Go Ahead, Take the Adventure of Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood

In Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino is continuing his creative endeavor of engaging popular film forms and alternate-history structures to reimagine points of terrible disturbance in our collective past.

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood. Andrew Cooper / Sony Pictures

I liked Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood a lot, so it’s been interesting to read the commentary by various critics and viewers who hated it. Their hatred, as far as I can tell, was inspired by a range of reactions from boredom (the film’s “a $10 nap”) to contemptuous dismissal (it’s “just another white man’s nostalgia film”) to righteous fury (it’s an “obscenely regressive” outrage).

Regarding the boredom factor, I guess it’s fair to say this isn’t the movie for you if you’re not into lingering over the relationship of film to culture at a particularly fraught point in American history fifty years ago. Lingering for two hours and thirty-nine minutes, to be exact. Me, I could linger there for ten hours and feel refreshed, especially if the director tends to create the dynamic, humorous, and challenging effects that writer-director Quentin Tarantino does. He’s a jackass provocateur in many ways, always has been — but he knows film, and he actually has something to say about its powers and possibilities.

Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood is about 1969 as the memorable year when America’s growing post-WWII sociopolitical turmoil reached peak instability in the nation in general and in the film industry in particular. The representative figure of the collapse of the once-mighty studio system, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a film star of 1950s Westerns and combat films, finds himself in steep professional decline. Rick is reduced to playing one-shot villain roles on various Western TV shows, and scorns the only movie work he’s offered, Spaghetti Westerns made in Italy by the “foreigners” he despises.

His fading career also kills the prospects of his loyal stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who now earns most of his meager pay as Rick’s gofer, chauffeur, handyman, and personal sidekick. Ironically, WWII vet Cliff has many more of the qualities associated with the heroic roles Rick plays than Rick does. Cliff’s physical bravado, calm in the midst of tension, and indifference to material possessions are all Western hero traits, as is his disturbing ease when it comes to violence and killing.

Like a true classic hero, always a liminal figure, Cliff defends his settled community against the perceived threat of figures representing chaos, though he has qualities associated with both stable community and chaotic flux. With his wild past, longer hair, and relaxed attitude, Cliff moves easily into ’60s New Hollywood turbulence while at the same time unwaveringly defending Rick’s Old Hollywood values, status, and desperate efforts to hang on to his traditionally masculine image that nobody seems to want anymore. (“You’re Rick Dalton — don’t ever forget it.”) Pitt is great as the laconic Cliff Booth, and DiCaprio may never get a more perfect part for him than Rick Dalton, the fake-tough, comically petulant actor, insecure and alcoholic and inclined to break down crying on Cliff’s shoulder when his career dips yet again.

The same turmoil that’s diminishing Rick’s fame is creating opportunities for upcoming stars like his next-door neighbor, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and European new wave talent like her husband, Polish director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), whose hit film Rosemary’s Baby has taken Hollywood by storm. There’s a certain controversy about the way Tarantino conceived the third lead role of Sharon Tate, with its relative lack of dialogue. But the character of Sharon is key to the impact of the film. She’s the ecstatic representation of utopian possibility that Tarantino depicts opening up both American films and American life as a result of social upheaval. She’s the magical being in the fairy tale Tarantino underscores with the “Once Upon a Time . . .” title, which is also an homage to Sergio Leone’s cinematically groundbreaking Spaghetti Westerns.

Sharon Tate threads through the narrative in sunny, sweet, aspirational, and film-loving interludes, clearly enacting the opposite 1960s tendencies from Charles Manson and his followers. She dances through the film, literally in several scenes, floating along on a dreamy adventure granted to her by film and the seeming new openness in the world. Ease and freedom of movement are a big part of the pleasures of the movie, with a lot of casual hitchhiking, seatbelt-free driving down open roads, and carefree walking in comfortable clothes with long loose hair flowing.

The major sequence featuring Sharon shows her taking one of those carefree walks past a movie theater showing her own movie — a wacky 1968 Dean Martin vehicle and spy spoof called The Wrecking Crew. It’s actually the real Sharon Tate performing in the film, and Margot Robbie as Sharon delights in the way the audience responds to the comic pratfalls and gleefully ridiculous kung fu fighting moves taught to Tate by martial-arts-teacher-to-the-stars Bruce Lee (Mike Moh).

(My only objection to the film is its mock dissing of Bruce Lee, which has also infuriated his daughter. Why, QT, why? But never mind for now.)

In case there’s any doubt of her symbolic value, we also see Sharon pick up a hitchhiking hippie girl of equal sweetness and openness to life, whom she hugs at parting with the words, “Good luck on your adventures!” This hippie-of-light functions as a counter to the dark hippie threat of the “Manson girls,” especially the charismatic underage Pussycat (Andie MacDowell’s surprisingly talented daughter Margaret Qualley). Pussycat is also picked up while hitchhiking, by Cliff Booth.

Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) and his followers are the monsters of Tarantino’s narrative. Their gruesome rampage in real life killed Tate and overtook her memory in the public mind. Once Upon a Time seeks to restore her memory in part by thwarting her killers in a riotously staged counterattack.

As is well known, Manson and his followers hung out on the fringes of Hollywood, obsessed by entertainment-industry stardom and determined to get revenge for Manson’s exclusion from it by staging a gory onslaught. They finally settled on their targets: the recently married power couple, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, and their friends. It’s probable that the initial targets were the former inhabitants of Polanski and Tate’s house at 10050 Cielo Drive, Terry Melcher — who was a successful music producer as well as classic Hollywood star Doris Day’s son — and his girlfriend, upcoming star Candice Bergen. It seems Melcher, after some slight initial interest, had started shunning would-be rock star Charles Manson, and revenge motivated the attack on that house.

Tarantino’s Manson makes only the briefest appearance early on near the Tate-Polanski house, looking for Terry Melcher, but he haunts the film via the periodic reappearances of his followers acting on his instructions as they thread their own dark way through the narrative. This way of structuring the film sets up an undertow of dread as viewers anticipate a finale in which Manson’s followers finally encounter Sharon Tate and her friends and butcher them. But there’s an alternate-history surprise in store.

In the aftermath of the actual murders, Manson and his mostly “Manson girl” followers were widely regarded as the end result toward which the sociopolitical changes of the “hippie era” were always tending. See the much-quoted line from Joan Didion’s The White Album:

Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, at the exactly moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true. The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled.

The Manson followers became useful figures to a “silent majority” eager to see the countercultural forces of the era defeated. To resist the grim sense of inevitable doom associated with the Manson family, Tarantino uses film to eradicate the immense shadow they cast in order to continuously balance the light and dark aspects of the film, in such a way as to make a case for the invigorating clash and commingling of elements in 1969. This is especially true with regard to the idea of 1969 as a year of utopian possibilities associated with film, which we see expressed in the final long shot of the movie, as Rick Dalton and Sharon Tate embrace.

This final shot makes especially bizarre the notion promulgated by certain critics that Tarantino is some MAGA moron nostalgic for the 1950s when men were men, hating the “dirty hippies” who supposedly ruined America and Hollywood films simultaneously. It’s silly to personalize the film in a literal auteur-addled way that makes it all about Tarantino anyway, but if you’re going to do it, at least realize that nobody loves 1960s and ’70s films more than Tarantino. Consider the exhilarating and expansive glories of Spaghetti Westerns and New Wave and blaxploitation and kung fu films that he celebrates and steals from in almost every film he does!

Nevertheless, Richard Brody of the New Yorker condemns the “obscenely regressive” attitude of Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood:

If only the old-line Hollywood people of the fifties and sixties had maintained their pride of place — if only the times hadn’t changed, if only the keys to the kingdom hadn’t been handed over to the freethinkers and decadents of the sixties—-then both Hollywood and the world would be a better, safer, happier place. There’s no slur delivered more bitterly by Cliff and Rick than “hippie,” and their narrow but intense experiences in the course of the film are set up to bear out the absolute aptness of their hostility.

Here Brody confuses writer-director Tarantino with his film protagonist Rick Dalton. Yet even Dalton gradually sees the possibilities emerging in the movie industry in the great, funny central sequence involving his reluctant crossover to New Hollywood modes of thinking and performance. At his latest acting job on a TV Western, playing the villain as usual, he’s accosted by enthusiastic director Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond), who is enamored of the “zeitgeist” and wants Dalton to play the role wearing long hippie hair, a handlebar mustache, and a fringed leather jacket that he can wear to go clubbing on the Sunset Strip after wrapping for the day. Dalton, a true studio-era star, objects that the audience won’t be able to recognize him in such a getup, and the director confirms that’s exactly the point: “I want you to act.”

Discombobulated, Dalton retreats to a quiet corner of the set to read an old-fashioned pulp Western novel about a washed-up rodeo rider. There he meets a dedicated Method actor who’s also an eight-year-old girl (Julia Butters), who helps him to access his emotions by realizing the washed-up rodeo rider’s experience mirrors his own career (as well as Cliff’s): “He was no longer the best. Far from it.”

Ultimately, together, he and the little girl will achieve a highly effective scene using emotional memory, improvisation, and other Method techniques that were scorned by Old Hollywood and embraced by New Hollywood. The new possibilities of a world he thought was inexorably closing down on him are so startling that Dalton tears up at this moment of redemption, and a very funny sequence become suddenly moving.

Crosscut with this sequence is Cliff’s journey to the dark side of 1969 Hollywood. Cruising around LA on some errand for his boss and friend, he picks up a hitchhiker, a live-wire hippie girl who seems at first to represent some of the most enticing aspects of the 1960s — sexual freedom and frankness, a new ease about clothing, movement, and the body, and a profound lack of fear. But a series of red flags start appearing over the course of the long ride to the place where she’s staying, a remote, dusty locale that’s seen better days, called Spahn Ranch. Equipped with Western sets to attract Hollywood film and TV producers, Spahn Ranch is infamous for being the crash pad of the Manson family at the time they committed the murders.

There, Cliff has an increasingly tense series of encounters with “family” members as he tries to check on the owner of the place, old George Spahn (Bruce Dern), whom Cliff remembers from past film and TV shoots. Cliff’s own propensity for violence (he’s rumored to have killed his wife, for example) comes up against a seemingly overwhelming force of mayhem that he’s not yet aware of —though he begins to get an inkling when he’s faced down by a line of eerie, stone-faced, staring Manson followers led by Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Dakota Fanning).

This skewered “high noon” encounter on an old Western set gets restaged 1960s style when Cliff, happily stoned on acid sold to him by yet another hippie girl, returns from walking his beloved pit bull, Brandy, and is confronted by Charles Manson’s emissaries invading the ol’ homestead belonging to Rick, right next door to 10050 Cielo Drive. Cartoon-crazy mayhem results, with Cliff laughing uproariously and drunken Rick oblivious outside, floating in the pool, listening to “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” through headphones while singing along. (“Ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty or more, the Bloody Red Baron was rollin’ out the score . . .”) It’s a way to dispatch the Manson family movie-style, in a fight scene full of wild sight gags and stylized pratfalls. There’s no question that the controversial violence of Tarantino films is being defended here as deliberately entertaining “movie violence,” which counters the ludicrous rationale of the Manson family that “movies taught us to kill,” making them justified in literally gutting people who worked in movies.

In this, his ninth and perhaps penultimate film, if you believe his interview statements, Tarantino is continuing a creative endeavor he began a few films back, with his great achievement Inglourious Basterds: engaging popular film forms and alternate-history structures to reimagine points of terrible disturbance in our collective past. Basterds, for example, posited a Jewish counter-holocaust that uses the power of film to take down the Nazi high command, a grotesque band of infamous cinephiles with a disastrous facility for film propaganda. Django Unchained was Tarantino’s attempt to take back the agonizing subject of slavery from the dull, patronizing hands of PBS-type documentary filmmakers and address it in a genre film form that could electrify the public with powerful slave protagonists and scenes of exciting revolt against oppression.

Such lively film history do-overs have had a pop kinship with left-wing cinema since the 1920s, when Soviet filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov sought to demonstrate as kinetically as possible how films could imaginatively manipulate representations of contemporary as well as historical reality, in part to show its malleability and embolden a revolutionary vision of the world. This new take on 1969 in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, which emphasizes the opening up of radical possibilities instead of closing them down, helps us reflect on the way we’ve received that landmark bit of history through media up to now. And it evokes our own discouraging state of affairs in 2019, also a time of stubborn stasis resisting immense turmoil in the culture, as well as what looks like bad prospects for the survival of the movie industry.

You have to wonder how we’re going to have good luck in our adventures if we refuse to go on any, cinematically or otherwise.