Once Upon A Time In Hollywood [SPOILERICIOUS]

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood [SPOILERICIOUS]

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is now my favorite Quentin Tarantino movie even though I think a few of his others are better made films.[1] 

But, man, does it ever capture the era and the vibe.  In that sense it's like La Dolce Vita (and in another, like Singin' In The Rain).

I know this era, and I know Los Angeles of the time -- from the Summer of Love in ’67 through the year of unraveling in 1968 to the end of the era in ’69.

And while Hunter S. Thompson’s brilliant Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas marked the official death notice of the Swingin’ Sixties in 1971 (with a few die-hards like the Symbianese Liberation Army literally dying hard in 1974), the truth is 1969 was when it all came to an end.

Nixon won, thanks to his own now well documented treasonous behavior and to a few million white bigots voting for George Wallace instead of Hubert Humphrey, and (as Thompson himself noted two years later) “with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark -- that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

Now some of you are saying, “But wait -- how can little Buzzy boy -- a mere lad of 13 summers in 1967 and not yet fully 16 when he finally actually visited Los Angeles for the first time in 1970 -- how can he know what Los Angeles was like in that era?”

Ah, for that, my friends, we can thank television.

. . .

For those of you too damn impatient to get into the meat of my review of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, just skip this block and go to the next one.

I’m gonna pull a Tarantino here and seemingly meander in order to set up what comes next.

Even though I lived in the rural South (Appalachia mostly but with a few years in the Piedmont of North Carolina), we had this invention called television, and on this invention were these shows.

I’m not talking about Shindig! or Hullabaloo or even The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour (though the latter interestingly paralleled in real time the rise and fall of what we now call “The Sixties”).

I’m not even talking about that perennial American Bandstand which started in 1952 and ran a staggering 37 seasons, grinding to a halt only in 1989 at the tail end of the Reagan Era, a pop culture show that lasted long enough for the grandchildren of its initial audience to be watching it when they finally pulled the plug.

No, I’m talking about cheap-ass, under-the-radar syndication efforts like Where The Action Is (itself a spinoff of American Bandstand) and The Lloyd Thaxton Show, a Bandstand imitation that relied more on whacky humor, proto-music videos, and local-to-LA pop culture icons.

We’d see these shows (briefly back-to-back during Where The Action Is’ short run) not as cheap entertainment for teens and tweens but rather as a glorious portal into that land of myth and magic:  Southern California.

In particular: Los Angeles.

(It’s not as if nobody ever did this before.  In all its variations from the mid-1950s through Walt’s death in 1966, Walt Disney’s Wonderful World Of Color seemed to make every 4th show either about Disney Studios or Disneyland itself, thus by extension priming the national pump for interest in Southern California.)

Where The Action Is and The Lloyd Thaxton Show needed to squeeze the most out of their bare minimum budgets, and the cheapest way to fill screen time was to convince some local SoCal / LA attraction to let you shoot footage of young kids (with disposable incomes, one might add) having a good -- no, great time at said attraction while listening / dancing to top forty tunes lip-synched by an astonishing roster of talent.

Look, this was back when TV was big but before it became H*U*G*E.  Successful show biz folks made money but they didn’t make that much money, and popping down for an afternoon to lip-synch your latest release for Lloyd or Dick Clark was a sure way to guarantee a few thousand more sales across the country, a few more paid gigs in the hinterlands, so whyda hell not?

The Monkees tried covering the same territory on prime time, but as popular as that show was (and it stands up well to this day albeit more as an artifact of its time), it felt just too slick, too packaged, too ersatz compared to the scruffiness of Where The Action Is and The Lloyd Thaxton Show.[2]

Add to this almost weekly illustrated news and culture stories of SoCal / LA and the youth movement delivered to even the most remote rural homes via Life, Look, Time, Newsweek, and The Saturday Evening Post, and it was pretty much hard not to be aware of -- and influenced by -- Los Angeles culture in the 1960s.

And if like little Buzzy boy you were interested / intrigued / enthralled by that culture, there was a virtual tsunami of sights and sounds to wallow in, even if you lived 2,467 miles away.

On my first visit to Los Angeles in the summer of 1970, when I had just stepped off the airliner, when I was no further into the city than the gate of the airline terminal, I looked around, took a deep breath, and realized:  I’m home.

. . .

So here’s the plot of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood:  

  1. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fading TV star, frets over his career.  

  2. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), his stunt double buddy, tries to boost his spirits.  

  3. Rick lives next door to Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a vivacious young actress married to a world famous director.  

  4. Cliff the stunt man bumps into members of a crazy criminal cult.  

  5. Weirdness ensues, but everything ends happily (except for three of the cultists).

A conventional movie would have put points 1, 2, & 3 in Act One, made point 4 part of Act Two but then stretched that act out with a big pointless chase and a few small fights, and finished with point 5 as Act Three.

20 pages / 80 pages / 20 pages

Not our lad Quentin.

A screenwriting guru once observed It's A Wonderful Life has a traditional 3 act structure only it's constructed so Act One occupies 80% of the picture. Likewise Casino opens with virtually a 45 minute documentary on the casino business so they won't have to stop and explain things as they go along with the main story. 

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is like that:
Two hours to build up to a literal life-or-death moment in order to show that for all their sins and short comings, Rick and Cliff would not merely survive but be worthy of survival.

(Most "assemble the squad" movies have a similar structure only they disguise it by indulging in hijinks along the way viz The Dirty Dozen spending most of their movie just training.)

Points 1, 2, 3, and 4 above are Tarantino’s Act One, and based on the 161 minute running time, I’m guessing it occupies the first 130 pages of the script.

Point 5 is his Act Three, and I’d say 20 pages sounds about right there.

But what about Act Two?

That’s the beauty of this story.

Act Two is about ten minutes long and is told mostly with narration (provided by Kurt Russell, who may or may not be speaking in character as Randy, the stunt director).

The crisis point in Rick and Cliff’s story is not that they’ve intersected with the Manson family, it’s that Rick decides their friendship must end

Now, ostensibly this is because Rick’s new Italian wife, Francesca (Lorenza Izzo), wants to cut expenses and move out of his home in Benedict Canyon and into a condo in the San Fernando Valley, a move that we know from Rick’s earlier statements that he would find shameful and a mark of his slide in status , but the unspoken reason may be that the volatile Francesca learned of Cliff’s own troublesome past (see below) and wants nothing to do with him.

So Act One tells us who these two guys are, explains their relationship in part, hints at an elephant neither wants to acknowledge, and carries us to a point where they can no longer continue as once they had.

Act Two consists of the final decisions the two make as part of this friendship, not really wanting to break it off, Cliff clearly hurt by Rick’s abrupt dismissal, yet trying to have one last good time together before parting, ostensibly not forever but…yeah, forever.

Their respective decisions impair their ability to respond to the dangers posed by the trio of killers in Act Three.

. . .

Let’s talk about Rick Dalton for a moment.

Leonardo DiCaprio proves himself to be one of the gutsiest actors of all time, playing a whiny, petulant, rude, brusque, self-involved, over-anxious crybaby of a man…

…and getting us to admire him because despite his myriad character flaws, the sonuvabitch has two things going for him and the first is a fierce dedication to his craft.

A conventional movie would cut the scenes of Rick practicing his Lancer dialog all by himself.

Tarantino realizes the audience needs to experience that in full, because otherwise they won’t appreciate his frustration at blowing his lines during filming the next day.

And when he blows his lines, Rick erupts in a epic full-bore meltdown rage aimed at himself and himself alone.

And this points to the second thing Rick has going for him:  Rick knows when and how to accept help, and is thankful for it.

Without the lengthy scene of him practicing at home (and drinking too much in the process), audiences would dismiss Rick blowing his lines as par for the course.

We need to see Rick make a conscientious effort to prepare for his role, see him screwing up by getting hungover, see him blow his lines, then see him correctly shouldering the blame and taking positive steps to overcome his error and deliver an outstanding performance.

The help that Rick accepts in this scene comes from “Maribella Lancer” a.k.a. Trudi Fraiser (Julia Butters), a child method actress who refuses to break character between takes. (This is one of the most delightful scenes in the film and well worth the price of admission alone.)

Despite a rather awkward-bordering-irritating meeting, “Maribella” / Trudi feels empathy for Rick as he inadvertently confesses his own career anxiety by talking about a pulp Western he’s reading.

That he can accept this empathy from a child stands well in Rick’s favor.  It shows he actually listens to others and accepts their feedback and input.

And it pays off for both of them when Rick not only comes back from his lunch break meltdown all fired up and determined to give an outstanding performance (which he does), but also when we learn he suggested a bit of business for “Maribella” / Trudi that delights both her and the director (Sam Wannamaker, a real life actor and TV director of the era, played in this film by Nicholas Hammond).

And when “Maribella” / Trudi tells Rick that his acting was some of the best she’s ever seen, he’s genuinely moved to tears.

We may shake our heads at some of the stuff he does, but we like this guy.

. . .

Part of the headshaking is due to his relationship with Cliff, his stunt double / majordomo / best friend.

Rick often seems like an arrogant prick with Cliff, seemingly bossing him around, acting like Cliff is at his constant beck and call.

We’re about two thirds of the way into the film when we learn that without Rick to champion him, Cliff would pretty much be persona non grata in Hollywood.

Cliff is known throughout the town (and Hollywood ain’t that big, folks) as a wife killer.

While some (such as Rick) argue he was absolved of any criminal intent, there’s no doubt he deliberately and personally caused the death of his wife, he didn’t merely have an accident that left her dead.

He’s a wife killer.

Most of the people in town assume he got away with murder.

Francesca, despite being an Italian starlet, may have heard the stories from other Americans working in Italy and that is the real reason she laid her foot down re Rick selling his house and abandoning Cliff as his friend.

Hell, even nearly blind old George Spahn (Bruce Dern) holds him in contempt.

Cliff can’t get hired in town unless Rick asks for him to be employed as his stunt double.

Even then he runs into strong pushback, viz Randy the stunt director who is reluctant simply because he doesn’t like the vibe Cliff gives off, and is especially reluctant because his wife, fellow stunt coordinator Janet (Zoë Bell), nurtures an enormous hate-on for Cliff based on the presumption he did indeed murder his wife and get away with it.

Cliff blows his chance of working his way back into Hollywood’s good graces by getting in a fight on the set of The Green Hornet with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) that caves in the side of Janet’s car.

But what’s crucial in that scene is Lee explaining his refusal to fight: “My hands are registered as lethal weapons. We get into a fight, I accidentally kill you. I go to jail.”

“Anybody accidentally kills anybody in a fight, they go to jail,” says Cliff.  “It’s called manslaughter.”

Sounds like Cliff may know what he’s talking about from personal experience.

When Lee learns Cliff is a wife killer, his reluctance to fight him disappears.

Nobody in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood disputes Cliff killed his wife, they dispute if he got away with murder or not.  In view of his comment on manslaughter to Bruce Lee, the coroner’s verdict may not have been murder or accident but justifiable homicide.

We don't know what happened on the boat in the flashback scene with him and his wife (Rebecca Gayheart). 

If she attacked him with a weapon (the spear gun they carried onboard or a knife or a wrench or whatever) and he defended himself from her attack but unintentionally inflicted a lethal injury on her, then both a charge of manslaughter and verdicts of "not proven" or "justifiable self-defense" are possible.

We don't know, and that ambiguity is what makes Once Upon A Time In Hollywood such a morally and ethically complex film.

(When I next see the film, two things I'm keeping tabs on are the contents of Rick's store room and when Cliff's various scars appear.)

. . .

And Sharon Tate, the third leg of this triad?

She is depicted in this movie by Margot Robbie as light and as airy and as harmless as dandelion pollen blown on the breeze.  She is a perfect wish fulfillment character, not merely because so many men desire her, but because she appears to live a blissfully stress free, rewarding, and happy life.

This is where real life collides with “reel life” and if you haven’t guessed by now, we’re up to our necks in spoiler territory.

You have been warned.

For audiences half my age, Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) is vaguely known in a Jack the Ripper-ish sort of way (i.e., a really, really bad guy who did some really, really terrible things but just what they don't fully know) while Tate is unjustly forgotten.

The glory of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is that for however briefly, for however artificially, it lets Sharon Tate come alive again and enjoy the happy ending she deserved.

What is that happy ending?

To be honest, we don’t know.

At the end of the film she meets Rick, recognizes him from his TV shows, and the implication hangs in the air that she’ll introduce him to her husband, Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) who in real life at this stage of his career had not yet descended to drugging and raping 13 year old girls.

I hope in “reel life” that never happens, just as I would hope that Polanski’s criminal moral failing would never have materialized in the real world had Tate and her unborn child lived.

We just don’t know.

We assume Rick will meet Polanski, and from that meeting his career would shift to A-list motion pictures, and his dreams of success and security would come true.

We just don’t know.

Would Tate herself have gone on to bigger and better roles?

The odds are not in her favor.

As the writer David Gerrold said:  “Hollywood uses up young women as if they're disposable.  It is one of the worst things about the industry.”

Very few female actors of that era enjoyed a sustained shot at A-films, especially if they were regarded primarily as eye candy.

By the time of her murder in real life, Tate had a good role in a minor but good movie nobody saw (Eye Of The Devil), a good role in a major bad movie everybody saw (Valley Of The Dolls), and provided eye candy in three mediocre movies (including The Wrecking Crew, part of the gawdawful Dean Martin “Matt Helm” series[3]).

Her career might well have stalled out as so many other promising young starlets’ careers stalled out.

We’ll never know.

But even a stalled career would be preferable to what really happened to her.

. . .

A lot of people get second chances at the end:
The four[4] at the Tate house, for sure, but also Rick (who finally gets to move into Polanski's circle) and Cliff (who has atoned for killing his wife either by accident or a well staged murder).

But y'know who else gets a second chance?

Charles Manson.

Cliff sees Manson at the Tate house but never learns his name. When he visits Spahn Ranch, he hears constant references to "Charlie" but never meets him since Manson has taken the family's children on an outing to Santa Barbara.

He recognizes Tex (Austin Butler) and Susan Atkins (Mikey Madison) and Patricia Krenwinkel (Madisen Beaty; many people mistake her character in this scene for Squeaky Frome, played by Dakota Fanning in an earlier scene) from his visit to the Spahn Ranch, but for all he knows they've come after him for revenge after he beat up Clem (James Landry Hébert) at the ranch. 

Since Cliff was out of the country for 6 months stunt doubling for Rick in Italy, the lapse in time is accounted for: They waited until he returned.

When the hit team doesn't come back and there's no news reports of a mass murder, Manson knows his plan failed and has an opportunity to flee the LA area, either by himself, with a small group of followers, or the entire Family.

If the police do trace Tex and the women back to Spahn Ranch and they do confront Manson on this, Manson can feign innocence.  If they bring up Cliff's visit and fistfight, Manson can say he knew the three were angry over the incident but he never knew they plotted revenge.

With the three would-be killers dead and Linda Kasabian (Maya Hawke) presumably fleeing LA to escape the Family there's no link between Manson and the attack on Rick's house.

Manson is in the clear.  The police consider the matter closed (movie star kills three drug crazed hippies; why look further?) and Manson gets a breather to ponder his next move.

Maybe he realizes how close a call it was.  Maybe he realizes he's got a nice little scam going with the Family.  Maybe he focuses on that and becomes a garden variety cult guru who, with viral marketing, becomes a prominent New Age personality.

Stranger things have happened...

. . .

To be honest, I approached Once Upon A Time In Hollywood with some trepidation when I heard the ending would not synch up with reality.

Tarantino most notably did this before with Inglorious Basterds, but most of his movies occur in the Red Apple universe, so named after a popular brand of tobacco that appears in those films (I can’t remember if Red Apple products appear in Jackie Brown and have not seen either Kill Bill movie).

The Red Apple universe almost-but-not-quite synchs up with ours.

The biggest and most obvious deviation from the norm is Inglorious Basterds, where Tarantino wipes out Hitler and the Nazi high command in a fiery climax later echoed in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, but Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction suggest a world far more immersed in its own pop culture than we are.

The Hateful 8 is another Red Apple universe film (again specifically referenced in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood) that strongly implies Abraham Lincoln survived the assassination attempt against him and negotiated a post-Civil War peace that saw the Confederate states reunited with the rest of the country much sooner than actually happened but in return saw them agree to full emancipation and equality under the law of all formerly enslaved people.  There's still a lot of racial tension in era of The Hateful 8 but there is also an explicit acknowledgment of equality under the law.

As such, race relations in Tarantino’s films Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood do not synch up with the reality of our own era.

. . . 

On the one hand, there’s not as much carnage in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood as there is in most Tarantino movies.

On the other, there’s just as much only we don’t recognize it for violence because it’s presented in the form of  “play acting”.

It’s not real.

It’s all a movie (or a TV show).

Or so we think.

Even Manson’s own killers debate this point, one of them arguing that all American TV shows “except for I Love Lucy” glorify in murder and violence, so why not visit murder and violence on those promoting it?

Really, what separates the violence of bounty hunter Jake Cahill (a name that’s an amalgam of two John Wayne Westerns:  Big Jake and Cahill, US Marshal) from Rick Dalton playing Jake Cahill from Leonardo DiCaprio playing Rick Dalton playing Jake Cahill from the violence of Leonardo DiCaprio playing Rick Dalton at the “reel life” climax?

And what do we make of Brad Pitt playing Cliff Booth who doubles for Rick Dalton (as played by Leonardo DiCaprio) playing Jake Cahill, especially in the end when Cliff’s under the influence of LSD and isn’t sure if what he’s experiencing is real?

You tell me.

. . .

Tarantino’s flamethrower beats Chekov’s gun

By this I mean if you need a flamethrower in act three, you set it up and pay it off in an entirely different context in act one or two, but you also establish however obliquely that it’s not impossible for it to be present though uncommented on in act three. 

We see Rick Dalton use a flamethrower in a film; we see a flashback and hear him say he practiced long and hard to master the weapon. 

This fits in nicely with Rick’s character, both poking fun at him for not being the tough guy he portrays onscreen yet establishing his willingness to learn a dangerous skill if it enhances his performance.

After all, he could always request Cliff, his stunt double, handle the flamethrower in that scene.

Dalton is also established as a person who collects memorabilia about himself, reinforced repeatedly though not always blatantly thru the film (viz Cliff bringing in a huge framed poster of one of Rick’s Italian movies just prior to the climax). 

So when Rick pops out with a fully functional flamethrower at the end, our suspension of disbelief goes, “Yeah, he’d still have that.”  (When I next see the film, I’m paying close attention to the contents of the storage room prior to Cliff fixing the antenna; if we don’t see the flamethrower stored there, Tarantino missed a bet.)

Part of the genius of this film extends to the trailer.  

There is a big honking clue to at least part of the climax when Rick is shown using the flamethrower and the image freeze frames while a title announcing it as Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film is superimposed.  That’s brilliant marketing as it preps audiences for what would otherwise be a deus ex machina before they've even seen the movie.

. . .

re the flamethrower and Cliff’s scars:
This is a film that will endure multiple repeat viewings just to catch all the details. There's a shot of Cliff driving down the 134 Freeway that if you aren't a Los Angelino you won't recognize he's driving past Forest Lawn, thus prefiguring the ominous background of the film. 

When Pitt goes to see the elderly George Spahn at the infamous Spahn Ranch, he passes by two photos of Zorro and the Lone Ranger -- both with masks over their eyes -- as Squeaky tells him, "He's blind."

The background is filled with posters and billboards and books and magazines and memorabilia, some real, some ersatz.

That being said, I do not think it will age well.

To the degree it skillfully recreates an era, that will be studied.  

But as time puts more and more distance to the actual events, the impact of the film will lessen.

Casablanca loses some impact when we aren’t aware of how vicious the real life Nazis were, but in the context of the story they’re big enough bastards for us to understand why it’s important to stand up to them.

After The Fox is a delightful comedic romp that is hilarious even if you don’t know anything about Italian neo-realism, but if you do know anything about Italian neo-realism It.  Gets.  Even.  FUNNIER!

But you really need to know what happened on August 9, 1969 at 10050 Cielo Drive to fully appreciate what Tarantino hath wrought.

Like 2001:  A Space Odyssey, future generations of viewers will appreciate the skill and artistry employed, but they just won’t get why it makes such an impact today on many viewers.

 Gordon Dickson wrote a classic sci-fi story back in 1962 called “Three Part Puzzle”.  Without spoiling it, it’s safe to say a big hunk of the story’s appeal lays in the efforts of aliens to comprehend why human children are delighted by the old fairy tale of The Three Billy-Goats Gruff.

To the aliens, the story contains a simple, straight forward message:  Wait until your strongest team member arrives before engaging an enemy.

What they don’t understand is the morality behind the story.

To the aliens, goats and trolls are all equal, there is no reason to take delight in the victory of one over another.

But to humans…ah, to humans there’s a far deeper, much more important message than a mere tactical stratagem.

This is the risk Once Upon A Time In Hollywood will face in the future, that audiences as yet unborn will come to see it as a big, goofy buddy action movie in which two friends (and the wife of one and the dog of another) take on a trio of killers, dispatching them in spectacular fashion.

The catharsis may be lost, and in losing that, so will be lost the heart and soul of the film.

Enjoy it now while you can.



© Buzz Dixon


[1]  I rank Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Django Unchained, and The Hateful 8 above it in terms of cinematic quality.

[2]  In real life, for reasons too involved to go into here, Charles Manson actually got a courtesy audition for The Monkees; he was never seriously considered for a role and if I remember correctly, the show had already been cast by that point but the formal announcement had not been made. Nonetheless, if the quantum physics hypothesis of alternate timelines is correct, somewhere there’s a universe where Charlie Manson is a beloved 1960s pop culture icon and people still talk about the infamous Peter Tork murder cult.

[3]  Do yourselves a favor and track down the original Matt Helm novels by Donald Hamilton.  They’re far superior to the crappy movies.

[4]  There were actually five victims that night but Steven Parent, who had been visiting the property's caretaker William Garretson at the property's guest house, was shot in his car as he prepared to drive away. Garretson, apparently under the influence of drugs and / or alcohol, first claimed to have slept through the horrendous attack and was a prime suspect until forensics cleared him.  (Years later he admitted to witnessing part of the attack and doing nothing for reasons he never made clear.)  Tarantino left Parent and Garretson's presence out of the film presumably because it would have been too much of a diversion to explain them if they weren't going to be victims.


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