During my first viewing of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, his ninth feature-length film in 27 years, I was in hangout heaven. I marinated in the world. I took in the sights of the sun-drenched and lazy Los Angeles of 1969 and pulsed to the pop sounds pouring from the speakers in the film into the theater I resided in. Most of all, however, I laughed. I was amused by every action and every little detail that was projected on screen. From one character agreeing too emphatically with a television set that musicians are crazy, to another saying he should have only had three or four whiskey sours instead of eight. It was a veritable spread of everything from bemused chuckles to chortled belly laughs.
Yet, on my second viewing I sat misty-eyed and melancholy through a good portion of its 165 minute runtime. Every scene of an actor flagellating himself for dropping a few lines turned from amusing to worrying. Moments where two friends sit and provide beer-buzzed audio commentary to a primetime TV show went from hearty laughs to knowing chuckles (ok, I still laughed pretty hard at a good portion of it) because for how comfortable and inviting the California on the brink of major change is, I know that change is going to bring about the end of many things. That’s when it occurred to me that I was not just watching a love letter to a time gone by but another and likely final entry in Tarantino’s oeuvre of unconventional westerns, westerns that not only honor the age-old tradition of creating myth (as the reporter in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance says, “When legend becomes fact, print the legend”) but goes out of their way to dispel old ones in favor of the ugly truth, or in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood’s case, beauty and peace to those who deserve it most.
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is a triptych of a bygone era. It tells the story of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man whose career started in the ’50s and was lucky enough to have a starring role on an NBC television show called Bounty Law. He walked away from the show at the height of its popularity to star in a couple of movies called Tanner and The 14 Fists of McCluskey (which bears a charming resemblance to the real-life 1969 Burt Lancaster vehicle Castle Keep), only for him to return to television when his career is on the slow decline, having to take one-time parts as the bad-guy-of-the-week on other TV shows. Producer Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) offers Rick an opportunity to do a package of spaghetti western/spy movies with director Sergio Corbucci and Antonio Margheriti instead of playing a fading relic each week on television. As Rick contemplates his irrelevance his stunt double, right-hand man, and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is there to comfort him and keep Rick’s ship afloat, all while he contemplates moments where his own career went south and a young girl from the Manson family (Margaret Qualley) catches his eye. Cliff’s shady past and odd temperament make it clear that there’s more than Rick’s floundering career at fault for Cliff’s own lack of employment. All the while, living right next door to Rick on Cielo Drive is director Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) and his wife, actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Tate, somewhat new to the silver screen, takes joy in her fledgling career and breaths that same joy into every frame of the film she appears in.
From there a story slowly unfolds about three souls trying to find their footing at a time there isn’t much solid ground to walk on. The Hollywood New Wave is about to take over and actors of the previous era (especially men as portrayals of masculinity evolved drastically during the ’60s) are grasping at whatever straws they can grip. Rick himself is an amalgamation of many different actors including Burt Reynolds, Tab Hunter, Edd Byrnes and Steve McQueen. In a kind of homage, Rick even bears a resemblance to the dual roles Lee Marvin portrayed in the 1969 film Cat Ballou, both a former golden boy gunslinger-turned-alcoholic and a scenery-chewing heavy. Cliff himself is a bit of a mixture of actor Robert Wagner, a charming person with a past murkier than a puddle of mud, and stuntmen Bud Ekins and Hal Needham, who had formed close-knit relationships to their A-list compadres.
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is so much more than the ephemera that Tarantino so often fetishizes. Much like his last three films, this one is also a revisionist history flick as it looks at a tragedy that effectively ended a mood and movement, elevated a two-bit pimp and psychopath to a deity, and turned a real woman into an object of tragedy, and decides to undercut and demystify the myth. This isn’t new territory for Tarantino. His previous film, The Hateful Eight, a post-Civil War Agatha Christie riff, was a screed against the comforting lies white people will accept about their country to keep the status quo, and those very same lies black people have to use to keep their heads above water. In that film, Tarantino wanted to take away the power Abraham Lincoln’s name invokes as the man who ended slavery. He does something similar in his 2012 film Django Unchained, in which he sets up an pre-Civil War exploitation film about slavery featuring a shining white savior only for that very same savior to die from his ill-advised self-righteousness. This leaves the titular Django Freeman in a dire position that he not only pulls himself out of, but rises to become a mythic figure of the Antebellum south. As that figure, he gives hopes to those around him by demystifying the institution of slavery and takes that power from those undeserving of it.
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood has the same sort of goal. The film wants to take aim at the iconography that scarred the psyche of American culture for 50 years. It presents the Manson family as exactly what it was: a bunch of impressionable, abused, sick women and men (but mostly women) who were being led by a con man to take advantage of their surroundings as opposed to creating any sort of actual independent society of their own. It presents Sharon Tate as a woman with a complicated circumstance in life but also a person who’s happy and enjoying her small slice of fame and privilege so much that she can’t help but to just…dance. It even demystifies the male icons of the film. However effortlessly cool someone like Rick Dalton could make a scene in a western feel, we get to see him struggle with the grind of a work-a-day actor and his own insecurity at his status as leading man. Cliff Booth may be sexy, nimble and satisfied but we see a black ambiguity that lurks behind his sunglasses and denim jackets. Tarantino is so dead-set on the notion of demystification that he even takes shots at Bruce Lee (a hero of his) in a way that has raised eyebrows from some and has been met with understanding from others.
Either way, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood taps into this demystification vein for what makes the melancholy I feel in this movie so powerful. It demystifies because no matter what, like all good westerns, it’s about the end of an era. No matter what outcomes are changed from real history, Hollywood and the country as a whole will continue to leave this version of itself behind, as will the Rick Daltons and Cliff Booths of the world. What Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood wants to do is to make that ending a little happier.
Wounded Galaxies 1968 celebrated the 50th anniversary of a number of films from the late ’60s in the fall of 2018.
David Yoder has two degrees in drawing comics, but he probably spends more time watching movies than drawing comics. He’s watched the 5-hour TV edit of Fanny and Alexander and also every Planet of the Apes movie (including the Tim Burton one).
David Carter is a film lover and a menace. He plays jazz from time to time but asks you not to hold that against him. His taste in movies bounces from Speed Racer to The Holy Mountain and everything in between.