Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (2019)
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Julia Butters, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Mike Moh, Luke Perry, Clu Gulager, Rebecca Gayheart, Zoë Bell, Michael Madsen and Brenda Vaccaro. Directed by Quentin Tarantino. From Columbia Pictures.
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood was a departure of sorts for Quentin Tarantino. His fans are split on the film, some hating it, some loving it, few indifferent. Casual fans left the theatre severely disappointed in the movie, many saying it wasn’t “Tarantino” enough. And, in a way, they’re right.
Perhaps this wasn’t necessarily his goal but, with the film, he did prove to many that he could excel at a different type of movie. Make no mistake, there are many Tarantino touches in the film but OUATIH certainly stands out in his oeuvre. From the beginning, we see QT focusing on something a little different; a deep friendship between two men.
Quentin has done something quite special with Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth. He has written two incredibly cool characters, each with the ability to be kind, almost gentle and certainly able to express themselves to each other. Early in the film, Rick explains to Marvin Schwarz that Cliff is acting as his driver. Marvin says “that sounds like a good friend” and the truth at the heart of their relationship is revealed. Interesting too that Cliff responds “I try”. This is a gentle, passive, unprepossessing response that belies a major aspect of Cliff’s character. During preparation for the film, Quentin Tarantino gave both Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio extensive backstories on their characters to help them in their portrayals. Booth was a Green Beret, he’s a hardened World War 2 veteran, whom QT describes as “one of the deadliest guys alive”. It is a credit to Tarantino’s writing that he has made Cliff – a man of purpose who has never simply “tried” to do anything in his life, but who has instead mastered survival in both theatres of war and the entertainment industry – a good friend and helpmate to someone that society would place above him.
Booth’s character is further revealed as he drives Rick home from his meeting at Musso and Franks. Cliff shrugs and says he has no delusions about the fact that he himself has not had much of a career and he encourages Rick to take Marvin up on his offer, saying that Rick should be happy with his situation; the fact that someone has even made him the offer to work abroad. He drops Rick off at his house and the two hug. From early on in the film we see the devotion these two have for each other. Even though it is essentially employer/employee, neither man acts like it. Listen to the way Rick asks Cliff to fix his TV antenna. Rick never talks down to Cliff and his attitude towards him would seem to indicate that Rick knows Cliff is first a devoted friend who, in his role as stunt double, has often stood between Rick and danger. This is accentuated at the end of the film, which we’ll get to in a minute. When the hippies invade Rick’s home, it is Cliff again who serves as protector of Rick, his new wife and his home and personal belongings. Fascinating to note, as well, that, as Cliff is carried off in an ambulance, Rick echoes Marvin’s sentiments from earlier by telling Cliff sincerely that he is a good friend. Cliff’s casual response? “I try”. In fact, this is Pitt’s first and last line in the film.
** Spoilers Ahead **
When I first heard that Tarantino’s upcoming ninth film would involve the Manson murders, I was intrigued. I wondered how QT would incorporate this dark episode in the history of Los Angeles into his movie. I mentioned in Part One of this review that just before watching OUATIH I had read Vincent Bugliosi’s legendary book on the murders, Helter Skelter, so that gruesome tale was fresh in my brain. For example, the scene depicting Cliff being taken to Spahn Ranch was terribly unsettling for me. I was expecting the worst and the eerie use of sound during the scene added to my discomfort. I didn’t know at the time that, if he wanted to, Cliff could kill all these hippies using only his sunglasses.
Another striking scene for me was Charles Manson’s visit – months before the murders – to 10050 Cielo Drive to look for Terry Melcher. This episode, featured in Bugliosi’s book, I hadn’t known of and the thought of Manson interacting with Sharon long before her death was creepy. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood takes place over the course of three days; two days in February of ’69 and the fateful August day of that summer. When the action moved to August, I was clenched up in my theatre seat.
There’s something to keep in mind while watching this film. Perhaps one of the reasons many couldn’t connect with Quentin’s ninth film has to do with the fact that many were not aware of the career arcs of actors like Steve McQueen, Ty Hardin or Clint Eastwood. Many don’t understand the concept of TV actors hoping to prolong their careers by “stepping down” to work in Europe. Also, some viewers – though it may be hard to believe – were not fully aware of the atrocities carried out by the twisted Manson and his equally twisted followers. Perhaps many were not aware of what happened to Los Angeles as a whole that summer. The horrific murders that saw the life of a burgeoning Hollywood starlet snuffed out shook the city to its core. Keep in mind, too, that some time passed between the murders and the apprehension of the suspects. During this interval, many Hollywood actors were on edge and the feeling was that some new and vicious element in the city had risen up and attacked the old guard, the Hollywood establishment that had existed and given the city its identity for years.
Not just those working in Hollywood but those who followed the action of Hollywood – movie fans – were effected by this tragedy. 6-year-old Quentin Tarantino was one of these affected by this and as he grew up and fell in love with film and Hollywood, it became apparent to him – as it had to many – that Charles Manson had killed more than human beings that summer, he had murdered the ideal of the Golden City, “the fantastic end of America”. Manson had viciously terminated a glorious, magnificent, shining thing that had given life and joy to many. Wouldn’t it be nice, Quentin must have asked himself often, if that didn’t happen? Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to the Hollywood community and Los Angeles as a whole. Even the title itself – while paying homage to Sergio Leone – suggests that this is a fairy tale.
In the film, at the end of the February action, the sun is setting on another glorious Hollywood day. Much work has been done in this field that brings joy to viewers the world over. José Feliciano’s “California Dreamin’ ” plays. It is a brilliant move by Tarantino. In its original form, the Mamas and the Papas song is a celebration of California rendered by one of the quintessential L.A. bands. But José’s breathtaking version is subdued, melancholic. “I love L.A.”, he ad-libs but the tone is somber, dark. It sounds like twilight and, indeed, the sunset is depicted on-screen and the sun is also about to set on Old Hollywood. Later, as the action hits August, we hear the Rolling Stones’ “Out of Time”. Sitting in my theatre seat, I was struck by the fact that there was Sharon Tate on screen, it’s August of 1969 and Mick Jagger is singing “baby, baby, baby, you’re out of time“. Chilling.
Rick and Cliff have been out drinking and have arrived back at Rick’s house. Rick is whipping up some margaritas while Cliff lights up an acid-dipped cigarette and takes Brandy for a walk. While Cliff is out, Manson’s followers – intent on destruction – arrive in their heap on Cielo Drive. As a viewer who knows anything about history, you are waiting to see how Quentin incorporates Rick and Cliff into the carnage you expect to soon take place. When Rick hears the belching groans of the car idling in his cul-de-sac, he becomes enraged. Here’s the first indication that Quentin has something up his sleeve. Rick walks out his front door and confronts Manson’s followers and loudly and vigorously lashes out at them. He is one man addressing four but you wouldn’t know it from the way he verbally attacks them, telling them forcefully to get their wreck off his street.
Significantly, Rick calls them “hippies” many times, using it in the most derogatory fashion. If you think back to the beginning of the film, Rick has previously looked out the passenger side window of his Caddy and grumbled about the “hippies” taking over his town. Later, when director Sam Wanamaker tells Rick he wants to dress him like a “hippie”, Rick is none too pleased. This was heavy for me. I had just recently read in Helter Skelter something I didn’t know before; not only did Charles Manson not consider himself a “hippie”, he hated the term, particularly when it was used to describe him and his followers. Without even knowing it, Rick is assaulting these four by calling them “hippies”. And this is Tarantino the screenwriter flipping the bird at Charles Manson.
You realize Quentin is messing with history when he has Manson’s followers plan to attack Rick Dalton and all in his home. After all, they reason, it was violent shows like Rick’s Bounty Law that taught them to kill. As the would-be murderers approach Dalton’s house, Rick is floating in his pool with the headphones on (“Snoopy vs. the Red Baron” by the Royal Guardsmen) and Cliff is struggling to feed Brandy while feeling the effects of his acid-dipped cigarette.
Homicidal Tex Watson busts in and points a gun at Cliff. Owing to his drugged state and also to his war experience that saw him facing greater dangers than this, Cliff automatically diffuses the horror of this home-invasion simply by chuckling and finding it all amusing. Cliff recalls seeing these three during his visit to Spahn Ranch. When he can’t remember Tex’s name, Watson helps him out by uttering his historically accurate line, spoken that fateful night at the Polanski home; “I’m the devil. And I’m here to do the devil’s business”. In the context of the Tate-LaBianca murders, this quotation is horrific. Not only was it a proper opening salvo for what was about to take place, but it reveals an incredibly warped and twisted mind. Tarantino completely neuters this. He scoffs at this by having Cliff wait for a beat or two before saying “no, it was dumber than that. Somethin’ like… Rex…”.
What follows is, indeed, a savage murder and we finally arrive in “Tarantino Country” over two hours into this Tarantino film. But it’s not the savage murder we expect; it is Cliff and Brandy savagely murdering Manson’s followers. As noted earlier, once again here is Cliff standing between Rick and danger. Tex is set upon by Brandy. The sound effects editing is spot on as we really hear what Brandy is doing to Tex’s genitals. Cliff finishes Tex off with a heel to the face – and we’re allowed to hear the bones of Tex’s face being obliterated. Cliff grabs Katie – one of the two other followers on the scene – by the back of the head and proceeds to smash her face on every wall and piece of furniture in the place. Three times Cliff smashes her face against the mantle of the fireplace and by the third blow the viewer is at the breaking point of discomfort. Katie’s face and head are reduced to mush. Sadie, meanwhile, has had her nose flattened when Cliff threw a full can of dog food at her. When Brandy goes to work on her, she fires a gun into the ceiling and flees in hysterics out to the pool – scaring Rick out of his floating chair. Startled but without batting an eye, Rick simply heads to his toolshed, gets out his flame-thrower and literally cooks Sadie. Again – like the third blow on the mantlepiece – the flames are levelled on Sadie for a couple of seconds longer than you might expect, driving home the fact that she, like her two cohorts, has met an extremely violent and painful death. Tarantino has Cliff, Brandy and Rick handle Manson’s followers the way many people would like to have seen them handled.
Once the cops arrive, neither Rick nor Cliff seem to think too much about the attack. Cliff tells the cops that Tex said something stupid about doing the devil’s work and Rick jokes with the ambulance guys. From the Polanski driveway, Jay Sebring asks what happened and Rick simply shrugs; “these f&*kin’ hippie weirdoes, they broke into my house…my buddy and his dog killed two of ’em and then, uh…s#$t, I torched the last one…yeah, I burnt her ass to a crisp. I got a flame-thrower in m’toolshed”. It was nothing. They were hippies, maybe on some “bummer trip”, and we killed them. My buddy and I. Two Old Hollywood guys. “Is everybody OK?” Jay asks. There’s a touch of comedy when Rick replies “Well, the f%$#in’ hippies aren’t. That’s for g@*&amn sure.”
The most poignant part of the aftermath is when Sharon Tate talks through the intercom to Jay and Rick on the street. “Is everything alright?”, Sharon asks. In fact, after that she asks twice more “is everybody OK?”. When she is assured by both Jay and Rick that everyone is fine, she sweetly invites Rick up to meet the rest of her friends. Between Jay and Sharon, the question “is everybody OK?” is asked four times; the answer each time is “yes”. Everybody and everything is fine.
My stepfather (born in ’46) saw the film and he said he was miffed by the ending; he felt Tarantino was minimizing the Tate-LaBianca murders. I hadn’t thought you could see it that way but I understood what he meant. But Quentin Tarantino does not minimize these historic murders – he erases them. With Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino cleanses history. One of the major villains of modern times has had his crimes against humanity, Los Angeles and Hollywood expunged from the record. In Tarantino’s 2009 war film, Inglorious Basterds, he presents an alternate history by having Adolf Hitler assassinated. The same thing has happened in this film. Old Hollywood wins and the aura of L.A. has been preserved. This film is a fairy tale; “Once Upon a Time…” and just listen to the airy closing music from Maurice Jarre. Wouldn’t it have been nice, QT is asking, if it had gone this way instead?
I said before that Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood had a profound effect on me. Partly because this is filmmaking. This is movie making of the highest order. Quentin Tarantino has not just “made a movie” but he has crafted a story. And he has said something. About his town and about the history of the industry he loves and about the players in it. He has advocated for the proper memory of those who have gone before, for the proper respect for those who have entertained us for years. And not just the John Wayne’s, not just the Casablanca‘s. But also the Monte Markham’s and the Fireball 500‘s.
Speaking of which, one of the biggest effects it had on me was in the way it made me want to seek out things like the Lancer TV show, to listen to old broadcasts from KHJ and to learn about L.A. radio and “The Real” Don Steele. It made me dive back into my 44-film Spaghetti Western DVD box set and to uncover some buried EuroSpy films. And it made me want to watch as many films made in 1969 as I could find. Exploring the lesser-known films of that year and others from the relatively same time has been fascinating. Watching these films, I saw what filmmaking was like in this era and it furthered my understanding of Quentin’s film. And it confirmed for me that he got it right; he got the whole “aura of the era” right. His film has the crispness of the modern age but also, while it celebrates the glory of Hollywood of old, it creates an astounding time capsule of an interesting time. And here in Tarantino’s view of the past, at least one horrible wrong has been made right.