An Introduction to Scorsese’s Casino
Directed and produced by Martin Scorsese and Barbara De Fina respectively, Casino was released in 1995, starring Robert De Niro, Sharon Stone and Joe Pesci. The movie is based on the book, Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas by Nicholas Pileggi, which was also released in 1995. In the lead role, De Niro takes on the part of Sam “Ace” Rothstein.
Whilst the movie was a box office hit, grossing a total of $116 million worldwide, it certainly received its fair share of criticism. Reviewers have stated Scorsese was not overly adventurous in his production, with many comparisons to the movie Goodfellas, a movie he also directed. Nevertheless, Casino actually out-grossed the movie by about $70 million.
Despite the criticism, Casino is widely appreciated and there is general positivity towards the film. Sharon Stone was the only one to receive a recognizable accolade with her Golden Globe Award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture – Drama.
On the surface, Casino is arguably a brilliant movie directed by one of the all-time greats. Yet, once you dive deeper, it quickly becomes apparent that the movie has a lot more to it than initially meets the eye. Therefore, let’s get into the nitty-gritty details and see what gems we can uncover.
Scorsese’s Casino is Based on a True Story
The best place to start is with the movie’s plot. As mentioned, the film is based on a book by Pileggi. The characters in Pileggi’s book were very easily transferable to the big screen with only a few minor adjustments.
Sam “Ace” Rothstein, portrayed in the movie by Robert De Niro, was based on Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, a Chicago bookmaker who worked for Anthony Spilontro (also known as “Tony the Ant”). In the film, the character of Nicky Santoro, acted by Joe Pesci, was based on Spilontro.
Spilontro was an American mobster who befriended Rosenthal and was part of a Mafia outfit in Chicago. Rosenthal was tasked with supervising all casino operations whilst Spilontro provided protection and security whilst also engineering heists on jewelry stores. Sound familiar?
The movie’s other big appeal was the gorgeous and ravishing Ginger McKenna. The character, portrayed in the movie by Sharon Stone, was based on American model and showgirl Geri McGee. Just as in the movie, Rosenthal and McGee were married in real-life, before her unfortunate death in 1982 from a drug overdose. Many of the scenes in the movie (and the book) were taken directly from real life, such as the car bombing, casino skimming, and the hammer-to-the-hand incident.
The Truth Behind The Tangiers
In the movie, Sam “Ace” Rothstein is tasked with watching over and running The Tangiers Hotel and Casino. However, in reality, Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal was given the responsibility of overseeing operations at four separate casinos in Las Vegas simultaneously. Namely, the Stardust, Marina, Hacienda and Fremont casinos. The Stardust was the casino taken over by Sam (The Tangiers), but for legal purposes, Scorsese couldn’t use the same name.
Casino was shot in two separate locations, The Landmark and the Riviera Casino. The former was the location for exterior scenes whilst the latter was used for all interior shots. The Riviera actually invited visitors to watch the movie being shot whilst filming was in progress. Unfortunately, today the Stardust, the Riviera casino and The Landmark are all closed.
Sam and Ginger’s Flesh and Blood
In the movie, Sam and Ginger have a daughter together, which begs the question did their real-life counterparts also have offspring? In short, yes they did. Frank Rosenthal and Geri McGee actually had two children together, a daughter named Stephanie and a son named Steven. Geri also had another daughter, Robin, from a previous relationship with her high school lover, Lenny Marmor. Those with a memory for detail will recall that Lenny is actually in the movie, portrayed as the character James Woods. Robin was eleven years old when Geri met Frank in real-life.
Nicky Santoro’s Brother a Mobster?
Casino depicts Nicky Santoro as the ultimate family guy by recruiting his younger brother, Dominick, to his crew. In reality, Anthony Spilotro did the exact same thing. He had his crew take on members Michael Spilotro, Herbert “Fat Herbie” Blitzstein, Wayne Metecki, Samuel Cusumano, Joseph Cusumano, Ernesto “Ernie” Davino, “Crazy Larry” Neumann, Salvatore “Sonny” Romano, Leonardo “Leo” Guardino and Joseph Blasko. They were led by Frank Cullotta, who is depicted as Frankie Marino by actor Frank Vincent in the film. Apologies for all the “Franks” in that previous sentence.
The crew took their name, The Hole in the Wall Gang, from the fact that they were notoriously known for drilling holes in walls and ceilings to enter their target locations.
Scorsese’s Mum also features in Casino
Just as Anthony Spilotro looks out for his family, Scorsese appears to do the same. Over the course of his career, he has cast his family in minor roles in most of his movies. His father alone has featured in eight of his films.
In Casino, Catherine Scorsese, mother of Martin, appears as Artie Piscano’s mother, who delivered the famous line, “Take it easy. You’ll get a heart attack like that”.
Did Nicky Santoro Sleep with Ginger McKenna?
One thing that the movie got absolutely spot on is the love affair between Santoro and McKenna. In reality, Anthony Spilotro did sleep with Frank Rosenthal’s wife, Geri McGee. During the trial following the FBI’s Operation Family Secrets in 2007, Nicholas Calabrese, a former member of the crew, testified. He claimed that hit man John Fecarotta told him that Spilotro was being targeted. The primary suspect was Frank Rosenthal, who had known about the affair with his wife.
The Sam “Ace” Rothstein Show
Another good example of what the movie accurately depicted is the Sam “Ace” Rothstein television talk show. The Frank Rosenthal Show was a real thing and it brought in many big names. Whilst the film makes out that Sam hosted the show at Tangiers Casino and juggled, the reality is that Frank Rosenthal hosted it at Stardust and he claims to have never juggled on the show.
At the time, the show was quite a hit. It is said that the likes of Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Wayne Newton, Liberace and OJ Simpson were all guests. The talk show was a major attraction at Stardust and brought a lot of attention to the casino.
Considering all that has been discovered, you have to be impressed by what Martin Scorsese achieved. The director appears to have covered a large amount of what happened in reality and transferred it brilliant to the silver screen.
Casino is an all-time classic and it is a fair reflection of events that occurred in the 1980s. Anyone wanting to learn more about the events it depicts should definitely take a look at the book by Nicholas Pileggi and/or look to additional sources. However, the movie is an excellent starting place and even if you have no interest in what actually happened, it is still very much worth watching.