This story takes place in the year 1969. An aging actor named Rick Dalton has been stuck playing the role of antagonists in various films for several years. He was once the star of a Western television series called Bounty Law in the 1950s, but his time in the sun has long passed. He often confides to his best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth that his career is effectively over. Despite his dire situation, Rick lives in a comfortable house on Cielo Drive. He realizes he may have a second chance on his hands when two rising talents, Sharon Tate and her husband, Roman Polanski, move into the large house next door to him.
Due to a combination of factors such as the rise of skilled auteurs abroad and the medium now having a powerful competitor in the form of television, a new wave of filmmaking in the United States was in full swing in 1969. Some call it the American New Wave but, the most recognizable name for this era would be New Hollywood. Many argue that the movement began in earnest the exact second the highly restrictive Hays code expired in the late sixties. Coupled with the immense amounts of freedom they were afforded, directors began writing scripts touching upon taboo subjects such as race, sexuality, and violence.
With the general zeitgeist having changed so drastically in the years leading up to the events of this film, the stars of old were placed in a sink-or-swim situation. They either had to adjust to the changing times or fall into irrelevance, desperately clinging onto tropes and idioms now considered hackneyed all the while. In a lot of ways, the New Hollywood movement could be likened to the introduction of sound in cinema. Though not as immediately obvious, the effects of the two developments were largely the same, acting as a brick wall for those who couldn’t make the transition.
Because of this, the central conflict of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is remarkably similar to that of Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist. Rick Dalton is an example of the kind of person who would be have been considered a relic from the Golden Age of Hollywood. While he was once a big-name star, he has now been pigeonholed into playing the same antagonistic role over and over again. The very fact that he plays the antagonist could be seen as the era’s rejection of what Hollywood once stood for. Since his fall from the public eye, he has fallen into a severe depression, which he regularly drowns with alcohol. His problem has become so bad that his license was revoked, forcing Cliff to drive him everywhere. He is offered a way out in the form of a prominent Italian director who specializes in Spaghetti Westerns, but refuses to do so, buying into the stigma against the genre. He did have a brief resurgence when he played an action hero who got to incinerate several Nazis with a flamethrower and almost received the leading role in The Great Escape, but nothing stuck.
Not helping Rick’s plight is the company he keeps around him. Nobody in Hollywood is willing to hire Cliff due to a rumor that he killed his wife. Whether or not this is true is unconfirmed in the narrative itself, yet simply by associating with him, Rick risks his career on a daily basis. Both possibilities could be read as a critique on some of Hollywood’s worst tendencies. If Rick is innocent, then he is the victim of an unjust blackballing campaign that could easily have been effected by someone who decided they didn’t like him. However, if Rick is indeed guilty, it speaks to the lengths Hollywood goes through in order to protect the immoral – letting their own get away with heinous crimes on powerless people so long as they preserve their precious sources of income.
Despite sounding like a fairly sobering premise, Quentin Tarantino’s work also doubles as a celebration of Hollywood in 1969 and the art of filmmaking. Rick eventually plays another antagonist opposite a child actor named Trudi Fraser. The two of them then form an odd friendship to the point where Rick is genuinely concerned when he tosses her to the ground for a scene. This work even captures those odd moments that occur when making films wherein adlibs and improvised moments make the cut due to how well they work. It makes the case that the best productions involve a healthy mixture of planned story beats and happy accidents.
What particularly stands out is Margot Robbie’s performance as Sharon Tate. She is the very definition of a free spirit – full of life and hope for the future. Naturally, the audience knows that this innocence isn’t to last. Later in 1969, Sharon, while pregnant with Roman Polanski’s child, will be murdered by three members of a community called the Manson Family. However, in this moment, she is a carefree woman thoroughly enjoying herself. The moment in which Sharon cheekily attempts to see The Wrecking Crew, which she herself starred in, in the theater for free is both charming and amusing.
Sharon’s surviving sister, Debra Tate, was apprehensive about the film, feeling the producers were tastelessly exploiting her murder. As Sharon was the victim of one of the most publicized crimes in the twentieth century, Debra had been fighting tooth and nail against people exploiting her sister’s murder for personal gain for decades. Fortunately, she came around after speaking with Mr. Tarantino and reading the script, giving the project her blessing. She even went as far as giving Ms. Robbie Sharon’s jewelry to use in the film. In a moment equally likely to warm the heart as it is to induce tears, Debra wept upon seeing Ms. Robbie’s performance. “I actually got to see my sister again nearly fifty years later,” she said in an interview.
The primary reason why the depiction of Sharon Tate doesn’t feel exploitative is because Mr. Tarantino sought to fight the most common perception of her. For those not versed in early New Hollywood films, Sharon Tate is merely the Manson Family’s most famous murder victim. It is all several people remember about her – not her promising acting career, personality, or any other aspect that makes her human. Even among cinephiles, she is a little more known for being Roman Polanski’s wife than a success in her own right. Mr. Tarantino addresses that notion as well, for Roman barely features in the film at all, having only one line – directed at a dog, no less.
Even Mr. Tarantino’s signature mixture of tones, his film is absolutely not afraid to get serious. Whenever a Manson Family member is onscreen, the blood of anyone watching the film turns cold. They present themselves as a happy hippie community, but they are masters of hiding their true intentions. What I like about how Mr. Tarantino handles them is that he assumes the audience is familiar with the history of the Manson Family. In fact, Charles Manson’s surname is never uttered once in the film – he is only ever referred to as Charlie. You see somebody who vaguely resembles him, and to remove any doubt, he mentions being friends with Beach Boys member Dennis Wilson. When you see him staking out Cielo Drive, you he is a ticking time bomb waiting for the right moment go off. Considering contemporary filmmaking methods involved drilling points into their audience’s skulls, Mr. Tarantino’s show-don’t-tell approach was very refreshing.
It is fitting that a depiction of Roman Polanski stars in this film because one sequence in particular wouldn’t have felt out of place in one of his features. Cliff picks up a young hippie girl, wisely rejecting her sexual advances when she is unable to produce proof of her being of age. He then takes her to the Spahn Movie Ranch where she and her fellow cult members are squatting. The way the cultists watch Cliff’s every move makes them seem less human and more a collection of living puppets being controlled by a hitherto unknown malevolent entity attempting to cross over into our world.
It also produces a bizarrely hilarious scene wherein Cliff attempts to meet with an old friend, George Spahn, who owns the ranch. Every step of the way, you’re led to believe the cultists are lying. It’s especially tenuous when Lynnette Fromme, better known by her terrible nickname of “Squeaky”, claims George takes naps during the day so they can watch FBI and Columbo later that night. Despite sounding as though she’s lying through her teeth, everything she and her cultists told him is the truth. George Spahn being a more obscure figure in the Manson Family story despite inadvertently playing a key role in their formation makes this setup all the more effective.
Whether you’re discussing good times or bad times, they generally aren’t to last. Rick finally gets over his aversion to Spaghetti Westerns and agrees to star in many Italian productions. Although he appears in four films in a six-month timespan, he only barely makes a profit due to the living expenses and his inability to quit drinking. Despite this, his life has improved, though he can no longer afford Cliff’s services.
It’s a surprisingly tender moment. For the entire film, it’s easy to get the impression that Cliff is nothing but a burden on Rick’s career. All of the affectations of a typical toxic friend relationship are there, yet it is ultimately proven not to be the case. Although one could deduce that Rick has been taking advantage of Cliff this entire time, it is actually a mutually beneficial relationship. Rick is the only one willing to give Cliff work – the latter of whom is only barely scrapping by. Cliff, for his part, is someone to whom Rick can comfortably confide all of his anxiety. Without Cliff, Rick’s depression would have been far worse.
Realizing they must go their separate ways, Cliff and Rick go out for one last drink together. Said fun-filled night happens to take place on that fateful day in August of 1969. Roman Polanski has left for England to shoot his next film. At home, Sharon Tate has invited some friends over to dance. A man on television even draws attention to what is to occur that night, calling it “the moment you’ve all been waiting for!” When an anomalously loud vehicle transporting Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel arrives on Cielo Drive, any good feeling the audience may have had ceases entirely, replaced with a sense of pure, heart-thumping dread. However, in a twist similar to one of Mr. Tarantino’s earlier films, it’s a moment the audience anticipates, yet never occurs.
The noise emanating from the Manson Family members’ car attracts Rick’s attention. After ordering them to leave, the four of them change their plans. Susan Atkins offers the entirely sound reason that because television taught them to murder, they must kill the people responsible for implanting the lesson in their head. Linda Kasabian instantly proves to be the sanest of the four when she abandons the plan, making off with their car. The remaining three descend upon Rick’s abode only to find Cliff still standing in the living room.
A common theme in Mr. Tarantino’s films is to have characters live in grandiose world of colorful personalities only for reality to rear its ugly head at the most inconvenient times. In this case, it’s three cultists with murderous intent, yet zero combat experience against a war hero stuntman who owns an attack dog. The fight goes about as well as you would expect. Cliff’s dog incapacitates Tex by chomping his groin and the stuntman easily kills both him and Patricia, though not before taking a knife wound to the kidney. Susan Atkins, who is the one historians feel to have actually murdered Sharon Tate in real life, receives a painfully drawn out death worthy of the apocryphal manner in which Rasputin the Mad Monk died. First she gets her nose broken by a can of dog food. Then, Rick’s wife, Brandy, mauls her. The fight reaches its climax when she is defenestrated, breaking open Rick’s patio door. Rick himself, who was relaxing on a water mattress at the time, wastes no time introducing the aforementioned flamethrower to the fight and subsequently immolates Susan with it. It’s a little ironic how one of Mr. Tarantino’s most mature films ended up featuring the most over-the-top death in his entire canon.
At the end of the battle, Cliff is whisked away to the hospital while Rick strikes up a conversation with Jay Sebring. The hair stylist, having heard all of the commotion, asks Rick if he is alright. The actor tells him what just happened. Although it seems a bit superfluous, I do enjoy how causally he talks about having “torched the last one”. Without context, one would think he successfully rid his lawn of an unusually stubborn weed. Feeling Rick has had quite the night, Jay invites him into Sharon’s house for drinks.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that it played around with expectations so much, the ending of this film proved polarizing. I personally don’t have a problem with it, but I can see why someone would. In the last memorable instance in which Mr. Tarantino attempted something similar, he merely killed off historical figures slightly earlier than when they actually died. With this alternate history, he saved people who died in real life. This can make the film feel slightly disingenuous – a fleeting daydream of what might have been.
However, there are two factors that I think allows this ending to work. The first is that Debra Tate gave this film her blessings. She had a prime opportunity to object to the script, and yet she did not. It wasn’t as though the Sony executives were determined to ignore her wishes either – they originally wanted to release the film to the public on the fifty-year anniversary of the incident. When she vetoed the idea, they agreed to release it to the public on July 26, 2019 instead. In short, the one person who was the most entitled to be offended about this development didn’t object to it.
The second aspect to keep in mind is that the film is in no way is intended to be historically accurate. It doesn’t even begin with the obligatory “based on a true story” tag in its introduction. The film’s very title gives its true intentions away. In addition to alluding to the works of Sergio Leone, the film’s title containing the words “Once Upon a Time” firmly establishes its status as a fairy tale with a dab of realism for good measure. One outspoken critic working for Variety magazine argued that Mr. Tarantino was destroying history with this ending. However, said critic ultimately failed to realize one simple truth – the average audience member is quite a bit smarter than that. Anyone who watches this film is going to anticipate Sharon’s death every step of the way; it’s not as though they’ll suddenly believe she has been alive for fifty years. Time and again, Mr. Tarantino had proven to be a master of subverting expectations, and this ending was no different.
The 2010s proved to be something of a rough patch for Quentin Tarantino. Although Django Unchained was fairly popular with critics and fans alike, the former considered it a step down from Inglorious Basterds. To make matters worse, his follow-up, The Hateful Eight, proved to be one of his least popular works. He still had classics such as Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction to hang his hat on, but with such a small filmography compared to that of other auteurs, it was easy to read The Hateful Eight as a sign of his decline.
Although there are plenty of New Hollywood references scattered throughout his film, in a strange way, I find myself likening Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to Federico Fellini’s 8½. Both works are thorough examinations of the filmmaking process conceived by directors who were in dire straits. Mr. Fellini had come down with a severe case of director’s block and Mr. Tarantino realized he may be losing his relevance. Although I wouldn’t rank Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as one of his strongest films, it is definitely a solid effort in its own right that offers a neat package of great acting performances, profound character studies, and a surprising amount of maturity coming from someone not always known for it.
Final Score: 7/10