Film Review: “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood”

WARNING: I am going to discuss spoilers at length in this article, so keep that in mind if you haven’t seen it yet. I also want to note that some potentially unsettling topics like rape and violence (particularly against women) are going to be discussed later on.

Oh boy. Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy. Everybody strap in. This is going to take a while.

I know there have been movies worse than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood at the theater this year. Glass. Alita: Battle Angel. Both of those talking dog movies. Fake The Lion King. This is also not the angriest I’ve ever been watching a film in theaters, although I have been making a string of poor viewing decisions lately. Perhaps part of me is still chasing the high of blind rage that I got from Alien Covenant.

Sorry, I’m rambling. Point is, I shouldn’t logically be angry at this movie. But I am. I am the angriest I’ve been at a movie in 2019. I am angry at its plot. I am angry at its characters. But above all, I am angry at its wasted potential and its narrow-minded attitude.

I used to be neutral on Quentin Tarantino. Perhaps a little bit apprehensive, but still neutral overall. I hadn’t seen any of his movies in full up until now, just the occasional clip here and there. I knew what most people thought of him, that he was part of the canon of great auteurs, that the “good” film nerds never criticized him and looked down on those who did. I wanted to see his movies and like them, because I wanted to be a “good” film nerd. Now, I never want to see one of his movies again.

Watching Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I saw what makes Tarantino a perfectly good director but none of what supposedly makes him a great writer or storyteller. What I saw was his arrogance, his disrespect for women, his yearning for a golden age that he likely never experienced, if it even existed at all. I saw the power fantasy of someone struggling to deal with the fact that the world which once praised him is beginning to question him and the material he puts into his films.

But enough of these vague generalizations. Let’s get into the nitty-gritty.

The Plot: Los Angeles, 1969. Stuck at the bottom of the Hollywood totem pole is Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is bouncing from guest role to guest role after the cancellation of his Western TV show. He’s getting increasingly depressed at his slim prospects, figuring his best days are behind him. Living next door are Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a reminder of the high life that he’s missing out on. There’s only one person who seem to care what happens to Rick, his friend/stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). In contrast to Rick’s perennial anxiety, Cliff is an easygoing fellow who’s content to live simply and take on the world one day at a time. Over the course of six months, Rick and Cliff embark on a series of misadventures that take them from the LA backlots to Spahn’s Movie Ranch and beyond, pitting them against everyone from hippie girls to movie stars. But their journey finally leads them back to Cielo Drive in the early hours of August 9, where they’re about to become entangled in Hollywood’s most infamous bloodbath: the killing of Tate, her friends and her unborn child at the hands of the Manson “family.”

Tarantino was all of six years old in 1969, so I suppose it’s not entirely fair to say he never experienced this period of American history. But he does approach his subject with an almost childlike sense of wonder. His version of 1960s Los Angeles comes off less like a real place and more like a fantasy playground full of parties and women and fast cars. The characters, and the film’s focus, are neatly ensconced inside this rose-tinted shell. Contemporary events like the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement are mentioned, but only in passing and never with any interest. This is through and through a nostalgia movie focusing on the “good old days” aspect of the 60s. And while there isn’t anything inherently wrong with that kind of movie, it’s not the kind of movie that should be telling a story about Charles Manson and the Tate murders. There is absolutely a compelling film that could be made about the late 60s film industry, the fall of the studio system and the rise of the New Hollywood era, and how the culture of the day produced someone like Manson. But that’s not the movie Tarantino wants to make, and it shows in how he treats the material. Not just the story/character of Sharon Tate, but everyone who isn’t one of his tough-guy protagonists.

I would say that Tarantino gives the short shrift to his female characters in this movie, but saying that would imply that the women in this movie are characters at all. They fall into three basic categories: the airhead, the sexpot and the nagging bitch. I’m going to tackle those three categories in that order.

First up is the airhead, personified by Tate and the other Hollywood actresses. In a movie where she is ostensibly a major player, Tate falls victim to what is called “the sexy lamp test.” Coined by writer Kelly Sue DeConnick, the test consists of one simple question: if you replaced the female character in your story with a sexy lamp, would anything about your story actually change? It’s a way of pointing out when a story’s female characters don’t say or do anything that impact the narrative. That, in a nutshell, is how this movie treats Sharon Tate. She exists not as a character but as an object meant to symbolize the freewheeling life Rick Dalton wishes he had. She is often filmed at a distance or from behind, having barely any dialogue. When she is the main focus of a scene, it’s rarely a scene with much substance. We never get to know her as anything more than a self-absorbed, ever-cheerful party girl. When Rick marries an Italian actress late into the film, she gets the same treatment. These women aren’t characters, just trophies to show how far the protagonist has to go at the beginning and how far he’s come once he’s a success.

In a strange paradox, this approach somehow creates the most poignant and humanizing scene in the film. It’s the scene where Tate sneaks into a movie theater and watches a screening of her own film The Wrecking Crew with an audience. She doesn’t draw attention to herself: instead she watches the moviegoers’ reactions with delight and reminisces about reminisces about making the film during her big fight scene. The cherry on top is that we’re seeing footage of the real Sharon Tate’s performance in that film, rather than a reenactment or something with Margot Robbie digitized into a scene. It’s a sequence that depicts Tate as someone who loved what she did and loved getting to make people happy through her work.

But here’s the thing: I’m not sure if that was what Tarantino meant to depict. He leads into that scene by having Tate go up to the counter, ask for a ticket and then be visibly let down when the employee tells her how much it will cost. “What if I’m in the movie?” she says, miffed that the girl behind the counter didn’t recognize her immediately. That’s the image of Tate we’re shown throughout the rest of the film: someone who’s a bit too dazzled by her own fame, expects special treatment because of her status and is out of sync with the real world. While I saw the theater sequence as an example of hidden depths, it’s possible that Tarantino meant for it to be another display of vanity.

The next category of woman is the sexpot, which to some extent encompasses the first category but also includes the Manson girls. Chief among them is Margaret Qualley’s character, known only as “Pussycat.” She appears on and off throughout the film as she and Cliff keep running into each other. Tarantino depicts her as a hippie femme fatale: bared midriff, short shorts, always barefoot and almost always down for sex. She’s all over Cliff once she actually gets to speak to him, even offering to give him a blowjob while he’s driving. In the simplest of terms, she’s another part of the wish fulfillment: a washed-up, middle-aged guy getting showered with affection by a hot young thing. Emphasis on the young, in this case, as it’s heavily implied that she’s underage. Not that Cliff is really turned off by that, although he tells her he’d rather not risk going to jail for sleeping with a minor. But it does make the voyeuristic gaze of the camera a lot more disturbing.

Third and most infuriating is the category of the nagging bitch, which includes the rest of the adult women in the film (I say adult because we’ll get to the one exception later on). If a female character isn’t a prize for the protagonists to ogle, then she’s an obstacle for them to get past. We see this at its most blatant with the women who appear in Cliff’s storyline: a stunt coordinator with a grudge against him, prominent Manson follower Lynette Fromme, and his own wife.

And now that I’ve brought up Cliff’s wife, it’s time to break down one of the most disturbing creative choices in the film. You see, it’s heavily implied that Cliff — one of our protagonists, mind you — murdered his wife. We never get a definitive answer on whether or not he actually did, but the film’s ambiguity on this plot point is half-hearted at best. Everyone except Rick believes that Cliff is guilty, and Cliff never denies this. When we get a brief flashback to Cliff and his wife just before the alleged incident, it’s scripted and filmed in a way which shows that Cliff had both the means and the motivation to kill her. All the evidence points in one direction.

Now I don’t have a problem with anti-heroes in fiction. It’s perfectly fine for a story to have a morally ambiguous protagonist who does terrible things. But Tarantino doesn’t depict the murder of this woman as a terrible thing. At best it’s treated with an air of irreverence. At worst it’s treated as something mysterious and cool, something that gives Cliff street cred. Something good.

For the few seconds of screen time that Cliff’s wife is given, she is a shrill caricature who endlessly nags her husband while he just glares at her. It has the tone of a cutaway gag, like it’s just another one of Cliff’s quirky misadventures being recounted. The intended reaction to this flashback seems to be one of sympathy for Cliff. Of course he would kill her if he was being treated like that, it says. What else was he supposed to do? She deserved it for being such a shrew.

And in the present, people who are hostile to Cliff because of this are not depicted as being rightfully afraid of a dangerous individual. No, they’re vindictive assholes who are punishing Cliff for no reason. The female stunt coordinator and her husband are just being unreasonable when they say they don’t want a guy like Cliff working on their project. Can’t they see how cool he is?

I can’t stress enough how the film wants us to look up to Cliff as a character. If Rick is supposed to be the character we relate to, then Cliff is who we should aspire to be. He’s a badass and he knows it. He’s such a great fighter than he can beat up Bruce Lee himself without breaking a sweat!

I should stop for a moment and discuss the film’s depiction of Bruce Lee, which has quickly become a controversial talking point. Either you love it or you really, really hate it, mostly the latter. I don’t know much about the actual Bruce Lee, so I can’t attest to the accuracy of the actor’s portrayal or how the character was written. That said, I definitely felt uncomfortable watching this sequence in the theater. It really comes across like the film is mocking Lee, trying to paint him as a braggart who is all bark and no bite, another obstacle for Cliff so he can show off how cool and dangerous he is. I think it’s worth noting that Lee’s own daughter Shannon has criticized the film’s portrayal of her father, and his friend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar has expressed his disapproval of it as well. I’m not too good at reading a room, but if you’ve pissed off the man’s friends and family members, that’s a pretty good sign you’ve made a mistake.

I don’t think Tarantino has any real disdain for Bruce Lee. I think Bruce Lee was just collateral damage of Tarantino’s desire to show every person in his movie, real or fake, as inferior to Rick and Cliff. They are the misunderstood heroes and geniuses that go unappreciated by the rest of the world, and it’s time they were given their just dues. And that brings us to my problems with the movie’s ending.

Before I dig into the ending, I do want to touch on the things I liked about the movie (yes, there are things I liked, how shocking). The acting here is top-notch all around, especially from DiCaprio and Robbie. The biggest highlight of the film are the all-too-brief scenes with newcomer Julia Butters. She plays a precocious child actress who gives Rick a crash course in method acting and inspires him to get out of his drunken pity party, and she’s the closest we get to having a developed female character. And while I may not agree with the film’s rose-tinted vision of 1960s Hollywood, it’s at its best when it focuses on being a love letter to mid-century film and television. Recreations of old programs like Lancer and The F.B.I. are lovingly done, while Rick’s cancelled show Bounty Law is an amusing parody of 1950s Westerns. The film itself and the in-universe programming begin to bleed together at one point thanks to some clever camerawork: in the sequences where Rick is filming a project, we see the action as though we were looking through the TV crew’s camera. When a shot that involves the camera rotating needs to be redone, our perspective swivels back around to its starting position and then rotates again when shooting resumes. The camera techniques being shown are more appropriate to modern filmmaking than a 1960s TV pilot, but it’s still an inspired and immersive way of filming these scenes.

And now, the ending. If you want to avoid spoilers, this is your last chance to back out. Got it? Good.

I remember that when this film was first announced, specifically as a project about the Tate murders, the general mood among its detractors was apprehension. There was definitely this fear that Tarantino, a director whose work has long been criticized for glorifying violence, was going to exploit this tragedy and turn it into an over-the-top gore show. The reality, however, is something more complicated. Those first critics were right to be worried about Tarantino exploiting this piece of history, but it doesn’t happen in the way they expected.

Look, I can say a lot about how this ending doesn’t work for me. I could talk about how the film meanders to this point and makes it feel like just another weird setpiece as opposed to the climax of the narrative. I could talk about how Tarantino’s “violence is cool” attitude goes into full effect and leads to some death scenes that would be nightmarish if they were happening to sympathetic characters. I could talk about how this sequence involves the most random and clumsy use of Chekhov’s Gun — or rather, Chekhov’s Flamethrower — that I’ve seen in years. But none of those are the single defining failure of this ending for me.

That single defining failure? The misuse of alternate history.

Yes, alternate history. Because in this movie, the Tate murders don’t happen. Manson’s followers accidentally go to Rick’s house instead, where Rick and Cliff easily finish them off. We see yet again how badass Cliff is, because he kills two of them while tripping on acid. So the dust settles, Cliff is driven off to the hospital, Sharon invites Rick up to her house for drinks, and…that’s the end. Not only does Tate live, she was never in danger at all.

To adequately explain the point I want to make, we have to start with some real history. The Tate murders weren’t just another killing, they arguably brought about the end of the 1960s culture. On the 10th anniversary of the event, a Connecticut newspaper called The Hour published a retrospective in which they wrote that “The murders and a trial were not only a sensation, but they also had a profound effect on society. Almost everyone concerned with the case believed it was a turning point, a souring of the perception of the ‘hippie’ cult not only among the older generation but among young people themselves.” In the 2000 book Sharon Tate and the Manson Murders, author Greg King includes a quote from Joan Didion: “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this was true. The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled.”

So in Tarantino’s vision, he doesn’t just save Sharon Tate; he saves the 60s itself. He’s created a fantasy world where his golden age never has to end. And they all lived happily ever after.

Here’s my first question for Tarantino: does Roman Polanski still rape a 13-year-old girl in this reality? Do Manson and his followers still get caught and put on trial? If not, who do they go after next? What about the activism and legal reform that Sharon Tate’s family has supported in the decades following her murder? How much of this just goes away in the world where you’ve rewritten history just to make yourself feel good?

It’s my personal opinion that when someone sets out to write an alternate history, especially where you change a singular event, it can’t just be an afterthought. You have to be prepared to address the consequences of what you’ve changed. Tarantino, of course, has no interest in consequences here. He just wants to put the cherry on top of his nostalgia trip where his self-insert characters get to be the action heroes.

And that’s the real exploitation here: the story of a real woman’s death is rewritten to make it about two fictional men and how great they are. This isn’t like killing Hitler in Inglorious Basterds. Nobody cares, or should care, about treating Hitler’s death with respect. The senseless murder of a pregnant woman who had her whole life ahead of her is a whole other story. It’s not respectful to “save” her if you’re erasing her from her own narrative at the same time. You’re just using her.

I’ve seen quite a few people whose opinions I respect give positive reviews to this film. They think of it as a breath of fresh air in an era where Hollywood is getting eaten alive by the franchise industry, a throwback to a time when we were getting real art on our screens. But here’s the thing: great art and great storytelling aren’t dead. They just aren’t coming out of Hollywood anymore, and that’s okay. If you look around, you’ll find art all over the place: books, television, independent or foreign film, music, comics, podcasts. We don’t need a movie like this to tell us that art isn’t dead. In fact, we deserve better than a movie like this to remind us that art isn’t dead. Because at its core, it’s not really a film about a time when Hollywood was making art. It’s a film made by a man who sees himself as an underdog because he’s no longer getting the attention and free passes he thinks he deserves as a filmmaker. It’s a film about wanting to make the world change for you rather than having the maturity to change with the world.

This was Tarantino’s ninth film, and he has said that he is only going to make ten in his career. It has been rumored that this tenth film will be a Star Trek movie. If I got into my thoughts on that, however, this post would have the profanity count to match a Tarantino movie. So this is where I will leave you, dear readers. Go watch something real instead.

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