Thursday, April 26, 2012

CONFIDENTIAL: Once Upon a Time in the Movies:

SOLIDARITY: Robert De Niro, Roman Polanski and Arnon Milchan
Close collaborators and friends from the "old days", Arnon Milchan, Martin Scorsese, Roman Polanski, Robert De Niro and Elizabeth McGovern will be appearing at the Cannes Film Festival to celebrate an ode to Arnon Milchan and Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in America, along with a few other classics. The book Confidential: The life of Secret Agent Turned Hollywood Tycoon contains an entire chapter on the making of Once Upon a Time in America, with never-before revealed details. As you read the excerpts below from Confidential, please keep in mind that as all of this is going on, according to FBI files, Arnon Milchan was shipping nuclear weapons triggers from the US to Israel though a front company called "Milco", which was actually discovered by the FBI during the filming of Once Upon a Time in America. Just an amazing set of circumstances:
Robert De Niro, Arnon Milchan and Polish President Leach Walesa 
As Leone began casting, Milchan rented an apartment in New York, on 48th Street between 2nd and 3rd, right next door to legendary actress Katharine Hepburn. They considered hundreds of actors for the film’s various parts, which was a long and difficult process in itself. Early in 1981, Brooke Shields was offered the role of Deborah Gelly after Sergio Leone had seen The Blue Lagoon, claiming that she had the potential to play a mature character. However, a writers’ strike delayed the project, and Shields withdrew before auditions began.

There had been more than three hundred applicants for the lead female role, including Kim Basinger, Glenn Close, Jamie Lee Curtis, Geena Davis, Jodie Foster, Carrie Fisher, Daryl Hannah, Liza Minnelli, Michelle Pfeiffer, Meg Ryan, Susan Sarandon, Meryl Streep and Debra Winger - a virtual who’s who of America’s leading ladies.

As word spread of the production, Leone personally received numerous phone calls from top talents, such as Warren Beatty. As he did with most of the others, Leone turned him down cold. “He’s a hairdresser, for Christ’s sake,” Leone said to Milchan. “But he only played the role of a hairdresser in Shampoo,” Milchan said, in hopes of changing Leone’s mind. “No, no, he is a hairdresser,” Leone insisted. A few days later he received a call from Clint Eastwood. “No, no, I have already cast him in three movies. I need something fresh.”
Arnon Milchan with the "Hair Dresser" Warren Beatty.
Close friend Meir Tepper is in the middle 

If there was one person Sergio Leone wanted for the film, it was Robert De Niro, who had played the lead in Milchan’s The King of Comedy. According to Milchan, it was not easy to convince De Niro to read the long script, but finally the actor claimed that he’d read through the entire manuscript and agreed to meet with Leone.

The meeting was scheduled at the Mayflower Hotel in New York City. Leone, obese at the time, was dressed in a gigantic robe as they convened in a top-floor suite that Milchan had reserved for the meeting. Leone and De Niro were to talk one-on-one as Milchan waited for a call in a separate room. When the phone finally rang, it was De Niro whispering on the other end; “Arnon, I need to talk with you.” Milchan rushed over to De Niro’s room and knocked on the door. De Niro said, “I can’t do the movie.” Milchan was stunned. “Why not?” De Niro led Milchan to the bathroom and pointed at the toilet. Milchan was puzzled.

“Can’t you see that he pissed all over my toilet seat?” he asked in that tone that only Robert De Niro can do. The seat was indeed soiled. “Come on, Robert, he didn't do that on purpose. He’s fat, he didn't see.”
“No way, Arnon, he did this on purpose.” De Niro implied that it was a power game, a marking of territory of sorts, showing who’s the boss. Milchan calmed him down, and ultimately De Niro was cast in the lead role as the Jewish gangster David Aaronson.

The highly sought-after lead female role was not filled until shortly before filming began. Milchan had his heart set on Elizabeth McGovern, who, while studying at Julliard at the age of twenty, had been offered a part in her first movie, Ordinary People, in the role of the girlfriend of a troubled teenager played by Timothy Hutton. It was Robert Redford’s first film as a director, and it won four Oscars. The next year McGovern earned an Academy Award nomination for best supporting actress for her portrayal of the early-twentieth-century actress Evelyn Nesbit in the movie Ragtime, in which she had a controversial and very lengthy nude scene. Out of the long list of star actresses who sought the role, Elizabeth McGovern got it. She was seventeen years Arnon’s junior – and his real life lover.

De Niro only later learned that  McGovern was Milchan's girlfriend
As Milchan remembered:
"There was a scene in the movie where De Niro was supposed to rape Elizabeth McGovern in the back seat of a limousine, after she informs him that she’s leaving and moving to Hollywood to realize her dream. A real complicated scene. De Niro suddenly suggested that I should play the role of the limousine driver. I reacted with skepticism. After all, I’m not an actor. There were four pages of text in that scene; it was not inconsequential. In any event, the idea caught on, and Sergio conducted a formal audition for me. After that my skepticism suddenly disappeared and I found myself wanting to play the role more than anything in my life. It was like catching a bug. It became my lifetime ambition. Sergio, on the other hand, was not impressed and rejected my participation. I, the producer and financier of the entire project, was rejected! I was boiling. I was sure that everyone would come to me on their hands and knees but I was treated like the lowest extra on the set. They continued to do auditions for the part right in front of me and I was completely frustrated.
 Then I received a call: “We are ready to film the scene, come on down.” But I was in Paris and the scene was to be filmed that same night in Canada. “No problem,” they tell me on the phone. “Tickets are waiting for you at the airport. There are three other candidates for the role that are also being called in.” I was genuinely hurt by now, but I arrived at the airport nonetheless. I couldn’t find my name listed in first class and not in business class. Where did they put me? In coach, all the way at the back next to the toilets!
I finally arrived in Canada and I went straight to the set. It was like magic. Everything was lit up, and there they were, God and his deputy, Leone and De Niro. Two personal friends who in this case were both paid by me. I reached out to them warmly: “Sergio, Robert, here I am!” They gave me a look as if I was the guy delivering the sandwiches, an actor-wannabe, a rank amateur. They were focused like lasers on their tasks. I was looking for direction. “You know this is my first role,” I mentioned to Leone, who ignored me. De Niro turned to me and said, “Look, this movie is not about you and it’s not about the limousine driver. It’s about my character. Remember that.” 
It took thirteen takes to get the scene down. Leone literally showed De Niro how to rape Elizabeth McGovern and asked De Niro to physically repeat his instructions before filming commenced, and I couldn’t remember even once how to open the limousine door. On take two I forgot to stop the limousine where I was supposed to. In the meantime, De Niro was repeatedly “raping” my girlfriend in the back seat, for thirteen takes! And you know Robert De Niro, a real actor; every take was from the heart! He was totally committed to the realism of the scene. And I was supposed to stop the limousine and ask Elizabeth, “Are you all right?” as I exited the limousine, opened the door, and removed my hat. That’s it.

Elizabeth McGovern after the rape scene in the limo.
In the end, they cut the scene down so much that I was only left with that one line, “Are you all right?” And even after that, Leone did not like the sound of my voice so he hired another actor to do a voice-over. It was a completely humiliating experience, but it was exhilarating at the same time."
Of course, Elizabeth McGovern is currently enjoying a new wave of success in her performance as Cora, the Countess of Grantham in the BBC/PBS smash hit, Downton Abbey.

30 year's later: McGovern as Lady Grantham


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