As one would expect of any Quentin Tarantino film, especially one set in Hollywood, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is as much a movie about movies as it is about anything else. The year is 1969, the place is Los Angeles, and the cast of characters includes fading actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double/friend/driver/handyman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick once starred as a cowboy on the television series Bounty Law, but now does a series of guests spots playing villains while his agent urges him to go make spaghetti westerns in Italy. It’s the end for him.
Or is it? Just as this is yet another Tarantino love letter to movies, it is also a revenge fantasy — a story about imagining alternate versions of history or changing the endings of our lives. Rick finds himself still praying for more glory days, so desperately afraid of the possibility that his career might be finished. He fantasises about proving himself on set as a true actor — one who can still pack a walloping punch as well as stun audiences with an emotionally resonant performance. He dreams of proving all his critics wrong and affirming his power. While Cliff walks around with the self-assured swagger of a real-life cowboy, Rick constantly beats himself up for flubbing his lines and drowns out his self-loathing with alcohol. He fears becoming irrelevant, which in his business is a fate worse than death.
So where does a man like Rick search for salvation? Not in any of the many spiritual traditions or new religious movements cropping up throughout the sixties — Rick hates hippies. Instead, he is inescapably immersed in the cult of Hollywood. Movies might not have all the answers for Rick or Cliff, but it is perhaps all they know. Going to the movies is practically a religious experience in its own right, a ritual of daily life for people like them in the motion picture industry. Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who also happens to live next door to Rick, goes to the movies to watch herself in The Wrecking Crew, and she is entranced by seeing herself onscreen and hearing the reactions of audience members to her performance. It seems like no coincidence that ‘California Dreamin’ plays as she exits the screen; while the singer says he “stopped into a church I passed along the way,” just like Sharon stopped into the cinema. It is as if she were called to her own church service.
Meanwhile, Rick listens to a recording to practice his lines, repeating them over and over like a mantra. Movie stars and directors are worshipped like gods, and for Rick, a neighbour like Roman Polanski could be the key to his salvation… or at least the salvation of his film career, which is practically worth more than his soul.
Like previous Tarantino works, Once Upon a Time… takes a revisionist approach to history while making a meta-commentary on violence in cinema and popular culture. In Inglourious Basterds it was a bunch of Nazis who met a gloriously gory end; here, it is members of the Manson Family who have their murderous histories rewritten. There is more overlap than one might think between cult movies and straight-up cults: the Manson Family lives on the Spahn Movie Ranch, which served as a set for a number of westerns. Manson follower Susan Atkins describes having a drug-fuelled epiphany that kids like her learned to kill from the entertainment they watched. Every television show they grew up on (with the exception of I Love Lucy), involved violence or murder shes says. So why not “kill the people who taught us to kill,” starting with a former star from television westerns? Rick himself admitted that his filmography included a “lotta killing”: he shot cowboys and gleefully torched Nazis with a flamethrower.
Getting typecast as the “heavy” in all these works is bound to have an impact on how audiences see him, Rick’s agent suggests, as well as how he sees himself. But in Tarantino’s fairy tale/dream/nightmare version of American history, the roles of heroes and villains start to become blurred together, until it is no longer clear anymore who is playing who. The audience, too, is implicated in the events that unfold. Even if we are afraid of the violent history we think we know, do we actually want to see it? Do we enjoy watching murder? Whose hands is the blood on in real-life acts of violence if audiences are constantly clamouring to see killing on-screen?
But if we want to see violence, we are going to have to wait first. Once Upon a Time… often meanders like the winding roads of the Hollywood Hills, and a significant portion of its practically three-hour run time seems to be driving scenes. Rick and Cliff wander between shooting locations, make movies in Rome and then return to California. Their relationship to one another wanders too; and finally Rick tells Cliff that he can no longer afford his services, so they go their separate ways. Their last hurrah together culminates in a scene of intense violence, a sort of baptism by fire for both men that provides a massive hit of dopamine for rabid audiences desperate for something to happen.
Cliff cements his reputation as the most nonchalantly bad-ass man around town, while Rick regains self-confidence, tossing aside his fears and anxieties of being ineffectual for one moment of blazing glory. He and Cliff emerge (relatively) unscathed, and become heroes…saviours, practically. They cannot change real history or prevent real violence against real people, but can do it all in the movies convincingly and entertainingly enough. Tarantino gives the people what he knows they want, even if that seems to muddy whatever commentary he is trying to make on the moral ramifications of cinematic bloodbaths. The nightmares of American history can be replaced, if only for a little while, with the dreams of American movies, and the cult of Hollywood emerges as powerful as ever.
by Katie Duggan
Katie Duggan is a recent graduate of Princeton. Hailing from New Jersey, she has a love-hate relationship with both the Garden State and the film Garden State. She loves musicals and coming-of-age stories, and her favorite movies include Rushmore, Harold and Maude, and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. You can follow her on Instagram @katdug_ or on Twitter @realkatieduggan.