Come On, Pauline: "Once Upon a Time in America" (1984)

“It isn’t just the echoing moments that keep you absorbed.  It’s those reverberant dreamland settings and Leone’s majestic, billowing sense of film movement; the images seem to come at you in waves of feeling.  Despite the film’s miscasting and its craziness, Leone sustains the moods for an almost incredible three hours and forty-seven minutes—most of it unusually quiet.  The movie has a pulse; it’s alive.  But not now.  It’s alive in some golden-brown past of the imagination.” – Pauline Kael, The New Yorker, 1985

As with The Way We Were, I chose to watch Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America (1984) in conjunction with reading Pauline Kael’s review as a way of taking a random sample of her work.  I hadn’t read this review before, and to be honest it’s not a particularly memorable or incendiary one.  But just as a lesser work can sometimes illuminate the genius of a particular artist in ways that a masterpiece cannot, these reviews offer counterpoints to her best-known reviews of films like Nashville, Last Tango in Paris, and Shoah.

In her review of Once Upon a Time, for instance, it’s telling what aspects of the film she hones in on and what she leaves out.  A longtime cheerleader for Robert de Niro, Kael finds a way of praising his somewhat awkward performance here while admitting its limitations: “De Niro gives the film its dimensions […] and his performance builds, but Leone doesn’t provide what seems essential” (more energetic conflict between him and James Woods, who plays his partner in crime).  Kael rightly points out that, as rapturous as the film was in places, the characters suffer from a certain hollowness, and many of the other performances, such as Elizabeth McGovern’s, are off.  Always attuned to minor players, she also heaps praise on an actress named Darlanne Fleugel, who appears in the film for roughly ten minutes as De Niro’s girlfriend: it’s a nothing part, but Kael liked that the performance was “simple and in beautiful control.”  Sometimes having the right quality or being able to look attractive on screen was enough to impress Kael: she writes that Fleugel possesses an Art Deco beauty, “streamlined and blonde,” that complements the 1930s sets and costumes.

Most telling about this review is Kael’s gravitation to the film’s languorously nostalgic tone, largely conveyed through its sets, art direction, costumes, and pacing.  For her, the film bordered on logical incoherence—but, as was her temperament, she was willing to overlook the holes in the plot in favor of its intoxicating visual style.  “Leone directs as if he had all the time in the world, and he has no interest in making his characters lifelike; he inflates their gestures and slows down their actions—every lick of the lips is important.”  For Kael, a born sensualist, this mattered more than the film’s narrative inconsistencies.  Despite her reputation for being notoriously finicky, she could go to any lengths to make excuses for a film that stirred something in her.     

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