I spent last Sunday afternoon at the Detroit Film Theatre watching the “Extended Director’s Version” of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984). The movie is a wonderful masterpiece. Leone’s last film which has had a troubled and tempestuous history, particularly here in America. On the surface, it is a movie about Jewish gangsters and their time in the sun during Prohibition in the 1930s. But underneath the plot (the romances and the shoot outs and the violence) what it is is a movie about friendship and memory, how both evolve over the course of our lives and not always for the better. The movie does this by moving back and forth through time from the gang’s heyday in 1933 to their poor childhood on New York’s lower east side in 1921 to 1968 when the surviving characters are looking back and trying to make sense of their past through the prism of old age.
When America first came out, I was jazzed about it because it marked Sergio Leone’s first movie in twelve years. It was a big expensive epic about America and it had a brilliant director striving to make his greatest film, something I am still a big sucker for: a filmmaker trying to make the Great American Film. It had a huge impressive cast led by some of my favorite actors like Robert De Niro and James Woods. It had the makings of a classic. I had no idea it was going to turn into a personal touchstone for both me and my late father.
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.
When I showed up to see it by myself at the Southdale General Cinema in Minneapolis, I knew it was a cutup mess but I was prepared to love it anyway. And I did. Even though I knew it was not what Leone intended, it still placed 6th on my list of 1984’s ten best movies, even as it ended up being one of the year’s biggest bombs sending the Ladd Company into bankruptcy. In a decade when it was still unusual for anything other than a big hit to be released on VHS or for another version of a recent movie to show up again in theaters, I never expected to see Leone’s original vision.
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.
So I called him up and asked if he wanted to go. And he seemed really happy to say yes. On the evening of the showing, Dad came to pick me up. He was wearing a suit. Say what? We drove down to Detroit together. We saw the movie with a near full house and it was great. It filled in the blanks and questions that the first version had raised. Dad thoroughly enjoyed it: laughing at the comedy moments (for a violent gangster film, it has a number of funny lines),thrilling at the action scenes and letting the vast sweeping crowd scenes take our breath away. Leone was one of the great film virtuosos.
And even though it was a 4-hour movie experience that ended around 11pm, Dad asked if I wanted to go get something to eat. I said yes. And we ended up over at the Olympia restaurant that I had planned to go to anyway. And we had a long leisurely dinner. I asked my father why he liked gangster movies so much and for the first time ever he opened up about his childhood. How much of it back in the 1930s and 1940s was spent running the streets with other boys like we had just seen the lead characters do in America. And how he grew up loving the gangster movies of the time starring James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson, etc. They seemed so glamorous, those gangsters, the fantasy version of how he and his friends wanted to be if they could just get out of their small Indiana town. For the first time, I understood my father’s background a little clearer and I understood him a little better. That night was the beginning of our adult relationship. No longer father to son but man to man.
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.
So when I found out a couple weeks ago that the DFT was showing Leone’s extended cut, I knew I had to go. To see one of my favorite movies by one of my favorite directors once again. In one of my favorite theaters. And to spend time with my father in the only way I can now. As I sat in the theater on Sunday I pretended my father was sitting there with me. I tried to remember the parts where he'd laughed.
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.