Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)

Dir. Quentin Tarantino. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie

This is a recent release at the time of publication, so I’ll throw a generic “spoilers” alert up for it.

There was a friend of Bob Rafelson’s named Donna Greenberg, who recalled a story about a weekend morning when she was at home with her children and a bunch of hippies came into her house. By her account, she was “petrified” of them, although she didn’t try to kick them out, and they didn’t do much besides look around and make light conversation. The punchline is that this was the Manson family that wandered into her home. When the murders did happen, they beat that optimistic, nearly foolish vibe out of these people like people beat rugs. Our democracy is not about the Constitution or federalism or any of that silliness; where that feeling of shared community comes from all too often is in the knowledge that any of us might be murdered by some maniac at any time. Gun violence has democratized the process even further—it is all too clear that we are just chum in the water for these misogynist white supremacists with an axe to grind and a clip to empty—but in that little sliver of time in August of ’69, a Hollywood fiefdom closed their doors with prejudice because all of them knew that what happened to Sharon Tate and her friends could have just as easily happened to them. Quentin Tarantino, whose best work approaches might-have-beens wonderfully, applies that same logic to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a movie which slightly redirects Manson’s disciples to a house next door to Sharon Tate’s. The might-have-been is not as potent as the one from Inglourious Basterds, and its lack of closure robs it of what makes our knowledge of Vincent Vega’s ultimate fate in Pulp Fiction so fascinating. But it’s good enough to work. Ironically, it comes at the expense of an entirely different story. Before Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) jets off to Italy to star in spaghetti westerns, Once Upon a Time throws itself at something which I’d never seen in Tarantino’s work before: an idea.

The Trojan horse for this idea is in a plot that’s gotta be as old as the Trojan horse: a man realizes that his career is on the downturn. Rick Dalton is still a little young for this problem, but it happens to many actors who are simply no longer in vogue. In a meeting with the producer Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino), Schwarz tells Dalton that continuing to play “the heavy” in TV shows is going to ruin the old star image that people kept of Dalton as the tough, cool star of Bounty Law until there’s simply no going back. These words are echoing in our minds and certainly in his as he prepares for his next shoot, the pilot of a show called Lancer. The director, Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond, so unexpected I looked in three places to see if it was really him), has an idea for the way he wants Dalton to look. I want him to look modern, he tells his costume designer. I want him to look like one of those hippies, I want to be able to drop him off on the street and for no one to give him a second glance. Dalton tries to interject a little—he doesn’t care much for hippies—and it’s funny. At least, it’s funny until we realize that the person Wanamaker has dressed Dalton up as is Charles Manson. (Wanamaker, for his part, sees “evil Hamlet” in Dalton’s performance, which is a fabulously dweeby pairing.) The character Caleb DeCoteau is seriously engaging, so much so that I wish he were the part that DiCaprio played in Django Unchained instead of the badly calibrated Calvin Candie. There’s real menace in the performance, and it’s the first step to giving Dalton the confidence he needs to go forth and rebuild his career. No one is yelling at him because he was a drunk mess, people forgive him for forgetting a line here and there, he is even praised by his adorably Method pre-teen co-star, Trudi (Julia Butters). What matters—or, let’s put it this way, what I had hoped would matter most—was the Manson performance.

Much later on, Sadie Atkins (Mikey Madison) goes on a rant about an understanding she’s come to. We learned to murder from the media, she says. It’s time for us to murder the ones who taught us how to do it. This gets a huzzah from the assembled Mansonites in the car with her, and that’s when they plan to go murder not Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring and company, but Rick Dalton. There’s a recursive element being played up here which is very interesting. (It comes in a different flavor in the scenes with Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie as amiable and slightly bland. She goes into a theater playing The Wrecking Crew just to watch herself do pratfalls with Dean Martin, and she smiles warmly whenever she hears pinpricks of laughter in the audience. The real Sharon Tate is in the audience, but the one people are interested in is on the screen. We’ve seen this before as well, which takes the thrill out of the scene, though I would argue that those scenes in the movie theater are as good as any other in the picture.) Since this is a Tarantino movie, what happens instead is that Rick, Cliff (Pitt), and Cliff’s dog (who has a very sweet face) kill the three Manson family members using teeth, bricks, and of course, a flamethrower. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is lousy with recreations of that late ’60s moment. While Rick and Cliff are driving in the first few minutes of the movie with the radio on, I was afraid someone would namedrop one TV show too many and then that show would fall like a hailstone right between my eyes. Tarantino is asking us to believe in the false historicity of the picture, in the falseness of seeing oneself on the big screen, in the recreations of individuals which are removed a step beyond false purely through intimation. That is an idea. And it’s an idea which, if it ever receives a payoff, gets that payoff by asking, “So, what if someone had killed the Mansons who showed up on Cielo?” and then never actually caring what the answer is beyond, “Well, first of all, they’d be dead.” Rick Dalton in the Manson costume never really means something in the end. It’s just another Easter egg, like watching the lights come on at El Coyote, or a marquee shouting for you to see Pendulum with Jean Seberg, or a movie directed by Antonio Margheriti, who we’ve already seen a reference for in Tarantino.

With all that said, this still has to rank pretty highly among Tarantino’s oeuvre. I stayed out of the “rank the Tarantino movies” game on Twitter while that was happening, mostly because I have never caught up to Jackie Brown, but I don’t feel bad saying this is his third or fourth best. Like The Hateful Eight, there are stretches which are perfectly entertaining even though we feel like we’ve seen them before. The alternate history ending, like I said up there, works. I don’t know that I necessarily need to see Tarantino’s transformation into Harry Turtledove, but it’s functional. I almost laughed out loud at how many bare feet there are in this movie, which is the clearest sign that Tarantino definitely reads about himself on the Internet. We have come a long way from inserts snuck in here and there; by now they are just in the foreground, and you just have to admire the pure chutzpah. I was relieved not to see him take on the history of racism in this country, which usually comes off as the most tone-deaf karaoke. The Bruce Lee bit comes off, in the context of this loving ode to the late ’60s, as nostalgic for a time when tough, silent white guys beat up mouthy people of color, and I dunno, maybe in the director’s cut that comes out in a few years they’ll leave that totally useless scene out. (They won’t.) But there are things which felt different. Tarantino is a good technician who likes to prove he’s a good technician. There’s nothing all that showoffish, though, in tracking shots which follow people moving in their straight lines, or in crane shots which look down at sets and private residences alike, or in recreating the look of Cliff driving out of Cielo Drive to Roman Polanski doing the same. They aren’t done to show off, but they do engage us in a land that is foreign to what one supposes is his primary fanbase: men under the age of forty-five. We can see what’s appealing about the time, back when it was “simpler” and “carefree,” even as little nods to Sirhan Sirhan and the Vietnam War trickle past. Of course it never was those things, but then again, who would know when Michelle Phillips and Mama Cass are careening around the Playboy Mansion?

The movie’s best scene, which works because of Tarantino’s ability to work us through the paces of a somewhat self-knowing dread, takes place at the Spahn ranch. Cliff has been running into Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) all throughout Los Angeles, and finally he has the leeway to pick her up when she puts out her thumb. It’s halfway to a ribald little farce, although Cliff is too canny to let it get there: insofar as refusing to go to prison for “poon tang” is advice, it’s certainly good advice. Arriving at the ranch, complete with a lengthy dolly shot trucking right, is a little ghostly on its own merits. The light sand is swirling a little bit. Spahn’s ranch belongs to the old Hollywood of Yakima Canutt and Ben Johnson, not the trending one of Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. It seems fitting that Cliff Booth, who could conceivably bridge both, is the first one who gets a sense of what’s coming. What’s great about the scene is not so much the implied danger as it is the surprising truth. For several minutes, it’s obvious that Cliff is convinced George Spahn has been murdered. “Naptime” doesn’t seem a likely story when Pussycat says it, and certainly not from the mouth of Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning). By now, even if our initial thought at seeing Pussycat wasn’t “She’s a Manson girl,” we have certainly made that connection at this point. All our sensors are going off. There is a long push against Cliff entering the house to see George (Bruce Dern), and yet when he does make his way in, George is exactly as Squeaky said he would be. There’s not a traditional payoff here, but that’s what makes this such a great scene. Even in the absence of a corpse, the uncanny is still tingling in our spines.

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