The first time I saw the film was out in Minnesota in June 1984. I was in my fourth summer working at Valleyfair Amusement Park. I had read about the clashes between Leone and his American distributor, the financially troubled Ladd Company. How they had taken it out of Leone’s hands and edited it down from the director’s 3 hour 47 minute version to one running 2 hours 24 minutes. And how they rearranged the movie into chronological order so that it told its story straight from 1921 to 1933 to 1968.
So I was stunned when the Detroit Film Theatre announced they would be showing Leone’s original version in January 1985. I was in! I was NOT going to miss this. A chance to see Leone’s preferred cut in my favorite art house theater? Oh yes, baby! Yes, yes, yes. I planned to go by myself because I did not want ANYONE to come between me and the movie. And afterward I planned to drive over to Detroit’s Greektown and take myself out to my favorite restaurant there, the Olympia, the one my parents used to take me to before……….before………
…….OK, I need to back up here and fill in some personal blanks.
Back in March 1984, my father moved out of our house and my parents started rather acrimonious divorce proceedings against each other. The only reason I had gone back to Valleyfair that summer was to escape all that. As 1984 came to an end, the divorce and the acrimony were still an every day part of my life. I was doing anything I could to escape it. An evening by myself seeing Once Upon a Time in America seemed just what the doctor ordered.
And then my mother did something that surprised me to this day. She asked me to please take my father along to the movie. I am ashamed to admit that I didn’t want to at first. I was still mad at him for a variety of divorce related reasons. But I knew it would be the nice thing to do. Dad and I had watched a million movies together prior to the divorce. Not so much since. Many of the movies Dad wanted me to watch were gangster movies. He loved gangster movies. Me? Not so much.
We started seeing each other more often. We started to go see movies again. We starting to go to dinner. We started chatting on the phone again.
As the years went by, Once Upon a Time in America, despite its length, became one of those movies my father and I shared over and over. When it came out on VHS, I got it for him. When it came out on DVD, we got it for each other. I was surprised to learn that the DVD was actually the slightly longer 3 hour and 50 minute version Leone screened at Cannes back in 1984. It had a bit more violence and a bit more sexuality.
In the fall of 2014, I found out Leone’s “Extended Director’s Edition” running 4 hours and 20 minutes was coming out on DVD. I knew immediately what I was getting Dad for Christmas! So I bought it and looked forward to sharing it again with him. But then Dad died rather suddenly four days before Christmas. He didn’t get to open his presents that year. And the copy that I got him ended up back with me. It was not easy opening up the shrink wrap and watching it for the first time alone.
I pretended that many of my friends who I no longer see but once saw films with at the DFT were there with me too. It made the nearly empty balcony seem crowded. It made me smile and it made me melancholy all at the same time. A funny turn of events for a gangster movie about relationships and memories.
And yet oddly appropriate as I look back on my own past – the people that have gone, the people that have stayed, and the people I still miss. Part of getting old, I guess.