269-minute 'redux cut' of Sergio Leone's 'Once Upon a Time in America' to premiere at Cannes

Posted by · 12:46 pm · April 18th, 2012

Tomorrow, at last, will bring the months of Cannes speculation to an end, as artistic director Thierry Frémaux announces this year’s official festival lineup. Anybody with at least half an ear to the ground has some idea what to expect: Walter Salles’s “On the Road” and Michael Haneke’s “Love” (predictably picked up yesterday by Sony Pictures Classics) are among the inevitabilities, but we can hope for a few wild cards too. Last year shook up the formula slightly by adding two debut features to the Competition lineup: reaction was mixed (and neither film won a thing), but will Frémaux  and company take a similar chance this year?

Whatever aces they may have up their sleeves, the festival may well have stolen tomorrow’s thunder with one of today’s announcements. The news that an extended, 269-minute “redux cut’ of Sergio Leone’s compromised 1984 masterpiece (no, I don’t use that term lightly) “Once Upon a Time in America” is to premiere on the Croisette this year rather dwarfs the Competition conversation. Indeed, it’ll be a remarkable lineup indeed if any one of the contemporary selections tops the restoration of Leone’s gangster saga, which premiered at the same festival 28 years ago.

Many of you, I’m sure, have seen “Once Upon a Time in America,” a sprawling tale of childhood friends from New York’s Jewish ghetto, played by Robert De Niro and James Woods, whose relationship shifts with their criminal activities across five decades. None of us, however, have seen it as the Italian master, who died five years after its completion, intended. Leone’s original cut of the epic narrative ran 269 minutes; when daunted distributors protested, he agreed to shave it down to 229 minutes in time for Cannes, where it premiered out of competition to widespread critical acclaim.

Unsurprisingly, a near-four-hour cut still didn’t please commercially-minded studio bosses, who took it out of Leone’s hands and all but shredded it, ultimately releasing a 139-minute cut in American theaters that jettisoned vast swathes of narrative, not to mention narrative cohesion. (European distributors, meanwhile, were content to release the 229-minute version.) Leone was reportedly devastated by the studio’s cut, which was derided by critics who knew what had been lost, and failed to ignite at the box office. The Academy, rather staggeringly, failed to reward it with a single nomination — not even for its lavish craft contributions — though it was the Best Picture runner-up in the Los Angeles critics’ voting, while both BAFTA and the Golden Globes nominated Leone’s direction.

That unkind studio cut has, thankfully, largely fallen out of circulation, with the Cannes edit readily available on DVD — but the film’s reputation as something of a cinematic martyr remains, a testament to the damage that can be done when moneymen wrest artistic control from the filmmaker. After this initial hobbling, the film’s reputation has grown pretty tall over the years: it’s routinely listed as one of the 1980s’ high points, and it’s not uncommon to see it in All-Time Greatest lists, though Leone’s original conception of it has never been made available to us.

Until now, of course. Under the instruction of the late director’s children, Leone’s initial, never-premiered 269-minute cut of “Once Upon a Time in America” has been restored byItaly’s Bologna Cinematheque, with Gucci and (of course) Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation lending a helping hand. Word of the restoration has been tantalizing cinephiles for some time, with both Cannes and Venice mooted as possible premiere venues.

Either would have made sense, but the film’s original festival home clearly won out. As such, the film immediately rockets to the top spot on my Cannes most-anticipated list. As luxuriantly satisfying as the storytelling in the familiar 229-minute film is, it’s still obvious where certain incisions have been made — to see it without even these is an impossibly exciting prospect.

The “Once Upon a Time in America” news overshadows the other major Cannes announcement of the day, which also concerns a late director’s final work. ‘Thérèse D.,’ the swansong of esteemed French auteur Claude Miller, who passed away earlier this month at the age of 70, has been confirmed as this year’s festival closer.

Cannes closing films have a reputation for underwhelming, but this one — which popped up in many a Competition prediction lists prior to Miller’s death — will be more keenly watched than most. Miller, a former protégé of François Truffaut whose taste for cool, character-based thrillers yielded such artistic peaks as “Class Trip” (winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes in 1998) and the Ruth Rendell adaptation “Betty Fisher and Other Stories,” was far from a spent artistic force: his 2009 drama “I’m Glad My Mother Is Still Alive” (released last year in the US) was warmly received by critics at the Venice fest.

‘Thérèse D.,’ an adaptation of a 1927 novel by Nobel laureate François Mauriac, is a period drama starring Audrey Tautou as an unhappily married woman who resorts to poisoning her husband. It sounds a rather somber choice of closer — sure to be more of a downer than Wes Anderson’s “Moonrise Kingdom,” its corresponding bookend — but the slot is an appropriately prominent one to give an artist whose departure is still being rather sorely mourned in the French filmmaking community. Here’s hoping it bucks the closing-film trend.

For more views on movies, awards season and other pursuits, follow @GuyLodge on Twitter. 

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