Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019)

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 . 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: 7.5/10

20 thoughts on “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019)

  1. I’m glad Sharon Tate is portrayed as an actual person. Like you said, her murder is the only thing people know about her.

    Terrific review. I wasn’t really keen on this film, but now that I’ve read your thoughts, I think I would enjoy it much more.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, and that perception isn’t much better with cinephiles. To them, she plays second fiddle to Roman Polanski in terms of importance despite being a great (if short-lived) success in her own right.

      And thanks! I hope you enjoy this film when you get the chance.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting. I don’t know that this film is for me… but I love all the actors. And I am usually all there for a DiCaprio and Robbie mashup (have they done anything together besides Catch Me if You Can?).

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Your review definitely magnifies my respect for the film, though I’m still sticking with my guns that too much of the film seems to have nothing to do with the overarching plot or character arcs (still wondering why that Bruce Lee scene was necessary). Also, I do appreciate how Tarantino makes Polanski the footnote in history, while depicting Sharon Tate as a human being (though I can imagine what happened to Tate and his unborn child probably had a serious effect on Polanski and might explain why he ended up making some “serious mistakes” down the road, I find said “mistakes” to be far too villainous to justify the continued support Hollywood shows the man. So it was refreshing to see Tarantino brush Polanski aside while shining the spotlight on Tate).

    I still have to say though, I don’t understand the stigma against The Hateful Eight. I really don’t.

    Great review.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Also, I hope you don’t mind that my review of the film (coming really soon…promise) brings up similar points about Sharon Tate’s sister and “New Hollywood.” If my review ends up reading too close to yours in those respects I will happily change it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks! I liked how the review turned out, so I’m glad you enjoyed it.

        I’d say, if nothing else, the Bruce Lee scene was a great character moment. It’s another case in which Mr. Tarantino subverted expectations, for I was expecting Cliff to get demolished. Ironically, he ended up using Bruce Lee’s own philosophy by using a very simple technique to take him down. It also foreshadowed what a great fighter Cliff was, making his triumph over the cultists more believable.

        I’d be lying if I said Roman Polanski was completely unsympathetic; while the man was a terror to work under even before Sharon Tate was murdered, you have to remember that he survived the Holocaust as well. Nonetheless, you are absolutely right, and there is no excuse for what he did and Hollywood’s continued support of him is a really damning indictment of the institution. It doesn’t even really make that much sense because, if I remember correctly, only one of his films (Rosemary’s Baby) was a Hollywood production. He’s often credited for having made Chinatown, but he didn’t join that project until it was well into development, so I don’t think he should be awarded a full point for that.

        I really don’t like that critics and cinephiles continue to put him on a pedestal either. To me, it’s like a more extreme version of the Ex Machina incident in that they were put in a position in which they had to choose between promoting an artist and demolishing the pedestal for the sake of those wronged by the artist, and they ultimately chose, without hesitation, to protect the artist. I’m not saying that those who enjoy his work are bad people, and I don’t expect reviews of his films to attack him as a person every time. In fact, I think it requires a lot of maturity to admit bad people can make good art. The problem is that they try to have it both ways, worshiping the ground he walks on while also praising his films. It’s problematic because I know if someone like Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich had pulled off something like that, the very same critics would’ve asked the courts to feed them to sharks. It also doesn’t make much sense when you consider that, even before his defining moment (so to speak), the overwhelming sentiment among critics at the time was that he had been riding his reputation more than actually living up to it. In hindsight, it makes Chinatown look like a happy accident than the product of an auteur genius. I can’t help but wonder if Mr. Tarantino realized this as well, hence why his take on Polanski barely featured in the film at all.

        I kind of want to see the remaining Tarantino films now. I’m sure even the not-so-good ones will give me plenty to talk about. I look forward to seeing your take on this one in the meantime!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Maybe, but I also see the Bruce Lee scene as a pointless defamation of Lee’s character, seeing as he’s presented as an arrogant jerk who ends up being incompetent and can’t back up any of his claims.

          Yes, it’s very true that it is possible to have sympathy for the things Roman Polanski lived through. And it is also true that bad people can make good art. Both are valid points. But I see Polanski of an example of “monsters making monsters” (for lack of a better term). Yes, he lived through horrendous tragedies, but in the end, he himself did things that are also unforgivable and horrendous. So he may be pitiable in many respects, but it doesn’t take away the vileness of his own actions.

          I can understand, say, a Polanski-directed movie getting praise. But when everyone at the Academy Awards gives a standing ovation for the mention of the man’s name, it’s pretty disgusting (and Hollywood types wonder why they get a bad rep?). In a case like this, I think they can award the film, but awarding the man seems pretty immoral.

          And now I’m going to sound like a broken record, but let’s think about the Academy’s mindset here: They can’t award animated films, super hero movies, sci-fi features, and other such popular films in the same way they can award the movies specifically made for them, because they couldn’t “lower themselves” like that. But giving a standing ovation to someone whose done the horrible things Polanski has done, that’s okay. His movies are up their alley, so they can look past that stuff. Hmmm, yeah, not cool.

          And yes, I also like to think that’s the reason Tarantino made Polanski a bit player in everything.

          I would definitely recommend viewing every Tarantino film to fans of cinema (provided they aren’t too sensitive to violence. I can actually understand why some audiences can’t stomach it). Even the ones I don’t particularly care for, I think are worth a look. Hell, even with all the crap I’ve been giving Inglourious Basterds, I’ve still watched it multiple times over the years, because I think it’s a movie fans of the medium can learn a lot from.

          I’m not sure which Tarantino films you haven’t seen, but I definitely recommend Jackie Brown (very low key for a Tarantino film, but still featuring his trademarks), and The Hateful Eight for sure. Hell, even Death Proof has its moments, and Kurt Russel is great (of course, saying Kurt Russel is great is like saying the sky is blue).

          Again, great review, trying to finish mine now. Also, to reiterate, if you think my review echoes yours too much, I’ll tweak it (though I swear it’s accidental, just ran across similar subjects when doing my research).

          Liked by 1 person

          • Fair enough. I thought Tarantino did a good job depicting Bruce Lee as cocky, yet charming (and having the fight end with no result was for the best), but you have a good point.

            And yes, I completely agree with your views on Roman Polanski. I appreciate the principle of separating the work from the artist, but I find a lot of people who say that have difficulties doing just that. It’s hypocritical how the Academy, Hollywood, and their followers claim to be progressive when they’re just as guilty of protecting monsters as those they condemn. And his trails and tribulations don’t even come close to excusing what he did. But he made some good films, so apparently that makes everything okay. Tarantino made the right call reducing him to a bit part – his only line isn’t even directed at a human.

            I do have to say that as annoying as it is that other mediums such as animation or video games aren’t as esteemed, one lasting benefit from that is that journalists don’t let toxic artists get away with nearly as much – just ask John Lasseter or John Kricfalusi.

            Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! Hope you enjoy it. And I think that’s what makes the film so acceptable – that Debra Tate gave it her blessings. It means if a critic were to be offended over how the film pans out, they’re not considering the feelings of the one who is the most entitled to be offended.

      Liked by 1 person

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