Book Talk: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

“And for the first time in ten years, Rick realizes how fortunate he is and was. All the wonderful actors he’s worked with…all the affairs he had. All the interesting people he got to work with. All the places he got to visit. All the fun stories he got to live. All the fuss people made over him. He looks around at the fabulous house he owns. Paid for by doing what he used to do for free when he was a little boy: pretending to be a cowboy.”

“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” by Quentin Tarantino (2021)

I know there are a lot of people out there who just can’t get into Quentin Tarantino. And I get that. I guess. But when QT released his 9th film in 2019, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I would tell people that you can forget about who made this film and just go and see it. Tarantino offers a buffet of wonderful things to feast on in his tale of the sun setting on Old Hollywood in 1969. OUATIH is about two men – actor Rick Dalton and his stunt man and best friend, Cliff Booth – who are of the old school and have to begin to face the changes that are taking place in the film industry. Tarantino’s story is an homage to the players and the films that flew under the radar through the mid-to-late 1960’s and well into the 1970’s. It is his love letter to the city of Los Angeles but mostly it celebrates the men and women who found themselves outside of the mainstream. The story is Quentin’s attempt to shine a light on this “other” Hollywood and it’s his attempt to reveal how cool some of these actors and the films they made are. He is giving them their due by informing his vast audience of their existence and of their accomplishments.

The film version of OUATIH dealt with this other Hollywood but also concerns itself with “cleansing history”; by neutering and altering the crimes of a madman. QT presents us with a fairy tale where only good things happened; good people are spared tragedy and good actors get their due and find fulfillment. The book version concerns itself more with the film industry side of the story, presenting back stories and much additional information on the main characters, particularly Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth.

The story of the novel then is the story of the film but with much more. And much less. Tarantino may not be a stunningly adept novelist. Sometimes the book seems like a glorified check list of retro things from 1969; like detailing the opening credits of the show Combat!, the theme and the words of the announcer. But it’s the fact that these “retro things” are things that we love and are things that we want to hear about that save the book, they are perhaps even the point of this book. The dedication at the start of the book sets the table. Quentin thanks the “actor Old Timers” who talked story with him over the years and who gave him a sense of what it was like in that time. Tarantino thanks Burt Reynolds, Michael Parks “and especially Kurt Russell”. So, when QT makes a joking passing reference to Jack Lord being a “prick” you get the impression that that was the reputation Lord had at the time. This is not non-fiction in which case you may want to ask for proof or corroboration of such claims but we can assume that – from all the stories QT heard from the “Old Timers” – this is the way it was in the Hollywood of the 1960’s.

“Except for the fellas that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, no other American soldier had more confirmed kills than Sergeant Clifford Booth.”

– So, only a weapon of mass destruction killed more than Cliff.

QT gives us the story of how Rick met Cliff and it is yet another instance of Cliff saving Rick from harm. The author obviously loves Cliff; Rick is presented more in a “warts and all” type way but Cliff is a guy’s guy and a chick magnet. Cliff’s heroic escape from a Japanese POW camp in the Philippine jungle served as the inspiration for the film Battle of the Coral Sea, a film coincidentally Rick had appeared in before the two had even met. This is a great example of the device QT uses throughout his story. He will take a real film and insert his characters into the narrative. I found the Cliff of the book different from the Cliff of the film. Book Cliff is a real rough character; not just tough but rough. He talks like a reprobate and seems more amoral than Movie Cliff, who is much more chill and cerebral, almost erudite.

Cliff’s a war hero. “Rick, on the other hand, would have spent months jumping off kitchen chairs to get flat feet if he thought it would keep him out of the Army”. Cliff may like Akira Kurosawa (QT’s device to present his own thoughts on the Japanese auteur) but Rick is Old Hollywood to the bone. Book Rick’s alcoholism is more on display than is Movie Rick’s; “The bad part about barfing on yourself when you wake up in the morning is you feel like a disgusting-pig pathetic-loser”. Tarantino, though, gifts Rick – and us – with a feeling of satisfaction by the story’s end. A realization that he’s had a pretty good career.

I try to tell all those who will listen that Quentin Tarantino has done us all a favour by altering the histories of Sharon Tate and her friends. In his book, QT further diminishes Manson’s atrocities by just glossing over the events that wrap up his film. Murder is the big finale of the movie; the book concerns itself with other matters. A quarter of the way into the book, Quentin spends less than two pages talking about a home invasion that Rick and Cliff extinguished in spectacular fashion. Interestingly, QT turns history on its head. The “ghastly night of violence” was indeed “heavy with symbolic weight” but that symbolism was in old school values quelling the surge of the youthful unwashed masses.

Additionally, Tarantino posits that Manson’s only goal in life was to be a musician but his “family” was so bonkers and destructive that neither Dennis Wilson nor Terry Melcher wanted anything to do with him. There is the suggestion that the day Terry Melcher did not show up to hear Manson’s songs, he lost so much face in front of his followers that he had to respond violently. Tarantino presents Manson as just a wannabe singer who really had no sophisticated philosophies worth following.

“Look, honey boy, you asked me could you speak straight with me. Well, now I’m gonna speak straight with you. You tried the TV-to-movies transition and it didn’t work. Well, it rarely works, so welcome to the f%$#in’ club…yes, it worked for McQueen and it worked for Jim Garner and, most unbelievably of all, Clint Eastwood. But guys like you, Edd Byrnes, Vince Edwards, George Maharis, who spent your careers running pocket combs through your pompadours, you’re all in the same boat now. When you weren’t looking, the culture changed.”

– through Marvin Schwarz talking straight to Rick Dalton, Tarantino sums up the premise of his movie and he sums up an entire segment of the Hollywood community at a certain time.

The Lancer episode of the film was, at first, the hardest part for me to get through but I have since come to appreciate it more. Particularly after watching a few episodes of the show, including the pilot. This part in the book fascinated me. What I think QT has done is something rare, something that many of us would like to do. He has presented his perception of the show and its characters. He has fleshed out the characters and their back stories to help the reader – and likely himself – understand the motivations of the members of the Lancer family and to understand the members themselves. He has been afforded a rare opportunity; where else could you present a rewritten version of a TV episode you’ve always loved? OUATIH – the film and the book – offer QT a unique chance to discourse on the things he has loved and present them with the addition of his own imaginings. In his book, Tarantino basically rewrites the Lancer pilot script, adding scenes and other touches. How many of us would like to do this with some of our favourites? What a fun outlet this must have been for Quentin. I like the things Quentin adds; the casting of the role Rick played on the Lancer pilot came down to him and Joe Don Baker – who actually played the role – and Bruce Dern, one of QT’s “Old Timers”, playing a role on the show when in reality he didn’t.

Joe Don Baker and James Stacy in “The High Riders”, Episode 1.1 of Lancer.

A great example of the fun Quentin Tarantino must’ve had writing this book involves the child actress who appeared on the Lancer pilot and series, 8-year-old Trudy Fraser. Tarantino wraps her part of the story by telling the reader about her success as she got older, inserting her into roles played by others – and into one in a never-made film directed by one Quentin Tarantino. What kicks!

Other nuggets: The Joan Bennett-Walter Wanger-Jennings Lang shooting incident is referenced early, something I had just learned about while reporting on the film The Reckless Moment. QT shares my feeling that Donald Hamilton’s excellent Matt Helm novels were unfortunately altered for Dean Martin’s portrayal of the character. Sharon Tate is described as a wonderful person, down-to-earth and frustrated with regularly having to transform herself into “sexy little me” for parties. The fictional western book Rick is reading on set with Trudy is said to have been written by Marvin Albert, an actual author of westerns and other books like Tony Rome. James Stacy is said to have “an edge. Like one day maybe he’ll go to jail kinda edge”. This would later happen to Stacy in real life.

They say “write what you know” and Quentin Tarantino has done that in spades and he’s done it in the second person or “present tense” style that I love; “Smiling as she crosses the street, she stops in front of the drawing of herself on the film’s poster”. When you come right down to it, Quentin Tarantino has done a remarkable thing with his book. With the film, he played with history and introduced his fictional characters into the story. With the novel, he amplifies this technique, taking historical facts and adding what he thinks and the impression he’s gotten from the people he’s worked with. He even goes so far as to insert himself and his step-father into the action. That particular part of the book I struggled with until it dawned on me what he was doing; I looked up his step-father’s name and, sure enough. Which brings up another thing; you might find yourself looking up a lot of the films and actors Quentin mentions. To see if they are real and also to see if you can spot where he altered details and inserted his own pieces.

As a companion to his Academy Award-winning film or taken simply on its own, the novel Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a great read and a fun trip back in time. Whatever your feelings on Quentin Tarantino are, if you’re a fan of the films and television shows of the 1960’s you’ll be satisfied by this book. Going deeper, if you’re like me and are fascinated by tales of the “Hollywood” that happened just outside of the spotlight, you’ll have a blast at the shindig Quentin throws.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is available anywhere and it is very reasonably priced. Get two.


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