Quentin Tarantino almost gets it totally right
At his very best, Quentin Tarantino leverages his encyclopedic knowledge of all corners of cinema and cinematic conventions into movies structured around innovative narrative strategies, filled with quirky characters spouting iconoclastic dialogue punctuated by visceral moments of violence. He makes it work even if you personally don’t know any of the references and never stopped to think about how stories are told for even one second of your life. At his worst, QT employs harsh, racist language he has no business using, perpetrates horrific violence on human beings for maybe only a laugh, and has a habit of punishing his actresses, either cinematically or literally. Tarantino is often at his best and his worst in the same movie (uh, The Hateful Eight, anybody?). The highs are so high it can be easy to float past the abyssal potholes. I am never quite comfortable whole heartedly loving a Quentin Tarantino work, even the ones I admire the hell out of. Tarantino’s latest (and possibly penultimate, if you believe that kind of thing) Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood is no exception, though I think it strikes the best balance between the highs and lows Tarantino has ever managed.
In OUATIH (is that more or less clumsy than the official title, IDK), Leonard DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a former TV star whose career has degenerated into a series of guest spots as villains on the hot shows of the day. Brad Pitt is Cliff Booth, his stunt double from back when, now Rick’s chauffeur and stunt-handyman (let’s just say Cliff Booth don’t need no stinkin’ ladder to get on anyone’s roof). It is quickly established that Rick drinks too much and smokes too much — the state of dysfunction in Rick’s lungs is one of Leo’s major tics throughout the film, for better or possibly for worse — and just generally doesn’t know what do with his life.
Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood (ok, that is more clumsy) is set in motion by Dalton’s meeting with Marvin Schwarzs, an agent played by with schmaltzy charm by Al Pacino, who drops truth bombs on the state of Dalton’s career that the insecure, not especially talented, but not introspective enough to put his finger on it middle-aged rich white dude is not totally equipped to handle. The throes of Rick’s career crisis are at the center of all of the events in the film, some of which are rendered quite spectacularly, especially the extended time we spend on set with Rick as the baddie of the week on someone else’s TV show, a sequence that features an ultra-meta turn from Timothy Olyphant as an actor playing a 19th century gunslinger (not even the most meta aspect of the film, tbh) and a freaking brilliantly intense turn from child actor Julia Butters. I have a certain degree of impatience for a film so centered on a middle-aged white dude’s inadequacies and his ability to temporarily overcome them, like we’ve done that a lot in the history of the world, yawn. If you’re gonna do it, do it with as much investment in exploring the dude’s inadequacies as Tarantino and DiCaprio have in OUATIH.
Cliff Booth is Dalton’s mirror image, a man impervious to the notion of introspection. Pitt sells Cliff’s swagger hard, which we glean is born of a life lived on the ragged edge, disconnected from the present by the horrors of his past (a timely “a goddamned war hero” comment from Rick in a flashback, along with casual mentions of real-life Medal of Honor winner turned Hollywood actor and noted PTSD sufferer Audie Murphy suggests that Cliff’s equanimity is as much pathology as it is personality). He is profoundly unperturbed, including by his own violence. Cliff’s self-medicated levelness is the counterpoint to Rick’s neurotic, self-medicated insecurity. Pitt gets to play a stunning parody of himself, or the self that ends up in the pages of People and other, much less reputable gossip mags at any rate, a golden California god who lives in a dump and picks up after an actor well on his way out of the Hollywood life who nobody but the hitchhiking hippy girls notice. One hippy catches his attention as well, Pussycat, played by Margaret Qualley, who does amazing work, a Manson family member magnetically attracted to the more dangerous edges of Cliff’s personality before being disappointed to discover he’s a bit of a cop.
It’s entirely possible that your mileage with Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood will vary in direct proportion to the amount of knowledge you have about Charles Manson’s Hollywood. I’m no Charles Manson expert, but I’ve read Helter Skelter and Joan Didion’s The White Album, and I listened to Karina Longworth. I would describe my Manson knowledge as slightly more than cursory. That was enough to plant the seeds of a hard knot in the pit of my stomach from the opening scene, a promo interview that must have been shot at Spahn Ranch, a location that features prominently in the Manson narrative. Those seeds blossomed into a dead weight in my soul during the horror movie slow burn reveal that Rick Dalton lives on Cielo Drive and then flowered horribly by the time Tarantino shows us the happy dumpster diving of some carefree young women who could only be members of the Manson family. Cliff’s eventual return to Spahn Ranch to drop off Pussycat will either be an incredibly tense sequence based on what you know about what some these women will end up doing or an incredibly weird sequence where Tarantino frames all these hippies as dangerous characters like a patriarchal square. Tarantino treats information on Manson and the family the same way he treats your knowledge of spaghetti westerns: if you get it, you get it, and if you don’t, well, it’s not your movie.
It’s an unfortunate miss if you don’t experience suspense out at Spahn Ranch, but If you’re not at least vaguely aware of how Sharon Tate died, the way Tate hangs over every every aspect of Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood is liable to be incomprehensible. Tate, played here with open-eyed sweetness (who the hell thought that would be a description of a Tarantino character?!) by Margot Robbie, does not get a lot of dialogue, but her presence is felt through out the film. A lot of time, this feels like a kind of veneration of (quasi-religious) icon Sharon Tate, which didn’t quite sit right with me. Until late in the film when Sharon Tate goes to the movies.
She isn’t originally going to see a movie, her errand is to buy a copy of Tess of the D’urbervilles (this is a thing we do not have time to get into). In the process, she stumbles on a movie theater showing HER movie, ok, it’s Dean Martin’s movie, The Wrecking Crew, but she’s in it! Errand accomplished, she just can’t resist, she goes up asks about the price of a ticket and in a flash of inspiration makes her first timid attempts to flex the possibility of her stardom: “What if you’re in the movie?” Tarantino holds us in suspense over whether Sharon will be crushed by the brutal indifference of movie workers in a movie town for a bit before setting us and Sharon on a glide path to one of the most delightfully sweet sequences Tarantino has ever created.
Sharon scoots her way into the theater, puts on her enormous glasses, you know the extra stylish kind you get to prove to yourself it’s ok you need them but which you don’t wear except when no one is looking, kicks off her shoes, and settles in (this is Robbie as Tate settling in to watch the actual footage of Sharon Tate — THIS is the most meta moment of the movie). She’s trepidatious, almost like she hasn’t seen the movie yet (very possible). She watches her first scene with Dean Martin, a bit of suggestive slapstick, on tenterhooks. The audience titters. Robbie/Tate is shocked, she seems to have forgotten the rest of the audience was there. By the end of The Wrecking Crew, Robbie/Tate is beaming. When she walks out of that theater, she feels great about her career and about her life. She is, in this sequence, a parallel to Cliff and Rick watching Rick’s episode of The FBI on his couch and a counterpoint, a foil for the grizzled veterans of the small screen talk shop, thrilled to be on that screen still, but almost take it for granted, as opposed to the young, emerging creative woman who gets unexpected affirmation of her career choices, big and small.
And holy shit. I have LIVED those moments that lit up Margot Robbie’s face. One of the privileges of working in live theater is that I don’t have to wait quite as long for those moments, though they do not necessarily happen on every show, but when it does? When an audience not only accepts our work, but welcomes it? There are few rushes like it, it is absolutely addicting. Tarantino took the time to show us Tate getting hooked on being good at what she does, a moment of pure cinematic generosity. And that’s when he cuts from February to August of 1969.
If you are a fan of Tarantino and/or you’ve seen Inglorious Basterds or have been online like at all the last two weeks, it will not be difficult to figure out how Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood ends, at least in its broad strokes. But if you would rather experience it yourself, I’ll catch you later. Y’all been warned.
I wondered throughout the screening whether Tarantino would pull an Inglorious Basterds with OUATIH. I adore Inglorious Basterds EXCEPT for that alternate history nonsense. But . . . which ending to Sharon Tate’s story would be worse to see on screen, the real one or some revenge fantasy Tarantino concocted? After Tate walked out of that theater on cloud nine, I had my answer. Depicting her savage murder would be a betrayal of everything that made the movie work, every generous instinct that animated it (again, still weird to write about a Tarantino joint). It made me think of True Romance, which QT wrote but sold to finance Reservoir Dogs, directed by Tony Scott. I used to be the kind person who would watch a movie multiple times to drink in all the commentaries. On the True Romance collector’s edition, Scott and Tarantino talk, separately, about the ending. In Tarantino’s script, Alabama and Clarence die in the final standoff. QT acknowledges that Scott did not make the movie he would have made, but he understood Tony’s choices. Tony Scott admits that after spending all that time with these characters, he just couldn’t bring himself to kill them. And now QT, in his loving, nostalgic look at the Hollywood that was(ish) finds himself in the same place: he, thankfully, just can’t bring himself to kill his heroine. There’s no exact equivalent of “You’re so cool, you’re so cool, you’re so cool” in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood but we do get a reeling and still kind of drunk Rick Dalton getting invited up to budding star Sharon Tate’s house by Jay Sebring to talk about the weird (and extremely violent, this is a Tarantino film after all) things that happened that night. That’s when we finally see the title of the film, in a moment when we can fully appreciate Tarantino’s pointed acknowledgment of the film’s status as a fable. It’s less bombastic than True Romance, but just as appropriate.
Like the best of Tarantino’s films, Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood is a visually stunning, occasionally profoundly incisive, fractured fairy tale of a particular time in Old Hollywood and like the worst of them, it traffics in casual racism, features almost no one of color, centers itself on some middle-aged white dudes, and still doesn’t quite know what to do with its women, the adoration of Sharon Tate included. It’s possible that even as many of those things were the problematic reality of 1969, there are ethical issues that arise as a result of Tarantino’s reverence for that era and perhaps we shouldn’t devote 2 hours and 47 minutes of screen time dreamily recreating that reality and trying to make it feel like a glorious time and place absent all of the very real problems Los Angeles was (and is) wrestling with. But OUATIH is still the least violent, least dependent on racial slurs, and least problematic film Quentin Tarantino has ever made. Once Upon a Time is a glorious reminder that you can write whatever the hell you want and sometimes get away with it. As a middle class mid-career creative, I felt very seen, so for me, Tarantino gets away with it, even as I can wish more women and people of color could feel just as seen. And that’s Tarantino at his most Tarantino, creating fascinating and incredible stories . . . that you wish you could enjoy without the caveats. He’s got one more chance to do just that.