Once Upon a Time in America review: a fistful of misogyny
Sergio Leone’s 1984 gangster epic is offensively sexist and a bit of a narrative mess. But the lush imagery still boggles the eye, and Ennio Morricone’s seductive score could be his most beautiful
Film Title: Once Upon a Time in America
Director: Sergio Leone
Starring: Robert De Niro, James Woods, Elizabeth McGovern, Joe Pesci, Burt Young, Tuesday Weld, Treat Williams
Running Time: 251 min
It doesn’t need to be said that Sergio Leone had a problem with women. Some, like Claudia Cardinale in Once Upon a Time in the West, get away with sex work and injunctions to allow fondling from passing railway workers. More appalling is the rape that seems to become consensual sex in For a Few Dollars More.
It says something about changing times that, of the two rapes (count them), in Leone’s chaotic Once Upon a Time in America, it was the one treated more seriously and explicitly – Robert De Niro’s assault on Elizabeth McGovern – that attracted smatterings of unease on the film’s release in 1984.
There is certainly a horrid aestheticisation going on during that scene, but it is surely the “comic” gang rape of Tuesday Weld (who, yet again, rather enjoys the experience) that adds near- fatal toxicity to Once Upon a Time in America. Look elsewhere in the picture for further commodification of female bodies and idealisation of teenage Madonnas.
Like Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone’s gangster epic has been shuffled around in various versions of hugely differing lengths. The cut first screened at Cannes ran to 269 minutes. A US release clocked in at 139 minutes. This new restoration, which premiered in 2012, lumbers its way to 251 minutes.
Even the shortest version swelled with luscious images from Tonino Delli Colli and seductive chords from Ennio Morricone. We could, perhaps, have done without the cheesy allusions to Yesterday (as clumsy as the “Sean, Sean, Sean” refrain in Morricone’s score for Duck, You Sucker), but this might still be the composer’s most beautiful soundtrack.
For all that, the film remains something of a mess. Skipping between various episodes in the lives of (disconcertingly Sicilian) Jewish hoodlums from the 1920s to the 1960s, Once Upon a Time in America is more interested in the bravura image than in telling a lucid story. Leone could get away with that in the wide-open spaces of the American west.
Here, the streets of New York press in upon the characters and demand greater narrative cohesion. We can’t just cut to Monument Valley (or its non-union Spanish equivalent) when the tales get tangled.
All of which is to say that Once Upon a Time in America remains the most “problematic” of Leone’s major pictures. It is enveloping, operatic and slightly mad. We can forgive the confusion and the non- synchronised dialogue. But to this day the misogyny remains indigestible.