Nineteen murders, racketeering, loansharking, and an unbroken 16-year streak as a federal lammister before he and his ladypal Catherine Greig were arrested in Santa Monica last week: Boston mob boss and serial killer Whitey Bulger has an alleged C.V. worthy of a freakishly scary Hollywood villain.
So it’s no surprise that he served as the inspiration for Frank Costello, the deadly Irish godfather played by Jack Nicholson in Martin Scorcese’s Oscar-grabbing 2006 movie The Departed. Scorcese’s intelligent if complicated plot boils down to butch but evil Matt Damon and butch but virtuous Leonardo DiCaprio fighting to the death over superbutch and superevil J-Nick. In other words, it follows the traditional narrative of good dudes and bad dudes chasing after an even badder dude, who finally gets his comeuppance. And while there’s a girl in there somewhere (an abandoned, pregnant Vera Farmiga) all the characters who count in this story are guys who spend about 90 percent of the screen time playing wily man-mind-games with each other, swearing in Alec Baldwin voices and shooting big frightening guns.
But that’s not how it went down in real life when it came to nabbing Bulger, is it?
You want to get your hands on America’s Most Wanted? Forget the men. To catch a thief/murderer/tax fraudster/general gangster, you never go after the mobster bosses themselves – bring ‘em down through their tragic and glitteringly beautiful women! John Dillinger was taking in a movie with pretty hustler Polly Hamilton and “lady in red” Ana Cumpǎnaş when he was gunned down by the FBI in 1934. Rumor had it that brunette Virginia Hill was tipped off before her paramour Bugsy Siegel suffered a similarly gory fate at the hands of mobsters in 1947. And of course, Clyde Barrow couldn’t go anywhere without stylish, cigar-chomping Bonnie Parker drawing attention to herself, particularly among the ladies. The archetypically flashy looks of gangster girlfriends rarely go unscrutinized by other women, who raise their eyebrows and cluck their tongues at the style hijinks committed by underworld molls.
It’s a lesson that’s recently been re-learned by FBI, who had been tracking down tips on Bulger sightings since 1994. Only this year did the agency start focusing on Greig and her razz-a-matazz appearance, eventually producing daytime television tipster commercials featuring her as the blonde, mysterious star. The FBI first focused on the 60-year-old Greig in their manhunt last May, when they decided that her “bleached-blond” looks, “breast implants,” “nose job,” “facelift,” “fondness for … having her teeth cleaned” and super-femme “black miniature poodles, Niki and Gigi” (details culled from a breathless ABC news report) could serve as distinguishing characteristics, like Al Capone’s scars.
And the FBI didn’t start with the community of mostly female daytime television viewers once they decided to go after Greig. Instead, late last spring, the agency targeted cosmetic surgeons and dentists by plastering full-page pictures of her in Plastic Surgery News and the American Dental Association’s newsletter with the question “Have you treated this woman?” emblazoned above her headshot. Details of her procedures were listed in the ads, too. It’s wasn’t a bad call – you’d think physicians and dentists would have remembered a patient’s face, particularly when they’d rearranged it. But apparently that trail went cold too.
You can almost smell the desperation in the FBI’s decision to air 30-second public service announcements on The View, Ellen, and Live With Regis & Kelly in the fourteen cities where Bulger and Greig had reportedly been spotted over the decades (which, by the way, did not include Los Angeles). In the ads, Greig’s pale, heavily made-up features, caught in three mug shots taken in the 1990s, are splashed across the FBI’s glittery insignia. A female narrator informs viewers that Greig has “had plastic surgeries.” Images of her taking Niki or Gigi on walks splash across the screen while the voiceover sternly describes Bulger’s “violent temper” and the $100,000 reward that would follow any tip that led agents to their woman. On June 21, Supervisory Special Agent Richard Teahan told the Boston Globe that the FBI was “trying to reach a different audience that will produce new leads in the case.” They also confirmed the obvious: “a large percentage of daytime viewers” of shows like Ellen and The View are “women in Greig’s age group.”
Within a few days, the tip came in.
I can’t speak to whether men fanatically check each other out all day long, but I have a suspicion that they don’t. Yet that’s exactly what the Bulger investigation relied on for a decade and a half. The FBI assumed that the gangster himself would be the one to attract eyes, and the results were nonexistent.
Then someone realized they had been underestimating the power of the female gaze, forgetting that women check out other women constantly. Maybe FBI agents aren’t so interested in 60-year-old ladies, but the viewers of Live with Regis & Kelly are! We’re always spying on each other’s looks, mannerisms, relationships and style. And you can double the female fascination when we encounter a lady who is especially gaudy, either by virtue of a jaunty beret and a stogie (a la Bonnie), or an amazing pair of double Ds. We’re not likely to forget a face-lifted sister dating a bionically grouchy shut-in who’s 20 years her senior, either.
Women are great on spying on each other because we’re obsessed with our own stories. I mean, someone’s got to be, right? Jack Nicholson is not going to play us any time soon. In fact, no one, it seems, is going to play us in our Oscar-winning movie, especially if we’re 60 – we’ve got to make it up for ourselves. And this was a female drama worthy of the Academy going on here, complete with She-lock Holmeses and awesome costume changes. It was whirling right beneath the FBI’s big nose the entire time, and it only took 16 years for the eyes above that nose to finally open up.
Yxta Maya Murray teaches criminal law, feminist legal theory, and law and literature at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. She is the author of six novels, most recently The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Kidnapped.
*Photo courtesy of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.