Scalding Hot Takes: Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
One of the things I miss most about being a full-time film critic, beyond, of course, the money, the groupies and the incredible respect I commanded among my peers and the American people was the sense of exhilaration that came with the release of a new movie from a true auteur.
There’s still a sense of grand excitement outside the film critic bubble when a movie from someone like Martin Scorsese or The Coen Brothers or Quentin Tarantino comes out but within the film critic world, where movies are religion, the debut of a new movie by a master is something close to a sacred holiday.
I experienced a sense of that watching Quentin Tarantino’s ridiculously over-stuffed Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. How appropriate that a movie vibrating with life and nostalgia for a bygone era would make me all nostalgic and bittersweet and full of melancholy longing for my own dimly remembered past as a full-time professional film critic for print, the internet and, for thirteen surreal episodes, on television when I would fly to Los Angeles every weekend to tape AMC’s Movie Club with John Ridley in 2004 and 2005, with the titular screenwriter, who picked up an Oscar for his screenplay for 12 Years a Slave, which was produced by Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood star Brad Pitt.
I got straight up wistful watching Tarantino’s latest. It was making me feel all the feels. As someone who writes a column for TCM Backlot on movies about movies, one of my obsessions, called The Fractured Mirror, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood hit me right in the nostalgic sweet spot.
Though I do not share Tarantino’s love for second-rate television westerns, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood otherwise felt like it was made particularly for me, that it was tailored to my interests and obsessions.
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is a deeply weird movie. In many ways it represents an elaborate art of misdirection, at least where its successful marketing campaign is concerned. It is being sold as a movie about the Manson family and the murder of Sharon Tate but for a good ninety percent of its generous runtime it has almost nothing to do with Manson, even on a thematic level.
Tarantino’s ninety million dollar recreation of 1969 Hollywood is similarly being pitched as a sexy, sprawling Hollywood epic full of dashingly handsome movie stars, a doomed starlet seemingly too gorgeous and pure for this world, grisly murders and the Death of the the 60s. That makes sense from a commercial perspective because it would be a whole lot harder to sell a rambling, episodic character study about the existential and professional angst of a Tab Hunter/Troy Donahue b-lister and a pair of middle-aged men staring down obsolescence in an industry that doesn’t just worship youth and beauty; it angrily demands it.
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood consequently feels like at least two movies. On the flashy, attention-grabbing surface it’s a wildly entertaining, blood-splattered valentine to a great and gloriously tacky era in American entertainment but underneath it’s a surprisingly quiet, even somber drama about the unspoken complexities and contradictions of male friendship.
Tarantino’s Hollywood movie is about two men who love each other. It’s about two men who are essentially heterosexual life partners whose professional and personal lives are inextricably intertwined, to the point where it’s difficult to tell where one ends and the other begins.
Cliff is Rick’s stunt double, an evocative phrase for someone who is the rougher, tougher, more authentically badass version of the pretty boy actors they’re pretending to be for the sake of art, or at least commerce. He’s the perpetually game, undemanding man behind the man whose financial fortunes rise and fall with those of the Troy McClure-level pretender he’s tethered to as long as his other half can afford him, financially and in every other sense as well.
The friendship between Leonardo Caprio’s Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth is the heart of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood; there’s something wonderfully perverse about casting two actors who have long sat atop the A-list playing a C-lister just barely holding on and the man who does the manly things Dalton can’t or won’t do for fear of injuring his pretty face. There’s something similarly surreal about an Oscar-winning heavyweight thespian like DiCaprio playing someone worried, with good reason, that he’s not enough of an actor to handle even the kinds of roles a has-been on a steep professional decline is offered.
Next door, and a million miles away professionally and creatively, live Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and husband Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha). Robbie is very prominently billed but has far less to do than Pitt or DiCaprio. Robbie plays Tate as pure light, an ebullient free spirit luxuriating in the joy of being young and beautiful and at the very start of what promises to be a brilliant career and life.
Tarantino’s take on our collective past deviates from conventional wisdom in some striking ways. Bruce Lee, for example, was, to put it mildly, considered an EXCELLENT fighter. One of the best. Like, really, really good at beating people up and looking super fucking cool while doing so.
Everyone knows that Bruce Lee was good at fighting. What Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood presupposes is…maybe he wasn’t? In a scene that understandably has Bruce Lee’s surviving family apoplectic with rage at the sheer disrespect, Tarantino establishes that Cliff Booth is a surprisingly good fighter for a middle aged white dude in 1969 by having him straight up destroy Bruce Lee.
There are more subtle and culturally sensitive ways to illustrate a fictional character’s toughness than by having a legendary Asian icon talk shit and then get his ass whooped for his arrogance by a white stuntman staring down the Autumn of his years. But as a Billy Jack obsessive I appreciated how Cliff Booth is as good at beating the shit out of people as Laughlin thought he himself was.
Tarantino and Pitt both had Billy Jack in mind as a model for Booth’s character. Like Tom Laughlin’s perpetually hatted ass-kicker, Cliff Booth never wants to cause trouble or start a fight. He’s a measured, cautious, careful man of peace and restraint who is nevertheless perpetually being pushed into situations where he is forced to beat the holy living fuck out of people who underestimate him.
In that respect Hollywood and Cliff also remind me of The Rifleman, one of my father’s favorite television shows and a show it is very easy to imagine Rick Dalton guest-starring on and Cliff consequently working on as a stuntman. Chuck Connors’ titular gunman only ever wanted to left in peace. If he had his way, he’d be The Peaceful Gent but fate and the angry demands of the 1960s television western dictated that he continually had to exercise his trusty trigger finger to protect the people he loved.
Steve McQueen, similarly, is nearly as famous for being a ridiculously beautiful human being, maybe the sexiest motherfucker alive as his acting. Yet Once Upon a Time..in Hollywood gives up an ugly Steve McQueen in the form of Damian Lewis’ off-brand take on the preeminent American icon. Lewis is not an ugly man, of course, but compared to McQueen he’s a little on the beastly side. Hollywood gives us an ugly Steve McQueen, a Bruce Lee who is shitty at fighting and, ultimately, Manson family murderers who fuck up the job of murder as badly as you possibly can. Spoilers ahead!
This is, consequently, Tarantino’s violent, blood-soaked fairy tale fantasy of late 1960s Hollywood, where everything is simultaneously true to life and wonderfully, purposefully off.
Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood rambles along so enjoyably, taking enormous pleasure in not getting anywhere that it feels at times as if the movie will never end, that we’ll keep watching Rick and Cliff try to figure out themselves and their lives in the crucible of a rapidly changing Hollywood and country for the rest of eternity. At the very least, it feels like we will never get around to the Manson murders.
In a sense, Hollywood never does get around to dramatizing the Tate-LoBianco murders because, as I’m sure the vast majority of y’all are already aware, Tarantino here gives Sharon Tate the happy ending life life cruelly denied her.
Instead of Tate and her friends being slaughtered like wild animals in an orgiastic explosion of ultra-violence whose after-effects are still being felt, the good guys win when Cliff uses his Billy Jack-level fighting skills to reduce the would-be murderers into a mess of blood and meat and bone.
The fantasy at the heart of the film’s controversial, provocative and ragingly revisionist ending—wouldn’t it have been cool if Billy Jack murdered the Manson family before they could get to dear, sweet, innocent Sharon Tate—would be adorably child-like if it did not center on images of young women being brutally killed by a handsome, straight white man on acid.
The ending of Hollywood goes too far, and then just keeps on going in ways that are punishingly visceral in the truest sense, in that it inspires an intense gut-level reaction of horror and shock and mortification mixed with guilty, uncomfortable laughter but also in that it involves a whole lot of viscera spurting everywhere.
It’s at once a horror show and a happy ending, a bloodbath and a weirdly cathartic purging of some of the most notorious demons of the Age of Aquarius.
I had complicated feelings about the film’s climax in part because an ending, any ending, means that a movie is over and I kind of want to live in the world of the film for the rest of my life and then some. Tarantino’s 1969 is my idea of paradise. It wouldn’t make for a bad afterlife either.
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