Let’s get the shameless plug out of the way: one of my favorite essays I’ve had the privilege to write for Mockingbird was a contribution to our 2015 book Mockingbird at the Movies. The essay was an introduction to Quentin Tarantino, a review of the auteur and the cinematic world he’s built. In hindsight, it was also a dangerous essay: Tarantino is still making movies, and his new films could easily render obsolete or irrelevant everything that I wrote. I picked up the chapter and read through it again after seeing his latest movie, Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, and I’m happy to report it still holds up.

Tarantino’s filmmaking is as solid as it comes, his dialogue is razor-sharp, and his attention to detail is obsessive. The conclusion of my essay, that Tarantino loves films because films loved him first, still stands, I think, and Hollywood is at its best when it gets at the heart of that matter. Spoilers ahead.

If the movies that captured Tarantino’s heart were B-movie westerns, WWII films, and kung-fu flicks, then the city of Hollywood in the 50s and 60s was heaven itself. It’s the setting of the new film, which follows the fictional Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth, the former a washed-up cowboy star and the latter his stunt double. The two had a successful run on the fictional show Bounty Law, but since the show was cancelled, work has been slow, and Hollywood is moving on without them. Chiseled stunt double Cliff takes all this in stride, content to be Rick’s chauffeur and errand boy. Rick, however, is desperate to remain relevant and find acting work, getting by on bit parts instead of taking the star spot. Between the two slowly fading male leads, we are given glimpses into the up-and-coming stardom of non-fictional Sharon Tate. She parties at the playboy mansion with new husband Roman Polanski, watches her own movie in the theater to soak up the audience’s admiration, and eagerly awaits the birth of her first child. While Dalton and Cliff come to terms with their slipping status, Tate is coming into her own heavenly ascent.

Despite the compelling leads, the true star of the film may well be late-60s Hollywood itself. Tarantino meticulously reconstructs the city as he imagines it was, with the gogo boots, outlandish personalities, and pop music of the time. Neon lights flicker on at dusk, TV advertisements flicker on small black-and-white screens. The hippie counterculture’s threadbare fashion contrasts with the movie stars’ preppy polos and Jackie O glasses, though everyone looks beautiful no matter what they’re wearing (or not wearing if you’re glamour-shot shirtless Brad Pitt). The cars are full of weight and muscle and a beauty that rivals the characters themselves. The weather is gorgeous, the traffic non-existent. Capitol Records and the Cinerama look new and cutting-edge, restored to their 60s magic. The movie tips its hand in the title: Tarantino is shooting a movie in a fairytale kingdom, a place of deep magic—a place where cinematic dreams come true.

From the moment we meet Sharon Tate, however, the movie takes on its unspoken, foreboding conflict. The audience is presumably in on the secret: we know that in August of 1969, the timeframe of the film, Tate was murdered, along with her unborn child, by members of the Manson Family cult. Even though the grisly Mason murders have never been on my pop-culture radar, the whole film is colored by its ominous threat. Tate is portrayed with hope in her heart and motherhood on the horizon. She dances carefree to the tunes from her record player and takes a childish delight in others’ appreciation of her onscreen roles. Given Tarantino’s penchant for violence and the events of the past, any mildly informed viewer is left glancing at his or her watch, wondering when the film’s violence against the carefree and innocent third lead will commence.

Joan Didion once observed that the Manson murders were the end of an innocent era, a fact often cited in professional reviews of Tarantino’s film. The gruesomeness of Sharon Tate’s death, the insanity of the folk-singing, drug-tripping, free-love murder cult behind her death, the massive media frenzy that followed, all these together drew back the curtain on a world where violence happens randomly, inexplicably, and beyond our control. Tarantino would have been six years old when the murders happened. It’s not impossible that the Manson mass murder was as formative to his childhood as the Challenger Explosion, Columbine, or 9/11 were to other generations, each a shocking tragedy made all the worse by their expansive broadcast. If 1960s Hollywood was paradise, it’s easy to imagine that the Manson murders were the Fall.

Hollywood, however, is not a documentary. As with Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, history is a tool for a good story. Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth represent the best of an old world, a 50s Hollywood with less counterculture and more tradition. Theirs is not a perfect Hollywood by any stretch. Dalton is a thin-skinned, barely functioning alcoholic and Booth’s toughness and strength is belied by his self-imposed isolation. Both are also racist in a way that even the late 60s would find improper. But both represent a way of life that, for its time, still had meaning and value. Despite being left behind, Dalton gives a powerful performance as “the heavy” (read: bad guy) on a pilot for the actually produced TV show Lancer; the aging stuntman Cliff Booth is the walking embodiment of a disciplined masculine swagger that could simultaneously beat up Bruce Lee and decline the sexual advances of a young and flirtatious hippie. Those ways of life, despite their virtues, don’t sell anymore. After the duo fly to Italy and make a couple of B-list Spaghetti westerns, their partnership, and by proxy, that bygone era, is about to end. As the duo prepare to part ways, they find themselves drunk and high at Dalton’s home on Cielo Drive, on the night we know Sharon Tate’s life will end.

History now cedes to the fairytale. The murderous trio from the Manson Family, by virtue of some earlier plotting, decide first to invade Dalton’s home before they move up the hill to Tate’s. The would-be murderers enter to find Booth, who is surprisingly nonplussed at their presence. We viewers are surprised, too, given that these murderers have taken up so much of our pop culture headspace over the past fifty years. Booth and his bulldog Brandy make short work of the trio, bringing to the screen the stylistic violence that engenders so much love and loathing for Tarantino’s films. Dalton assists the trio with Checkov’s gun flamethrower. In this fairytale, the Manson murder is thwarted.

Here’s what’s remarkable about this ending: Cliff Booth, forever the overlooked stunt double, becomes the movie’s action hero. Sharon Tate, the embodiment of hope and innocence, is spared her gruesome death. And as the police and paramedics depart from the crime scene, Rick Dalton is welcomed up the hill into Tate’s house. Once there, he’s not only praised for his acting but, presumably, he’s now networked with Hollywood’s new generation of rising stars, opening up his acting future. All these matters come together for a happy conclusion.

The fairytale, the thing we wish could have happened, seems to be a reflection of Tarantino’s deeper yearning. The Hollywood that loved him, presumably the 50s and 60s Hollywood of brash men and justified violence and B-movie kung-fu, was shattered by the historical Tate murderer. Tarantino’s Hollywood is a wistful reflection on what the world could be if the best of that bygone era wasn’t discarded along with a generation’s innocence. Imagine, asks Tarantino, what might have happened if the old guard of Dalton and Booth came together with the new guard of Tate, and the movies that loved him hadn’t been swept aside? Imagine a world where men could exercise their inner Steve McQueen in a way that young girls weren’t taken advantage of and innocent women could flourish. Imagine a world where age wasn’t a disqualification and we could drink, party, and engage in recreational drugs without people forming murder cults. Imagine a world where, presumably, Tarantino could be his quirky cinematic self and not be discarded from Eden when his youth or popularity fade away.

Hollywood is an evangelistic film, where a disciple of a past era pleads for us to experience and embrace the thing that had loved him so completely. Moving on is inevitable, says Tarantino, but don’t throw the cinematic baby out with the historical bathwater. At the end of the day, like any evangelist, some will have ears to hear, and others won’t. But one thing’s for sure: in Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood the faith of this disciple in the power of movies, especially the power of the movies that loved him, is on full display. To him, this love is no fairytale.

Strays:

  • In the #MeToo era, it was a bold choice of Tarantino to include a Roman Polanski character in the film. Polanski’s offenses are well-documented. There’s a case to be made that one of the film’s hardest what-ifs involves the infamous Polish director. What would the cinematic world look like where Polanski is still happily married to Sharon Tate, retaining some level of respectability and averting his current legal troubles? I’ll let Tarantino ruminate on that part of the fairytale.
  • I was supremely impressed by Margaret Qualley as Pussycat and Julia Butters as Trudi Fraser. To paraphrase Butters’ character, the film provided star turns for both “actors.”  Leonardo DeCaprio and Brad Pitt are in top-form themselves. Awards season buzz is well-deserved.
  • To my recollection, there are plenty of guns in Hollywood, but only one of them is real, wielded by one of the Manson killers, Tex. The rest are Hollywood props that look menacing but are only for stage use. That’s very different from other Tarantino films, where every character is always armed, all the time. Case in point: the film’s Mexican standoff moment where a high and tripping Cliff, giggling, points a finger gun towards Tex’s fully loaded pistol.
  • I would attend a midnight screening of The Fourteen Fists of McCluskey.
  • No surprise: the soundtrack on this film makes for a killer Spotify playlist.