It’s crazy when you think about it: Las Vegas, a small desert town with nothing but tumbleweeds, dry heat and mobsters, has become a destination for anyone looking for all that is glitzy and glamorous with a touch of controlled debauchery. It is a city overflowing with stories both told and untold, which is precisely why it has been the perfect movie setting ever since the first casino sprung from the sand.
One of the very first movies that used Las Vegas as a backdrop was the original Ocean’s Eleven (1960). A painfully boring movie by today’s standards, the film features Rat Pack legends like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. spend most of the movie talking back-and-forth on hotel phones, as they plan the dumbest casino heist ever conceived. It’s a concept that was pulled off far better in 2001 with the George Clooney-led remake of the same name, which relies less on famous names and the Vegas setting and actually delivers an exciting plot with the engaging personalities on screen.
Another film in the good-in-name-only category is the Elvis Presley vehicle Viva Las Vegas (1964). Like most of the King’s movies, Viva overflows with kitsch and schmaltz as Elvis thrusts his pelvis in the direction of love interest Ann-Margaret for 85 minutes. Starring as Lucky Jackson, a race car driver, Elvis is as charming as ever and to be fair, the soundtrack does a lot to make the film a dynamic song-and-dance epic. In the grand scheme of Elvis movies, Viva Las Vegas is probably one of the best—definitely much better than Elvis’ previous movie, the unfortunately titled Kissing Cousins.
Fast forward to the 1990s, the second golden age of Las Vegas movies. The decade kicked off with Bugsy (1991), which stars Warren Beatty in the titular role along with Annette Bening, and tells the story of Vegas in its infancy. The movie credits New York mobster Bugsy Siegel with being the visionary who came up with the idea for a hotel and casino in the desert where gambling is legal. The film was critically acclaimed at the time of
its release and garnered numerous Academy Award nominations.
Then, with the film Casino (1995), Las Vegas received the crime drama it so richly deserved. The film, straight out of director Martin Scorsese’s wheelhouse, stars Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Sharon Stone in the semi-biographical story of a real Vegas handicapper. The movie is drenched in 1970s-era Vegas drama and plenty of blood, particularly one gruesome scene involving Pesci, a cornfield and a baseball bat.
That same year, the much-maligned Showgirls (1995) hit the theaters and was immediately destroyed by critics and audiences alike. With ridiculous performances by Elizabeth Berkley (Jessie Spano in Saved By The Bell), Kyle MacLachlan and Gina Gershon, the movie centered on a “street smart” stripper who ventures to Las Vegas for fame and fortune on the showgirl stage. Somewhat fondly remembered for being so impossibly bad, Showgirls holds many unintentionally hilarious moments, including an inexplicably horrendous “sex” scene in a pool.
Luckily for everyone, 1995 also saw the release of Leaving Las Vegas, a film so soaked in Nicolas Cage’s drunken method acting that one can’t help but taste the whiskey and depravity through the screen. It is a raw and unflinching look at addiction—so true to its dark subject matter that it earned Cage an Academy Award.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas first appeared as a two-part series in Rolling Stone in 1971 and was published as a book the following year. The story follows true (as far as the author can tell) exploits of counter-culture gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson as he attempts to cover a desert race near Las Vegas for a national magazine. That book, rich with color, insanity and psychedelic sensibilities was adapted to the big screen in 1998, starring Johnny Depp as Raoul Duke (Hunter S. Thompson) and Benicio Del Toro as Duke’s lawyer Dr. Gonzo (Oscar Zeta Acosta). When the film was released, it was largely mis-marketed as a screwball comedy, when it actuality it is the documentation of two men’s descent into drug-fueled madness as the 1960s decayed into the 1970s. All the while, the grandeur of Las Vegas is fully on display, including an absolutely insane walk-through of the Circus Circus hotel.
Quickly rolling through other Vegas movies including Vegas Vacation (1997), Fools Rush In (1997), Very Bad Things (1998), 3000 Miles To Graceland (2001) and The Cooler (2003), lands us squarely on The Hangover (2009). In what has became the quintessential movie about the all-out debauchery associated with a night out in Vegas, The Hangover is about a group of guys who lose their groom friend during a bachelor party and must piece together their foggy recollections of the night before in order to find him. The movie was a smash hit, spawning two sequels and an entire genre of bromance films. Thanks, Vegas.