Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

28 July 2019

A Hollywood Fairy Tale

Tarantino's new film Once upon a Time... in Hollywood was, I assumed, a fun reference to Sergio Leone's Once upon a Time in the West and Once upon a Time in America. (In fact, the television actor Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio in Tarantino's movie does go to Italy to make pictures). But Tarantino's title does more than nod in the direction of Sergio Leone and the spaghetti western; Tarantino is also marking his film as a fairy tale, a kind of magical story or fable in a far-away place, one with heroes and villains and magical objects and a princess who needs saving.

I am going to have to spoil the film's ending as I write this response to Tarantino's movie, so be warned. It's almost impossible to talk about Once upon a Time... in Hollywood without talking about its third act, because so much of what happens in the third act justifies what Tarantino does for the first two-thirds of the movie.

Hollywood is three stories in one. It is the story of Rick Dalton, one of those actors in Hollywood who made movies in the 1950s and then destroyed their film careers by accidentally but permanently moving to television, where they could get parts more easily and money more quickly. It is the story of Rick Dalton's stuntman Cliff Booth, whose career is in the dumps, who doesn't get along with other stuntmen and so has become Rick's driver, handyman, and general factotum. And it is the story of Sharon Tate, who, unlike Dalton and Booth, is a real human being who lived in Hollywood in 1968 and 1969. She was a rising star and a talented comedienne, and she was married to Roman Polanski, the Polish film director who had only just made Rosemary's Baby in 1968.

Sharon Tate is a puzzling figure in Hollywood – mostly because she simply doesn't seem to fit in the movie. The movie is so obviously focused on Cliff and Rick, and when the film leaves the two men and follows Sharon for an afternoon as she picks up a hitchhiker and watches a movie downtown or when she goes to a party with Steve McQueen at the Playboy Mansion, Tarantino's film feels confused, even meandering. Why are we watching Sharon Tate? DiCaprio's character is so much more interesting! I will admit that these thoughts crossed my mind while I was watching – so I can imagine that for the three young men next to me at the theatre (young weightlifting-type guys), who told me after the movie was over that they hated it, these Sharon sequences must've been painful. But this movie makes no sense if you don't know who Sharon Tate is and you don't know she was murdered by members of Charles Manson's "family" fifty years ago in August of 1969. Anyone watching the movie without knowing about the Sharon Tate murders – and I wager this is quite a few people – isn't going to be able to make sense of what Tarantino is doing here; his film depends fundamentally on knowing the context.

Pitt is as cool and effortless as ever
I'll come back to Tate in a bit, but first let me just say that all of Tarantino's films are bathed in nostalgia, especially nostalgia for the movies, and Hollywood is no exception. This film – and I'm not a huge Tarantino fan, to be honest – felt aimed directly at me. So many delightful movie references: from the marquees of 1968 releases, to the Los Angeles scenery, to the extended sequence with Bruce Lee, to the constant mentions of Edward O'Brien, to the absurd re-shot sequence from The Great Escape. I was in movie-lover heaven. Tarantino's movie taste and my own don't usually sync up, and so his film references don't usually land for me, but it all worked for me this time. Hollywood is also really funny, and both Pitt and DiCaprio are doing great work as comedians in this. Even when DiCaprio is being his most emotionally vulnerable in Hollywood, he is still allowing us to laugh at him. The extended afternoon we spend with him as he films that television pilot with Timothy Olyphaunt has some great acting in it.

Which isn't to say that Hollywood isn't overly long. Tarantino doesn't make tight movies. He makes fat, slightly messy, mostly shallow movies with slick surfaces and cool simulacra. That's the brand, and the movies are always too long. Tarantino thinks too much of himself to trim with any real zeal. But again – and I don't feel this way about Hateful Eight or Django Unchained – I was never bored during Hollywood. And everything felt justified by the film's insane third act. I guess it's time to talk about that now...

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate
As we moved toward the night of the murders I started to get nervous. In the first place, this Kurt Russell narration took over again once we moved to Italy, and Russell's deadpan voice – especially as we got closer to the early morning of August 9th – reminded me that we were watching something that really happened. Tarantino gives us timestamps throughout. Sharon and her friends went to this Mexican restaurant; they came home and played the piano; they smoked marijuana; it was the hottest day of the year; one of Sharon's friends was watching television while the other went to bed. It's all so true and so it's a reminder that something terrible is about to happen. But the point is that he uses the generic conventions of documentary drama here to put us into a certain mode of watching.

And because of Tarantino's well-known infamy as a filmmaker who shoots violence savagely and coolly (there has been a great deal written about this), I started to get very worried. How would he film Sharon's murder, given how affectionate his film had been with her so far? But – and here's the surprise – Hollywood never switches fully into the genre. It never becomes one of those episodes of "The F.B.I." that Cliff and Rick watch. It stays... comedic. We are laughing, even as Rick yells at the Manson family's noisy car, as the driver speeds away after having "forgotten" her knife, even as they bust into the house and stand off with Cliff, who is on a mild acid trip. The fight with the Manson family is uproariously funny and is intended to be. The violence is brutal, absurdly, insanely brutal, and Tarantino takes pleasure in destroying and mutilating these horrible people, who (it is impossible to forget) actually murdered four people and Sharon's unborn baby, stabbing each person over a dozen times.

I have written before about the shift that I see in the violence in Tarantino's movies with Django Unchained, whereby I believe that QT has become much more ethical in his presentations of violence. As I have argued before, Tarantino is careful about which violence we can enjoy and which we cannot. He invites us to enjoy the violence in this sequence and in the sequence with the hippy out at the Spahn Ranch, but that doesn't mean that Once upon a Time... in Hollywood contains gratuitous violence. It doesn't. Tarantino could easily have shown us, just for example, Cliff (accidentally?) shooting his wife with the harpoon on the boat. He doesn't. He is being judicious about the violence we see. This isn't Pulp Fiction. In any case, watching these murderers get destroyed by Brad Pitt and his dog and then by Leonardo DiCaprio and his flame-thrower is endlessly delightful. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

Sharon Tate with Bruce Lee and Nancy Kwan
It's an ending that in many ways replays what QT did with Inglourious Basterds, a bold lie told in the face of history, a fantasy of what might have happened. It's... a fairy tale, if you will. Sharon Tate gets to live in this story. And as I thought about that while the movie ended, and even now as I write these words, I am deeply moved. It's a beautiful, generous, impossible fantasy, but one absolutely filled with hope and respect. Sharon's voice over that intercom at the end of the movie, and Jay Sebring's hopeful treble as he asks Rick questions honestly felt like gifts from Tarantino to me. He has imagined a world in which Sharon didn't die and this washed up actor's career is resuscitated because he saves Sharon's life and is neighbors with Roman Polanski (maybe in this universe Rick plays the lead in Chinatown or one of the men in Tess).

And this magical, fairy tale ending makes clear what Tarantino was doing with Sharon Tate in the first two acts of the movie. We simply spend time with her, get to glimpse her brightness and her pleasure, her sheer joy at being in the movies, her pride at having done a good job, her grace and kindness with everyone around her, her excitement about her baby. None of this is dramatic. It's simply a reminder of how lovely she was (especially compared with the hard-drinking asshole that Rick is). This respect for Tate is underlined by Tarantino's use of actual footage of Sharon Tate from the Dean Martin film The Wrecking Crew. As Sharon watches the movie, we don't watch Margot Robbie as Tate: we watch Tate herself. It's a strange choice for Tarantino to have made, until it becomes clear that QT is paying tribute to Tate and her talents. The more I think about it, the more I think it's an extraordinary thing to do.

....And all this at the end of a hilarious, Coen Brothers influenced, Hollywood western.

In case you hadn't guessed it, I really liked Once upon a Time... in Hollywood. I know this movie isn't going to be for everyone, but I laughed for most of the film and was very moved by the movie's end.

* * *

Final side note. You probably knew that Tarantino has a thing for women's feet: they appear with frequency in his movies, and I've written about all of the feet in Pulp Fiction before. Well, Once upon a Time... in Hollywood is no exception. In fact, I think this obsession is even more apparent in this movie than it's ever been.
Even DiCaprio's feet make an appearance in this one. Equal opportunity.

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