Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Round Table

A Video Watchdog Round Table Reunion


A “Video Watchdog” Round Table Reunion

Moderated and Edited by Tim Lucas



Stephen R. Bissette

Shane M. Dallmann

Tim Lucas (moderator)

Kim Newman


Back in late 2007, my magazine Video Watchdog assembled a panel of noted film critics and historians to discuss the enticing melange of red hot exploitation movie love that was Grindhouse, the pre-packaged double feature from Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. Participating in that lively conversation were the legendary cartoonist Stephen R. Bissette (Swamp Thing, 1963, Taboo) whose other achievements include such film-related books as the Cryptid Cinema series and a forthcoming epic monograph on David Cronenberg’s The Brood; longtime Video Watchdog reviewer, playwright, actor, and sometimes TV horror host Shane M. Dallmann (aka “Remo D.”); and Kim Newman, whose prolific works include the Anno Dracula series of novels (the most recent being Anno Dracula 1999: Daikaiju), and numerous books on horror and science fiction cinema including Nightmare Cinema: Horror On Screen Since the 1960s, the definitive work on that subject.

Sadly, Video Watchdog ceased publication in 2017 but we thought it might be worthwhile to reassemble our Grindhouse experts to explore, explain, and exude the myriad pleasures of watching and processing Quentin Tarantino’s latest, Once Upon A Time in… Hollywood (hereafter, OUATIH). We were surprised and pleased by how much we found to say on the subject, and hope you’ll enjoy the results. Get comfortable; you’ve got a nice, long drive ahead of you. – TL


TIM: I’d like to start out by addressing something about OUATIH that hasn’t attracted much discussion – which is that it is the kind of film that doesn’t often get made. It’s not only about Hollywood and the film industry (it’s generally held that movies about Hollywood have rarely been successful at the box office because they’re too “inside baseball”) but it’s a period picture, set in a time frame that’s just outside the experiential range of today’s target demographic. From my perspective, the first claim is debatable, but the second claim is ridiculous, considering that Entertainment Tonight has been broadcasting weekend box office reports since 1981. I think the general public is more aware of how the film business operates than the film business itself would like to believe.

To me, one of the most remarkable traits of Quentin Tarantino’s career is that  he’s been able to market himself – not unlike Guillermo del Toro – as knowledgeable about films and his movies; in the course of referring to his favorite films, he’s been able to brand his interests. If he makes reference to another film, or a piece of music from an older film, a major share of his audience feels obliged to investigate it – to enrich their experience of his work. Of all his films, OUATIH is the first to really foreground the world of movie-making, though Death Proof [2007] featured a former movie stuntman as its antagonist.

With these thoughts in mind… How much do you think a viewer really needs to know before they walk into a screening of OUATIH, if they want to get the most out of it?

STEVE:  Having been 14 years old back in 1969, I pretty much knew all I needed to know before going in – and what I knew as a teenager is all anyone who wasn’t living in the 1960s needed to know, sans spoilers: that there were TV Westerns on every network, every day of the week, in the late 1950s and early 1960s; that Sharon Tate’s breakthrough roles in Eye of the Devil [1966] and especially Valley of the Dolls [1967] were followed by prominent roles in Roman Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers [1967] and the lame but very popular Dean Martin/Matt Helm opus The Wrecking Crew [1969]; that Sharon was also prominently featured in billboard and print ads for Coppertone, the tanning cream; that Bruce Lee played Kato on the William (Batman) Dozier-produced TV series The Green Hornet.

By the way, even as a backwoods Vermont kid, I’d watched The Green Hornet  week after week; I’d seen Eye of the Devil and Fearless Vampire Killers when they debuted on The CBS Late Movie [1] and I saw The Wrecking Crew with my Dad in the theater when it opened, and I sure remember the Coppertone ads. In fact, The Fearless Vampire Killers was a personal favorite; like Repulsion, it was a movie I fortunately saw without the CBS cuts (or commercial interruptions) while still in high school, thanks to two different local film society showings in 16mm. So, there you go: Polanski and Tate were already known, and important to me, as a teenager. That’s my initial emotional stake in OUATIH, before I even sat myself down in the theater.

Also pretty essential is the more esoteric information a movie buff and “True Crime” addict like myself had gleaned after the murders – the revelations about Charles Manson, the Family, and the details of the murder emerged later, after December 1969, and on into the June 1970 to January 1971 trial. It’s helpful to know what the Spahn Ranch was, and that after it ceased to be a popular set for TV and movie Western filming, Charles Manson and his followers took over that essentially abandoned sprawl. If one is to pick up certain cues in OUATIH, it’s also beneficial to know that Polanski and Tate were wed on January 20, 1968, and moved in to 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon (the previous home of Terry Melcher and Candice Bergen) on February 15, 1969; that, while Polanski was in the UK working on his next project (an adaptation of the bestseller Day of the Dolphin that he subsequently abandoned), four Charles Manson followers – Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel – descended upon 10050 Cielo Drive and butchered Tate, her unborn child (8 months), Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowski, Abigail Folger, and Steven Parent in and just outside the Polanski/Tate home on August 9, 1969. One needn’t also know that Leno and Rosemary LaBianca were murdered by Manson followers in their home the next day, given the events depicted in the film: if you know about the fate in our world of the LaBiancas, it’s another merciful grace note among many.

Other than that… OK, hell, that’s a lot, right? But it’s shared cultural knowledge if you were alive back then. If you knew or know the above, it’s all you need to know going in. In fact, the only advice I gave anyone after I’d seen it was, “Avoid reading or seeing anything about it, just go see it – and if you do see it, don’t  leave until the full credits run their course”…  because of the treat mid-way through credits, and that slightly anachronistic but delightful audio treat that closes out the credits. Just know at least some of the history, and jump in.

SHANE: It’s also helpful to know that after years on American television, the careers of both Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson were given a huge international boost by Sergio Leone in the Dollars trilogy and (quite significantly for this title) Once Upon a Time in the West. We should know that Al Pacino knows exactly what he’s talking about in the early going and that a trip to Italy shouldn’t be taken for granted as the dismissal of an actor’s career.

TIM: Those were ultimately the facts of the matter, but I think Rick’s reaction reflects the popular view of those films, especially within the industry, as of 1969. The Dollars trilogy came to America belatedly, with the first coming out in early 1967 and the last coming out that Christmas; they drew increasingly more attention with each one but didn’t really take off until they began to be reissued like the Bond films, in double-features and triple-features. Once Upon A Time in the West is now regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, but in 1969, Paramount cut it down, dumped it in drive-ins, and it wasn’t the hit it should have been. I think it had more to do with the times than with the films; America was feeling its contemporary oats and Westerns were not so popular as they had been.

Kim, would you like to refresh everyone’s memory for the purposes of this discussion with a brief recap of the film, its characters and events?

KIM: Tarantino’s leads are Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a TV star who hasn’t quite made it in the movies and is on the slide, and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), his stunt double/fixer/handyman/tagalong. Rick seems to exploit Cliff, who drives his boss around (after one drunk driving bust too many) and fixes his TV aerial, but it emerges that there’s an incident in Cliff’s past (involving his wife, played by Rebecca Gayheart) which has rendered him near-unemployable. Rick’s Hollywood home is on Cielo Drive, just by the gate of the residence – soon to become infamous – where a pregnant Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) lives mostly without husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) but with an entourage that includes hairdresser Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch).

Rick is too consumed with drinking and his career woes to notice – he’s cast as the bad guy in the fake pilot for the real TV show Lancer, due to get ass-whipped by James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant) – but Cliff has started to clock the Family’s leggy, grungy hippie chicks dumpster-diving and hitch-hiking, and is wary of the scene up at the Spahn Ranch, where blind George Spahn (Bruce Dern) seems to be a sex slave of junior medusa Squeaky Fromme (Elle Fanning). Manson (Damon Herriman) slinks on in one scene – and, yet again, someone must be getting royalties for the use of a Manson-penned song on the soundtrack – that happens to overlap with the clutch of recent films on the subject (Charlie Says, The Haunting of Sharon Tate, Wolves at the Door).

There’s a fantastical thread to build up Cliff’s near-superhuman skills – in a scene that has proved controversial, he takes on Bruce Lee and does not get his Caucasian ass handed to him – and set up a climax (like El Cid) that rides off the pages of history and into the books of legend.

TIM: I’ve got to interrupt so we can give some time to discussing the controversial Bruce Lee cameo. His daughter has registered offense about the way he’s depicted, which indicates an extreme misreading of the sequence. In short: it’s not only a flashback but a flashback in the memory of an unreliable narrator, so we’re not even sure how real a flashback it is. It might be another “What If?” on Cliff’s part. But I got something else out of it.

STEVE: Bruce Lee is in three scenes: Cliff’s flashback (the fight with Cliff), another flashback with Sharon, and a “real time” shot in the August sequence of Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) training outside of the Tate house with Lee. The latter two scenes present Lee in a very favorable, even sweet, light. Honestly, while I can understand Bruce Lee’s daughter taking umbrage, I don’t think anyone else has anything to complain about. What is the “something else” you got from it, Tim?

TIM: I can see in Bruce Lee’s grandstanding – which is absolutely consistent with his interview videos I’ve seen – something in common not only with Muhammud Ali, whom he’s quoting, but with Quentin Tarantino himself. These are role models to Quentin, in a way; I’m sure of it. From Bruce Lee, I get a sense of Quentin himself – a sense of his voice, his grandstanding, the pleasure he takes in his claim on our attention as he rattles off different tangents to make his shaggy dog stories shaggier. That’s an aspect I feel in all of his earlier work, but not in this film. Maybe marriage has mellowed Quentin. This is his least violent movie, his sweetest, and here we get a mellow guy handing the showman his ass. By the same token, I think there’s a lot of Quentin in the Sharon Tate we see at the movies, enjoying The Wrecking Crew.

KIM: The Bruce Lee incident in OUATIH reminded me of the moment in Marlowe [1969] where Lee demolishes James Garner’s office but then kung fu leaps off a balcony to his comedy death. In 1969, that seemed to make sense and reaffirmed Hollywood’s idea of what a hero was, while giving Raymond Chandler’s 1940s private eye a 1960s cool.  It also reminded me of the way Larry McMurtry had his version of Billy the Kid kill the historic Roy Bean early in his 1988 novel Anything For Billy – establishing that, in the world of this story, your dim memories of what really happened, or can look up in a handy reference book, aren’t a reliable crib sheet for the way the drama will pan out.  Many, many Westerns do something similar by having fictional characters go up against legends of the West. A very funny episode of Maverick [2] has a sequence where the notoriously gunshy and inaccurate Bret Maverick (Garner again) suddenly has the skill to outdraw and gun down John Wesley Hardin from a ridiculous distance … scaring off the quick-draw thug (guest star Clint Eastwood) who has sworn to kill him in a “fair” fight. (“Seems to me John Wesley Hardin looked a lot like your brother Bart,” someone deadpans.)  In both these cases, the point is to position a new-minted character as someone who can go toe-to-toe with an established legend.

Romantic revisionism was actually a big trend in the late Sixties – even for relatively recent outlaws like Bonnie and Clyde, let alone Butch and Sundance. Even something as traditional (indeed, as explicitly reactionary – in politics and terms of comment on Spaghetti Westerns) as Andrew V. McLaglen’s John Wayne vehicle Chisum (the sort of movie Rick Dalton could easily have played a supporting role in) outrageously falsifies the historical record in order to reshape its West to Wayne’s values.  Maybe OUATIH stakes out the era itself as a period/place on a par with Leone’s Once Upon a Time mythscapes where real people and composite creations and wholly new characters can go up against each other. If Bret Maverick exists in a world with Hardin and Doc Holliday, let alone Dracula (himself a real person buried under layers of fiction and legend) existing alongside Billy the Kid in William Beaudine’s Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966; later on, there are Bonnie & Clyde Meet Dracula and Emmanuelle Meets Dracula) … then Charles Manson, Cliff Booth, Sharon Tate and Rick Dalton can inhabit the same bottled city of Kandor version of a precise stretch of the past that Tarantino lovingly creates, decorates and explores in OUATIH.

SHANE: Regarding Tarantino’s take on Bruce Lee, there’s also this to consider. Of course we recognized Uma Thurman’s yellow and black outfit as a Lee tribute in Kill Bill [2003-4], and it’s an iconic image, but bear in mind that this was Lee’s Game of Death [1973/78] outfit. We have surviving footage and we have outlines, but we’ll never really know where Lee was planning to take Game or what he would have had to say within it. Game of Death, as such, is the image of Bruce Lee and nothing more. Now we’ve gone one step further and invoked the supposedly “real” Bruce Lee; and this shortly after Birth of the Dragon [2016] was disparaged for using a white character to tell Lee’s story. I don’t think for a minute that Tarantino was presuming to show us the real Bruce Lee in this context – just his essence and his effect during this time.

KIM: Tarantino’s love of stuff is infectious. Only Tarantino could stage a whole scene in which Margot Robbie goes to a movie-house and cheerfully watches the real Sharon Tate in The Wrecking Crew with childish pleasure. That Tarantino wants to associate this point in Hollywood history with Dean Martin as Matt Helm – rather than, say, Paul Newman as Butch Cassidy or Dennis Hopper on a motorcycle – is a hip-to-be-square moment and, though Rick growing his hair and Cliff smoking an acid-laced cigarette are key elements, OUATIH takes a stand for Marlboro Man values against anything vaguely hippie.

It’s a long, episodic, discursive film – like previous Once Upon a Time in … movies – and has its own eight-month ellipsis in the middle as an agent (Al Pacino) persuades Rick to go to Italy and star in the kind of films Tarantino especially loves.

TIM: Okay, that’s the general landscape of the film, but what would you say to someone who was curious to know what the film is “about”?

STEVE: The core narrative is about power and loss of power in that era’s quicksand of Hollywood, as the studios hit the skids – and, some, the auction block. The film ignores the real powerbrokers: there’s no surrogate for a Lew Wasserman, for instance. OUATIH entertains, above all, the stripping of Manson and the Family’s power over our culture, given where it goes. The power is undone by the chance encounter with Rick and especially Cliff.

Cliff’s power – arguably the most personal charisma and power we spend time with in the film, actually – is already neutered by his circumstances, comfortably enough settled into being Rick’s “waterboy” and baggage-handler by the final act’s turn. (Rick retires their professional relations upon their return from Italy.) Cliff is the heart of the film, and we’re never sure of his moral character, but we’re never given any reason to question his loyalty and devotion to Rick.

The key sequence with Al Pacino cannily and succinctly spells out Rick’s already-diminished power in Hollywood, and the narrative primarily deals with that. The only star we see in apparent ascent is Timothy Olyphant’s James Stacy, but Tarantino hints at what happened when we see Stacy mount his motorcyle to speed away from the day’s Lancer shooting. He was literally made half-a-man by his accident, and it was an agonizing, ignoble slide from there.

But, given the fairy tale alternate-reality of the film… Okay, if that motorcycle accident never happened, what might the future have held for James Stacy? TV westerns were already on the decline, particularly those such as Lancer (a Bonanza wannabe, with Andrew Duggan – soon a staple of Larry Cohen’s scrappy independent projects – in place of Lorne Greene, who himself was consigned to 1970s TV movies, Griff, playing Kunta Kinte’s master in Roots, the lead patriarch of Battlestar Galactica, Roger Corman’s Tidal Wave, and Lorne Greene’s New Wilderness). Stacy’s conversation with Rick Dalton is quite lovely, in its way, in foreshadowing what’s likely in store for the attractive, cocky new star-in-ascent.

Speaking of actors in ascent, note that Damon Herriman – who plays Manson in OUATIH – is absolutely terrific as Manson in Mindhunter’s Season 2, in a single sequence that is perfectly conceived, executed, played.

SHANE: I see it as “about” what you said at the beginning. It wasn’t long after Reservoir Dogs that it struck me that Tarantino’s films were, above all, “about” the movies. As if Pulp Fiction wasn’t his crime movie but his “crime movie” movie, Inglourious Basterds his “World War II movie” movie, and so on. Not mere tributes to the movies he loved, but out-and-out demonstrations of what he loved about them and what he wished more people were enjoying along with him. You also invoked Death Proof, and you may recall in our previous Grindhouse discussion [Video Watchdog #136, Jan/Feb 2008] that – without knowing the story ahead of time – I was dangerously close to siding with Stuntman Mike, who lashed out violently at a world he assumed no longer appreciated him and everything he’d done to enhance their entertainment. And now we have a Tarantino film which really does represent a new chapter… It’s not a “Hollywood movie movie” but a film that encourages our love and respect for the people who entertained us, including those we saw without really seeing. Few people know Cliff and even fewer respect him, but he has a true friend in Rick (it’s so refreshing that we’re spared the semi-obligatory crisis where the one turns on the other as we head towards the final movement); he has no bitterness or resentment towards Rick’s success, and when he cuts loose, it’s to protect not only Rick but the dream of Hollywood itself. If only Stuntman Mike had had a Rick to appreciate him.

TIM: I recently wrote an essay about OUATIH for the New Beverly Cinema’s blog site. I was invited to write a review but, as I sat down to the task, I felt it was beside the point to be critical, because it was of greater interest to continue discovering what was there. I’ve now seen it twice to date, which I imagine is just scratching a formidable surface; I find it surprising how very much there is to say about the film because it’s fairly languid for the most part and not terribly complex on the surface. It has darkness to it, but there is the prevailing, easy-going feel of a later Howard Hawks film. Knowing that it was going to be set in 1969, that it was going to be about Sharon Tate and the Manson slayings, set up certain expectations in me. Consequently, I felt my first viewing of the film was of almost no value whatsoever, except in terms of establishing a more accurate base line toward my next viewing. How did it initially play to the rest of you?

STEVE: As best I can, I avoid going to any media – movie, book, TV series, graphic novel, music, whatever – with expectations. I knew I was going to a Quentin Tarantino film –  prompting my going first show/first day – but other than that, I’d avoided seeing or reading anything OUATIH, except the trailer. That said, on first viewing, I found myself positively entranced and entertained. Leonardo Di Caprio and Brad Pitt are the heart of the film and narrative, but the great ensemble cast give their all throughout. I found the entire experience a really rich, wonderful tapestry. All in all, I consider it one of Tarantino’s finest, right up there with Jackie Brown, taken on its own leisurely terms, with deft, playful, engaging storytelling throughout, an impeccably mounted production and execution, and some terrific great slow-burn suspense in its key passages.

TIM: It’s not really a Manson film, is it? Only tangentially.

STEVE: It’s unlike any other Manson movie made to date. In fact, it’s not a Charles Manson movie. It’s a Sharon Tate movie. It’s a valentine to Sharon, and to Polanski, and what might-have-been. Hillary Duff’s movie The Haunting of Sharon Tate [2018] – she co-produced it and stars as Sharon – does what every Manson movie has ever done. It reinforces, revels in, the fear of Charlie, the power of Charlie, it asserts that power. Sharon is pre-haunted by Manson before the Family even shows up at her door. She sees him in her nightmares, glimpses him in waking visions, tapes of Manson’s music start playing in the dead of night, and the movie unreels like a knock-off of Rosemary’s Baby and The Amityville Horror, then “lets” Sharon and her friends turn the tables on the murderers – only to arrive at a perverse Ambrose Bierce “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”/Carnival of Souls coda, returning all the power to Manson and the Family after teasing us with an apparent usurping of that power. It’s another “fuck you” to the victims, and to the viewer. It’s perversely amusing to me that The Haunting of Sharon Tate does everything I subsequently read some were accusing Tarantino of doing, but I don’t see the kind of venom being leveled at Tarantino being directed at Duff, or her movie.

KIM: Tarantino’s abiding passion – and major subject matter – has been the movies he grew up watching, augmented by TV and music of the same era, scrambled into a switching-channels-at-random pop culture melange which functions as a guide to the inside of his head – but also to a dream of America that’s distinct from the American dream.  Here, with a title that evokes Sergio Leone’s American trilogy, he conjures up the media landscape of 1969 Los Angeles, to the extent of filling the frame and soundtrack the way cartoonist Jack Davis did (his style is pastiched on mock posters and a Mad magazine cover) to create a montage of that year.

Fifty years is long enough for a year to be mythologized and misremembered in the creation of a genre – as proved by the Western.  So, just as Inglourious Basterds was about the imagined WWII, not the real one – OUATIH is as much a “wishful thinking” version of the year of the Manson Murders and the Moon Landing as a recreation. It’s also a rare Tarantino film without a significant African-American presence. Bruce Lee (Mike Moh, quoting an actual interview) refers to Muhammad Ali as Cassius Clay, and it depicts the Manson clan as creepy spectres without referencing Manson’s intent to foment a race war. Even the inspired music choices are white bread: José Feliciano’s “California Dreamin’”, The Royal Guardsmen’s “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron”, The Mamas and Papas’ “Twelve Thirty”, Paul Revere and the Raiders’ “Hungry.” It’s as interesting for what it leaves out as what it includes, but it’s always interesting.

TIM: Those musical choices are inspired because, on the one hand, they’re obviously very personal to Quentin – the Royal Guardsmen track speaks directly to what would have been his demographic in 1969 – but they also offer subtext. Mark Lindsay, the singer on those Paul Revere and the Raiders tracks, had been one of the previous tenants in what became the murder house, before Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate leased it… which I didn’t know at the time of my first viewing. I responded to a lot of the musical choices negatively because they did not evoke the 1969 I remember, which is in terms of late psychedelia and the dawn of AOR (album-oriented rock) – Cream, Jefferson Airplane, Blue Cheer. Correspondingly, the soundtrack is avidly into singles, the odd cover version (I presume, to keep costs down), and some soundtrack cues like Chad and Jeremy’s “Paxton Quigley’s Had the Course” from Three in the Attic. The fact that Quentin includes a few anachronistic choices, like Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen cover of “The Letter” (1970) and the cues from Maurice Jarre’s The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972) should have clued me into his intentions, but it’s easier to think someone was just being careless. The 1969 we get in OUATIH is one in which 1968 doesn’t seem to have happened, either! There’s no long shadow cast by the murders of King and Kennedy, Vietnam, or the fact that Nixon’s in the White House.

STEVE: Well, is that because most of the straight Hollywood characters onscreen (if they voted at all) would have voted for Nixon? Only the Polanski/Tate household seems open to the counterculture; they’re even polite to Manson during his cameo. Tarantino makes a point of Sharon giving a ride to an upbeat hippie gal who is hitchhiking, and quite enjoying the company. The rest of the Hollywood characters evidently despise hippies, or pay lip service to such loathing (eg., Sam Wanamaker’s comments to Rick in the costume/makeup trailer): if anyone has reason to complain about OUATIH, you’d think it would be old longhairs like yours truly or Kim.

KIM: I presume Wanamaker is in there – played by former TV “Peter Parker” Nicholas Hammond – because he did actually direct the pilot of Lancer – but he worked mostly in Britain after he was blacklisted for left wing views in the early 1950s. I doubt he’d have been a Nixon voter. He’s best known in Britain for his decades-long championship of the project to recreate Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.

TIM: Speaking of the Maurice Jarre soundtrack cues, what were his intentions with those? I haven’t seen The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, so I assume there’s a thematic resonance lost on me.

KIM:  The reference to Judge Roy Bean evokes a tradition of ahistorical events in the classic Western, embodied in the Liberty Valance “print the legend” thesis. Huston’s film ends with Bean living well past his historical death and visiting fiery vengeance upon the oil business that has trodden his West into the dirt. The depiction of, say, the Gunfight at the OK Corral in My Darling Clementine [1946] is as at variance with history as the end of OUATIH. There are many, many other instances, in this case dating back to dime novels or ballads almost contemporaneous with real events, of wishful thinking or downright falsification. The Sons of the Pioneers’ song at the beginning of John Ford’s Wagon Master [1950] starts with “A hundred years have come and gone since 1849” – not excusing the film’s romantic attitude to history, but setting it out plainly. Well, half a hundred years have come and gone since 1969 – and the era is up for cultural grabs in so many ways, whether it be moon landing hoax conspiracies or Danny Boyle’s Yesterday. NB: besides the Manson-related movies, the last few years have seen other films set in that year – Chappaquiddick, First Man – with the anniversary cycle maybe prefigured by the final season of MAD MEN.

STEVE: The other musical references you’re citing, Tim, remind me that my second viewing of OUATIH was as a second feature in an ideal, unplanned, summer day double-bill. My wife and I caught a matinee of Echo In the Canyon (Jakob Dylan’s documentary about the Laurel Canyon/L.A. 1960s music scene), then I dashed out to revisit OUATIH later the same day. It was cinematic bliss. The only way it could have been better is if I’d somehow crammed in a screening of either Jacques Demy’s The Model Shop [1968] or Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls [1970] that evening at home. Model Shop is heavily cited and excerpted in Echo In the Canyon – it’s a catalyst for that movie’s existence – but damn, there’s a lot of Model Shop informing OUATIH, too: those leisurely but essential drives around Los Angeles, they’re vital to both films. It’s their pulse, their heartbeat.

SHANE: Of course, it’s that wistful, wishful “if only” alternate universe we’re given if we share the director’s love for Hollywood. But it later occurred to me that there was a lot more to it than that; and that the prescription had already been signed by another beloved Hollywood figure in the name of raucous comedy.

As Mel Brooks put it when unleashing The Producers on the world? World War II had ended decades ago, but the Nazis still had their stamp on history. They still had their followers and people were still impressed by the visual power of their symbols and uniforms. Why give them that power? Laugh at them. Ridicule them. Make them look like fools and clowns. Take away their power! We know perfectly well what they managed to do and we can’t “really” make it go away, but if we can keep chipping away at their aura, then that’s all for the better.

So here we are, decades after the Manson “family” altered the course of history (not to mention Hollywood), and we’re still fascinated by Charles Manson. His peculiar charisma. What he hoped to accomplish. His power. Enough! Why give him and his followers this power? “I’m the Devil and I’m here to do the Devil’s business?” “Nah, it was something dumber than that…” People were afraid that The Producers would be taken as an act of appalling contempt for the true-life victims of the Holocaust when that was the furthest thing from the mind of Mel Brooks. And similar apprehension for OUATIH was certainly expressed. But the only contempt expressed here was for the aura of Charles Manson. We can’t change what actually happened, but we can certainly take its power away.

STEVE: I completely agree about the power of this ending: taking their power away, taking Manson’s power away, as the surprise finale.

I grew up with movies that ridiculed Adolf Hitler and his Axis allies. You mention The Producers, but I would see TV showings of WWII oddities like The Devil With Hitler [1942]; in fact, I had a college buddy who was obsessed with Bobby Watson’s Hitler roles) and risible horror fare like The Madmen of Mandoras aka They Saved Hitler’s Brain [1963/1968] and Flesh Feast [1970] and the like – but this is very different. Those films, including The Producers, hinge on acknowledging the power of the evil archetype at their core. OUATIH refutes even that. The film refuses to give them any of that power. It posits them as not having any power in the first place.

Though I tried to watch without any expectations – history is history, right? Going in only armed with my knowledge of the actual real-world history – Polanski, Tate, Manson, the murders – once the movie began, I forgot about the title of the movie: OUATIH as evocation of a fairy tale, an adult fairy tale, and all that a fairy tale evocation can or might mean. Having forgotten that title, and being sucked into the experience of the narrative and sensuality of the movie (its characters, its movement, its momentum), seeing the movie the first time I couldn’t shake its mounting sense of dread. Even the comedic moments, the character bits that made me laugh (Cliff feeding his dog), fueled the slow fuse burning, the steadily mounting dread. The whole Spahn Ranch sequence reminded me of the uncanny power of passages in David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007).

SHANE: Yes, I felt the sense of dread build up throughout the film, not just through my knowledge of real-life events but through the carefully-drawn out sequence that brought Cliff Booth to the Spahn ranch to see his old pal George. It struck me that there was no relief to be had there. We might have chuckled at the revelation of George Spahn being played by a cantankerous Bruce Dern, and we may have cheered for Cliff when he kicked some ass and managed to leave the ranch in one piece, but at no point was the menace that had been hanging over the whole film diminished. Given Inglourious Basterds, I held hope that we’d still get that relief; that the film really was building up to such a release, but I didn’t let that sigh (not to mention that laugh) escape until it had actually transpired.

STEVE: I thought I knew where it was going: that all of Tarantino’s fictional components were still going to arrive at the predetermined-by-reality destination. The final passage genuinely startled, shocked, exhilarated me – pulled the rug right out from under me, so to speak. And still, I was tense, giddy but fearing the worst might still follow. Once the “impossible” happened, all bets were off – anything was possible: it could become more horrific. That didn’t change until the moment the gate opened and Rick and Jay began to walk up the driveway and the Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean musical motif began, and the title of the film finally appeared on the screen. That is when I relaxed, smiled, and it became an instant contact high. I was strangely euphoric, intoxicated by something I’d never, ever entertained for a nanosecond in half-a-century: yeah, what if? What if the murders hadn’t happened? We’d have never heard of Manson, then. We’d have never heard of any of the Family. You’re right, it took their power away.

By 1971, Manson and the Family had usurped Aleister Crowley as a cultural bogeyman. He and they had become the new archetype of and for human evil, demonized and supernaturalized into something terribly omnipresent. That’s what I grew up with from age 16 onward: Manson as the face of cult leadership – human,  yet more than human. Every cult, every cult leader, that followed were just another extension of Manson-as-bogeyman, right up to the political power cults we are living with and under today: cults of personality, dominating and omnipresent patriarchal monsters, all faces of Manson.

OUATIH dissipates, deflates all that. Manson is barely visible. He has one fleeting scene, unnamed, a drifter (sans his beard) at the door who is waved away – and the rest of the movie gradually erodes and ultimately takes it all away. That’s pretty potent movie magic.

Kim, recently on Facebook, you made a very interesting reference to Robert D. Krzykowski’s The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot (2018) in a conversation we were having about Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner’s excellent Charlie Says (2018), which I caught this year.

KIM: Typically, I’ve forgotten the reference I made! I really ought to keep track of my social media posts.

STEVE:  If I may quote you…  “Interesting that all three current Manson movies include ‘What If’ sequences: Lulu imagining she rides off with the biker in Charlie Says and a raft of alternate outcomes to the murder scene in the other two. The Haunting of Sharon Tate [Daniel Ferrands, 2019] offers an even more radical revision than Tarantino as – in one variant – Tate and Company slaughter their murderers. Also, bonus points for the apt casting of Lydia Hearst as Abigail Folger… Bad Times at the El Royale [Drew Goddard, 2018] also has a Manson analog and dishes out a wish-fulfillment punishment to him. I did wonder what happened to Manson in the Beatles-free alternate universe of Yesterday [Danny Boyle, 2019], too. Tarantino (and Danny Boyle/screenwriter Richard Curtis too) are drawn to change key points in history, but not much given to thinking about what would happen next – or a few years down the line. What would the rest of the 20th century look like, given the finales of Inglourious Basterds or OUATIH? The Man Who Killed Hitler and Then the Bigfoot explicitly states that its big change to the record has not affected subsequent history one whit. Is this a drawing away from that cycle of films a few years back – The Butterfly Effect (2004), A Sound of Thunder (2005), etc. – that posited even tiny amendments to a timestream would have cumulative and unpredictable results?”

KIM: Thanks for finding that.

TIM: You can go back even further, to the Back To the Future trilogy [Robert Zemeckis, 1985-90], which seemed to stress that an insignificant change made to the past could have riotous, widespread repercussions on the future. It’s an essentially comic idea. But I think OUATIH is expressing something more serious, deeper, and sincere. It’s an expression of what we’re all feeling: a yearning for simpler times, a wish that we could put all the evil genies we live with back in their respective bottles, and not be so bombarded with information and so tempted to engage with other people in intolerant ways.

I personally avoid entertainments about violent true crime, so I’d like to hear more about the other Manson films you’ve all seen, and also other “What If?” scenarios and how they relate to OUATIH.

SHANE: My first real exposure to Manson came when I thumbed through the censored photographs in the Helter Skelter paperback, which I found easily enough on a drugstore book carousel. I wasn’t supposed to watch the TV movie with Steve Railsback, but I did anyway and was mesmerized by that performance. By comparison, I barely remember the remake in the 2000s, but both of those essentially stuck to the true story. I could go on and on with Sweet Savior [1971, with Troy Donahue], The Cult aka The Manson Massacre [1972] (which barely resembled the real events – though I was watching a German-dubbed print with no English subtitles) and so on, but none of these Manson exploitation films have any real bearing on Tarantino’s work. And neither of my two most potentially intriguing “What If?” Manson tales were even movies. I snagged a vintage hardcover of Columbo and the Helter Skelter Murders, which even had Peter Falk’s face on the cover, but the book didn’t come close to its potential: the literary Columbo (who barely resembled the Falk character) never met Manson and never investigated the murders – he ended up interviewing one of the Family on a related case. Then there was the NBC series Aquarius with David Duchovny, which interrupted its slow build to the murders with a flash-forward to the aftermath of the crime and presumed to show Manson himself present at the murder house – perhaps to deflect the pointless “Manson didn’t kill anybody himself” distractions.

STEVE: Yeah, the “What If?” angle isn’t new to the Manson movies. Most of the original 1970s Manson movies and TV variations were loopy “What Ifs.” David Durston’s I Drink Your Blood [1970], for instance: “What if someone gave the Family rabies-infected pies?” was a pip! Jim Van Bebber’s Charlie’s Family aka The Manson Family [1988-2004] framed its otherwise “true to life” intensity with a major “What If?” – but this 50-year-batch take it to a whole new level, to an entirely different purpose in each case. I still find Tarantino’s the most compelling and telling of them all.

The curious thing is, had Tarantino toned-down the furious final act, the movie just wouldn’t work. The film’s coiling sense of inevitable, pending horror is a spring that must be released. Some of the ways Tarantino sets that release up are actually quite funny; I love how the early scene in Cliff’s trailer with the dog food not only plays cute for Cliff and his dog, but  – on a primal, gut-level – it establishes just how heavy those fucking cans are, with an unexpected payoff.

TIM: Speaking of story elements introduced early that pay off later: it’s interesting that the acid-laced cigarette – which Cliff scores from another hippie girl, not necessarily allied to the Manson Family – gets filed away for the right evening, which becomes the wrong evening, yet ultimately becomes his ticket to surviving the Family’s break-in and attack. He takes the whole thing on an illusory level, as a malleable reality he can play with. Things might have played out differently if he hadn’t been high. This is one of the things I find most engaging about the movie – the way things work out for all the characters is so arbitrary in terms of what we consider good or evil. Bad things happen to good people, sometimes people get away with their crimes… but, once in a great while, things turn out just the way they should. Usually at the movies.

Strangely enough, OUATIH has attracted a lot of polarized response that doesn’t seem to target anything that’s actually in the movie.

STEVE: I find all this hand-wringing, nay-saying, and accusations of misogyny over OUATIH perversely bemusing – given the historical reality; given Tarantino’s reputation; given what folks paid expecting to see; and given what’s actually onscreen. The OUATIH finale is furious once it arrives, and brilliantly staged, but it’s  easily the least sadistic Manson film ever made, and I’m including both made-for-TV versions of Helter Skelter [1976, 2004] in that lineage. I just spent a few weeks rescreening all of them, and that’s the fact. There isn’t a single Manson/Tate movie made to date that’s as restrained in its violence as OUATIH – nor as merciful to those who were, in the real world, the victims.

What there is in OUATIH isn’t exploitative in the way the first Manson movies out of the gate were: John Waters’ Multiple Maniacs and Russ Meyer’s Beyond the Valley of the Dolls arrived first in the spring of 1970, and just about everything that followed. John Aes-Nihil’s “found footage” Manson Family Movies [1984] and, above all, Jim Van Bebber’s Charlie’s Family offer the most excruciatingly hardcore dramatization of events, and I imagine that’s what folks were anticipating/dreading a Tarantino Manson movie might be. The Haunting of Sharon Tate repeats the massacre mayhem no less than three times (via nightmare, daytime “visions,” as well as the actual murders), then turns the tables for fresh bloodshed.

SHANE: The remark I kept reading over and over, as I tried to make sense out of it, was along the lines of “Tarantino plays women’s suffering for laughs” – as if he hadn’t spared us the most horrific, true-life pain. As if the one Family member to wise up and flee the scene wasn’t a woman. As if Brandy (one of the best movie dogs ever) could have “sicced balls” on a woman. As if the big reveal of the flame-thrower teased at the beginning of the film wasn’t the final howl of hilarity he was going for. And if you’ll forgive another Death Proof flashback, consider the horror of Stuntman Mike’s actions and the sheer glee with which his next batch of would-be-victims take him out. Tarantino only revels in suffering when his villains have it coming.

TIM: I was particularly interested in the way the film takes our accumulating dread concerning Manson – who is not going to become the Manson we know in this movie – and redirects it into Rick Dalton’s performance on the Lancer pilot. I’m always intrigued when a film requires an actor playing an actor to give a performance onscreen that becomes transcendent and redefines their professional range. We also get this in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, when Naomi Watts plays her audition scene with Chad Everett. It’s a very strange kind of meta, seeing an actor who is giving a performance (who won’t know how good a performance he’s giving till it all gets cut together) playing an actor who is giving a performance that must raise their bar, unequivocally. Somehow, in playing this role of the King of the Land Pirates, Caleb DeCouteau, Rick taps into this vivid sense of Evil, his dark side, and it’s the essence of Manson – and his evil feels extended by the child actor in his arms, who is being openly threatened in his performance. I think we may, consciously or subconsciously, think of Sharon Tate’s unborn child, the detail that makes the Tate/La Bianca murders especially horrible. In a strange way, the performance Di Caprio summons – which ends with him throwing the kid roughly to the floor (an improv she actually enjoys and appreciates as a fellow professional) helps to discharge the film’s gathering negative energy as much as anything else that follows. It’s like the performance he gives somehow purges that darkness from a collective unconscious.

KIM: DiCaprio’s performance is all the more remarkable when you consider that he is an A-list movie star and an outstanding actor but thoroughly convincing as a mid-rank mid-career struggling actor of obviously limited range.

STEVE: From Reservoir Dogs [1992] on, Tarantino has been playing with ‘What If?” scenarios. It’s insular in that film – impacting only those in the shockwaves of the botched robbery – but structurally it hinges upon “unreliable narrators” and redefining information we thought, the characters thought, was “true.” (In OUATIH, Cliff is one of the unreliable narrators, via his flashbacks.) Fact is, if we include Tarantino’s screenplays, he’s been playing with these kind of “What If?”  alternate realities all along. True Romance [1993], Natural Born Killers [1994] – understood, however, that Tarantino’s original script was heavily reworked by Oliver Stone, David Veloz, Richard Rutowski, and other hands; even Quentin’s contributions to scripts like Crimson Tide (1995) all take place in alternate universes of a sort. Natural Born Killers references real-world serial killers and murder sprees, but posits an often radically different reality from our own. I get why everyone cites Inglourious Basterds, but they talk about it like it was a “one-trick pony” trick being trotted out again. It didn’t play that way for me. I’ve never walked out of a movie feeling like I did after OUATIH; it was quite liberating.

TIM: As I said in my essay about the film, the 1969 evoked by the film isn’t 1969 as I remember it. Quentin’s about six years younger than me, so his 1969 was my 1962, which I remember as a great year for movies because it was the year when I started taking them seriously – not just new movies, but all movies. But I don’t remember 1969 as a particularly great year. To me, it seemed anti-climactic after 1968; the great movies I saw in 1969 were usually the ones that took a year to reach America – like Once Upon a Time in the West and Spirits of the Dead.

STEVE: I couldn’t help but tally the threads of 1969 Hollywood fare woven into the film’s tapestry. Franco Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet scores highest; it’s a marquee we see very early on, and again in the third act (August) on a marquee boasting “Held Over 8th Month.”

TIM: I noticed that. I was wondering if Quentin might have intended that as a little dig at the movie. I can’t imagine a film like that holding much charm for him at the age of six. He’d have been grinding his teeth at that theater and saying, “C’mon, change the program! Play something good!”

STEVE: It was one of the major hits of that year. It was followed by visible billboards and marquees for Joanna (from Michael Sarne, also a hit which scored enough for him to be entrusted with Myra Breckinridge a year later)…

TIM: It also starred Geneviève Waite, who married John Phillips in 1972, giving the image on the film’s poster a link to The Mamas and Papas, and further on, to Terry Melcher.

STEVE: …  Pendulum, They Came To Rob Las Vegas, The Sergeant, Sweet Charity, Funny Girl, Ice Station Zebra, McKenna’s Gold, Three In the Attic (also a hit for American-International, scoring a Top 40 song hit heard in OUATIH and a semi-sequel a year later), Krakatoa – East of Java (one of the last Cinerama movies), Lady In Cement (Frank Sinatra detective movie, another hit, co-billed with the lesser known but far superior Pretty Poison at the drive-in Cliff lives next to)… and, of course, The Wrecking Crew, among others.

TIM: Pretty Poison might be foreshadowing the introduction of Margaret Qualley’s Pussycat character.

STEVE: We hear a radio ad for The Illustrated Man at one point, too. I’m sure money/licensing rights determined in part which movie trailers/previews would be visible – C.C. and Company, the Joe Namath biker movie, and Three In the Attic were minor hits, and their trailers are in public domain), and they are month-and-year appropriate. Only so many movies were onscreen and in theaters in February and August of 1969, after all.

Addressing the complaints I’ve heard from some quarters, Tarantino only plays up one title: Sergio Corbucci’s The Mercenary, promoted in the lobby of the theater where The Wrecking Crew is playing; The Mercenary actually barely played in the US, though no doubt it did land Los Angeles play dates.

TIM: I checked and – though it hardly matters in the context of an imaginary tale – it didn’t actually play Los Angeles till mid-October 1970. Kevin Thomas reviewed it for The Los Angeles Times as the co-feature to Cannon For Cordoba, which Thomas said opened with “45 minutes of unrelieved tedium.” He didn’t go too far out of his way to be kind to The Mercenary, but he did say “Mercifully, it moves a lot faster.” In a strange way, by depicting it as the movie about to follow The Wrecking Crew in that theater, Tarantino is positioning Sharon Tate and Rick Dalton as next-door neighbors of a different sort, since Rick – by this time – has made his own Western with Corbucci.

STEVE: Exactly. The Mercenary sets up the Sergio Corbucci/Spaghetti Western story thread, along with the fictional Rick Dalton grimacing face we see in the first color shot of the movie – an imaginary poster based on one of those in the real world for Corbucci’s Navajo Joe, the one with Burt Reynolds’ agonized face under a boot. So the front-loading of The Mercenary is justifiable, I reckon. It’s a movie-lovin’ movie, for sure.

KIM: One effect of the ending of OUATIH is to prompt thoughts of alternate timeline careers for its showbiz characters.  It’s a sub-sub-genre of science fiction I’m interested in; my story “The Pierce Arrow Stalled, and …” is about what might have happened if Fatty Arbuckle hadn’t made it to that party. I’ve also played around a lot with Hollywood vampires in the Anno Dracula novels and I also did “Another Fish Story” – a Spahn Ranch Cthulhu Mythos tale, featuring Manson, Al Adamson, and Lon Chaney Jr.!

Considering a Sharon Tate living past 1969, it’s hard – with the best will in the world – to see her having, say, the career of a Faye Dunaway or Jane Fonda, or even a Candice Bergen or Jill Clayburgh: good reviews, star billing, awards nominations, interesting directors, challenging films, occasional flops interspersed with solid commercial work.  Tate was never asked to carry a picture on her own, and I doubt she could have managed without special tailoring.  Barbara Parkins and Patty Duke are stronger than her in Valley of the Dolls, and neither really prospered in the ‘70s, though Duke had an Oscar on her shelf.  A look at the other American women of the Matt Helm films isn’t encouraging: only Ann-Margret, already a dynamite screen presence, maintained an A-list career, while the obviously talented Stella Stevens never really found the signature film roles she deserved (same with others of her generation like Mariette Hartley, Paula Prentiss or Sydne Rome) and Janice Rule remains as underappreciated now as she was then. She’s the best thing in The Ambushers. Seeing Rumer Willis as Joanna Pettet made me look her up; she’s much more vivid than Tate in any of her late 1960s films, but the ‘70s found her doing Rick Dalton-like TV guest spots, in which she is invariably terrific, and weird items like The Evil and Welcome to Arrow Beach.

TIM: In terms of her acting career, I find Joanna Pettet most memorable for playing Mata Bond in the original Casino Royale [1967] and for having appeared in four episodes of Night Gallery! Whenever I tune into a rerun, it seems like she’s in it! She’s in the movie only because, historically, she’s known to be one of the last people to see Sharon Tate alive. They had lunch together at the Cielo Drive house on the afternoon of the murders. Sadly, I think there’s a weight of truth in what you’re saying…

KIM: In the early 1970s, Tate would have seemed old-fashioned next to Cybill Shepherd, Sissy Spacek, Goldie Hawn, Katharine Ross, Barbara Hershey or Karen Black.  She’s effectively creepy in Eye of the Devil, but I doubt if she could have carried off Tuesday Weld’s role in Pretty Poison.  Maybe she’d have shot a few studio pictures (the Carol Lynley part in The Poseidon Adventure?), then found better roles in TV movies. She could easily have done the sort of light suspense Lynda Day George starred in or had a guest shot as George Peppard’s romantic/professional rival of the week on Banacek – and perhaps landed a sitcom or series co-lead.

Part of the wistfulness of Tarantino’s 1969 is that he is invested in the type of studio actors, filmmakers and TV and film genres that were already on the endangered list. Lancer, for instance, is a show with no lasting profile among my peers in the UK. I looked it up and found out the reason why I never saw it – and no one I know ever saw it – was that it aired on BBC2 in the timeslot when Doctor Who was airing on BBC1!  My assumption is that Roman Polanski wouldn’t have put her in Chinatown, and would probably not have stayed married to her long. I can conceive of a few plum supporting parts an older Tate might have been a fit for – Lee Remick in The Omen, Tina Louise in The Stepford Wives, Meryl Streep in Manhattan – but she’d have had to fight to get them.

STEVE: Kim, I’ve wondered about that, too. TV movie roles, overseas parts, seem more believably likely for post-1970-Sharon than Sharon popping up in Polanski’s Macbeth as Lady Macbeth, in Chinatown in the crucial Faye Dunaway role, or even in Polanski’s What?, but – as the film posits – one never knows. Her buying the Thomas Hardy Tess rare edition for Roman in ONCE UPON A TIME… hinted at possibilities, but your assessment of her range based on the real-world record is fair enough.

TIM: The scene of her buying the first edition of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (which the book-lover in me thought she proceeded to treat awfully cavalierly – she doesn’t even ask for a bag!) is based on a true story, and it’s one that points to the real life tragedy because – had she lived – she would have been too old to play the part that went to Nastassja Kinski.

SHANE: As Polanski’s gruesome Macbeth is often considered the director’s response to his tragedy, would he even have made such an intense interpretation had the murders never happened? There’s a whole new “What If?” trajectory to consider from there.

TIM: I don’t know if it’s an apocryphal story or not, but I remember reading somewhere an anecdote from the set of that film, as Polanski was adding extra blood to a group of slain bodies. He was talking to one of the dead women and asked her name. She said, “Sharon.”

KIM: Tate, of course, didn’t get a chance for a second act because she was murdered. Tarantino has said that Rick Dalton is at least in part based on Peter Duel, star of Season One of Alias Smith & Jones, who committed suicide at the height of his popularity – and was replaced by Roger Davis as the series limped to cancellation. As far as I know, it was the last hit network TV western series (as opposed to miniseries like Lonesome Dove or cable show like Deadwood); it was a ratings winner in Britain, where it took over a Friday early evening slot from The Virginian (also a big hit in the UK).  I wondered if there wasn’t also some Nick Adams in Rick… Adams starred in The Rebel, a 1959 Western show with a cool theme song, then never quite clicked as a movie star (Young Dillinger, Mission Mars, Die Monster Die!) and guested on a ton of TV shows.  Where Dalton went to Italy, Adams went to Japan and appeared in Frankenstein Conquers the World and Monster Zero before dying of an overdose in 1967.  DiCaprio even gets that weasely itchy-in-his-own skin look that made Adams – an intense if not first-rank method actor whose resentment of the films he was making seems palpable – curiously unlikeable as a screen presence.

STEVE: You’re right about how DiCaprio’s performance captures and communicates elements of that decade’s Nick Adams roles. Since we’re talking about foreign film roles, Rick isn’t any Russ Tamblyn, but if he’d last long enough, might we have seen Rick Dalton pop up in 1990 in Twin Peaks?

KIM:  A thing that I think bubbles under is that, in the finale, the divergence from history doesn’t only save the real Sharon Tate but the fictional Rick Dalton, who – to go by the real people he is parallel with – would be doomed, if not to an early death (though that’s possible – even Steve McQueen didn’t outlive the ‘70s by much) then to obscurity. I reckon he’d be more likely to go the sleazy exploitation film/possible camp reappraisal route of Tab Hunter than end up in Twin Peaks.  But thanks to the movie gods – and Cliff – he’s let into the charmed circle at the end …

I wonder if Tarantino isn’t envisioning an alternate 1970s that might connect with the world of Reservoir Dogs – all the great sounds of the real decade, but with sharp 1950s suits and Rat Pack cool staying in style.

TIM: There’s really no shortage of models for the kind of actor Rick Dalton is. The official model for Rick and Cliff, Quentin has said, is Burt Reynolds (his first choice to play George Spahn) and Hal Needham, but you could also point to actors like Gary Lockwood (who started out stunt-doubling for Patrick Wayne), Jock Mahoney and Leo Gordon. Gordon was not only an actor and stuntman, but a writer who wrote scripts that got made. He wrote The Wasp Woman for Roger Corman! Jock Mahoney had a series lead in Yancy Derringer (one of my most beloved Western series) and went on to play Tarzan in a couple of underrated features.

KIM: A few late ‘50s TV western leads – Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood – became authentic A-list movie stars, while James Garner remained a top TV name (and did interesting film work) by taking more interest in the kind of things he made than Rick seems to. Otherwise, Eric Fleming was (reputedly) eaten by piranha; Richard Boone reverted to being a great bad guy; Clint Walker and Chuck Connors got solid roles based on their stature and glower (either would have been my pick for Judge Dredd); Peter Brown (Lawman, Laredo) went into soaps. Many of the second-tier cowboy stars seemed to view their stints as a series lead as an anomaly and seemed more comfortable with the character roles they played before and after top billing.

TIM: I think the film gives us a pretty clear prediction of where Rick’s life is most likely headed: an early death from lung cancer. Which is a future he would share with Gary Cooper, Robert Mitchum, Steve McQueen, Chuck Connors…

STEVE: John Wayne!

TIM: Absolutely. All of them, in their way, immortal.


© 2019 by Tim Lucas with Stephen R. Bissette, Shane M. Dallmann and Kim Newman. All rights reserved.


[1] The Fearless Vampire Killers aired as The CBS Late Movie on February 18, 1972; Eye of the Devil on May 10 of that same year.

[2] See Maverick, “Duel At Sundown,” Season 2, Episode 19, 1959.

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