Your next Star Trek director, ladies and gentlemen!
Quentin Tarantino, director of eight of the most violent and intense movies of all time, is back. Everything else beyond that, like whether his next movie is a Star Trek joint, or whether it’s his last one before retirement, is up in the air as of press time. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves and instead focus on the movie at hand, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
This movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio as washed up TV Western actor Rick Dalton, and Brad Pitt as his stunt double/best buddy/personal assistant Cliff Booth. Rick and Cliff are fictional characters in 1969 Hollywood, trying to rebuild their struggling careers. Meanwhile, real-world Hollywood icons Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate live right next door to Rick’s house, partying at the Playboy Mansion, blissfully unaware that a young hitchhiking hippie girl brings with her impending doom.
If you have already watched this movie, or plan to at some point, your knowledge of real-world history (or, at least, your Google skills) would give you a ginormous spoiler going in. For some of the characters in this movie, things don’t end well. The murder track record of Charles Manson and his “family” is the stuff of legend. As is the movie track record of Mr. Tarantino.
How does the Tarantino tribute to Manson-era Hollywood play out on the big screen? Well, overall, it’s a thrill ride of TV/movie clips, classic rock music, and endless shots of characters driving through streets rendered with such detail that it gave me childhood flashbacks.
(Full Disclosure: I was born near L.A. at the time this movie takes place. Tarantino was born in Knoxville, but he also spent his childhood near L.A. We never had occasion to meet in person because, well, you know, the greater L.A. area is crazy big. I managed to make it through an entire childhood without meeting anyone who made it big in Hollywood. One of my high school Drama Club friends went on to Broadway and Comedy Central. And then there’s my all-time BFF, you know him, you love him, my CineMasoCast colleague Geoff Harris. But, anyway, who better to talk about a tribute movie from a famous middle-aged director than a less-famous middle-aged white guy from the general neighborhood?)
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” serves up the classic feast for the senses and dramatic tension that by now you have come to expect from Quentin Tarantino. Along the way, the elements it brings to the party present epic narrative challenges. How well does everything work together? As with any halfway decent movie, let alone one Certified Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, the answer is more complex than critics make it out to be. Instead of the typical thumbs up/down or arbitrary numeric score, let’s break it down in terms of What Sucked versus What Rocked.
Movie Main Plot versus Real-World Tragedy
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is not the first or last movie to place fictional protagonists in real-world settings. Hell, Forrest Gump spent two novels and a movie adaptation bumbling his way through real life events. As the cliché goes, truth is stranger than fiction. Reality is often so horrific that placing a real event in a fictional story creates automatic dramatic tension. “Quentin Tarantino makes a movie that incorporates the Manson Family Sharon Tate murder? Shut up and take my money!”
Nothing puts moviegoer butts in theater seats like the anticipation of seeing how it all goes down. The problem with using a real-life horrific murder in the movie is that it takes the audience away from the main plot. “Who the hell cares about this Rick guy? Get to the murder orgy, already!”
For the record, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt turned in some top-notch acting. Their characters were badass from start to finish, they had chemistry on-screen, and their story would have made an awesome movie without Sharon Tate or the Manson Family. Adding the Manson Family made this movie different from your typical “struggling to make a comeback” story we’ve seen before. It only sucks in the sense that the Manson angle is so vivid that it threatens to overshadow everything else. Which leads us to….
Sharon Tate’s Role
Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate was a delight to watch on-screen. It’s too bad she had almost nothing to do. She spent almost all her scenes dancing around, except for that one where she went to see her own movie. In real life, she didn’t have time or opportunity to build much of a movie career, and today she’s mostly known as a murder victim. Her death overshadowed the life that came before. It’s hard for anyone to watch a movie she was in, knowing what happened to her later on. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” didn’t do her any favors that way.
Tarantino apparently made a good-faith effort to give Sharon Tate cinematic life. Her scene in the movie theater gave the audience a powerful connection to Sharon Tate as a person. At the same time, one scene alone does not a character arc make, especially when it has little relationship to most of the narrative. Main character Rick Dalton lived next door, but he couldn’t do so much as go borrow a cup of sugar. It’s not like Tarantino hasn’t juggled multiple main character plot threads before (*cough*“PulpFiction”*cough*). But Sharon Tate’s role here isn’t quite as meaty as a Big Mac in France.
And then there’s…
Roman Polanski’s Role
While Sharon Tate needed more screen time, her husband needed much less. For those who need a refresher, this movie takes place when Roman Polanski was one of the most revered directors in Hollywood. For Rick Dalton, a chance to star in a Polanski movie was the impossible dream, his big ticket out of TV obscurity.
This is the part where the tragic spoilers keep on coming. Knowing what we know now makes it harder to root for our hero’s goal. After the time period of this movie, real-world Polanski would go on to drug and rape a teenage girl, then flee to Europe for the rest of his life to avoid the quality prison time he so richly earned. Polanski is one of the first (that we know of) in a long line of Hollywood POS that includes Bill Cosby, Woody Allen, and Harvey Weinstein. Today it’s a societal no-brainer, but at the time Polanski forced people to take a good, hard look at themselves: What does it say about us when we enjoy good art, only to find out that the artist is a POS? How do we reconcile that? Do we separate the artist as a person from the art? Or do we hold out for a good artist who doesn’t rape teenage girls? What if many, or most, of our other favorite artists are also in some way POS? Where, in the end, does the moral rabbit hole go?
Taking all that into account, Tarantino wisely limited Polanski’s role to a non-speaking cameo. Still, the scene of him driving Sharon Tate to the Playboy Mansion with Deep Purple in the soundtrack is way more screen time than he ever deserved.
(Fun Fact: “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is the first Tarantino movie not released under the Weinstein banner.)
Some say, naturally, that that’s just Hollywood for you. Everybody who is anybody is a complete slime bag, especially in the way they treat women. We might as well just take it for granted to the point of glossing it over in the movie completely, or just alluding to it in throwaway fashion like it’s…
In one scene, the fictional Cliff Booth meets real-world legend Bruce Lee. They have a fight that’s funny as hell, until Cliff is kicked off the set because of his Dark Secret: Rumor has it that Cliff killed his wife. This little plot complication was inspired by what happened to Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood. As it’s used here, though, it’s pointless.
Something as weighty as the idea that a main character might be involved in his wife’s death deserves more narrative treatment than one scene. It should inform the entire character arc, one way or another. It’s possible, but complicated, for the audience to sympathize and root for characters who do terrible things. Just don’t treat those terrible things as throwaway plot devices, is the point. Why have a Dark Secret if it’s only worth a cameo?
While we’re on the subject of that fight scene, there’s the matter of…
Bruce Lee’s Role
As I watched the scene, I found it pretty WTF that Bruce Lee would be such a pompous jerk. It turns out that I’m not the only one. His daughter Shannon said it best.
Notwithstanding all these points above, I get it. Quentin Tarantino is not a college course/Learning Annex filmmaker. His body of work is about breaking the narrative rules. For the most part, I look at the What Sucked portion not as things Tarantino necessarily did wrong or broken rules, but more like missed narrative opportunities. Maybe there’s not much time to address Cliff’s wife in a nearly three-hour movie; but, for all their awesomeness, we didn’t need all the driving scenes either.
Having (hopefully) cleared things up, let’s move on to What Rocked.
Quentin Tarantino grows up.
Tarantino matured as a filmmaker with this movie. It’s not just a loving throwback to his childhood, it’s embracing the wisdom that comes with middle age. Tarantino is known for movies rife with foul language, pop culture references, and graphic violence. With “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” he shows that a movie can be more than a Gore Delivery System.
There’s still plenty of violence in this movie. With the Manson Family as characters, how can there not be? But this movie is not “Kill Bill.” For that matter, a key scene involving the Manson Family showcases how Tarantino has learned that “less is more.”
Case in point…
Cliff meets the Manson Family.
When Cliff goes to the Spahn Ranch, he comes face to face with the Manson Family. Every shot of him on that scene is filled with terror. He is a badass stuntman who had just gone toe to toe with Bruce Lee, but he is outnumbered and outgunned. He is alone, in the California desert, surrounded by psycho killers. There’s not a single jump scare in that scene, but it didn’t need any.
There was enough terror to prove that our own CineMasoCast Zombie of the Veil author Sarah Hood is right: Horror is about more than simply blood and gore. Use gore sparingly, if at all. In horror, the threat of violence is worth more than the graphic violence itself. Time and place, people. Time and place.
When you execute your movie violence at just the right time, and not before, you get great moments like….
One of the beginning movie clips showed Rick Dalton doing a thinly veiled “Inglorious Basterds” throwback involving a flamethrower and a conference table full of Nazis. When the flamethrower appears on screen again, the only way to describe what happens is, well, glorious.
To say anything more would be way too spoiler-y, so, on that note, let’s talk about…
To the movie’s credit, this is where Rick Dalton’s main plot and Sharon Tate’s subplot collide. If Sharon Tate is underserved by the movie as a whole, at least the ending does her justice.
Let’s say you’re Quentin Tarantino for a day. You have the unenviable job of directing the cinematic portrayal of one of history’s most brutal murders. This scene is more than just a snuff film. The audience people who pay you their hard-earned popcorn dollars deserve a scene filmed with historical authenticity and respect for the victims. How do your directorial choices balance the two?
- Play it straight, film the scene in graphic detail, and endure the social media outrage sure to follow?
- Lean on your cinematographers, so that the murders take place off-camera, and let the audience’s imagination fill in the blanks?
- “Fade to black” and use a time jump, so that the murders take place off-scene entirely? Come on! You’re Quentin Fucking Tarantino! When have you ever pulled a cop-out move like that?
What would *you* do? Well, I won’t spoil here what direction Tarantino ultimately went with. But if you want it to spoil it for yourself, you can see the movie. Chances are, by press time, you probably already have. Alternatively, you have the option of going to this link right here. The comments at the bottom of this page and on Facebook are fully spoiler-rific, so keep that in mind going in.
I will say that the ending is completely WTF in the best possible way. It does right by Sharon Tate and is well played in terms of how it handles the Manson Family murder party. In the process, the ending makes a meta-statement about the nature and purpose of movies as a whole.
The credits aren’t nearly as long as those in Marvel movies, but they are worth sitting through. Spoiling them here makes no difference either way, so I’ll invite you to come for the Rick Dalton Red Apple cigarette commercials, stay for the Adam West/Burt Ward Batman radio spot.
CUT. PRINT. THAT’S A WRAP!
I hope you’ve similarly found this review of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” worth all the scrolling. This movie shows that what drives today’s audience, more than blood, guts, sex, or foul language, is pop culture throwbacks. Quentin Tarantino succeeded in making a Throwback Delivery System of a movie, as a loving tribute to the L.A. of his childhood (and mine). It has missed narrative opportunities and shortchanges the role of Sharon Tate, but it handles the night of her murder in a surprisingly badass way that only Quentin Tarantino could deliver.
In “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt serve up the story of two down and out TV stars in 1969 Hollywood, as they run afoul of the murder cult known as the Manson Family. As we watch their struggles, we see the work of a mature director who is more than the sum of his shock value. Here is his tribute to his hometown, both its glamour and its dark underbelly.
Of course your actual mileage may vary, anywhere between here and Hollywood. Please leave your comments here, on Facebook, and/or on Twitter. Keep following and sharing. Thanks so much for reading, and we hope you’ll stop by next time, right here at The CineMasoCast.