Re: Once Upon a Time in America / connotations of character changes

From: David P. Hayes
Newsgroups: rec.arts.movies.past-films,
Date: Saturday, February 07, 1998 10:07 AM

Stephen Wellington wrote in message <>…
>David P. Hayes wrote:
>> (although Elizabeth McGovern's 1968 reunion with DeNiro was cut [preview
>> audiences were confused that she hadn't aged, having failed to properly read
>> what that meant]
>I recall several reviews that commented on this. Could you please
>explain "what that meant"?

When DeNiro visits McGovern backstage after not having seen her for 35 years, she's wearing "muse" makeup which she removes during their conversation. When the makeup is off, she's revealed to appear not much older than she had in 1933. DeNiro comments upon this, observing a poster for the current production which states that the character she's playing could not be altered by time. "It's as if the part was written for you," DeNiro says (or something like that), citing the line about time not withering her. This fits in with the dreamlike quality of much of the movie and of DeNiro's mindset, that if he couldn't picture her any other way then she wouldn't be any other way. It also illustrates a subtext in the movie about characters changing to the degree that they allow their associations and default-on-judgment to sway them, carry them along turbulent emotional currents.

McGovern's character has a better idea of what she wants of life than any other character. She foresees the consequences of her choices and refuses to make the bad ones. She was enamored of DeNiro's character when they were both young, but in a poem she reads to him, she says flatly, "My beloved… will always be a two-bit punk, so he'll never be my beloved. What a shame." As an adult, she'll tell DeNiro that "you're the only person I ever cared about," but that he would put her (emotionally) in a box, and she won't allow this. By contrast, Woods character tries so hard to be a big-shot mobster that he ensnares himself into dealings so convoluted that it becomes a fait complete that he'll be marked for death at the end. DeNiro blinds himself to the true character and true nature of what is around him, and for him the consequence is years of misery and regret and remorse that takes its toll by aging him.

Since we are on the subject, I'll relate my response to a similar question about the film, which I wrote about previously (but not in Usenet):

A Leone fan found "the two rape sequences are so brutal" that he opted not to have this film in his collection. My response:

The rape scenes contrast one another, and I surmise that they are in the movie in graphic detail to illustrate how DeNiro's character fails to differentiate between the women he encounters. Tuesday Weld's character explicitly asks him for rough sex, and she's pleasantly surprised to meet him again several weeks later, not being bitter and intimating that she's interested in a repeat encounter. Elizabeth McGovern's character is the opposite; DeNiro has worshiped her for many years, and yet when she seems interested in a sensitive relationship with him, he ruins it by his beastly infliction of the worst pain. The next morning, as McGovern sits on the train which will take her 3,000 miles from him, when she sees him at the station platform, she pulls the blind to shut him out. All the more ironic for DeNiro is that we had heard him say to Woods in one of the immediately-previous scenes that he has enough money and would like to enjoy it rather than get deeper into mob connections--obviously he could have gone with her to Hollywood had he not behaved toward her as he did and had he seen past his petty attachments.

David Hayes


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