Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood is the first Quentin Tarantino movie to have a social context. His film-industry story, about fading actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt-double best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), is told against the backdrop of the late-Sixties zeitgeist symbolized by real-life figures Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Charles Manson (Damon Herriman). The lurid premise is typical for Tarantino, whose previous films sprang from private whimsy and were executed with sadistic license — proof of an adolescent mentality disconnected from adult experience and human feeling.
QT’s celebrated canon — Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, the Kill Bill diptych, Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight — are all movies for moral idiots. But Once Upon a Time almost elicits feelings because QT evokes responses to social and cultural history that are beyond his usual film-buff snark. The horror of the Manson gang’s killing of Tate and her friends who had gathered at the home on Cielo Drive, which she shared with filmmaker Roman Polanski (the home is next door to Rick Dalton’s), looms over this retro period film. Finally, Tarantino asks audiences to think about life — not just the movies.
The scratchy sound of well-played LPs that starts the film is what cinema scholars call a synecdoche, conveying QT’s nerd sensibility — the friction of tawdriness and affection. Unlike that other glib pop nerd Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous), QT channels boyishness into his characters; it’s the essence of Rick and Cliff’s camaraderie (“More than a brother and a little less than a wife”). DiCaprio and Pitt display two kinds of masculinity: loud, demonstrative Rick, who lives for praise, and laconic, virile Cliff, who lives to be needed. They personify QT’s affection for the private longings and second-rate mythos of B-movie performers. Robbie’s Sharon Tate receives similar treatment, yet she is unabashedly objectified — a smiling, sun-blond Hollywood prototype made more radiant than the real person (in a smarmy clip from Dean Martin’s The Wrecking Crew, a pratfall exposes the actual Tate’s panties and crotch).
Movie-actor sympathy is QT’s obtuse version of humanism; his hipster notion of relationships rarely goes beyond clichéd cleverness. The behind-the-scene moments in Once Upon a Time don’t seem as authentic as the early-Sixties sex-and-ambition revue in Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply, or as insightful as the Hollywood-blacklist parodies in the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! An interlude about the vanity of Bruce Lee (played by Mike Moh) gives the impression that QT forgot exactly what movie he was making; like Jackie Brown, it’s not convincing.
In Jackie Brown, QT was so absorbed in fetishizing Blaxploitation lore and his star Pam Grier (whom he called “the queen of women” the first time I met him) that instead of reexamining the era when his obsessions were born, he updated it poorly, and Grier wasn’t actress enough to reclaim her Foxy Brown crown. In Once Upon a Time, QT exults in a period re-created solely through cultural artifacts: pop songs, TV shows, movie posters, theater marquees, and incessant, maddening radio advertisements. The specter of gruesome real-life tragedy underneath all the Hollywood history and pop effluvia gives him something new: poignancy.
Brian De Palma already made this ambivalence poetic in The Black Dahlia — especially the memorable sequence where the audition of tragic Elizabeth Short (Mia Kirschner) as Scarlett O’Hara distilled her all-American drive and pathos. Despite crude technique, QT reveals his awareness of Hollywood desperation, found in society’s changing sexuality, especially when dealing with the Manson girls. Going back to the Sixties hippie era, QT evokes the cultural differences between middle-class California conservatism (embodied by inside-outsiders Rick and Cliff) and Manson’s dangerously radical counterculture.
These tense, lewd scenes (anchored to Margaret Qualley’s Pussycat, a brazen free-love druggie, Dakota Fanning’s fanatical Squeaky Fromme, and Rick’s meeting with a precocious child star, loaded with pedophiliac undertones) suggest more than Manson’s psychotic influence. QT seems to be getting at a modern crisis. Manson’s maenads — dirty, barefoot examples of Dionysian abandon — provide the most fascinating sequences of QT’s career. A plot digression features Bruce Dern as a blind, wizened, weakened victim of his own lusts as well as of female opportunists, a Harvey Weinstein figure.
At the screening I attended, most of the audience went into quiet shock during QT’s finale, an extended sequence of conventional action-movie moral reckoning. It hit them on another level than the earlier, poorly imitated scenes of mock-TV violence (for a cineaste, QT’s images are surprisingly imprecise). In this riposte to #MeToo diabolism, Tarantino finally finds a social context that challenges his audience. And while the Motion Picture Academy previously rewarded QT for disgracing both the Holocaust and slavery, this might be an even hotter topic, and it needs a better follow-through than his slasher-movie tropes. But, admittedly, this display of cheap revenge is his career highpoint.
Tarantino’s pop sadism vents the undigested frustration of the juvenile mentality. The hit parade of half-obscure pop tunes is a mere distraction, proof that Tarantino’s understanding of pop music — like his understanding of movies — is far shallower than we imagined. The Mamas and the Papa’s trenchant “Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon)” has been used more felicitously elsewhere, as was The Rolling Stones’ “Out of Time,” which Hal Ashby scored in Coming Home so that it expressed the forgotten romance and regret behind Sixties political anxiety. Once Upon a Time gets at Hollywood’s seamy underbelly in ways I never expected. It is easily Tarantino’s best film, but we still suffer his fundamental problem of poisoned nostalgia.