Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

I am no fan of Quentin Tarantino, having dubbed him “the Mantovani of mayhem” and endured the reactions of an outraged comments section that in turn dismissed me as a squaresville snob out of touch with flyover country (of which Mr Tarantino would seem an unlikely avatar). Still I do my best: My boys wanted to see The Hateful Eight, so I dutifully tagged along and fell asleep for a good forty minutes of its three-hour length. And in the four years since I have never felt the least inclined to see what I missed.

To be honest, I also dozed off during the similarly prolix Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. But this time I was interested to see what I’d missed, and, finding it on offer in my hotel room some weeks later, I clicked play and settled back. The film was released during Kathy Shaidle’s summer sojourn as our Saturday-night movie queen, and so I thought I’d put in a belated word for it now. Unlike The Hateful Eight, on this picture Tarantino is not in his Mantovani-of-mayhem mode: There is none of his exquisitely choreographed violence until the final quarter-hour, by which point it is both cathartic and a jest on posterity. If his career has to date been a sustained double-act between blood-soaked carnage and pop-culture nostalgia, this is the picture in which, despite the title’s hommage to Sergio Leone, the Dean Martin of nostalgia ditches the Jerry Lewis of carnage and goes solo.

Once Upon a Time… is set in Hollywood in 1969, the year a heavily pregnant Sharon Tate and four others were murdered by the Manson Family. But it’s not really “about” her so much as her Cielo Drive neighbor, the fictional actor Rick Dalton. Once upon a time Dalton was the star of the hit horse opera “Bounty Law”, but the TV series ended and what he calls his “rinky-dink movie career” never quite took off, though he enjoyed incinerating a bunch of Nazi general and the studio let him keep the flamethrower. So now he lives off villain-of-the-week guest appearances, a fading star of a former hit getting beaten up by the rising stars of current hits, week after week after week. You can rarely identify the precise moment that your future passed, but you certainly know when it has, in a town that drops stars as casually as Charlie’s acolytes drop acid. In Rick Dalton’s case, New Hollywood – as in Roman Polanski, “the director of Rosemary’s f**king Baby” – has literally moved in next door. Which means Rick is either “one pool party away from starring in a Polanski movie” – or just another schlub watching the director and his starlet getting chauffeured to the Oscars while he grabs a six-pack and catches it on TV.

In a film that’s as much about doubles as Strangers on a Train, Rick’s closest relationship is with his stuntman, Cliff Booth. If it’s tough being a fading star, it’s worse being a fading star’s stunt double: the studio work has dried up, and Cliff is making ends meet by working as Rick’s general factotum – shuttling his DWI-ed boss from guest shot to guest shot, fixing his antenna when it’s on the fritz, drinking with him when no-one else will – and then driving home to a pitbull in a trailer next door to the Van Nuys drive-in theatre playing (as the director discloses in the course of a wonderfully adroit crane shot) Lady in Cement starring “Frank Sinatra. Racquel Welch.” It is, in fact, Raquel Welch, but this is Tarantino, so the misspelling is of course intentional.

Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth are respectively Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, two actors of rare talent playing a couple of journeymen. They do it very well, as few others could: plot-wise, it is a lethargic and enervated tale, and few A-listers could conjure a D-lister with a Z-lister sidekick and forebear to condescend. Pitt ambles laconically through the picture, amiable, unambitious, semi-detached, good-humored. DiCaprio plays a man of limited skills sufficiently insecure that, after a long off-set conversation with a precocious eight-year-old method actress (Julia Button), he turns in a performance of such raw grittiness it stuns both her and him. More typical of his performance level is the clip of Rick singing “Green Door” on “Hullabaloo”, a mid-Sixties variety show forgotten by everyone except Tarantino. He knows this stuff better than anyone: As Cliff potters about his trailer, Robert Goulet is on TV singing “MacArthur Park”. “MacArthur Park” is an easy joke, and so is Robert Goulet, but putting them together demonstrates a lethal precision.

Sharon Tate, meanwhile, is also shadowing her double. She goes to a movie theatre playing Dean Martin’s latest Matt Helm caper The Wrecking Crew and asks if you can see the film for free if you’re in it. The box-office clerk has no idea who she is, so she explains she plays “the klutz” – and then sits back and watches the audience laughing it up at her pratfalls and shadow-boxes along with (the real) Sharon Tate in her big fight scene. Margot Robbie doesn’t get a lot of lines in this role, and indeed “Sharon Tate” functions less as a character than as an idea – of a certain kind of harmless sweet-natured mini-celebrity.

Tarantino is positing the Manson Family’s intrusion on Cielo Drive as a hinge moment in cultural history. Certainly something changed round about that precise date: Old Hollywood got bigger and fewer and eventually imploded – Hello, Dolly!Doctor DolittleStar!… And suddenly it was Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, Midnight Cowboy… The über-woke critics have decided Tarantino is arguing that the Golden Age studio system was preferable to what followed, and have extended the thought to excoriate him for wanting to go back to an era when Hollywood was a town for rugged white men who always got the girl. But that’s almost too idiotic even for film criticism. For a start, this isn’t any kind of Golden Age: this is Dino in The Wrecking Crew and Frank in Lady in Cement and Rick Dalton in “Bounty Crew”; the fag-end, if that, of Old Hollywood, as Tarantino well knows – as much as Joseph Roth’s characters in Radetzky March (which I mention here) understand they’re living in the twilight of the Habsburgs.

But the director is making a more basic point – not about the pop culture, but the broader culture; about the kind of society that sustains that kind of culture versus whatever it is we are now. Just as New Hollywood moves next door to Old on Cielo Drive, so Old Hollywood virtues are pitted against New when stuntman Cliff picks up a hippie chick and gives her a ride back to the Manson commune on the old Spahn ranch. Cliff used to shoot TV shows out there, and all these psychedelic types hanging around don’t seem quite right to him. He knew George Spahn in the old days, and demands to know where he is now. And so a scene set on a set for westerns plays out like a western – an old-school dusty it’s-quiet-out-there-too-quiet showdown between a washed-up stuntman and the shock troops of the new counterculture.

The counterculture became the culture – to the point that there’s now no culture for a counterculture to counter. Tarantino, a man who can get more mileage out of an old Robert Goulet clip than poor old Goulet ever could, surely knows we’ve cannibalized everything and left nothing. He likes nothing better than to shoot, quite beautifully, his stars in cars listening to classic pop on the radio. Is there any simpler pleasure? Any more basic aide nostalgie than letting the hippie chick slide a little closer on the bench seat and cranking up KHJ?

Yet Tarantino programs not the Mamas and Papas’ “California Dreamin'” but José Feliciano’s version, darker and broodier and foreshadowing today’s Los Angeles, where “all the leaves are brown and the sky is grey”, and even that simplest pleasure of car rides with pop songs is denied, because the town’s filthy and disease stalks the tent cities and it takes you three hours to get anywhere The pop paeans have outlived their subject.

The master picks his radio hits well:

And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look behind…

Not so. When you go to a film “about” Sharon Tate, you assume you know the ending, coming toward you down the track like a slow freight train that can’t be stopped. However Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is not only an hommage to Sergio Leone, but also to the start of every fairy tale: A film-maker is no captive on the carousel of time – so he can return, and remake the future. Quentin Tarantino is, in pop culture terms, now old himself – old enough to be bored by X-Men 37 and Lego Hulk leavened by the occasional stiff-upper-Brit Oscar-bait. And old enough to remember that once upon a time it was different.

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