This last week I’ve been contemplating re-watching Sergio Leone’s masterpiece Once Upon A Time In America. I say ‘contemplating’ because its a formidable work to really take in- the restored cut released a few years ago on Blu-ray totals 251 minutes, which is just over four hours. That’s not four hours of big CGI action and stunts that can pass by without any effort regards actually thinking about what you’re watching- this is four hours of complex, bravura film-making at a sometimes glacial pace that shifts backwards and forwards in time across decades, between reality and opium dream. This is four hours that requires attention and respect. You don’t put Once Upon A Time In America on just to pass the time with a favourite movie. This film is an experience, and a sometimes demanding and daunting one. I’m sure some people hate it. I love it.
But I don’t watch it very often. Some films you can watch and rewatch quite regularly but America isn’t one of them- its just not that kind of film. I think its a film that should be savoured, and every time I do watch it, its a wonder to behold. As I grow older I find myself increasingly wondering how on Earth it even got made. America could never get made today. It just wouldn’t get done. I don’t think something, anything like this film, could ever get made now. Maybe it was the last of its kind.
Louise Fletcher. The first film I ever saw her in was Brainstorm. I loved the film but it was largely dismissed even at the time it came out, remembered now mostly for the tragic real-life story behind the scenes, a film practically disowned by the studio that made it and had to be forced to release it. Louise Fletcher was brilliant in Brainstorm, a revelatory performance for me; I thought she was wonderful. A few years later, having been familiar with Once Upon A Time In America for awhile through a VHS rental and later buying a VHS copy on a trip to London, I became confused by reports that she was in the film. I couldn’t remember her being in it, surely I would have noticed her. I put it down to bad information/poor journalism, but her name kept on coming up related to the film. Eventually I learned that she actually had been involved, but that her role had been completely cut out. A film that was already 226 minutes long in the versions I had seen (I have always had a morbid fascination with one day seeing the infamous 139-minute cut but never have) somehow managed to cut her part out of it, an Oscar-winning actress? America is that kind of movie. Huge, monumental, astonishing, ridiculous.
The cast that is in the film is remarkable, but the stories about what the film might have been are equally remarkable, really- the film took so many years to make, and over its lengthy gestation all sorts of names were connected for a time. Once upon a time, America featured Gerard Depardieu as Maz, and Richard Dreyfuss as Noodles (and James Cagney as the old Noodles? Crazy). Once upon a time, Tom Berenger was Noodles (and Paul Newman the old Noodles, even crazier!). Once upon a time, Brooke Shields was Deborah.
America always had Ennio Morricone scoring its music. Indeed, the music existed before the film was even made- Morricone wrote much of the score’s themes before it was shot and Leone filmed scenes to match the music. Once upon a time, films were made that way. Its why the score is as important as any cast member of the film; the score is the films soul.
I want someone to write a book about Once Upon A Time In America, a huge definitive book that delves into its long pre-production, its filming, its reception, its failure, the death of the genius behind it, and its long road to reappraisal. Maybe that book would be as daunting to write (and read) as the film can be to watch.
The longest current version of the film is 251 minutes long, but it could yet be even longer. Leone’s initial cut was 269 minutes long, and I understand the missing 24 minutes exists, but cannot be incorporated into the film because of rights issues. Rights issues. Even the behind the scenes of the film is ridiculous. 35 years and Leone’s original vision is yet incomplete. Its like the plot of a movie, larger than life. Fitting enough I guess, as the film is always larger than life, more an ode to American myth, and Cinematic myth, than any reality. In just the same way as his Westerns are bigger than any real West.
I wish Leone had lived longer, and had been given opportunity to have made more films. Cinema is the lesser for his loss. But the irony of course is that America is the price of that loss, because the film and the troubles behind it are what is widely accepted as contributing to his untimely passing.
I’m sitting here writing this. I should be watching America.