Once Upon A Time in…Hollywood has proven that Tarantino is still too smart for the room. How so? Well, I’ve sat on my take for a few days now to properly assess the general response to the film. You have the tribal gushers, the curious mainstream parties and then the misinformed hordes wanting to spin what is there. But, what did you expect? A controversial director loosely taking on one of the 20th Century’s most profiled crime cases? It was bound to attract a wide assortment of fools.
You don’t understand failure, until you experienced success
Rick Dalton opens the movie with a brave facade. After you get a taste of his success on his Western series, you are hit with a man struggling on the back half of the decade. While I’m a pop culture historian, many people under the age of 45 will not begin to understand the cultural taste shift that happened in the 1960s. As the Space Race took off, interest waned super hard in Western and rural programs. But, the networks kept shoving them on people as the interest died.
The more expensive shows with pricey actors got put out to pasture, while cheaper and stalwart shows prospered. After the hippies exploded after the Summer of Love, these cultural icons from roughly 5-10 years ago were left without a home. Just imagine losing everything you had in a decade. Now, you know why Rick Dalton was crying in front of the Mexicans. He can’t believe he’s so low to need anything at this point. All of his plans hang on a late 60s revisionist Western and a Sunday night airing of The FBI.
People talk, you can’t control that
Cliff Booth dresses like I did when I was 11. That’s not the point of this section, but I’m fascinated that my 6th grade wardrobe is suddenly nerd chic now. Many early reviews had a problem with the angle of Cliff Booth having possibly murdered his wife. By the way, I appreciate the unintentional hilarity of casting Rebecca Gayheart in a role about someone accidentally murdering another individual.
Cliff is Rick’s Kato, his gopher, a friend above all others. But, Cliff is in a different caste in the Hollywood fantasy realm. Nothing ever came together for him. The only breaks he caught were taking the hits for Rick. He knows he lives in squalor, but at least he has his dog Brandy. Plus, he’s got the freedom to roll around town as he pleases. Can’t get work on Lancer, well he’s going to go pick up some underage hitchhiker. But, our man isn’t going to go to jail for poontang.
He’s got a code.
Objectification as an entry to fantasy
Sharon Tate is an actress that wasn’t well-known in her time. Her closest modern day equivalent would be an Elizabeth Debicki. She was a pretty blonde, who had a couple of big roles. However, the person on the street had a hard time picking her out of a crowd. That doesn’t mean she wasn’t famous. However, fame is a currency traded in a timely manner. You’re only as famous as the system and people let you be.
Once Upon A Time in Hollywood makes a point to bring up that dichotomy. Rick Dalton blew up on TV back in the 1950s when his entertainment was viable. He had a captive audience and became an icon. Meanwhile, Sharon Tate works with Polanski and makes big movies at FOX and Columbia. But, she can’t break out of being the good girl or the klutzy blonde. She has to pose by posters just so people know she worked in a film.
Even then, she still has more currency in 1969 Hollywood because she has Polanski’s ear. A pool party with Tate and her husband can change careers. Yeah, Margot Robbie’s Tate is another ass-shaking blonde having a good time. But, she is ultimately worth more to that Hollywood than Rick Dalton. Rick needs people like her and Sharon wants men like Rick to help her rise up.
Your own Take 2, 3, 4, 5, 6
When you see Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, I want you to do something. Notice the slight camera twitches, jump cuts and how information is presented. While it’s super apparent when Leonardo DiCaprio and Timothy Olyphant have their first conversation, it goes beyond that. Brad Pitt remembering a fight with Bruce Lee or Rick Dalton setting the story straight on The Great Escape adds to this. This is a fantasy film about the fantasies people tell themselves in Hollywood.
Rick can’t accept that his career got away from him. Meanwhile, Cliff Booth tries to figure out a way to be needed. They know their Glory Days are behind them, but they’re still men abiding by rules set up by people who no longer figure in their lives. Eddie O’ Brien told Rick to be a citizen of Los Angeles, while Cliff exists on the favors of old friends. They figure if they keep their head low, somebody will give them a pass.
Nothing in this film should be seen as unbiased. Hell, the nature of the finale should be taken with a giant chunk of salt. If characters are able to lie to themselves, then lie to an audience, everything you are seeing is unreliable.
That was the best acting I’ve ever seen
Julia Butters’ child prodigy role would normally irritate the shit out of me. However, her role as Trudi/Maribella was super important to framing the entire movie. When Rick interacts with her, he feels like he’s a specter of her future failures. What he later realizes is that she’s a guiding light for how he can retake his life. There is a craft to acting and embracing it is the new order of things.
Hell, Rick embraces it so much that the throws the little girl elbows first into a solid wood floor. After she gives him an acting note, Rick realizes what he has to do with his life. The full bawling emotional meltdowns have to end. The heavy drinking must end. What Rick Dalton will do is become the star abroad, that he was at home. That will keep his ass from having to head home to Missouri.
Dalton as Manson: Great Fucking Note
Rick Dalton and Charles Manson were failures. Dalton is a Burt Reynolds stand-in who has to move from TV to Italian Westerns. Charles Manson buddied up to the Hollywood Hills scene and got Beach Boy Dennis Wilson on his side. He got an album and even the in-movie Manson girls are belting out his tasty jams while dumpster diving behind a grocery store. Yet, the theatrical cut of Once Upon A Time in Hollywood only gives us one scene with Manson. But, note his look.
Then, take a look at Rick Dalton in the Lancer pilot. After director Sam Wanamaker has hair and makeup specifically configure his character’s identity into a Revisionist Western villain, he could be Manson’s Mirror, Mirror self.
Manson and Dalton are just a hair apart. A bad choice or two going in one direction or the other. So many people forget that Manson came to Los Angeles to make it as a singer. It’s after dozens of failures that his truly distraught mind started concocting Helter Skelter and his Family cult. Manson was the failure that Dalton became without a hint of the success. In that instance, it becomes easier to take over property and assume that the whole system is out to get you. Hell, his biggest bout of success after cutting a record single was having Dennis Wilson talk about the Manson Family to the British music press. Here’s a link to a Consequence of Sound editorial about all of this.
Rick had that taste of success with Bounty Law and his regular gigs. He knew that success was something that could be attained again. The glimmer of hope can make all the difference in the world. When you realize that when approaching the final act of the film, then you see the meat of what Tarantino is offering with this film. That’s right, it’s a fantasy about youth vs. experience.
Once Upon A Time in Hollywood as fantasy
Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is Tarantino’s first true fantasy film. Yeah, he stuck a toe in those waters with Hitler having his face blown apart in Inglorious Basterds. But, what if he made a movie that was Basterds’ entire third act set piece? Let’s go even further. What if Tarantino took that fantasy into an introspective place about the nature of a well-lived life?
In the film, the Manson family is shown as young fuck-ups getting by on basic ability and the goodwill of others. They use George Spahn’s ranch for cover and money. The girls have to hitch-hike everywhere. Plus, when the shit hits the fan…they act like kids trying to flex hard on the older generation. These ill-prepared little shits deserve everything that happens to them and that makes the reality so much worse.
On August 8th, 1969…those Manson cultists got the drop on a heavily pregnant woman and her stoned friends. They just ate, were asleep and had no idea what was going to happen. I’m always going to love Tarantino for demystifying these shits. They weren’t hardened killers. These Manson kids were asshole teenagers that tripped balls and thought they could change the world. When they ran up against the way things really worked, they got a dog ripping their genitals off.
Ultimately, there’s only one thing to be said for the film. Tarantino has acknowledged that everyone ages, but youth isn’t ready to immediately take over. We live in an imperfect world with butting egos, different ways of thought and usually the same desires. In that cycle, there is order. However, when that order is threatened to wreck what keeps humanity moving forward…it must be destroyed.
While some will wince and look away from Cliff smashing a can of dog food into Susan Atkins’ face, I smile. That’s because I live in the real world and I have the hindsight of knowing what that low-down bitch did to Sharon Tate. For those that don’t know, Atkins was the one who stabbed Tate to death and wrote PIG in her blood on the nursery walls. So, a heavy can of rat flavored dog food is the least Atkins deserves…even in a fantasy.
When everything is said and done in this Red Apple Universe, Rick Dalton and Sharon Tate finally get the moment to come together. It’s a tragic What If based on a slight twist of fate, an acid-dipped cigarette and a dog that can chomp balls. Those last moments set to the lovely themes of The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean are meant to remind you that none of this happened. But, it could have…and it would have made the world a much better place.