ONCE UPON A TIME IN… HOLLYWOOD officially has the biggest opening of Quentin Tarantino’s career. It seems nothing — not even an ellipsis, the ickiness of wading into the murder of Sharon Tate, nor many’s feelings that he aided and abetted terrible behaviors by the likes of Harvey Weinstein — can stop QT.
However, for everyone who bought a ticket this past weekend, several stayed home, not sure they could commit to the over two and a half hours of a film that might end in a re-enactment of a tragic and horrifying murder spree. So for those fence sitters, here is a handy guide. If you, however, are spoiler-averse, be aware that there will be spoilers.
Does Tarantino Still Like Feet?
This is where you want to start? Well, ok. Seems like a weird question to begin with, but hey, we are here to serve you.
In a word, yes.
To expand, yes and he’s kind of sick of you all making a big deal about it.
How can I tell? Because, per reel, this is the most feet Tarantino has ever captured and for the least purpose. Regardless of how you may feel about the long shot on Uma Thurman’s foot in KILL BILL Vol 1, the scene conveyed information — once we see her toe move, we know she is overcoming the paralytic in her bloodstream.
In ONCE UPON A TIME IN… HOLLYWOOD, feet exist because, well, feet exist. And they exist very close to the lens.
In a strange way, though, by pushing the envelope this hard, QT sort of reaches a point where it feels odd but not creepy. It becomes so common that any sort of sexualization is bled out of it. One would hazard to say if this is good for the filmmaking. However, for those who worry about Tarantino’s lens being exploitative it means, at least in this one way, it is not.
Is The Dog Cute?
I like dogs, so take my bias into consideration. But yeah, pretty excellent dog.
Does the Dog Get Hurt?
I can’t say for certain the dog did not experience of bump or scratch along the way, but she does survive and gets to sleep in a big old bed as a reward for a job well done.
What Is ONCE UPON A TIME About? Like Really About?
Getting older, mostly. About realizing your time of top passed and maybe you did not make all of it that you should of. Or maybe you did and, yet, it still does not feel like enough.
One could certainly argue ONCE UPON A TIME is Tarantino himself looking at the downward slope of his life now that he has topped the mountain and apparently has just one film left in him.
It is about the literal and figurative end of the 60s, the last gasps of the Hollywood studio system, and the dawning of the auteur era.
It may be just a little about how the sins of our past catch up with us. How the things we do that seem value neutral in our youth have a way of triggering unintended consequences.
Last ONCE UPON A TIME is a fairy tale where all of that is seen, acknowledged, and then derailed at the last moment. A story where somehow one change makes age, regret, and tragedy obsolete.
How “Real” Is It?
Not very, honestly.
In some ways, it is incredibly period accurate. The looks, the music, the sense of transition. I would say ONCE UPON A TIME gets all that very right.
However, as is Tarantino’s wont, everything is cranked up to eleven. Los Angeles is in 1969 had several movie theatres. They were not, however, 85% of store fronts. Similarly, I am sure television shows were advertised a lot, but probably not 90% of all ads you would encounter. It is a Hollywood where everything is happening all at once and a bunch of people you love from the era hang out.
In terms of the movies and TV shows highlighted, most are real. BOUNTY LAW, the show that Rick Dalton (Leonard DiCaprio) stars in where he met and began his friendship/working relationship with stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is made up. However, the list of shows that Dalton mentions guest starring on while talking to Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino) are all real. This includes THE F.B.I. which we later see a (fictional) episode of starring Dalton as the “heavy.”
Even LANCER was an actual show, albeit an unremarkable one. James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant) and Wayne Maunder (Luke Perry) both starred. Trudi (Julia Butters), the child Method actor who shames Dalton with her commitment, however, appears to be a fictional construct.
Did Cliff Booth Kill His Wife?
A source of low-key largely unexplored tension throughout ONCE UPON A TIME is whether or not Booth is a murderer. See, several years before our story, Booth and his wife Billie (Rebecca Gayheart) were on a houseboat. As we see, the two were fighting. Or rather, Billie was fighting and Cliff was sitting there stewing with what appears to be a gun of some sort in his lap. Before we see how the situation resolves, we hear the sound of a wave and the screen cuts to black.
Many have pointed to how this scene recalls the circumstances of Natalie Wood’s death. It has long been theorized in some circles that Robert Wagner, her husband twice over, killed Wood and used the ocean to cover it up. However, Cliff and Wagner have little in common. There is so little of Billie in the film, in person or via reference, it is impossible to compare her to Wood in any way. In other words, besides the boat and the unsolved death, there is little to suggest the Booths are Wagner/Booth parallels.
Regardless, to finally get around to answering the question above, all that can truly be offered is “maybe?”. The flashback gives us four viable truths. First, Cliff shot Billie with said gun. Second, the wave hit causing Booth to accidentally shoot the gun. Third, the wave hit, Billie went over, and Cliff could not save her. Finally, wave hits, Billie goes over, Cliff decides not to save her. From the information given, all are equally likely.
Does ONCE UPON A TIME Show Us the Manson Murders?
For many people, the biggest objection to this film has been letting QT, with his gift for grindhouse excess, portray a real-life tragedy. Even as the Tate Family gave the movie their blessing, some of us remained a little queasy about Tarantino’s often glib cinematic vision merging with a true crime story.
The good news for those with those understandable concerns is that Tarantino does not re-enact any of the Manson Murders. Not one of the victims of the August 8th and 9th killing spree is shown dying on-screen.
In fact, as with INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, ONCE UPON A TIME exists in a separate timeline. Here the presence of Dalton swilling margaritas from a blender derails the Family’s initial plan to raid the Polanski/Tate home. Instead, as a perpetrator of television violence when the quartet –quickly a trio — of would-be killers were kids, Dalton makes himself a target. And since Booth and Dalton’s new wife Francesca Capucci (Lorenza Izzo) are at Dalton’s place, they too become targets.
However, the Family are encountering not a sleepy house full of largely nonviolent young people, but a stuntman with a propensity for violence and drunk actor with a flame thrower in his shed. So things go… differently.
So Not Very Violent Then?
Besides a brief beating Booth doles out, the movie is nearly violence free until its last 20 or so minutes. Then it is INCREDIBLY violent in a HATEFUL 8 sort of way. But not the way that day was violent in our timeline. If that makes sense.
Is ONCE UPON A TIME Misogynistic?
As a straight cis man, this is a dicey one for me to answer. I’ll do my best to provide the information, but ultimately, it probably is not for me to give a definitive answer.
For obvious reasons, Sharon Tate has been the center of this concern since the film was first announced. Her centering took on a new twist after the Cannes screening when a journalist pointed out how few lines Tate had despite how forefront Margot Robbie had been in the marketing and press tour. Now, hatred of women is not necessarily the same as marginalization of women, but they do often co-occur.
In practice, it is accurate to say Robbie as Tate speaks very little. She is less a character than a symbol. She is hope and the excitement of the new and the promise of the future. Again, given the themes, her not dying is like Tarantino’s wish for a fairy tale Hollywood where the Daltons and the Tates of the world both get happy endings, both get to have long fulfilling careers. Does rendering her more symbolic than real equal misogyny? I am inclined to say no. It does not make her a particularly rich character though.
OK, But There Are More Women, Right?
There are. And that’s where things get a lot murkier. Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) is by far the best performance by a woman in the film. Anyone who has seen her in FOSSE/VERDON or Spike Jones’ short/perfume ad KENZO WORLD can tell you what a gifted physical performer she is. This, however, is far and away her best total work yet and, one hopes, will mark a breakthrough for her. She has just the right curdled charisma to help you see how creepy and inviting the Manson Family must have been back then. However, her part really only amounts to a scene and a couple of small appearances.
Janet (Zoe Bell) a stunt coordinator is hilarious but, again, she only gets a scene on-screen.
Gayheart gives fine angry cutting wife but it is not exactly a big or rewarding part.
The Manson girls are largely monolithic makes sense given their role in the film — a threat to Tarantino’s fairy tale — but means that the movie has little interest in any of their inner lives or past.
Tarantino’s career is largely highlighted with good roles for women but ONCE UPON A TIME is probably his most male film since RESERVOIR DOGS. HATEFUL 8 had less women but no one here gets a Jennifer Jason Leigh sized role.
And then there is the fate of the two Manson women who attack Dalton, et al August 8. On the one hand, we know in real life they were brutal murderers, on the other, boy does the movie take its time hurting them.
So is ONCE UPON A TIME misogynistic? I honestly can’t say.
Is ONCE UPON A TIME IN… HOLLYWOOD Good?
Alas, like some of the questions above, I do not have a clear answer for you.
It is undeniably well-made. Tarantino’s hyper realized LA is just the right amount of over the top. You can feel that it is too bright, too kind, too wrapped in gossamer but never in a way that interferes with the reality the actors are creating.
Speaking of, the performances are pretty uniformly great. DiCaprio has not seemed this at ease with a role while still nailing every beat of it in I don’t know how long. Come to it, it is probably the strongest Pitt performance I have seen in some time too. Robbie, for all the controversy, gets what QT is after in Tate and really delivers it. One can disagree with making Tate a symbol but you cannot argue Robbie plays those notes just right.
The note of sweet sadness the film closes on is, well, sort of beautiful. I am not scholar of late 60s Hollywood, but there is still something undeniably heart-aching about the alternate universe QT creates. Add in how it promises a future for Dalton not unlike the one Tarantino himself was famous for giving largely forgotten stars (Travolta, Grier, Forster), there is an even stronger tang of upbeat melancholy.
On the other hand, one that fades, the movie feels…empty. Purposeless. Booth (mostly) and Dalton “stopping” the Manson murders does not carry with it the same sense of both catharsis and history shaking possibility as the visceral thing of vengeance in advance in INGLORIOUS.
A well-made, well-acted hang out film that can certainly nail a feeling, ONCE UPON A TIME IN… HOLLYWOOD nonetheless left me feeling as if I missed some big moment. Maybe I did. Or maybe it overestimates itself. I’m just not sure.