Magazine | August 26, 2019, Issue

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood Captures the Virtues of Late-Sixties America

Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood (Sony Pictures Entertainment)

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood is a transfixing motion picture, perhaps its director’s best film since Jackie Brown. It is also, being a Tarantino film, self-indulgent and adolescent in various ways, and like most of his movies it would be at least 20 percent better with 50 percent less gore. But it has the virtue of interacting with recent, all-too-real American history in a slightly deeper way than his revisionist revenge dramas about killing Nazis and slaveholders interacted with World War II and the antebellum South.  

Already that interaction with the past has generated a war of think pieces, with denunciations of Tarantino’s regressive hippie-punching and celebrations of his willingness to foreground Old Hollywood ideals of masculinity. Such a war is inevitable because we all still live in the shadow of the 1960s, and especially of the peak and turning point of 1969, the year of Apollo, the year of Woodstock . . . and the year of Tarantino’s subject in this movie, the hideous murder of the pregnant Sharon Tate at the hands of Charles Manson’s hippie cultists.

Like Altamont the same year, the Manson murders are remembered as a doorway from the good Sixties to the bad Seventies; from peace, love, and understanding to a more violent and drug-addled masquerade. And Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood goes all in for that interpretive frame, offering a lavish reconstruction of neon Hollywood, making Tate (played here by Margot Robbie) a princess in a fairy-tale kingdom, and having her share the screen with two fictional figures, a passing-his-prime TV star, Rick Dalton, and his stuntman and best friend, Cliff Booth. They are played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, and as cast and performed, the parts represent — well, let’s just say that whatever the hippies were, Dalton and especially Booth are the opposite of that.

I’m not going to summarize the movie’s plot because it doesn’t exactly have one; it’s a long experience of hangouts, brief encounters, tense set pieces, and rapturous shots of Hollywood signage lighting up at dusk, all pervaded with the dread of knowing what the Manson family has in store. Instead I’ll just try to pick out, from the things being argued over, what in the movie works and what I came away feeling ambivalent about.

The portrait of Tate works, despite feminist complaints about how few lines she’s given relative to the male leads. I think the limited dialogue reflects an effective choice not to portray her primarily in relation to her famous (and later infamous) husband, Roman Polanski, who barely has any screen time here. Instead we watch her alone, or mostly alone — dancing to music in her bedroom, and then going out into the sun-drenched streets and finding herself drawn into, what else, a movie theater, where her own most recent movie is playing on the screen.

Instead of watching her with Polanski, then, we watch Tate watch herself. (Tarantino puts the real movie up on screen, so we get both the real Tate and Robbie’s radiant impersonation.) And we watch her actively delight in herself, not just in her golden beauty but in her unpolished but real talent, the might-have-been that existed before her life was brutally aborted and her memory became a myth.

So as a reclamation of Tate the actress and human being, Once Upon a Time is successful, and as a celebration of her cultural moment it also succeeds. Indeed Tarantino’s movie would play well as part of a double feature with the documentary Apollo 11, which I’ve praised in these pages, because in different ways both capture the virtues of late-Sixties America — the sheer vigor of a youthful society, the extraordinary overflow of social energy, political and sexual and otherwise, and the sense of competence (Pitt’s stuntman would fit right in on the Apollo project) that American men, especially, carried with them in the years when it seemed there was nothing that an American could not achieve. 

Which brings us to what I don’t think quite works, which is the way that Tarantino’s story seems to imply that some combination of hippiedom and feral femininity brought this world crashing down. The Manson-cult scenes are notable for the absence, save in one sinister appearance, of Charles Manson himself: Instead the cult has a Maenadian feel, and its invasion plays as a witchy, frenzied, misandrist assault on the hetero-glamour of Pitt and DiCaprio and Robbie, the Playboy Mansion and the miniskirt. 

This portrayal has earned Tarantino a lot of grief from the left. But conservatives inclined to take his side should recall that the world of ’60s hetero-glamour was not itself a conservative world; it was a world that drew its dynamism from a mostly male rebellion against older bourgeois and religious customs. And what went wrong as the ’60s became the ’70s reflected the excesses of that first rebellion, male entitlement and rock-star culture run amok, more than it reflected the sins of flower children and feminists. 

The latter groups had many faults, to be sure. But the disaster in Vietnam, which did as much as anything to kill the cool, Cliff Booth swagger of post-war America, was made by vigorous presidents and confident male technocrats, not the longhairs who opposed the war. Likewise, the sexual barbarism of the ’70s was mostly Hefnerism taken to its logical conclusion, about which the era’s feminists were right.

Indeed nothing undercuts the idea that the golden ’60s could have spun onward if only some hero had taken a flamethrower to the counterculture more than the example of Tate’s own husband, the absent Polanski, whose rape of a teenager represents the squalor of the ’70s as much as his murdered wife represents the lost glamour of 1969. 

And no, the hippies didn’t make him do it. Even in Tarantino’s once-upon-a-time Arcadia, the devil was busy everywhere, and the worm was in the apple all along.

This article appears as “Death of the Sixties” in the August 26, 2019, print edition of National Review.

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