the casinos. (Siegel bought the Flamingo in 1946.) Some early views of the town can be seen in “The Las Vegas Story” (1952, Jane Russell, Victor Mature), “Meet Me in Las Vegas” (1956, Dan Dailey, Cyd Charisse), “Viva Las Vegas” (1964, Elvis Presley, Ann-Margret) and “Ocean’s Eleven” (1960, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr.), which emphasized its novelty as a gambling and dance-hall playground set on a lunar landscape.

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Whatever its dramatic flaws, “Ocean’s Eleven” is the primary celluloid artifact of the fabled Rat Pack that included--besides Sinatra, Martin and Davis, who were regular Vegas headliners--Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop, all of whom are in the movie, along with Angie Dickinson and Shirley MacLaine. Directed by Lewis Milestone, “Ocean’s Eleven” is the story of 11 World War II veterans who reunite, under Sinatra’s leadership (as Danny Ocean), to stage an elaborate robbery of five casinos during a power outage on New Year’s Eve. It’s got songs from the crooners and a cameo by George Raft but was evaluated by the New Yorker as “an admiring wide-screen color travelogue of the various effluvia--animate and inanimate--of Las Vegas.”

The deeper ironies of a city where the noise of a 24-hour circus rolls over the faces of so many lonely tourists desperate to beat the odds did not show through until later, in films such as Sydney Pollack’s “The Electric Horseman” (1979), in which it seemed no accident that Robert Redford’s shilling rodeo cowboy came to his epiphany of commercial debauchery during a corporate convention in Las Vegas, and Albert Brooks’ 1985 comedy “Lost in America,” which was both funny and frightening about the dangers of the place. Even Adrian Lyne’s unsavory “Indecent Proposal” (1993), in which gambling victim Woody Harrelson sold wife Demi Moore to high-roller Robert Redford for a night, gave new meaning to the phrase, “Every man has his price.”

Organized crime has long been part of the Vegas landscape and has peeked into films from “Ocean’s Eleven” to “The Godfather, Part III,” but not until Scorsese and Nicholas Pileggi’s “Casino,” set in the ‘70s before the intervention of the federal government made way for the corporate takeover, did a filmmaker reveal so much about the way the business of the town is conducted--or presumably used to be conducted. “Casino’s” scenes of the rooms where the money is counted (and skimmed), and where professional cheaters were taken and beaten by security guards, are now part of Vegas’ permanent record--if not on file at the Chamber of Commerce.

But these darker images do not in themselves reflect a disenchantment with Las Vegas in Hollywood. Far from it. In 1983, Hollywood spent about $11 million making movies in Nevada. Last year the figure had climbed to $83 million, about $60 million of which was spent in Vegas. All or part of 28 features were shot in the city last year. As a metaphor for despair, a window on America or a fashionable slice of exotica, Las Vegas appears to be hotter than ever.

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Bob Hirsch, director of the Nevada Film Commission, has only praise for Scorsese’s movie. “I think ‘Casino’ is portraying a piece of history--and very accurately I might add. There’s nothing in it that would keep anyone from coming to Las Vegas because it’s presented as this is the way things used to be and here’s the way things are now. That, we considered to be extremely positive.”

By contrast, Hirsch quibbles with the veracity of “Showgirls,” the Joe Eszterhas-Paul Verhoeven wallow in titillation that turned on a young chorine’s cynical rise to the position of star dancer in a hotel revue. “I’ve lived here 30 years,” Hirsch says, “and never has a showgirl--that is a principal dancer--been the featured performer in any kind of show. The movie had one believe that you could dance your way onto a marquee and billboard. It doesn’t make a great deal of sense. The Folies Bergere has been playing at the Tropicana for 30-some years and there’s nothing on the marquee about who the lead dancer is. I looked at it as a piece of stylized fiction.”

Which is one of the kinder things that has been said about “Showgirls.”

T he pictures and story lines of “Showgirls,” “Leaving Las Vegas” and “Casino” are, of course, not in sync with the “new” Las Vegas, which has increasingly become an adult theme park: Rome and Egypt re-created by architects and set designers with family entertainment sharing block space with the gaming tables and flesh trade.

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Andrew Bergman finds the “family” make-over of the city disingenuous. Says the director: “They’re just trying to create more places to park your kids while you’re losing your money. They’re trying to devise ways to keep you there longer.”

No doubt filmmakers will continue to be drawn there for the brand-name excess telegraphed by that establishing shot of the Strip with a riot of neon blotting out the moonlight. Much more may not be necessary.

“The truth is, that’s about it,” Figgis says. “Everybody comes in and out. It’s not like there’s a place where you’d hang around and talk to some old-timers who’d been there like in any other town.

“There must be some very interesting rich people who just hide and come out to pick up their money or something. I don’t know. I couldn’t find it myself. I kept thinking there must be amazing rooms that I haven’t seen where there are just lots and lots of computer screens and calculators and banks functioning all together in a very smooth and well-oiled way. The take must be phenomenal. It makes filmmaking pale into insignificance compared to the art of gambling.”

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In addition to what Pileggi has done, there are a few more books that, if ever filmed, might show more of the real Vegas. They include John Gregory Dunne’s much overlooked “Vegas: Memoir of a Dark Season,” which got underneath the skin of a Las Vegas comedian; Larry McMurtry’s “Desert Rose,” about a showgirl and her daughter, and, yes, Hunter Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas,” the account of the Gonzo prince’s attempt to cover a convention of drug-busting district attorneys in the city that Bugsy built. Producer Art Linson touched on this subject in his failed 1980 Thompson biography, “Where the Buffalo Roam,” with Bill Murray miscast as the Wild Turkey-and-acid-quaffing scribe. Rhino Films yet has plans to bring “Fear and Loathing” to the big screen in its entirety, with production beginning possibly as early as next year.

The book’s subtitle, “A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream,” should be of interest to casino owners and the local police.*


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