Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)

Ever since his film INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, which climatically strikingly diverts from the real history it otherwise seemed situated in, an extra layer of tension and possibility has laid over Quentin Tarantino’s films. Reality is more malleable when it’s clear that he’s willing to change history in his stories. So making a film about the death of Old Hollywood and the rise of New Hollywood, about the Manson Family, about Sharon Tate, it gives rise to all manner of expectations. Would Sharon Tate’s murder actually be shown on screen? Would it just be alluded to? Would it not happen at all? Would it happen, but differently? These questions, and that would kind of discourse, flavoured the film for months before release. Those questions (and their actual answer, in the film) are at odds with the type of ambiguity Tarantino actually works with, to the degree that I almost wish the Manson and Tate elements could have been excised entirely from the bones of the film, which tells its story about Old and New Hollywood across a few different fractal narratives. But, the Tate murders were a key cultural moment in the ‘death of the 1960s’, that kind of narrative the film is so built around, so for better or worse, that tension surrounding how they’ll be dealt with in the film is a key part of its construction.

To set all that aside for a time, how do the first two acts of the movie play? Well, there’s some structural shagginess (the film so clearly could’ve been split into two discrete acts covering a day or two in different months of 1969; patchy narration is required to cobble together the third act as it stands), but the first two acts are a joyous hang-out movie in the vein of PULP FICTION or even JACKIE BROWN, a very well-executed ramble through a gorgeously recreated 1969. It’s intoxicating, and there’s no real distinction between the real-world context the film was made in and the film’s own internal themes, with Taraninto bemoaning that this is one of the last few productions that will probably be able to justify physically recreating the bygone 1960s to such an extent (given the ease and cost of CGI and such things), and the film’s own themes of decay and generational change. 

These acts are mostly filled with the shenanigans of Leonardo DiCaprio’s ageing, alcoholic actor character, who struggles with his status as a has-been, and with Brad Pitt’s (better-played, to an embarrassing degree) stuntman character, who slides through life capably. There’s a constant tension around Pitt’s character on account of the rumour that he killed his wife and got away with it, a fact Taraninto just lets sit there ambiguously in the narrative. He shades some of the film’s attitude towards violence and to women interestingly, and towards the last third of the film it snaps into focus the ways he effortlessly embodies the spirit and character of a western protagonist that Dicaprio’s character attempts to emulate. A horror-inspired extended scene at Spahn Ranch is the clearest example of this, and possibly the best sustained stretch of the film. 

The film is filled with lots of typical Tarantino spots of script cleverness – the way an early conversation about the psychological effect of having a new character beat up one the audience is familiar with as a badass plays out when Pitt’s character effectively beats up Bruce Lee (though, for what it’s worth, the fight ends in a draw, and Lee receives a humanising scene later in the film – still, the timing of audience laughter contextualises the scene in a disquieting way, as it did many scenes of hyperviolence as well), the described western-character inversion, lampshading the immorality of statuary rape in a film where Roman Polanski hovers around the edges, a pulp book Dicaprio’s character reads foreshadowing an injury Pitt’s character receives as well as his ultimate ending, and so on. Really, the Manson Family inhabiting Spahn Ranch is the essence of the film; it’s what it’s about, what Tarantino is probing, that generational contrast, the jutting up of the tension of mythic and real violence, and the interplay between them. 

[spoilers below]

Where the film gets shakier is in its ending. Tarantino has straddled the line between hyperviolence, self-awareness, and moral righteousness deftly at times in the past (INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS particularly), but the sheer scale of the hyperviolence in this film’s climax plays oddly. Pitt’s character is built up in multiple ways to be capable of such violence, but is it meant to play so ‘satisfingly’? Seeing the Tate murders stopped and the Manson Family, at least in this case, thwarted is undeniably righteous and cause for celebration, but audience cheers and laughter at the scale of mutilation feels odd, especially off the back of a jeeringly-played depiction of their justifying their attempted murders of Tate by the rationale that actors were responsible for violent westerns and as such deserved a taste of their own medicine, so to speak. Introducing some nuance (possibly) is that Dicaprio’s character kills one of the girls with a flamethrower, lending credence to that idea in a way – he literally kills her through something he literally learned off a movie (we see a scene earlier of him learning to use the flamethrower for a film), but the joyous tone the whole climax is played in feels somewhat distasteful in how it builds off some of the film’s themes, and our real-world reality. 

I don’t need the film to have clarified some of the morality surrounding such violence; I think much of the discourse around the film is understating the ambiguity with which the film treats its lead characters and the question of violent influence. But there is a point where the inherent thrill of realised violence overrides that ambiguity anyway. Again, I wonder if getting so literal with the actual Manson Family and Tate murders was necessarily the best arena for the film’s themes in the end, but I imagine they were part of the whole conception of the film from its very earliest beginnings, so it’s a moot point. Perhaps there’s more unreality and critical comment being suggested than I’m giving credit for; certainly I was fascinated by the utter unreality of the scene where, after Dicaprio’s character gives a (supposed) bravura performance that included throwing a very young method actor onto the floor, the child springs up and says she’d prepared by wearing elbow pads, even though the throw was entirely unscripted. It’s such a blatant case of Hollywood idealisation that it made me ponder the degree to which the film was emphasising the fantasy and unreality of such figures and of such a time, which perhaps reframes the ending partly in the more critical vein to be tempered by a moral questioning.

In the end of the film, the fundamental immaturity of its lead characters is rewarded. Pitt’s character rides off into the sunset as the western hero of the day, and Dicaprio’s character leaves his wife alone (as advised not to) and goes off to hang out with Sharon Tate and her friends. He ascends up the ‘pearly gates’ of her residence, to meet people we know to have died in real life, and have the wishes of his life granted (socialising with such people and presumably having a career resurgence off the back off that). It very much plays as a heaven narrative, and when the title card comes on the screen, the “ONCE UPON A TIME” part very much clarifies the fairytale nature of the film. This isn’t what happened in real life, and in real life Old Hollywood very much did end, and actors like Dicaprio’s character did fizzle out. But this isn’t real life. This is a movie. And so it can have a happy ending. The fantasy ending of the film didn’t work for me half as much as the extended fantasy recreation of the LANCER pilot around the midpoint did, but as with any Tarantino movie, it ably makes its case for the greatness of cinema all the same. Three and a half whiskey sours, and a can of dog food.

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