Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood is steeped in an element critics love: It celebrates movies, thus validating the lives of those who spend inordinate amounts of time watching them. So many critics love this aspect of Tarantino’s latest that they missed an equally important factor: It mercilessly sends up leftist values. In its foundations, it’s so breathtakingly right-wing it could have been made by Mel Gibson.
Spoilers follow. Tarantino’s story (which has just been released on Blu-Ray and DVD), drips disdain on hippie Boomers from the vantage point of an older, sturdier, more rules-bound and more conservative America, personified by its Greatest Generation heroes: the aging cowboy actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt man/factotum Cliff (Brad Pitt). They are a middle-aged two-man army battling Sixties youth culture as it discards all norms and steers the culture into a ditch. At the bottom of that ditch is the gruesome reality of the Manson Family murders that took place in the closing weeks of the Sixties. It was a stark announcement to everyone that the hippies had gotten out of hand.
OUATIH is such a mischievously reactionary critique that it’s a kind of successor piece to Robert Zemeckis’s Forrest Gump, the film that beat out Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction at the Oscars but which Tarantino nevertheless admires greatly. Both films are detailed indictments of everything the hippies (who today get lumped in with the rest of the Boomers) stand for. In its now-famous climactic scene, OUATIH goes beyond hippie punching and ventures into hippie roasting. Watching a hippie murderess get flame-broiled by Rick Dalton might have been the single most delightful moment at the movies this year.
Rick and Cliff stand for an old-school way of doing things — all macho movies and masculine camaraderie. They wear their hair much shorter than what has become the norm for men. Yet Hollywood has turned away from laconic tough guys toward newcomers such as Bruce Lee, an arrogant little poseur who picks a fight with Cliff while bragging about his own prowess. Boasting is completely alien to the Greatest Generation. The encounter winds up costing Cliff a job, even though all he does is stand up for himself against Lee’s taunts.
For much of the movie, Cliff wears a T-shirt marked Champion as though he’s the L.A. successor to medieval knights who fight for the established order and protect damsels in distress. Cliff drives around in Rick’s Cadillac — that epitome of Greatest Generation aspiration — listening to Neil Diamond while the Manson girls dress like sluts and dive through dumpsters. Cliff takes a liking to one girl, Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) and offers to drive her home, but when she offers him a sex act, he instead brings up a discarded norm — “How old are you?” She replies, “First time anybody’s asked that in a long time.” He’s sticking to the rules of another era.
Pussycat and Co. are trashing a piece of land that Cliff deeply respects: the Spahn Ranch, where he used to film old-school Westerns, a genre that petered out in the Sixties as the tastes of the hippie generation came to rule the culture. Once a stamping ground where rugged, able stuntmen such as Cliff made an all-American genre staple, the place is now a decaying gynocracy where hippie chicks laze about all day. All rules have apparently been set aside at the ranch, but Cliff nevertheless seeks to uphold the principle of property rights by ensuring that the owner of the ranch, George Spahn, is still alive and not being swindled by the hippie chicks. When Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning), the Manson Family girl who would later attempt to assassinate President Ford, tries to block Cliff from entering George’s house to check on him, Cliff simply asserts his masculine authority over her. He tells her he’s coming in whether she likes it or not: The screen won’t stop him. The Sixties disdain for such niceties as ownership is contrary to Cliff’s rules-bound code of men taking charge of dicey situations. When one of the boys hanging around the ranch gives Cliff’s car a flat tire as a prank, Cliff makes him pay for it with a broken nose. Then makes him change the tire. Cliff is not just a stunt man in Westerns; he’s a sort of walking embodiment of manly Old West values. You mess with a man’s ride, you pay dearly.
The sexual politics of the film are hilariously reactionary. The thought leader of the hippie girls is played by that avatar of feminine passive-aggressive flibbertigibbet solipsism, Lena Dunham, the polar opposite of the no-nonsense, two-fisted, self-contained, masculine ideal represented by Cliff. The only other female character of note, Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate, is a shameless dream-girl creation who is present solely to dance and be pretty and be looked at and has almost no dialogue. When she has a day with which to do anything, she spends it looking at herself, in a Dean Martin movie. When Sharon puts on her comfy pregnancy loungewear, it’s an absurdly sexy baby-doll outfit. The only revelations about her interior life come to us via a male narrator, Kurt Russell, who tells us the little lady was having some pregnancy-related nostalgia on the night the Manson Family went out on its killing spree. She, Rick, and Cliff represent an era of tightly circumscribed sex roles, when men drink and fight and fix things and women are the beautiful creatures next to them who aren’t expected to speak and rarely do.
Tarantino’s purpose, revealed in the final act, is to imagine a kind of cultural restoration of the pre-hippie Sixties by having Cliff, with an assist from Rick, dispatch the wild hippie girls of the Manson Family and the one feckless hippie boy who comes along with them vowing to do the work of Satan. Opening the final act with a montage scored to the Rolling Stones song “Out of Time,” the director packs (at least!) five meanings into that song choice. One: The song taunts Rick for being a man from another era. Two: Rick and Cliff’s time together is expiring; their relationship can no longer continue because Rick can no longer afford to employ Cliff. Three: As it is August 1969, we know that Sharon Tate will soon be murdered. She’s out of time. Except, four: Tarantino is about to depart from the timeline of history and insert his own. Five: Tarantino may even be using the song as an ironic callback to a notable previous screen use of “Out of Time,” in Coming Home — a pro-hippie Vietnam movie in which the heavy is a by-the-book Marine, a square like Rick and Cliff, who was played by Bruce Dern . . . who plays George Spahn in OUATIH. That movie ended with the square committing suicide and the hippies winning, but Tarantino has praised Coming Home’s big Vietnam-movie rival from the same year — the regular-guy story The Deer Hunter, a movie about no-nonsense men like Cliff and Rick that exists in a hippie-free zone.
In the climax, Rick repeats Cliff’s claim of property rights (“F***ing private street, property taxes up the butt,” he says, in demanding the hippies leave the area), derides one hippie Satanist as “Dennis Hopper” — an avatar of the counterculture cinema that has rendered Rick obsolete — and proudly chugs a pitcher of the defiantly old-school drug known as the margarita. Cliff metes out even more punishment than is strictly called for, smashing one hippie wench’s face into hamburger, and Rick uses a prop from pre-hippie genre cinema to turn one of his attackers into a s’more. The spirit is “Wouldn’t it have been beautiful if it had actually turned out this way?” It’s very Inglourious Basterds — with hippies incurring as much needful wrath as Nazis.