Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★½

I've always been a vocal advocate of see a movie twice to see how you really feel about it but rarely have I swung forward so positively than I have with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. This is very much a journey is the destination movie which I was hindered going in by knowing the Manson killers colliding on Cielo Dr was the runtime ultimate destination. Each aside from Quentin Tarantino—to a TV actor facing a career crisis (Leonardo DiCpario) and thus his stunt man and self-described gopher (Brad Pitt) who is also going through a job crisis—seemed like excess fat that only revealed Tarantino's love of a previous generation's Hollywood and fear of current Hollywood's creative demise. On my initial viewing, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) hung over this film like a dark cloud. Which is strange to say because she's so radiant, sunny, and pleasant in her presence. But knowing that her horrific murder at the hands of Charles Manson's followers effectively killed off the Love Generation and also ended the gilded age of Hollywood, it never felt right that these stories were bound to converge. I didn't take issue with the ending of the film being revisionist history. In fact, it was so phenomenally performed by Pitt and directed with firecracker precision by Tarantino, it would be hard to not view that whole section as a major highlight. But a week ago, the pieces didn't seem to fit. It felt like Tarantino was jamming a puzzle piece into a completely different puzzle than the rest of the film. It was, to continue that verbiage, puzzling.

However, knowing the complete journey and ultimate destination, I desired a second viewing because the parts of Hollywood I had loved before—Spahn Movie Ranch, the Lancer set—were on my mind all week and I wanted to know if a second viewing would put me at ease on the positive or negative side. Watching it again, I was able to fall into Tarantino's groove of it being a journey with no destination at all. And I loved it.

Rather than go bullet point by bullet point of the aggrievances that were absolved, I'd like to just mention what pulled me through from beginning to end. The tether was the awareness of time in an industry that's always on the precipice of a complete makeover on the macro level and how cruel and random failure feels on a micro level. The overlapping of an industry that can only save itself rather than the people in it. Even the insertion of DiCaprio into Steve McQueen's scenes in The Great Escape felt earned this time. This wasn't Tarantino showing us a movie he loved. This was DiCaprio's Rick Dalton playing it cool on set, a faded promise of movie stardom that never materialized, but painfully aware that when the king of cool, Steve McQueen, was mulling over a project without a commitment the Hollywood machine kicked in and agents/producers had a backup list of four actors. McQueen takes the part and Dalton never tests, never reads the lines in a room, but he was made aware of the potential for him to be there. Not knowing would have been better for his overall upkeep, but knowing at the time probably gave him a charge, flashed the bright lights in his brain, the promised future that would come from a big three-hour war epic from the director of Bad Day at Black Rock and The Magnificent Seven, and died before a stem could even be planted. He's currently now on set to be killed in a TV pilot by a new up and comer (Timothy Olyphant) who is also holding out the same dream of transitioning outside of television to movies. The business is cruel in this instance because Dalton and the three Georges could just be on a list in order to get McQueen to give an answer or because McQueen is just biding his time because he's currently uninterested in responding. But in that window of time a window is opened for other hopefuls and their entire team of agents, publicists, and managers is propping them up. Only one ego is set up for a bruising, however, and it is the actor who knows and waits for the call. Dalton's seemingly only friend Cliff Booth (Pitt) is there to take his bruises for him, but there are no more bruises to give Dalton, just a car from set to set as a guest star. 

This is juxtaposed with the rising stardom of Sharon Tate, someone we know who was snuffed out before the industry could truly promise her big opportunities that never came, and Tate is presented opposite of Dalton, not just in upside/downside of careers but in wonderment about the process. The amount that Robbie delivers in a role that has very little dialogue is staggering. It's in her confident gazelle steps into the Playboy Mansion, her lookabouts in the Bruin theater while people laugh along with her performance, her voice that does not stammer, does not hack from phlegm, Robbie (not so) simply exudes as Tate; like the water that spurts out of a cherub's mouth and before it hits the fountain pool beneath it. It takes an injection in youthful love of job on a set to jolt Dalton back to life and Tate’s living in the moment for Tarantino.

That her real life was ended by complete randomness is far more saddening than a TV actor who has to go to Italy to topline Spaghetti Westerns, but they share more than a profession and their proximity as neighbors. Every single character in Once Upon a Time experiences the overlap of randomness of expanse—the veiny system of highways and streets of Los Angeles' never-ending sprawl—and the viciousness of their professions. But here, everything happens just so, just so they can extend a time that we know ended but they do not know is just about to. There's the television ad that Squeaky (Dakotah Fanning) and other Manson followers are watching when Cliff Booth arrives and it sounds like a beauty product that tells its viewers (during the daytime, primarily women) that whenever they step outside they should be prepared to meet someone who'll change their life. Appearances matter. That happens thrice with Booth and Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) before he picks her up to give her a ride home. On the third time, before Booth can make it to the bus bench, Pussycat shouts with a primal "fuck you" intensity at a police car and then switches right back into purring mode. Booth uses this sight, I think, to convince the Manson men that he's similar to them, announcing that he broke the jaw of a cop and served on a chain gang—even though he told Pussy that the law's been after him his whole life and he's never served time just moments before—as a way to enter the Ranch not as a square but as an ally. His real intention is to check up on the old man he once knew who owns the ranch, to make sure he's not actually dead by the hands of hippies. I think this is made up because Tarantino cannot turn down a flashback to a shocking happening (his tendency to do this also clouds Cliff further because he flashes back to the moment he might've killed his wife but doesn't show us, just enough to implant that gossip and fear is warranted). This, plus his silent cockiness, is the vibe that Pussycat so very much thinks that Charles Manson will take a liking to. But Charlie has gone to Santa Barbara, they just missed him.

There are just missed moments tucked in all throughout Hollywood other than Booth missing the opportunity to meet Manson. Like when Tex (Austin Butler) just missed the chance to (potentially) kill Booth right at his car because he couldn't ride back to the ranch in time. But there are also moments when a presence alters the future. Like when Manson goes by the Polanski's house where Tate and her friends were murdered to see if Terry, a record producer and friend of the Beach Boys, still lives there (his actual target in history; this is a real occurrence however that Tate and Manson saw each other, but Manson didn't believe that Terry no longer lived there but was hiding from him). Or when a young actress (Julia Butters) inspires a depressed and going through the motions actor to do the best work imaginable because she connects with him during a shooting lull. Or when the same actor confronts the Manson killers with a blender full of margarita mix because their muffler backfired. The line between things happening and not happening are incredibly thin and thus our brain frequently plays out alternate timelines of small moments that could've changed personal history. Tarantino is just doing this with an iconic murder. (It could be argued that he also spares the final victim in the Manson killings, stunt man Donald Shea, who used to shoot westerns on the ranch, who Manson believed snitched on the Family about stolen cars, which was the police's first visit to Spahn Ranch, by including that tense Ranch scene with fictional stunt man Cliff Booth).

Still, somehow more intriguingly upon second watch, is how important television is. It's not film. Here, TV stars are desperately trying to leave TV to have more longevity and prestige in film. It's considered a lesser medium and sometimes you only pop up for a day or two on set in someone else's larger story. Film is permanent. Still, television is on in everyone's houses. The Manson Girls at Spahn Ranch are waiting to watch the same television program that Rick Dalton stars in and that Cliff Booth races back to watch with him after his violent visit to the Ranch. It's a medium that seemingly no one wants to be on but everyone watches. Add Manson follower Sadie (Mikey Madison), who brings up her TV taught us death creed sho discovered during Manson’s drug meditations, as well. Juxtapose that with our current state of cinematic universes and sequels with day players and little character building and actors are fleeing to streaming video where they get character arcs, more collective eyeballs, and often, more prestige. Who will save us from the fate of cinema? Tarantino can't. Eras change (but the powerful have always preferred home theaters, whether it's Al Pacino's producer here, or Howard Hughes in real life, the comfort of viewing from home is the industry's dirty secret when they sell the peanut gallery on a shared communal experience without their own bar—especially when those awards screeners come; hypocrisy!). Tarantino can put his fight for the theatrical experience by telling a tale of a history we know and twist the fate into something hopeful and maybe let those who love the medium have some hope of its continuation. We're all going to go home and have our television sets on. There's nothing truly wrong with that. But he can hypnotize us with the medium with pronounced scenes of heft and leave us with that woman's voice, so full of warmth and hope, who gets to live on in his timeline. His story of Rick Dalton and the Cielo Dr home invaders will be a blip. Those hippies will lose and not kill the false promises of an industry that lives on feeding false promise to the audience and to those who work in it. The dance of randomness will continue but it won't make it up the driveway that we know met a horrific fate within that overlapping Venn Diagram of cruelty and randomness. This fairytale ends with an and away we go... because the journey continues. No destination has been met yet.

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