The following contains extensive spoilers about Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.
Sharon Tate did die. We already know this. She died and so did Jay Sebring and the others who were at the house up on Cielo Drive with them and then the LaBiancas across town the next night. We know all this. And when I look at certain films that came from Hollywood over the next few years it’s hard not to see the darkness that has fallen over things because of that horrible event, because of the 60s ending then as the narrative became. Whether it’s the climax of Beyond the Valley of the Dolls and how it was very much exploiting the events of that night, when Mark Rydell as gangster Marty Augustine in The Long Goodbye takes a Coke bottle to the face of his angelic redhead girlfriend (played by Jo Ann Brody in her only screen appearance) it’s always Sharon Tate that I think of, Goldie Hawn sitting in her house up in the hills in the ’68-set Shampoo who has “this terrible feeling that something awful is going to happen” or, maybe most obviously, the way Roman Polanski chose to end Chinatown. All this becomes a part of these films just as much as it becomes a part of the town itself and whatever else Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood shows us, we can never forget that.
Sharon Tate also lived. She lived and she married Roman Polanski and she made The Fearless Vampire Killers with him and she also made movies like Don’t Make Waves and The Wrecking Crew, quickly becoming one of the most stunning examples of Hollywood beauty ever seen, while also displaying a comic potential that would have been truly wonderful to see develop in a life that is too often forgotten except for how it ended and nothing else. “Why don’t you stand over by the poster? So people will know who you are,” the ticket seller at the Bruin says to Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, never even thinking that one day people might know her for anything else. I probably shouldn’t mention the girl I knew some years back who once went as Sharon Tate for Halloween and what that costume entailed.
This was a Los Angeles that I never knew since I wasn’t around yet but at least in ’69 my parents lived on Wilshire in a building that Sharon Tate would have driven past shortly after picking up that hitchhiker on her way to Westwood Village. The past stays with us and like it or not in Los Angeles some of those memories are going to be about all that driving, all those times on the freeway when we have to make our way back to the valley, the goddamn valley, so far up it feels like the end of the earth. Brad Pitt driving in this film is a wonderful thing to see as the day turns into night, with him speeding down Hollywood Boulevard, speeding down the freeway towards the exit with that Van de Kamp’s windmill waiting at the end of the Panorama City off-ramp as he heads for his trailer behind the Van Nuys Drive-In. All that driving in this film feels like it’s at least partly taken from Jacques Demy’s all-holy Model Shop, a film actually released in ‘69 which also understood the rhythm those long days can fall into when you’re doing almost nothing but that driving, in no hurry to get anywhere. Cliff Booth is never in much of a hurry either. It’s just the way he drives.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a memory piece, the Tarantino version of Fellini’s Amarcord, with its own history of what life was whether it’s what really happened or not, filtered through all those movies, TV shows and half remembered daydreams of billboards never seen again. Filtered through memories that never happened or maybe were never allowed to happen, which in this town can sometimes get mixed up. It takes its time like no other Tarantino film, the story of Hollywood cowboy actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), stuntman buddy/driver Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as well as Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), the rising star living next door to Rick on Cielo Drive and the long day each of them spend in February ’69 before the film jumps ahead to August 8th of that year when the only thing anyone on that street seems to know for certain is that it’s going to be another hot summer night. There are many things that make Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood as glorious as it is, vibrant through every moment yet elegiac in its recreation of this time with a tinge of sadness always hanging around the edge of the fame and is maybe more about love than any other film Quentin Tarantino has ever made, even if it’s a love you always worry might fade away like the end of a movie. In that sense, it’s about loss as well. It’s as close to pure joy as any film I’ve seen in a long time.
Whether or not I wind up calling it Tarantino’s best film is something I’m willing to wait on but right now at the very least it feels the most confident, the most fearless, the one most willing to pause and take in the air in a way films never do anymore, yearning to remember what things were like as it tries to turn those memories into something more. And through every heightened, fanciful moment it feels the most human. There’s a carefree vibe all along the way, never in a rush to get anywhere and along with how much the film loves its three main characters there’s a non-stop affection for the ephemera of its world and pop culture that years later you only sort of remember whether it’s the rush of gazing at certain movie posters as a kid or even down to the sound of the Screen Gems logo briefly heard. The astonishing detail of Barbara Ling’s production design transforms those Hollywood streets filled with signs and marquees of what was around then with camerawork by Robert Richardson that always becomes a part of the moment, capturing the middle ground of a past receding further into memory and how much it always stays with us. Of the sprawl sometimes found in Tarantino’s films and scripts, this is the one most unencumbered by the rigidness of plot and any impulse to toss unexpected twists into the narrative, freeing the film up in its exploration of character, behavior and sense of place. The only thing close to a ticking clock, after all, is August 1969 with that whoosh heard as the end of each day cuts to black, propelling us closer to that night whether we like it or not. But along with all those movie posters, and you know every single one of them is there for a reason, it also catches what it can be like to feel stranded in this town when things have changed so you no longer know for sure if you’re still living here or just waiting for something else to happen.
Already each new viewing offers moments that I keep looking forward to seeing again whether the natural camaraderie of the two leads, the way former Spider-Man Nicholas Hammond as Sam Wanamaker directing the Lancer pilot comes in full throttle at the hungover Rick Dalton, Cliff Booth’s realization that Margaret Qualley’s Pussycat might be more than he can handle even before she gets in the car, the way Al Pacino’s agent says the name of his wife “Mary Alice Schwarrrrrzs”, the guy who says, “Rick. It’s a flamethrower.” or, to go darker, how The Mamas and the Papas’ “Twelve Thirty” rises on the soundtrack as a certain car appears, ready to fill us with dread for all time. Not to mention the specificity of the Kurt Russell narration when describing Rick’s six month stay in Rome, giving us all the footnotes that anyone who wants to know about these films is going to care about. The sounds of the day coming from the radio that everyone always has on American Graffiti-style veers away from what are by now the expected late 60s sounds from every movie, instead giving us Paul Revere and the Raiders, Neil Diamond, Buffy Sainte-Marie, not to mention all that easy listening music drifting out of episodes of Mannix and the like, offering an innocence still found then in pop culture as a reminder how even as the world outside was falling apart that naïve charm was still barely hanging on for a few seconds longer. The amount of time spent on the set of the Lancer pilot that Rick Dalton is appearing in feels a little like an excuse by Tarantino to quietly make another western without anyone knowing ahead of time but he uses that fantasy to make this show look better than any of those shows ever did back then. But just as how Rick Dalton’s hit NBC show Bounty Law and his B-grade WWII epic The Fourteen Fists of McClusky, which apparently uses a piece from Bernard Herrmann’s rejected Torn Curtain score, echo Tarantino’s own films it’s also like he’s reveling in the chance to make a fantasy version of what he’s done before only removing any post-modern irony from it, to show off where those films and ideas were really born to make clear how much he wants them to stay alive, how much he loves and misses them more than anything.
When agent Marvin Schwarzs offers an assessment of Rick Dalton’s prospects over that Musso & Frank lunch it clearly strikes a nerve and though maybe his career isn’t looking as bad as he seems to think but it’s still in a precarious state. That TV-to-film transition, which apparently included one with Suzanne Pleshette called Jigsaw Jane that I want to hear more about, didn’t go so well but doing guest shots alongside people like Norman Fell doesn’t really sound that bad (plus Tanner co-stars Ralph Meeker so I’d really like to see that one). Even if a director wants him to look like a hippie cowboy it seems to bring something out in him making me think Rick is a better actor than he’s ever allowed himself to be but as a perennial guest star he’s never at home on the these sets, as if always renting instead of buying to recall the advice Edmund O’Brien once gave him, always asking for directions to find his way and I suspect falling back on an acting tick of tossing trash down on those western streets whenever he can. He’s got the talent as well as determination but has maybe burned a few of the wrong bridges and, besides, even if he stays alive another 28 years, questionable with that cough and all those whiskey sours, he’ll be too old for Tarantino to use him in the Max Cherry role when Jackie Brown comes along.
Rick is as set in his ways as anyone resentful of the counterculture would be, happy to stick with his booze that don’t need no buddy while everyone else is trying something considerably stronger and the only thing that really throws him off is his encounter with the future in the form of the child actress played by the remarkable Julia Butters and in describing the book he’s reading, the tale of cowboy Easy Breezy, he gives a fairly heady summary that just like the movie we’re watching sounds strangely more character oriented than the slim piece of pulp fiction we’d expect (one small bit here that’s gone without comment involves the dispute over Rick Dalton’s character name on Lancer which plays like a reference to the way ‘Domergue’ is pronounced in The Hateful Eight versus how DiCaprio’s Howard Hughes says the same name in The Aviator). Rick’s answer to his problems always seems to be how much he’s in a war that he has to fight with himself whether acting in a scene opposite an eight year-old girl who baffles him at first or being surprised when lounging around in his pool. And he has to win. When he remembers that, when that eight year-old gives him that compliment after he pulls things together for his Lancer guest shot, it seems like he might be ok.
Cliff Booth doesn’t have these problems. He doesn’t have much of anything at all beyond a questionable past involving the death of his late wife and the trailer where he lives among the oil derricks, the Model Shop influence sneaking into frame again, and even the TV left on for his loyal dog Brandy while he’s gone recalls Kim Novak’s equally broke Polly the Pistol and her parrot in Billy Wilder’s Kiss Me, Stupid. But compared to the jitteriness of Rick, Cliff is always in his Zen state, always knowing where he’s going on the road even though he has no idea what lies far ahead. The unexpected glory of watching Brad Pitt make macaroni & cheese for dinner while watching Mannix in another of those moments in the film I can’t stop thinking of, at the very least getting me to make some for myself some and as he pours out Brandy’s food before sitting down to talk back at the TV it makes me wonder what secrets he’s holding onto. After all, you know that he and Rick have never talked about what happened with his wife. Brad Pitt’s weathered face almost cracks a few times through the chill demeanor during his time out at Spahn Ranch when pushed to the breaking point and he’s a Tarantino character unlike any other, definitely not one who can be explained in a pulp novel since there’s no one else to compare him to. Cliff is a guy who doesn’t have any idea where he’s going anymore but he’s always up for watching Rick’s network guest shot with a six pack nearby ready and waiting, just like any good friend would.
Sharon Tate, meanwhile, doesn’t have a care in the world except for maybe people not being sure who she was in Valley of the Dolls but she loves her husband Roman who may or may not be cheating and has Jay Sebring nearby, whatever the state of their relationship is. And Tarantino has held back on his legendary dialogue to simply let her exist and looks at her with nothing but affection, especially when she decides on impulse to go see her co-starring role with Dean Martin in the Matt Helm spy spoof The Wrecking Crew, which I always say is the best of the four Matt Helm films partly because of the spark the actress brings to it although your mileage on these things may vary. The theater is the Bruin (where 23 years later I would attend the premiere of Unforgiven, starring an actor curiously unmentioned here), a reminder that, not counting the Chinese and the Cinerama Dome, Westwood Village really was once the greatest place to go to the movies but it also turns into what is for me the most purely joyous scene in the film partly because of the way it highlights this stupid movie I’ve always secretly kind of liked but also in the way it gives us a glimpse at the real Sharon Tate so that along with the way Robbie responds to the film and everyone around her watching it, the moment is played as if sneaking off for the afternoon to see The Wrecking Crew represents all that is Good in the world. It’s pure cinema, no dialogue necessary at all and the look on her face as she leaves the theater while the Jose Feliciano cover of “California Dreamin’” plays is a person who is totally at home, the image saying more than words ever could and, at last, the right way for this actress to be remembered.
The film offers that moment to Sharon and pretty much no one else, certainly none of the other real people portrayed get the chance. Steve McQueen, The King of Cool himself, feels like one of the least likely movie stars to ever be saddled with giving exposition so naturally the way Tarantino does that here itself feels like a joke, lamenting that he never had a chance with her in words echoed by Rick Dalton about his near miss of getting the McQueen role in The Great Escape even as he plays himself in the part in his mind. Bruce Lee is worried about saving face after his run in with Cliff Booth but no one listens and he never gets a chance. Lancer star James Stacy as played by Timothy Olyphant is last seen riding off on his motorcycle in what feels like Tarantino’s requiem for all those actors he was too late to give a shot at a comeback to. Just a few years later he’d lose an arm and a leg after being hit by a drunk driver while on his motorcycle so he never had a chance either. They’re all out of time, none of them knowing the full extent of the New Hollywood that was already well on its way.
It also comes up with a solution of what to do with that third rail of anything involving Sharon Tate at all and having her be the loving, beating heart of the film means it’s not about Manson who turns out to be close to a total non-entity, appearing in one brief scene before being summarily dismissed and only referred to as “Charlie” otherwise. Tarantino correctly shows no interest in any of that or what he was doing, not even deserving of a thirty-second scene ranting about Helter Skelter or whatever and particularly surprising coming from the man who wrote the original screenplay for Natural Born Killers, the film has no interest in glorifying the Family or even in making them ironically interesting. It’s another reminder that I’d rather read a book about the making of The Wrecking Crew than anything Manson related and in some ways that’s what the movie’s about too. Whatever he represents is irrelevant as far as the movie is concerned and the visit to Spahn Ranch where he’s not even around plays out as a Psycho / Texas Chainsaw Massacre slow burn mashup without the expected payoff, dragging out the suspense only to give us monsters in the form of these hippie girls who have emerged from the bones of Hollywood’s western past that Rick so reveres. Both Rick and Cliff spend this afternoon on old west sets encountering young people who behave in totally unexpected ways but it’s the more relaxed and open Cliff who turns out to have zero connection with what he finds. It’s one of the best extended sequences by Tarantino ever and along with editor Fred Raskin it nails the tempo of how certain shots and beats are allowed to play out, stretching the tension as far as it can go between the Village of the Damned stares of the Family and the sounds coming from the TV, including more Bernard Herrmann music not used in Torn Curtain as it turns out, locking into the nightmare fantasy of finding yourself in this place in early ’69. Even the tension between Cliff and the Dakota Fanning version of Squeaky Fromme offers no way to tell the true horror of what’s coming but there’s clearly something very wrong with the dazed George Spahn as played phenomenally by Bruce Dern who after several agonizing minutes of Cliff trying to get in there to for a look turns out to be not a Mrs. Bates in control over these kids from a back room at all but a zoned-out old cowboy with western themed wallpaper in his bedroom, not unlike all those western tchotchkes Rick Dalton has, only his version of the past is already lost and he’s given in to the power these children of the future have over him without a single thought, the future coming faster than anyone possibly realizes.
With Inglourious Basterds, the director presented an alternate WWII where knowledge of film theory made someone qualified for a top secret mission, a comic strip fantasy where cinema literally killed Hitler and won the war. But the way this film alters what happened late that night feels like it’s coming from somewhere more personal for Tarantino, as if even as a kid he sensed that something very wrong happened here which allowed itself to permeate the world he grew up in. And while Tarantino may or may not share Rick Dalton’s feelings on the youth culture of the time (“Who, the dirty hippie?” Sydney Poitier asks about Rose McGowan in Death Proof) he finds the beauty of the carefree hope in the air as Sharon Tate picks up that hitchhiker on Wilshire heading to Westwood Village, the two of them instant best friends with only good things seemingly in front for both of their lives and all the possibilities in the world. Even Rick’s new wife Fancesca Capucci played by Lorenza Izzo, who you can easily picture turning up in an Italian James Bond knockoff, is mostly a comical figure but the way she snores just like Sharon shows there’s some endearment towards her and by getting in a punch at one of the most notorious murderers of the twentieth century she more than earns her stripes.
But then there are those young hippie girls marching away from that mural of James Dean and everything he represents, even if there is a vague awareness of who he was along with all the other cowboys they had on their lunchboxes but they still don’t care, as if the film is anticipating a future of people who have no idea who these hippie girls were or what they did or who Sharon Tate was or what it all meant, a reminder that in Hollywood the past doesn’t matter whether it’s 1969 or 2019. But it matters to Rick Dalton just as it matters to Tarantino and as for the Manson family, in their rantings about Hollywood and in their hatred of who they’re determined to wipe out it sounds like the seeds of the way people years later would choose to follow a racist reality TV star and be part of a much more dangerous cult. Their hatred of Hollywood in their rationale of who to kill and what it did to the town, what it did to the world, becomes Hollywood itself fighting back against that which is what Cliff with his brute strength and Rick with his flame thrower that he’s been keeping out back do in their moment of triumph that they’re not even completely aware of while on booze or acid-dipped cigarettes. It’s to finally laugh in the faces of these detestable people while providing a form of catharsis for all the fear, sadness and terror begun on that night and continued over the decades by these people which means the film marks the fiftieth anniversary of this event by stripping them of their power and Tarantino treats them the way they deserve right up to the end. When we finally hear the voice of Sharon coming from that intercom and the Polanski home gate opens up at the end as Maurice Jarre’s score from The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (another film where an actress is revered from afar and which contains a title card reading, “Maybe this isn’t the way it was…it’s the way it should have been.”) comes up on the soundtrack to reveal the final moment it’s as if everything is suddenly reborn in an alternate reality, even while none of them have even the slightest idea of what’s just happened. The world is different now and there’s hope for the future. It’s a nice dream but the sadness in that music makes it clear the movie knows what really happened. It happened, after all. It always did.
Leonardo DiCaprio at least equals his career high in The Wolf of Wall Street, balancing the comedy and Rick Dalton’s arrogance with his insecure desperation over where he’s suddenly found himself and it’s tremendous work right down to the way he walks from moment to moment, leading to the spectacular ferociousness of his trailer breakdown where every ounce of his anger and desperation comes pouring out. Brad Pitt is essentially a god here as Cliff Booth, delivering what might be the best performance of his career as well as very likely the best part he’s ever had to play with his charm always in control of the moment and more than anyone else here a display of star power in a way we just don’t get anymore. Margot Robbie isn’t quite a dead ringer for Sharon Tate but she captures the carefree and blithe charm just right, with the unknowing goodness found in the way Sharon politely waves at Manson as he walks away. Plus the joy in Robbie’s face watching the real Sharon Tate is magic itself, not to mention the one key moment when all we hear is the sound of her voice, essentially what the entire film has been leading to and the result is otherworldly. Of the others in the cast, maybe too many to mention and praise, there’s Julia Butters as child actress Trudi Fraser whose intellectual approach to the work leads to its own rewards, the awesome physicality of Margaret Qualley as Pussycat and how she prepares to finally get in the car as Cliff drives up, Mike Moh as Bruce Lee, Bruce Dern as George Spahn, Emile Hirsch as Jay Sebring, Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme, Lena Dunham as Gypsy, Luke Perry in his final role, Kate Berlant as the box office girl at the Bruin and the great Clu Gulager helping Sharon Tate out in the bookstore. Plus the no-bullshit directness of Kurt Russell’s stunt coordinator Randy on The Green Hornet and the way he tells Rick about Cliff, “I don’t dig him,” along with how perfect the actor is for the narration with the tone of someone who’s been there and remembers.
The past becomes little more than half-remembered names as time goes on, the way Bruce Dern’s half-awake George Spahn can only mutter ‘John Wilkes’ as Cliff Booth introduces himself. Generally, the past doesn’t matter to people. If only Sharon Tate could have lived. If only the movies were still larger than life. If only a lot of things but who knows what would have changed. Of course, the 70s would still have happened. The western would have continued to fade away. Nixon was still president, Reagan was still governor. Dirty Harry would likely have been at least somewhat different but Joan Didion was still going to have to find something to write about. There are too many what ifs and LA was going to change as well just as it always will, whether you’re having dinner at El Coyote or Casa Vega. Maybe because of this, the neon beauty of the glorious sights of the Cinerama Dome, Musso & Frank and Taco Bell in the “Out of Time” montage devastates me more each time I see it, the lights coming on as the world is ending. Like the best films do, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood reminds us of the things we love in this life and somehow makes them even better than we ever could have dreamed even as there are parts of my own life that echoed through my head at certain moments in the dialogue. But it’s also about what friendship can actually mean in this town, not just what other people say it means, and the hope found in that idea, so maybe for just a few moments late at night you feel like you’re no longer just passing through but in the place where you belong and were always meant to be. Maybe this film means so much I don’t want to say all the reasons. I just look forward to future viewings and what it will mean for me as time goes on as I continue to dream of living in this movie, the inevitable dread of the first viewing replaced by a joy at revisiting it until, finally, the sadness that I always feel at the end of this masterwork. That haunting final shot has Margot Robbie as this version of Sharon Tate emerging from her home just as her Don’t Make Waves co-star Claudia Cardinale does at the end of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, each sent to offer a form of cinematic benediction, each in their own way a symbol of all that is good in the world, one the promise of the coming civilization and growing west, one the totally pure love of the movies and all their possibilities coming out to greet her neighbor Rick at last. It’s that feeling of what we wish we could change but never can. But even if it may be too late we still hope for what our lives could be, so the best parts of our past will be allowed to become part of our future. We live the lives we were meant to and dreamed of long ago.