Ring any bells?

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 18 March, 2012, 12:00am


Steve Buscemi is playing obstinate. Maybe he's been working too hard; he's just finished filming the second season of HBO's hit television show Boardwalk Empire. Maybe he just needs a break. He's juggling so many acting and production projects it's a surprise he even turned up. Or maybe he's just sick of this scene: reporters huddled around a table at New York's Waldorf-Astoria hotel, with muddles of voices jumping over each other to ask questions he has answered a thousand times.

With his hands in his lap and those famously watery eyes conveying a slight sense of resignation, he tells us he doesn't think about the contemporary relevance of the show, which is set in prohibition-era Atlantic City and takes in a giddy world of bootleggers, corrupt politicians and organised crime.

No, Buscemi quietly insists, he doesn't buy into the comparisons with modern times -he just focuses on his character. A reporter from a German newspaper proceeds to dominate the questioning and responds by asking him how he goes about forming his character.

Buscemi seems baffled: 'I study my lines, talk with [Boardwalk Empire creator] Terry Winter about it and just dive into it. I tend not to think about it too much.'

She pushes: 'How do you relate this show to today?'

Buscemi's response is blunt: 'I don't think that way.'

Not put off, the reporter presses on: 'What's your take?'

This time, Buscemi seems a little put out: 'I don't have a take is what I'm telling you.

'These are always the hardest questions for me to answer, because while I'm still in something, I don't like to analyse or to look at the bigger picture or analyse my character - I know that's not very helpful for you, but in some ways I have to protect what I do.'

The truth is, it's all a bit hard to swallow. The lush world of Boardwalk Empire -with its decadent parties, glorious fashion and 'Roaring Twenties' hedonism- may be set 90 years in the past, but its key themes are redolent of today. In part because of that contemporary resonance, and in part because of its nostalgic wanderlust, the show has been a monster success. Its first episode cost US$18 million to make -the most expensive TV pilot ever- and was directed by Martin Scorsese; last year, it was nominated for 18 Emmys and won two Golden Globes, including one for Buscemi as best actor in a drama series.

But back to those similarities with today. Well, there's prohibition, for a start, a ban on alcohol that spawned organised crime and led to a spike in murder rates. The war on drugs, anyone? There are servicemen from the first world war coming home to inadequate treatment while struggling with post-traumatic stress. See here Afghanistan and Iraq. And then there are the corrupt politicians, lining their own pockets with ill-gotten funds and forever conspiring against their opponents. Take one look at the pervasive influence of lobbyists in Washington today. (We'll say nothing of the state of Hong Kong politics for now.)

When Winter, also the show's head writer, steps into the room, we finally get the analytical juice reporters crave. To what extent, I ask Winter -an unassuming former lawyer whose previous gig was with The Sopranos- did he want the show to reflect today's society?

'To a large extent,' he says, with none of Buscemi's equivocation. 'When I was developing it -even before it was Boardwalk Empire, even before it landed in 1920- I wanted whatever I did to hold a mirror up to society today.'

Winter speaks fast and without breaks, reeling out lines with the effortless ease of someone who knows his craft inside and out.

'When I did the research on the prohibition era, with each day the more I learned about what was going on, really deep into the culture, it became almost eerie how similar things are: corruption in government, the way sexual mores were changing, Wall Street was a casino -not to mention prohibition being an almost perfect overlap with the drug business and what's going on here in the United States and Mexico, and really all over the world.'

There it is, then. When we watch Buscemi's Nucky Thompson -a politician-cum-gangster who effectively runs Atlantic City- hand out cash to supplicant politicians in return for favours, we're seeing a commentary on contemporary politics. When we watch Jimmy Darmody (played by Michael Pitt) comfort a fellow war hero with a disfigured face at a veterans' hospital, we're supposed to relate it to today's broken troops. When we blanch at the ill effects of prohibition, we should be comparing it to the war on drugs. And when we observe the dramas of a society infected with economic lust and wayward (if forgivable) morals, we're really just watching ourselves.

THE UNITED STATES in the 1920s was a place of great hope and burgeoning prosperity. The country had recovered from 1918's devastating influenza epidemic. It was flush from victory in the 'Great War'. With the boom of the Ford Model T -15 million of which were sold by 1927- came a spate of construction, of roads and highways in particular, that ushered in an era of tremendous economic growth. Henry Ford himself implemented a 'US$5 work day', doubling the wages of many of his factory workers.

Meanwhile, a technological revolution put new appliances in homes, freeing up women from housework just as they were assuming an increasingly powerful political voice - they would win the right to vote in 1920.

Innovation in farming machinery escalated productivity while pushing labourers out of work and into urban areas. The machine-assisted increase in productivity drove down food prices, making life tougher for farmers. The year 1920 -in which the first season of Boardwalk Empire was set- marked the first time that more Americans lived in cities than in rural areas.

This was the beginning of Modern America, an era in which moneyed men donned elegant tailored suits and the 'flapper' emerged: a breed of woman with bobbed hair, short skirts and generous helpings of make-up. Sexual mores began to change as these 'loose women' - vividly portrayed in Boardwalk Empire - enjoyed their new freedoms, and men heartily took advantage.

Nowhere was this new decadence more evident than in Atlantic City, New Jersey, a symbol of the promise and hedonism of the time, where the wealthiest residents enjoyed lavish lifestyles marked by expensive parties, high fashion and popular new dances, such as the Charleston. This was also the dawn of the jazz age, and in Atlantic City's casinos and speakeasies, the hot rhythms of the new genre set dance floors alight, contrasting with the political conservatism being ushered in by President Warren Harding, who was elected in 1920 on a promise to return the country to 'normalcy', meaning stricter immigration laws, high tariffs on imports and low taxes.

It was in this Atlantic City that was to be found one of the most compelling political figures of the jazz age: Enoch 'Nucky' Johnson, the inspiration for Boardwalk Empire and the subject of a book of the same name. Johnson is the man Buscemi's character is based on.

'People really didn't know this guy unless they lived in Atlantic City during that time,' Buscemi says. 'And then Terry Winter changed the last name, which I thought was the best thing to do, so we're not beholden to being exactly who this guy was.'

From the 1910s up until his imprisonment on a tax evasion charge in 1941, Johnson was the de facto boss of Atlantic City. As the highest-ranking Republican operative in a Republican-run city, he used his influence and money to get friends elected to positions of power. He was variously the county treasurer -as Buscemi's Thompson is in Boardwalk Empire- a bank director, a newspaper publisher and the director of a Philadelphia brewery.

During prohibition, Johnson and his organisation were also involved in bootlegging, gambling and prostitution - vices on which Atlantic City depended for its prosperity.

It is this side of Johnson that is emphasised in Boardwalk Empire. In a turn that has been universally lauded by critics, Buscemi plays Nucky as a charming man self-assured in his power who uses money to solve problems, help others and protect his business interests. When money doesn't work, Nucky, who has deep connections with gangsters, turns to darker ways of getting what he wants.

'I think on some level he believes what he's doing is right,' says Buscemi of his character. 'He feels like he is providing a service. He's getting rich off it as well, but I think he sees that if it's not him, it's somebody else.'

One of the first scenes in the first episode of the first season of Boardwalk Empire sees Nucky, dressed in a tuxedo with white bow-tie and red carnation, standing at the head of a table that is laden with bottles of wine. Nucky interrupts the raucous dinner party, attended exclusively by men enjoying their tipples, and stands to make a speech.

'Mr Mayor,' Nucky announces, 'fellow members of the City Council. In less than two hours, liquor will be declared illegal by decree of the distinguished gentlemen of our nation's Congress.' Thompson pauses, raises his whiskey glass and with a wry smile says: 'To those beautiful, ignorant bastards!'

Prohibition was a disaster. The law ban- ning the sale, manufacture and transporta- tion of alcohol took effect in January 1920 and was a response to a strong temperance movement that sought to reduce crime, prevent the abuse of women by alcoholic husbands and wipe out other negative social effects of excessive consumption.

'Although consumption of alcohol fell at the beginning of prohibition, it subsequently increased,' writes Mark Thornton, an Auburn University economics professor, in a report on the failure of prohibition for the Cato Institute, a Washington-based think tank. 'Alcohol became more dangerous to consume; crime increased and became 'organised'; the court and prison systems were stretched to breaking point; and corruption of public officials was rampant.'

Much of the crime could be attributed to gangsters, whose fortunes, thanks to prohibition, were on the rise. Previously, mafia organisations in the US had been restricted to controlling prostitution, gambling and theft. Bootlegging became a thriving industry. By the end of the 20s in Chicago, for instance, kingpin Al Capone controlled all of the city's speakeasies as well as bootlegging operations across the country, helping him net annual profits that registered in the tens of millions of dollars.

Heavyweight New York mafia figures Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Arnold Rothstein also came to prominence during this time and enjoyed the fruits of the illegal trade. Rothstein, Lansky, Luciano and Capone all appear in Boardwalk Empire, though the latter three are depicted as novices in the business.

'A lot of times we see gangsters who have inherited great rackets,' says Vincent Piazza, the fresh-faced actor who plays Luciano, the Italian mobster who would come to be considered the father of modern organised crime. 'They had maybe knocked off a boss and inherited something that was already in existence. What we get to see with Lucky [in Boardwalk Empire] is that he's learning and he's building the rackets.'

Piazza says he studied intensely.

'It was intimidating because of the pedigree of actors who had played the character in the past, so he was kind of beaten soil. I was like, 'How do I make it unique, how do I bring my own thing to it?' So I watched all those movies, when I finished all my reading, and formed my opinion. I didn't want to be corrupted by looking at someone else and going, 'Well, that's great, let me just re-do that.''

Of course, there is a point where history has to take a backseat to entertainment - this is, after all, a TV show. Piazza recalls getting a wake-up call on his first day in wardrobe, where he was trying on a suit and deciding what cufflinks to wear.

'I was like, 'I think he'd have a different kind of cufflink,' and the woman who was doing it ... she goes, 'Oh, that'd be great if we were doing a documentary.'

'You need to let it breathe,' he continues. 'You can't play the research. You can do the research, and then once it's in you and you know it, then you have to let the world live.'

Piazza thinks the show represents an incredible parallel with today.

'[The writers] touched on it with little things like Ponzi [schemes], and we're coming off the Madoff scandal. The more things change, the more they stay the same. The 20s became a period of excess, probably much like the 90s ... and now we're in this great economic crisis. People are calling it 'the Great Recession' - it could approach a depression if things get worse - and that's what this show will inevitably lead to.'

ATLANTIC CITY'S famed boardwalk has been splendidly revived for the programme. Built on a set in Brooklyn, New York, at a cost of US$5 million, the boardwalk is accurate down to the finest detail, including a massive billboard for Gillette. And no, says Winter, the razor company didn't pay for the placement -at least not this time; the creators just wanted the boardwalk to be as historically accurate as possible.

Aside from the obvious liberties they took with Nucky, Boardwalk Empire's writers strove to stay faithful to history. Just as their attention to detail on the boardwalk set was painstaking, so too was their commitment to accurately portraying events.

'Occasionally history doesn't work out the way I want it to work out, but history wins,' Winter says. 'I won't change the facts of things.'

By way of example, Winter points to a song he had wanted to use at the end of episode seven. The sheet music made it seem as though the song had been written in 1919. It turned out later, however, that the song had been written in 1929.

'Nobody would know or very few people would know,' Winter says. 'But I thought: 'You know what? I know, and that song didn't exist at that time and we can't use it.''

There is, however, another glaring exception to the obsession with accuracy. Rather inconveniently for the writers, prohibition was never really an issue in Atlantic City. In fact, drinking was pretty much out in the open, so dependent was the city on the pastime for its survival. The authorities - perhaps bribed by certain key municipal figures - turned a blind eye.

'The saying goes that prohibition did not exist in Atlantic City,' Winter says. 'Because Nucky ran the place completely - it was his own little kingdom separated from the rest of the world. Prohibition was enacted and the next day you could walk into any bar and buy a drink, apparently. So we've had to fictionalise the idea that it was a problem in Atlantic City a little bit - like people had to hide it a little bit. Apparently you really didn't [need to]. The Feds [federal police] would come and shut down bars and restaurants and they'd be closed 24 hours and then the Feds would leave and everything would just open up again.'

Winter's judgment has served him well. The audience doesn't mind the minor meddling. As it enters its second season, Boardwalk Empire looks set for a long and profitable life. HBO ordered the second season immediately after the Scorsese-directed pilot, and the show continues to enjoy blockbuster ratings.

So how long could it last?

Again, history suggests an answer. 'Nucky himself is a fascinating character,' Winter says. 'The real guy ruled Atlantic City for decades. Our fictional guy could do the same thing. In terms of exploring the decade of the 1920s, there's certainly hundreds of stories to tell. Prohibition was 13 years - until 1933. I'm happy to keep doing this as long as HBO will allow me to keep doing it.'

Season two of Boardwalk Empire is showing on HBO, two episodes back to back, on Thursdays at 10pm.