Once Upon A Time In… Hollywood

In 1969, Quentin Tarantino turned six years old and – I assume – began to take movies seriously. I make this assumption because I was six years old when I started falling in love with movies and music; I didn’t yet have the vocabulary to explain my passion or to express a sound opinion, but I knew what I liked. I turned six in 1962 and think I got the better deal, but I also have the sense to know that anyone who turned six in 1957 was luckier still. They got to see the rise of Toho, American International Pictures, and Hammer Films at first hand, not to mention the moment when Elvis broke through after signing with RCA – but they also got the draft, so I can live with what I was dealt.

In contrast to what happened six or twelve years earlier, 1969 would have been a fascinating spot for a dawning awareness because it was a turning point, even an apocalyptic time, in popular culture. It was a post-traumatic year, those months in the wake of King and Kennedy; it was the year of Manson and Altamont; and – in movie terms – it saw the end of the major film studios’ reign, the launch of the MPAA X rating, and the rise of independent filmmaking. For a brief window of time, anything went. Instead of movies ending with “and they lived happily ever after,” movies from Night of the Living Dead to Beneath the Planet of the Apes told us, “we are so fucked.” The movies even stopped saying “The End” because the whole point was, we knew it was over.

Remembering how magical 1962 was to me, with everything from The Tornados’ “Telstar” to The Absent-Minded Professor and Roger Corman’s Poe pictures dancing in the ether, my mind boggles at how a vivid childhood imagination like Tarantino’s must have responded to such downbeat, early stimulus, or if his young eyes were too hungry to notice. In addition to everything else his new film Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood (OUATIH) is – and it’s quite a dense confection – it has the feel of a reclamation of cinema’s right to know and impart a sense of hope and innocence, a reclamation that may be necessary if we’re ever going to turn the madhouse of daily living around. For this reason, its meticulous recreation of the historical moment of young Quentin’s first infatuation with cinema may be its most important characteristic. I have to acknowledge, it’s not set in the 1969 I remember; it comes from a younger place, its affection is directed at things from that time that would have appealed to someone younger, things like the Matt Helm movies and the music of Paul Revere and the Raiders; these are our first clues of the film’s extreme and ultimately defining subjectivity. True enough, it’s the story of a Hollywood on the point of crumbling, of America’s own capacity to dream on the point of crumbling, told with an unexpected naïveté that not only seeks out the last vestiges of innocence within its period but insists, within the boundaries of art, that it come back, that it prevail.

A good deal of the initial critical response to OUATIH has focused on its free-handed manipulation of history in the course of telling its story. As Henry Ford observed in an oft-misquoted (!) 1916 Chicago Tribune interview, “History is more or less bunk” – which means that, whenever someone writes about history, the reader is at the mercy of the historian’s subjectivity. Whether it be in the context of an article, biography, or screenplay, all written history is an amalgam of selection; it may leave out as much of value as it incorporates – according to what the historian considers most pertinent to the points he/she wishes to make.

Historically, movies have always been the most flexible form of biography because cinema holds a different set of requirements to, say, literary biography. Just as literary biography is shaped by how (or how well) one group of thoughts segues to the next in paragraph form, film biography is obliged to maintain a more liquid or percussive visual sense in its approach to narrative. A book can address any amount of incidental minutiae in its accumulation of detail, but a film must address the bullet points of narrative in a way that makes them easily digestible. As I’ve learned in my own pursuits as a screenwriter chronicling things that actually happened to real people, sometimes the only way of smoothly connecting two factual scenes is with something invented – invented, yet hopefully thematically supportive, useful, or resonant.

I’ve seen OUATIH twice to date and had very different reactions to both viewings. As it turns out, I went into my first viewing completely misinformed and going against the film’s grain. As anyone reading this must know by now, the ultimate purpose of OUATIH is to rewrite history so that the world might be spared a particular, traumatic horror – the Tate/LaBianca murders of August 8-9, 1969 – at least for the space of two hours and forty minutes. When OUATIH was first announced, it was described as being about these murders, whose five victims included 26 year-old actress Sharon Tate and her unborn child. This, along with Tarantino’s declared intentions to someday make a horror film, prepared audiences to expect a certain kind of picture, setting up an expectation that raced anxiously through (I imagine) everyone’s initial exposure to the movie – certainly mine – only to finally thwart those expectations.

With this in mind, I would have to include OUATIH on that list of special films that cannot really be viewed, only reviewed. It was only on my second viewing that I understood we are being swept, from the very first scene (an interview on the set of an imaginary Screen Gems Western series, Bounty Law), into an alternate universe. It’s not readily apparent because, over the years, audiences have been bamboozled with just this sort of invention as a sly means of satirizing a specific property or dancing around copyrighted material; in other words, we’ve been trained to accept Bounty Law on those terms, as an imaginary show starring an imaginary actor, but within an otherwise realistic context. In this case, however, it’s Tarantino’s immediate disclosure that we’re stepping outside the real Hollywood of 1969 into an Oz-like fantasy that flaunts itself in the forms of Bounty Law, Wolf’s Tooth Dog Food (with Raccoon and Rat flavors!), and a Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) whose preening braggadocio leads to the impossible: he gets his ass kicked. In this world, things that aren’t supposed to happen, can happen – kind of like the world we really live in, come to think about it. Hold that thought.

Of course, Tarantino has played this game before; it could even be said that this is his primary game, that it goes all the way back to his first feature Reservoir Dogs (1992). All of Tarantino’s films are more or less binary in structure, divided into two narrative halves; the first in some way prepares us for the events reserved for the second half, providing a floor plan that tells us what to expect, which then – I’ll be damned – doesn’t quite happen: the heist doesn’t come off; the restaurant robbery is thwarted; the road killer gets a taste of his own medicine. All of this is fine because the stories proposed by Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction (1994), and Death Proof (2007) are pure invention, involving imaginary characters. But then, in Inglourious Basterds (2009), Adolf Hitler goes to the movies where he is machine-gunned to a well-deserved death – which seriously ups the ante in Tarantino’s game. In each case, these divergences from the blueprint laid out in the first half could be written off as wish fulfillment, but this seems to me far too simplistic an endgame when one considers the labyrinthine paths we must take to reach these points. True, there is usually some form of vendetta in Tarantino’s scenarios, and the supreme satisfaction of seeing the roulette ball of chance landing in the “sweet revenge” slot against all odds is certainly one of his goals as an entertainer. Such narrative twists are not only pleasing (which can pay off in a good movie) but cathartic (which can pay off in a great movie).

What I find most fascinating about the more audacious fibs put forth in this last decade of his later filmmaking is that they tell us something about the world we really live in and our often unreal relationship with it. I use the word “fibs” advisedly as “lies” would imply  a corrupt intent, whereas the intention here, I would hope, is possessed of nobler intent. It shocks, it surprises, it prods our modern age’s vulnerability to misinformation and disinformation – but it also harkens back to that great line in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (made in that year of great things, 1962): “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Much as Sergio Leone’s 1968 masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West mythologizes the American West in an operatic amalgam of situations and dialogue culled from classic American Western films, Tarantino’s OUATIH mythologizes an American West within what is, at least for some of us, living memory.

The protagonists of OUATIH are Rick Dalton (Leonardo di Caprio), a still-young television actor feeling the pains of a young career already in decline, and his amiable stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). They both have a mythic dimension, in that it’s their job to embody the mythic in popular entertainments, yet they are also flawed and down-to-earth. They are underpinned with reference points to the Hollywood of yesteryear – Rick, for example, is implied as a second-rate Steve McQueen (Bounty Law is clearly patterned after McQueen’s 1958-61 series Wanted: Dead or Alive, and McQueen’s success is revealed as taunting to Dalton, who lost the star-making lead role in The Great Escape to McQueen), while the Dalton/Booth team may be modeled after actor Burt Reynolds and his stunt double Hal Needham, who went on to direct the Smokey and the Bandit films and other Reynolds vehicles. This “inside baseball” dimension is present to enrich the film for those who can appreciate these added dimensions; it doesn’t distract from the key point of their relationship, which I believe is to underscore the unfairness of the film industry, and its own inability to appreciate itself. Dalton represents those actors who are blinded to their own triumphs by the gnawing envy they feel for others (see Dylan, “Those who are not busy being born are busy dying”), while the larger-than-life Cliff is one of those “little” people who break their backs for the industry, mostly for the right to brag that they’re part of it, and are usually the first to be written off when purse strings need tightening.

The story of their friendship is contrasted with a storyline that is not only parallel to the other, it’s literally right next door. Rick’s Cielo Drive residence is literally shoulder-to-shoulder with the leased home of actress Sharon Tate and her husband, Rosemary’s Baby director Roman Polanski, who are shown actively living the fantasy to which everyone in Hollywood aspires. They are young and beautiful and rising, surrounded by rich and beautiful and influential friends; they are making movies and celebrating their successes at the Playboy Mansion (publisher Hugh M. Hefner would produce Polanski’s next feature, Macbeth, 1971). Their house is being leased from record producer Terry Melcher – himself second-generation Hollywood royalty (the son of singer-actress Doris Day) – whose successes included hit singles and albums by The Mamas and Papas and Paul Revere and the Raiders, whose music adorns the soundtrack like so many fanatical footnotes. The movie’s nether-structure is impeccable.

What ultimately connects these two houses and four characters is a band of strangers who are, in a sense, the bad shadow cast by celebrity. This is the “Family” of Charles Manson, composed of the unwanted young street trash of Los Angeles who live communally at the Spahn Ranch, a well-known movie location gone to seed. (There’s really no better analogy for post-apocalypse Hollywood; in the wake of the Tate/LaBianca slayings, the ranch became a choice location for exploitation fare like Satan’s Sadists, whose director Al Adamson ended up as a murder victim in August 1995.) The Manson family’s resentful dynamic is like the next step down from Rick Dalton’s envy of the beautiful people next door, and we can see in the Family’s relationship to Manson a monstrous metaphor for Cliff’s relationship to Rick: Manson would become the ultimate True Crime celebrity, yet the murders that brought him notoriety were actually committed by his “stunt doubles.” A direct connection between the Manson Family and Cliff is established when, in the course of his duties as a driver, he makes the serial acquaintance of hitchhiking Family member “Pussycat” (Margaret Qualley in a disturbing yet appealing performance), and finally gives her a lift back to Spahn’s, needing no directions because he’s spent time out there as a jobbing stuntman. Other affinities sneak out when we find out about the skeleton in Cliff’s closet. There’s a rumor going around that he killed his former wife and got away with it, which is given anecdotal treatment in a flashback with the matter of his guilt left undecided; it’s responsible for his own blackballing within the industry, which may also be indirectly responsible for Rick’s own fall from grace. Cliff has the devil’s own charm; he seems to embody all the magic of movies when we see him effortlessly ascend to the roof of Cliff’s house in a short series of jumps to repair a television antenna, but the spark that attracts him and Pussycat on the sunny streets of Los Angeles may be dark indeed. As Tarantino goes about telling his story, he keeps a corner of our mind constantly chewing over the question of Cliff’s moral character, whether he’s really a good guy, a bad guy, or a good guy with bad luck.

Those sunny LA streets are an essential component of OUATIH. As anyone knows who’s spent time there, the city is very spread out and wheels are imperative. This is very much a story about how people get around in LA – whether they are the kind of people who are driven, who drive, or who stick their thumbs out. At one point, Tarantino attends to Cliff’s solitary drive back to Rick’s house, where he’s been sent on a fool’s errand, for the length of three AM radio songs. If you’re cheating yourself by only looking at the film’s surface, this sequence can seem overlong and self-indulgent, but it’s all in the service of storytelling. On my second viewing, I understood that this sequence was the equivalent of the coach ride from the train station to Sweetwater in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West  (made 1968, got its US release in 1969). In both cases, these sequences conjure an immersive sense of landscape and location that I personally associate with the later pictures of Howard Hawks. Rio Bravo (1959), Hatari! (1962), and even Man’s Favorite Sport? (1964) respectively give us a homey Texas town, an African game reserve, and a lakeside fishing resort that aren’t just scenic in a just-passing-through kind of way, but become a place where we want to take our time, not just enjoying the characters but their company.

The profusion of 1969 details along Hollywood Boulevard, so rich in product and promise, also contrasts nicely with the gnarling ghost town of the Spahn Ranch, so lacking in hope, and the dusty streets of the fantasy factory sets of the Western TV series Lancer, which some viewers may be surprised to learn – amid the film’s riot of deceptions – actually existed and really did star an actor named James Stacy (played here by Deadwood’s sheriff Timothy Olyphant). What the film doesn’t tell us is that Stacy’s stardom – which began with him playing one of Ricky Nelson’s fraternity brothers in The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet – was as fleeting as anyone else’s, his good luck faltering even before a 1973 motorcycle accident that literally cost him his left arm and leg, a 1995 no-contest charge of molesting an 11 year-old girl, and at least one subsequent suicide attempt. Somewhere in the midst of all this, he was also awarded almost $2,000,000 in a court ruling against the bartender who served the drunk responsible for his accident. Envy all that, Rick Dalton.

It’s while filming a guest spot for Lancer’s pilot episode, on the morning after a night of too many whisky sours, that Rick finally works through his self-pity, alcoholism, and other bullshit to prove himself a real actor. The role that allows for this breakthrough is one that he initially questions, because it’s outside his comfort zone, unlike the image he has of himself. As Caleb DeCouteau, the proto-hippie leader of a criminal gang known as the Land Pirates – Rick manages to channel the soul of the Charles Manson soon to dominate the popular media. As it happens, there is creative meeting ground between the two: Manson had earlier pursued a career as a singer-songwriter, even had a song recorded by The Beach Boys, but there was something about him that people just didn’t like. Curiously, when Manson makes his only appearance in the film (played by Damon Herriman), he might just as well be channeling Rick Dalton. He’s found trespassing on private property and he’s apologetic about it – much like Rick feels demoted to guest status on Jim Stacy’s show, continually making mistakes and apologizing for cracking under pressure wholly of his own making. Much as we’re chewing over the question of Cliff’s moral character, we’re continually involved in Rick’s struggle against his baser self to give a performance that might outlive him.

Of course, there is another major character in OUATIH – Sharon Tate herself, embodied by Margot Robbie. I say “embodied” because the responsibilities of her casting don’t extend to performance so much as to representing Sharon, occupying her space. In the main body of the story, there are perhaps only two scenes in which she speaks with other characters; for the most part, she floats through the film like a ghost. Her enigmatic and free-of-care depiction, her persistent apartness, has been one of the film’s primary draws for criticism but it’s unlikely that such a crucial decision was made thoughtlessly. The movie’s most indulgent attention is paid to Sharon when she decides to drop in on a matinee screening of her last American film: The Wrecking Crew, the last of the Matt Helm adventures starring Dean Martin (who went on to appear in Hal Needham’s Cannonball Run movies, should you follow that particular thread). Margot Robbie is shown watching the film with a pleasure that seems almost outlandish for a mature adult, co-star or not – but perfectly befitting the enjoyment of a six year-old kid at the movies on a Saturday afternoon. Considering the amount of layered invention invested in the surface values of OUATIH, it’s surprising that it’s the real Sharon Tate onscreen rather than a digital recreation of the scene Robbie has performed herself – and Tarantino presents this jarring dislocation without apology. If my viewings of the film are leading me to any conclusion about this role, its enactment, its intention, it is that Margot Robbie may be watching The Wrecking Crew, but – in a poetic sense – what Sharon Tate is really watching is Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood.

In the film’s tense but ultimately uproarious happy ending, Cliff is revealed as the real hero of the film for preventing history from being written the way it actually was. Once again, Rick is the one who benefits from Cliff’s heroics – finally gaining an invitation to the house next door, and by implication a whole new level of success and celebrity – as the ever-amiable Cliff is whisked away in an ambulance to be fixed like a proverbial TV antenna. But Rick has earned this entrée on his own terms, having risen to the challenge of being the kind of man he plays onscreen in a crisis situation.

I could go on, but I’ve long since exceeded my word count. The above may not read like your usual film review, or mine, but when a film like this comes along – a real piece of cinema, dense in detail, rich in avenues of interpretation – I feel it would be presumptuous and counterproductive to remark on it with closure. I’ll leave it to others to predict its odds as an Academy Awards contender or how well Brad Pitt’s performance stacks up against his work in Se7en or The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. It’s enough to acknowledge that he’s been a rich part of Tarantino’s universe since True Romance in 1993.

I’m still just getting to know OUATIH, and I expect it’s going to be a happy, ongoing commitment. From where I sit now, in a world of “fake news,” I have to wonder if our only means of regaining our mental health as a country is by rewriting the past and denying historical evil its victories. The historian in me doesn’t think so, but the creative writer in me knows that a new spirit of positivity has to start somewhere. We’ve lived with unhappy endings long enough.

© 2019 by Tim Lucas. All rights reserved.

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