Joan Didion wrote in her book of essays White Album (1979): “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, at exactly the moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brush fire through the community.” Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) is divided into two parts: the first one surrounding the (mostly fictional) events of February 1969, and the second part—August 8 and 9, 1969—reinventing the fatidic Charles Manson’s massacre in semi-comical fashion, after the Rolling Stones’s Out of Time tune plays as a nostalgic swan song.
Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is a stuntman, a WWII vet, and a close friend—”a buddy who is more than a brother and a little less than a wife”—of Rick Dalton (Leonardo di Caprio), a former 1950s film star whose popularity in war films and westerns has been fading while the ’60s counter-culture is booming. For the very first time, Rick is experiencing crippling doubts about his career, especially when his agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) warns him he must stop playing the villain in TV shows, because if he continues to do so the audience will forget his “heroic” filmic background.
“What he’s dealing with is even more than the TV and movies transition. The culture has changed underneath him, the entire Earth has gone topsy-turvy as far as a whole era of leading men is concerned,” Tarantino explained on the Pure Cinema Podcast. Rick Dalton’s screen persona is kind of a composite of such yesteryear actors as Steve McQueen, Edd Byrnes (77 Sunset Strip), Ty Hardin (Bronco), George Maharis (Hullabaloo), and Pete Duel (Bonanza). Dalton’s fictional Bounty Law show is sort of a duplicate of Steve McQueen’s Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958-1961).
Rick Dalton’s nervous breakdown at his trailer—after having failed at a rehearsal—connects intimately to Pete Duel’s ghost, since Duel (an undiagnosed bipolar alcoholic) was the TV western Alias Smith and Jones‘s star and he took his own life in 1971. This is indeed a traumatic scene for the viewer, when Rick experiences both alcoholic confusion and suicidal ideation in one of the film’s few dramatic moments.
Among the multiple fan homages, Sergio Corbucci (director of The Great Silence) is mentioned when Rick decides to try his luck acting in spaghetti westerns in Italy. Corbucci also directed Django in 1966, which inspired Tarantino’s racially-themed neo-western Django Unchained. While Rick enjoys Italian food and a shotgun wedding to co-star Francesca Capucci (Lorenza Izzo), Easy Rider hits US theaters in July 1969. After Rick’s comeback home, we’ll witness an uncomfortable wink to Easy Rider‘s star Dennis Hopper, when Charles Manson’s right hand Tex Watson (Austin Butler) confronts a drunken Dalton in his private driveway.
Steve McQueen (Damien Lewis) allegedly had a crush on Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie)—as he confesses to Connie Stevens at the Playboy mansion—and he pondered attending Tate & Polanski’s home at Cielo Drive the night of the Manson Family murders. Rick fantasizes about reaching McQueen’s level of stardom (we even see a playful insertion of Rick as Captain Virgil Hilts in the classic The Great Escape). Therefore an inevitable erotical tension is subliminally established between the ascendant starlet Tate and the “has-been” Dalton, who symbolize New Wave and Golden Age Hollywood respectively.
There are two consecutive stunning scenes in the middle section of the film that bestow a touching humanity upon Rick’s and Cliff’s personalities. First, Rick has an epiphany while shooting an episode of his TV show Lancer when a child actor (Trudi, played with relish by Julia Butters) praises his improvisation technique: “That is the best acting I’ve ever seen in my whole life!” Trudi’s affability and her helpful guidance to Method acting have operated wonders on Rick’s self-esteem. Second, Cliff’s visit to Spahn Ranch—after flirting with a member of the Manson Family named Pussycat (played expressively by Margaret Qualley)—takes on a different meaning about a real threat on the horizon.
Intertwined with Rick’s and Cliff’s professional and personal challenges, we become enthralled (although progressively worried about her safety) by a radiant Sharon Tate—strolling around the City of Angels—whom the camera follows in such an affectionate and palpitating detail that it has an electrifying effect. The pounding of Sharon’s white boots on the bygone L.A. pavement is mirrored by our heart beating in response, the decades in-between collapsing onto our mental collages of her memory. She manages to sneak cost-free into the theatre, where she delights in her own comedic performance in The Wrecking Crew while surrounded by unsuspecting fans. It’s such a beautiful, zany, and powerful scene we sense the audience is irremediably, completely siding with Sharon from that moment on.
The fictitious 14 Fists of McClusky (echoing a sequence from Inglorious Basterds) is a homage to Roger Corman’s war film The Secret Invasion (1964). Also, I infer Tarantino was influenced by Two Weeks in Another Town (1962) by Vincente Minnelli, since its plot is built around a washed-up actor (like Rick Dalton) who accepts a role in a minor production in Rome after spending three years in an asylum, looking for some type of redemption.
The nostalgic references keep piling up. All the glamorous faces, shady outsiders, vibrant marquees, hot spots, and shindigs reverberate as though conjured up by a cinephile’s wistful spell. The breezy and sumptuous tone used to rebuild this legendary dream factory—where so many ambitions turned sour—might even connect Once Upon a Time in Hollywood thematically to other similar radiographies of the industry, like The Big Knife (1955) by Robert Aldrich or the screwball comedy Bombshell (1933) by Victor Fleming.
It’s odd reminiscing about the nightclub scene from Bombshell, filmed at the now demolished Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, or about The Motion Picture Herald‘s review of Bombshell as “one of the funniest, speediest, most nonsensical pictures ever to hit a screen.” Indeed, Jean Harlow and Lee Tracy’s characters share a similar relationship dynamic to Rick and Cliff’s. Bombshell is partially a satire of the stardom years of Clara Bow (Jean Harlow’s Lola Burns), arguably the first Hollywood “It girl.” Lee Tracy’s E. J. Hanlon invokes the pioneer film producer B. P. Schulberg, whose last film was City Without Men (1943). Schulberg also produced Clara Bow’s Wings, which won the first Academy Award for Best Picture at the first Oscar ceremony in 1929.
In his ninth film, Tarantino has again incited abundant controversy—over his treatment of Bruce Lee, over Sharon Tate having little dialogue, along with accusations of being “obscenely regressive”—but I see it as his most sincere and optimistic film to date, despite its puzzling flashbacks and Cliff’s unreliable memory. What distinguished a typical Tarantino film was its sarcastic tone and fetishization of violence; in that regard Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is atypical, because its approach mimics those “good times” of the ’60s.
What remains a constant is Tarantino’s avoidance of melodrama, which differentiates him from Scorsese, Stone, or Paul Thomas Anderson. More in that line, of mixing nihilist hilarity with violent situations, is Matthew David Wilder—an underrated screenwriter who combined underground crudity with absurdist humor in Paul Schrader’s insane thriller Dog Eat Dog (2016).
Within his often effectist style, this is somehow Tarantino’s Roche limit, the closest distance a celestial body can come to a planet like Earth without getting pulled apart.
The song Mr. Sun, Mr. Moon by Paul Revere & The Raiders marks a pivotal sequence, the clash between the inscrutable American (symbolized by Cliff) and the destructive subculture (symbolized by the Manson clan) that darkened and dimmed our immediate future. By the way, there is a Saturn’s Moon named Mimas, also known as Saturn I or the Death Star, whose existence is something of a miracle after it suffered a huge impact that caused its giant scar of a crater, called Herschel. Fractures are visible on Mimas on the opposite side of Herschel, indicating that the impact had the potential to disintegrate the moon. But it didn’t.
How big a hit can a planet or moon or scenario take before being utterly obliterated? Incomprehensibly, in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood the maniacal potential to disintegrate the Hollywood scene crashes against its own madness and perishes. Momentarily, Mimas seemed to be crashing into Saturn’s rings. But this proved an optical illusion caused by the way the image was taken. Likewise, cinematic illusion or simulation can make us appreciate things that are not actually there.
A film doesn’t have to hold all the answers, but it should have that almost-destroying impact when it depicts such a dark period of social upheaval. Despite its self-indulgence and banality, Tarantino’s ninth film establishes itself as another of his absurd masterworks.
“Every actor in his heart believes everything bad that’s printed about him,” Orson Welles once said. And Rick Dalton may have believed so. But as Cliff retorts to him: “You’re Rick Dalton—don’t ever forget it.”