Re: Once Upon a Time in America

From: David P. Hayes
Newsgroups: rec.arts.movies.past-films
Date: Tuesday, July 28, 1998 8:52 AM

Nic1995 wrote in message <>…
>>i've read this one interpretation that the 1968 scenes are being
>>imagined by Noodles in the opium den in 1933. Not sure… .… .
>I think I agree with this interp.

I disagree with it. More on this later.

>If you'll notice, the main characters wind up
>in almost ironic payback conditions. Tuesday Weld's charac. is living in some
>sort of charitable foundation,

It's a charitable foundation run by her old boyfriend under an assumed name, so she doesn't know he's supporting her yet he does.

>McGovern's character is a has- been- but never-
>really- was,

The dialogue between Fat Moe (the brother of McGovern's character) and Noodles in Moe's restaurant tells us that she became a big star ("You always know the winners at the starting gate…"); her stage appearance in the 1968 part of the movie is not incompatible with major stardom, as many who have made it in Hollywood take on stage work between film roles.

>…and most importantly, he mentally denied the death of Woods and
>concocted a fantasy of him being a upstanding politician(ultimately crooked of

DeNiro ACCEPTED the death of Woods in 1933 (Woods's faking of being burned in the raid was realistic, and he had police on his payroll to identify the body as Woods's) and thereafter does not concoct any notion of Woods' whereabouts. On the contrary, Woods secretly plants clues for DeNiro in 1968 that make DeNiro wonder about what had happened 35 years earlier (the key to the money locker, the payoff for the "next job," the letter to DeNiro to tell him of the cemetary plots being sold and the caskets needing to be moved and then DeNiro finding that the bodies had been moved in DeNiro's name without his having known until after-the-fact). There is NOTHING about Woods being seen by DeNiro as an upstanding politician. When DeNiro first hears the name "Christopher Bailey" on television in 1968, it's in connection with a scandal. When DeNiro goes to meet "Bailey," he finds out that it's really Woods (although DeNiro had a strong hint when he saw that Bailey's son was the splitting-image of Woods as a young man).

>His death plea at the end of this fantasy is refused by Noodles, thus
>giving himself justification for Woods' death because he would committ suicide

It's not a matter of Noodles seeing justification. DeNiro tells us in his dialogue to Woods/Bailey that DeNiro prefers to continue to separate the "two" men in his mind, to console himself that Woods died in 1933. This is where DeNiro is especially self-deluding, but he tells himself in 1968 as he did in 1933 that he was trying to help his friend even if it meant putting him in jail for a short stretch; DeNiro prefers to think this than to let it fully sink in that Woods had thoroughly betrayed him, stealing from DeNiro (as Woods now admits) DeNiro's money, girl and whole life.

The film does prepare us for this interpretation. Earlier in the Prohibition part of the story, other mobsters tell Woods to dump DeNiro ("he's dead weight") and DeNiro forthrightly accepts his, merely requesting that Woods tell DeNiro when Woods wants to end his association with DeNiro. Woods doesn't even do this, instead springing an elaborate guilt-trip on DeNiro. Woods is acting on character traits we saw even in the childhood scenes, wherein Woods once stayed underwater a long time to fool DeNiro into thinking himself responsible for Woods's (pretense at) drowning.

If the whole 1968 section had been dreamed by DeNiro in 1933, would it have been so accurate as to how 1968 would look? With television sets in restaurants, etc? Would DeNiro have foreseen those things he was uncomfortable even contemplating and would continue to be uncomfortable dealing with even in 1968 (e.g., Woods' betrayals of DeNiro)?

Much more sense can be gleaned from the movie by seeing the final scene of the movie (DeNiro in the opium den in 1933 -- which previous scenes have established DeNiro went to blot out his mind after being dumped by Elizabeth McGovern in 1933) as DeNiro's mind flashing back to his customary manner of dealing with hard truths.

>… .did I lose you???… then do what I do. Just sit back …

If you do this, you may be a little too much like DeNiro's character -- in which case you have all the more reason to investigate whether the evidence for another interpretation outweighs the one you hold now.

David Hayes


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