Sam “Ace” Rothstein is the number one gambler in the country. He is so good at betting on sporting events that by merely betting on a team, he increases the odds for that team on a national scale. A talent like this is not inherent; Ace may be something of a natural at gambling, but he only got to be this good because he remained focused. As his best friend Nicky Santoro, played by Joe Pesci, narrates, “He didn’t bet like you or me…He bet like a fuckin’ brain surgeon.” When we see Ace on the floor of his Tangiers casino, his face is grim, determined. Focused.
In Casino, Ace Rothstein, as portrayed by Robert De Niro, is an artist of chance, and as such he is given the canvas of his dreams: 1970s Las Vegas. The film unfolds as a modern-day tragedy; however, the fatal flaw of our hero/artist is not, as it might seem, his love of the requisite femme fatale, but his own loss of focus. Ace’s dire detour away from his craft turns what should have been “paradise on earth” into hell in the desert. Or as Nicky says: “But in the end, we fucked it all up.”
Here we have a man, an artist in his true element. He has single-handedly revolutionized the gaming industry and made himself and his bosses very wealthy indeed. The only thing that could topple Ace’s empire now would be a loss of that much needed focus. At this point in the story, we are introduced to Ginger, as played by Sharon Stone. Ginger is uncommonly beautiful, charming, and fun to be around. But the streets of Las Vegas are full of these sorts of soft hustlers, peddling their own brand of creative socializing in order to profit. Ace knows exactly the sort of person Ginger is, even taking care to explain to the viewer just what it is she does and how she does it. But as Ace narrates before he proposes to her, “For a guy who likes sure things, I was about to bet the rest of my life on a real long shot.”
There is no question that Ginger is really only after Ace’s money and standing, a gold-digger through and through. But since there is no question of this, Ace really must bear the blame for the trouble this marriage causes him. Like the old story of the woman and the frozen rattlesnake, Ace brought this woman to his bosom and nurtured her, but her nature caused her to bite.
But more than Ginger and her old pimp boyfriend and her drinking and her drugging, it is the willful streak in Ace, this inexplicable certainty in the face of egregious odds, which is his true downfall. As so many artists—writers, actors, painters, what-have-you—who begin to buy their own press, Ace begins to feel that he is owed the life he is living. He is a man of unquestionable talent and his work speaks for itself. But self-entitlement like this comes with a heavy price, the most of which is a suffering in the quality of that work.
For example, Don Ward is a brother-in-law to County Commissioner Webb, a powerful local politician. It is established early on that for Ace to be able to create the way he does—create large sums of money for the bosses back home, that is—he has to suffer the nepotism of the local government. After continued aggravation from Ward, however, Ace fires him. When Webb comes to Ace and gently reminds him that this canvas of Ace’s is not his to own, Ace refuses to listen. Ace truly begins to believe his own press, the headline that screams, “I’m the boss!”
This is the real beginning of the end for Ace. His political entanglements with Webb become public and begin to interfere with his true work, i.e. the running of the casino. It is not Ginger who publicly lambastes the members of the gaming commission when Ace is refused a gaming license, nor is it she who went on TV to goad Webb further. Ace begins to hold his public image in greater reverence than his work. He loses focus.
Fortunately for him, other factors—the foremost of which being his former best friend and ally, Nicky Santoro—conspire to really bring down the house of cards. In a way, Ace is lucky that Nicky blows his car up, almost killing Ace in the process. At this point, the bosses back home can no longer maintain Ace’s canvas and are forced to shuck the entire thing, eliminating any and all key players.
All except Ace Rothstein.
Ace can still handicap, he is still the greatest professional gambler in the country, perhaps the world. It is his art, his true muse. And even the bosses know better than to completely strip him of this. As the film ends, we see Ace back in his element, doing what he does best. But even though he lived to tell the tale, his loss of focus destroyed his masterwork. And we see Ace now as a sad, old man.
Dedication to the craft is the artist’s most vital necessity. No matter what the medium, and no matter what material trappings the work may bring, the artist can destroy his or her life’s work simply by forgetting that it is truly life’s work. Ace Rothstein has to learn this the hard way. But we as intelligent viewers can take the lesson home with us.
This is your opportunity. Do not fuck it all up.