Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is a film about footwear—tooled cowboy boots, white plastic go-go boots, loose and low suede boots that walk their way into scenes while being tracked by a low-minded camera. It’s about the view from fast-moving cars—a pale yellow Cadillac Coupe de Ville, an MG with enough dashboard controls for a Pan Am jetliner—and about the luxury of Pan Am travel back in the day, and the voices of that day on radio and television—pop songs, jingles, newscasts, sales pitches, and multiple forms of disposable drama layered thickly onto the soundtrack. You could say these artifacts—these love objects of Tarantino’s antiquarianism—are present to establish the ambience of Los Angeles in 1969. Or you could describe them more accurately as elements necessary for a cleansing through bloodshed.
This thirst for sanguinary redemption may be secular—we’re talking about Tarantino, not Martin Scorsese—but it should not be ignored, since it’s both the theme and the method of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. The characters, many of them show business types, speak with pleasure about violence, whether spontaneously praising the films and TV shows they enjoy (“I love that stuff—y’know, the killing”) or reciting the lines written for them in these productions. As a scripted gunslinger reminisces at one point, “People died that day,” to which his old pardner replies, “Yeah, but we had a good time.”
For Rick Dalton, the fading star played by Leonardo DiCaprio, the assumption that people enjoy witnessing sudden, painful death is nothing less than a career foundation. Rick’s greatest success was in a long-since-canceled television series, Bounty Law, in which the manhunter he portrayed invariably preferred “dead” to “alive” and elicited the audience’s agreement with a raffish wink to the camera. In this, Rick’s persona isn’t far different from that of Christoph Waltz’s character in Tarantino’s Django Unchained, as the bounty hunter who just can’t resist pulling the trigger on a man he dislikes—played, as it happens, by DiCaprio—and so sets off the mayhem that ends that movie on such a note of buoyant optimism. You might say that in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood Tarantino reflects on a general American desire to be entertained by slaughter and on his own role in satisfying that appetite.
He reflects, and he also delivers, slowly ratcheting up the foreboding of a massacre and then releasing the tension in an ecstasy of stabbing, shooting, chomping, bashing, and charbroiling. The twist—which makes this movie a self-critique, a horror story, or a head-spinning act of cultural revisionism, depending on how you think about it—is that the bloodlettings promised are the Manson family murders of August 9, 1969.
Well, some people have been observing the 50th anniversary of the moon landing, others commemorating Woodstock. Leave it to Tarantino to want to spend the summer of 2019 revisiting the Manson killings. Fair enough. No one denies their significance, whether as the outrage that ended the ’60s (as Joan Didion famously wrote) or as a crime that especially chilled the show business community in Los Angeles. The question is what Tarantino makes of the months leading up to these murders, as experienced by a fictionalized Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and by two invented characters at the house next door: Rick and his stunt double, chauffeur, handyman, and confidant, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).
The term “stunt double” ought to be enough to alert you to the symbolic possibilities of Rick’s relationship with Cliff, a man who is (as a voice-over says) more than a brother and less than a wife. You can, of course, take these two characters at face value: one an alcoholic almost-was now sinking into the oblivion of bit parts on episodic TV—his weakness betraying itself in a slight stammer, a hacking cough, an embarrassing forgetfulness about his lines, and a tendency toward furniture-smashing bouts of self-pity—and the other a grinning, loose-limbed, seemingly easygoing rake who has accepted the transition to being Rick’s gofer because no one will hire him anymore to perform stunts. But the irony of Tarantino’s casting two of the world’s biggest stars to play has-beens might tell you not to take the characters too literally. So, too, should Tarantino’s talent for explicating genre films—for example, the suggestion he threw out several years ago that the rivalry in Top Gun between Tom Cruise’s and Val Kilmer’s characters makes that movie the story of a man fighting his homosexuality.
Let’s take “double” seriously and imagine Rick and Cliff as one person: a fumbling outer man whose face is known to the world (though less and less) and an inner man who is secretly powerful, as well as grim and enraged (when no one’s looking). You can sense the dynamic in a remarkable sequence early in the film, in which Rick dismisses Cliff for the day—saying goodbye while making hollow, gratuitous boasts about owning a house in the Hollywood Hills—and Cliff drives off into the twilight, very quickly and recklessly, his expression suddenly not relaxed and jocular but severe as he speeds toward his own home. It’s a banged-up, isolated trailer behind a drive-in theater in Van Nuys. This must be what Rick is like inside: a man who never escaped the emotional constraints of poverty and feels that he dwells, literally, in the shadow of the movie business.
As Tarantino gets deeper into the movie, the possibilities inherent in Cliff’s function as stunt double become more admirable and also more frightening. When Cliff was still practicing his trade, he would perform the feats that Rick only seemed to do, and even now, he moves with a competence that Rick can’t approach. Given the menial task of fixing Rick’s television antenna, Cliff straps on a work belt (very useful for holding a can of beer) and bounds up to the roof in three leaps, no ladder required. Meanwhile, in the dressing room of a TV western, Rick is soaking his face in ice water, hoping to make himself presentable to the director and makeup artist. Rick is about to play yet another deadly villain, this one to be given the facial hair and fringed leather jacket of a hippie (to make the show more relevant). It’s a crummy job, but Rick desperately wants to please everyone—so much so that when a hilariously precocious actress does a scene with him and tells him when it’s over that he just did the best acting she’s ever seen in her life (she’s 8), Rick breaks down and weeps.
Cliff, by contrast, doesn’t give a damn about pleasing anybody, and though he professes nothing but disgust for hippies, he spends a little time with some real ones. Following a whim, he finds himself introduced to members of the Manson family at the abandoned movie and television ranch they’ve taken over. For reasons that are understandable but that he enjoys far too much, he beats one of them to a pulp. Cliff has that kind of competence, too.
While DiCaprio and Pitt are acting out this increasingly pathetic and dangerous duality on the margins of the movie business—DiCaprio performing with a self-abasing commitment to everything needy and worthless in Rick, Pitt with a swagger that makes Cliff an attractive menace—Tarantino cross-cuts to his fictionalized Tate to evoke the wonders of being on top in the final days of old-style Hollywood.
No matter whether Sharon’s husband, Roman Polanski, is by her side—and it makes Rick frantic to know he’s living next door to Polanski, the hottest, most presumably unapproachable director in the world—she succeeds in having fun. At night she parties at the Playboy Mansion—its name comes on the screen in huge letters, in the magazine’s logotype—where she dances joyfully with Mama Cass and is ogled by an envious Steve McQueen. During the day, she gets high at home and grooves on Paul Revere & the Raiders or goes shopping and is delighted to see that a theater is showing one of her movies, The Wrecking Crew with Dean Martin.
You might think a woman with these habits must be pampered and ready for the tumbrel—which was how the Manson family saw her—but in Robbie’s performance, she’s all charm and ingenuousness. Like Rick, Sharon wants nothing so much as to be recognized—which you understand is why she asks for free admission to The Wrecking Crew, not to save 75 cents but for the pleasure of making herself known. And when it turns out that she has to tell the movie theater’s employees who she is, she doesn’t mind this proof that her status as a celebrity is really very low. She poses cheerfully for a picture—standing next to a lobby card, as the cashier instructs her, so people will know who she is—and then settles in to enjoy the movie with her bare feet draped over the seat in front of her. Every time the audience laughs at something she’s doing on-screen, she’s thrilled. It doesn’t matter to her that her role in the film, as she’s explained without shame, is “the klutz.” She has no pretensions.
If Sharon embodies the glories of the old Hollywood, then Rick is not only right to want his part in them but also innocent in his desire. She’s the pure soul nurtured within a notoriously avaricious, back-stabbing industry. She lives to make others happy. The dramatic irony of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is that the audience knows, as she does not, that the Manson family is coming closer and closer, and the nearest witnesses are two men who scarcely deserve her proximity.
But why do Manson’s followers want to commit murder on Cielo Drive? The lone man in the crew, Tex (Austin Butler), is satisfied to know that Charlie gave them orders. But Tarantino leaves it to one of Charlie’s waifs, Sadie (Mikey Madison), to deliver the real answer, in a drug-fueled tirade. They grew up watching television, she says, and all they ever saw on TV was killing. Now it’s good to kill the pigs who taught them to kill.
So much for Tarantino’s self-critique. If the people who object to movie and TV bloodshed are mindless, vicious killers, then the case against media violence is worthless. On to the climactic gorefest!
But I think this reading is too simple. To get a better sense of what Tarantino might be up to, you need to recall that the Manson murders had nothing to do with taking revenge on filmmakers who devalue human life. The goal, as later teased out by authorities, was to spark a race war.
Which leads me to an interesting anomaly in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. There are almost no black faces to be seen. The writer-director who can scarcely walk to the corner grocery without having Samuel L. Jackson’s company, whose previous film was about the endlessness of the Civil War and whose film before that was a revenge drama about a runaway slave, has made a movie that’s all white (except for a handful of character actors cast as TV-western Mexicans and Mike Moh as Bruce Lee). Of course, Tarantino has no obligation to match the demographic balance of 1969 Los Angeles. He’s creating one of his alternative histories, not a work of realism. But the question remains: Why did he make this choice, especially when the Manson family’s racist motives are so well known?
To answer the question, you need only look at who gets redeemed.
The publicity department at Sony Pictures has solemnly enjoined me from revealing what happens, but I think I can say, without violating confidentiality, that the movie concludes with Tarantino’s heartfelt repudiation of ’60s youth culture and validation of the affluent straights, whether found in the movie studios, around the pool at the Playboy Mansion, or in the hangout of two hippie-hating, middle-aged, secretly brutal white men who feel they’ve been deprived of their better days. When people like these made the movies, they blithely represented the world as if it were essentially white. When Tarantino rescues their once-upon-a-time Hollywood from history’s dustbin, he makes their world white, too.
But even though Tarantino fantasizes that this bygone Hollywood at its best was pure, his rescue operation is not. As much as he loves the products the industry used to pump out—he’s filled this picture with little parodies of them—he also understands the moral and political conflicts that lie at their heart. You might say he loves them because they were vehicles of those conflicts. To locate the conflict at the core of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, I would note that Tarantino announced the movie in July 2017. Maybe he’d been mulling it over for a while—but it wasn’t until the Trump administration had been in office for half a year, giving everyone a solid idea of its racial agenda, that Tarantino decided to launch the project.
What he created is a genuinely enthusiastic tribute to American entertainment in 1969, as well as a sad and moving farewell to those who never made it in the business. But it’s also a hair-raising, present-day evocation of what America ought to be, as hallucinated by angry, violent, resentful white people. When you see all those shots of boots walking through the scenes, enjoy the period style. But also notice the dirt on the ground. Think of who’s being stepped on.