Once Upon a Time in America Is a Movie That Can Never Be Too Long

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Once Upon a Time in America also began production in 1980 but was scuttled by an Actor’s Strike. It would have seen Tom Berenger and Paul Newman playing the Noodles characters. For Max, Leone considered Dustin Hoffman, Jon Voight, Harvey Keitel, John Malkovich, and John Belushi. Brooke Shields was set to play young Deborah, which went on to be Jennifer Connelly’s film debut. She would go on to play in Labyrinth (1986) with David Bowie, as well as to an acclaimed career as an adult in movies like Requiem for a Dream (2000) and win an Academy Award for A Beautiful Mind (2001).

What’s in a Bad Reputation?

The Godfather is briskly paced, relatable, and every sequence is perfectly framed. Had Once Upon a Time in America been split into two parts, as the director intended, it may have become just as iconic. Coppola saves the Corleone family backstory for the second film, where it sits comfortably as it mirrors one rise with another.

In today’s environment, where binge-watching is the norm, Once Upon a Time in America should be reevaluated on that basis. People are more accustomed to long-long form entertainment, because they have readily available short-form at their fingertips on apps like TikTok.  Alejandro Jodorowsky wanted to make a 10-hour adaptation of the science fiction novel Dune. He got the same blowback as Leone.

“Myself, I make an enormous project of a film that will not be a normal film, 14, 16, maybe 19 hours,” Jodorowsky told Den of Geek while promoting his film Psychomagic. “Hollywood thought I was crazy. A picture [should be] one hour and half or two hours, no more. But now, with series television, you see eight chapters. The short pictures are dying, it’s not anymore necessary. We need to make a serious chapter, you know? Ten hours.”

Today, Jodorowsky’s Dune would be a Netflix miniseries–or at the very least two films, as enjoyed by director Denis Villeneuve. Once Upon a Time in America is far more watchable than its legend declares, and Leone was a filmmaker who should have been afforded his cut. “He was a real artist of industrial movies,” Jodorowsky told Den of Geek. “You need to be very intelligent to do that, and he did it. The picture, all of his pictures, I love these pictures.”

I have watched The Godfather, The Godfather, Part II, The Godfather, Part III, Mario Puzo’s The Godfather, Coda: The Death of Michael Corleone, the box set collectors’ edition of The Godfather Saga, and still have a recording of the first time the film ran with all the deleted scenes restored. I will watch them all again. But there is room for more than one Gangster Epic. Once Upon a Time in America’s reputation as a sloppy, overlong film is undeserved. It bears repeated viewing.

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