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Requiem for a Filmmaker: Sergio Leone, His Life, Work, and Legacy (Part two)
Sergio Leone’s first directing job in the United States was said to be a work of art. The film, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) emerged as a long, violent, meditation upon the mythology of the old American West.
Before its release, however, it was ruthlessly edited by Paramount, which perhaps contributed to its low box-office results in the United States. Nevertheless, it was a huge hit in Europe, grossing nearly three times its five million dollar budget among French audiences, and was highly praised amongst North American film students. It has come to be regarded by many as Leone’s best film. Of course, the decision to cut the film was not Leone’s and he had no power to stop it, but the fact that the film did so well in Europe only served to illustrate the studio’s blunder.
Around 1970, Leone was presented with a script for a film titled The Godfather, along with the job of directing it: Of course, as we all know, The Godfather (1972) was ultimately directed by Francis Ford Coppola, not Sergio Leone. It is interesting to note, however, that Coppola had not Paramount Studio’s first choice to direct The Godfather, nor was he the second choice.
After Leone turned down the job, Peter Bogdanovich was then approached but he also declined the offer in order to direct the movie, What’s Up Doc (1972) starring Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal. Paramount finally approached its third choice, Francis Ford Coppola. According to Robert Evans, head of Paramount at the time, when Coppola was offered the job of directing The Godfather, he at first declined for fear of glorifying the Mafia and violence.
He was concerned that the subject matter would reflect poorly on his Sicilian and Italian heritage. But Evans specifically wanted an Italian-American to direct the film because previous films about the Mafia directed by non-Italians had not done very well at the box office. Coppola then suggested making the story a metaphor for American capitalism, and with that euphemistic understanding, he eagerly agreed to direct the film.
Of course, with hind sight being 20/20, some say that directing The Godfather would have been an opportunity of a lifetime for Sergio Leone. Leone had turned down the offer, because at that point in his career, he had been contemplating a pet project of his own, a Warner Brothers film called Once Upon a Time in America (1984). The film is based on the novel, The Hoods, by former mobster Harry Grey, focusing on a quartet of New York City Jewish Gangsters of the 1920s and 1930s who had been friends since childhood. The film featured Robert De Niro and James Woods.
After completion of the film, which turned out to be almost four hours long, the big wigs at Warner Brothers made an executive decision: Feeling that the film was too long, they began a systematic hatchet job to shorten it to what they believed was the appropriate length for the American audience. Consequently, they hacked over an hour and 20 minutes before releasing it in the United States. The cutting process eliminated much of the flashback structure (a critical substance of cause and effect), replacing it with a linear narrative. The film of just over two hours, released in North America was an incomprehensible mess which received much negative criticism and turned out to be a flop. Not surprisingly, many movie buffs who had seen the original uncut version of Once Upon a Time in America concluded that cutting any part of it was tantamount to the imposition of a death sentence.
According to biographer Sir Christopher Frayling, Leone was deeply hurt by the studio-imposed editing of, what many believed to be, a masterpiece. The original, full-length version of three-hours-and-forty-nine-minutes debuted to great acclaim at the Cannes Film Festival and in the rest of the world, achieving somewhat better box office returns and a mixed critical response. When the original uncut version of the film was later released on DVD in the USA, it gained major critical acclaim, with some critics hailing it as a masterpiece, but the damage had already been done. Leone was devastated by the studio’s decision to shorten the film and saw it as an assault upon his artistic talents.
Nevertheless, he looked forward to his next film, called The Siege of Leningrad to be shot on location. For this he took great pains to acquire permission and cooperation from the Soviet Union. This World War Two film would feature Mickey Rourke and Richard Gere. But the proverbial best-laid-plans were not meant to be: On April 30, 1989, while still in the planning stages of the film, Sergio Leone died of a massive heart attack, bringing all plans for the film to an immediate halt.
After hearing of Leone’s passing, Clint Eastwood reflected back on the day Leone wanted to bury the hatchet. They were enjoying a long leisurely lunch when Eastwood asked about Leone’s next project. Leone replied that he was working on an idea for a film about Leningrad, a project he had talked about as far back as the days they were filming The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Eastwood noted that it seemed Leone “just couldn’t pull it together.” Their conversation was quite cordial and amicable. If there had ever been any animosity between them, though, it faded that day. Leone, a big, proud man in his prime, wanted to leave any misunderstandings in the past; he was essentially reaching out.
“It was almost like he was saying goodbye,” remembers Eastwood, “Like he was feeling vulnerable.” A few months later, Sergio Leone passed away.
Eastwood went on to direct and star in a number of films including Unforgiven, a western drama for which he won Academy Awards for Best Director, and Best Picture. In accepting his awards, Eastwood, dedicated them to his deceased directors and mentors, Don Siegel and Sergio Leone.