Originally written circa 1989
“Once Upon A Time in America”…….Who would we have become were we the characters in this story?
It seemed in that era of survival of the fittest, and of subsequent male domination, women and men were so taken with the need to stay alive that their individual emotional needs were never either addressed or fulfilled. Their roles were both sexually defined and, at the same time, sexually insignificant. In paradox, this was an inherent problem not easily solved and, in the end, became one of the casualties of the era.
In the society of that age, women and men rarely did anything which engendered mutual respect. Men had an unspoken honor for one another but, in the eyes of men, women never achieved that level of regard. In “Once Upon A Time”, there were no women whose choices or character were painted as worthy. The closest thing to an act of love from a woman was the blond’s request that Noodles blow the whistle on his buddy to save his life. But, one wonders if, like the Moon Queen in Munchausen, her desires were suspect. (“Baron! Don’t LEAVE me!”) Even the dancer was characterized as a condescending bitch as she read to him from Song of Solomon. It was clear that, though she felt something, she found him unacceptable — soiled, beneath her. All other female characters were either dogs or whores. They were all ultimately both alienating and dispensable, because their motives were perceived as self-serving.
The male characters might have been arrogantly so, but seemed to get away with it to a point. Noodles appeared to be the only character with genuine humility. All the male characters had violently destructive profiles, but Noodles alone was able to express his in defense of the innocent.
Fascinating that none of the boys in the gang were characterized as members of real families. We never saw Noodles’ father or mother. We never saw any models of men or women in their lives beyond the older gangland members. We never saw how Noodles or any of the boys could ever come to view women as anything beyond expendable objects. The boys were always isolated, existing side by side, always alone together.
Perhaps the girls were, as well. The film does not set up their lives as bonded in any way. They seemed significant only as tangent to the lives of the boys, appearing singly, never even in pairs. Not surprising, then, that the first encounter between Noodles and a girl took place in the bathroom — a base, animalistic scenario at best. At worst, it was their only perceivable common ground. None other had ever been established, and their ascent barely edged them beyond it in the course of a lifetime.
But, Noodles idealized the dancer from the first moment. He watched her from his post in the john, his only known vantage point. Much as we all instinctively keep our distance from the object of our ideal (when eyes meet across a room) or from something which we perceive as unattainable, Noodles never left the bathroom.
Sadly, the dancer was not worthy of his idealism. She, too, embodied the essence of her environment’s demands. Aware of his voyeurism, she tantalized him purposefully. Yet, her restraint, her withholding from him, was born less of self respect than of self preservation and, ultimately, self importance. His first attempt at interaction with his ideal was gruff, familiar, in the manner to which he was accustomed, and ineffectual. She truly condescended to him from the beginning, and he adored her. He adored her art, and believed that she embodied his idealism.
His devotion to her, however, she cast aside – seeking the only open door to the survival of her identity: a career in dance. Her self love was the most poignant by-product of the unfulfilled needs of the era; she sacrificed the deepest, most potentially abiding love – Noodles’ – for the sake of her only perceived path to survival. So close, yet so far; in the end, she survived – only to succumb to the disease of emotional loss.
Noodles, capable of the purest love, was also a victim. There were no ideals produced beyond those he wanted to see in this woman by any redeemable source other than those he could contrive for her to possess. Only in this way could he possibly tell her that the choice she had made was a good one. He looked beyond her mask, the face that froze in time, to what he had hoped to believe in from the beginning. He continued to see in her until the facts convinced him otherwise that she was a deserving, noble creature. He saw the value of her personhood, the reality of her identity, and was powerless to legitimize her. Time had swept them both beyond, toward tragic heroism. They sacrificed the truest personal reward for the sake of the mission imposed upon them from birth.
© Ruth Ann Scanzillo
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