Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

From 'Rick Dalton: American Hamlet' by Silas Haslam, first published in the January 1987 edition of Playboy and collected in Eminent Nixonians:

"What turned public opinion against Dalton, in the end, was his star role in LA Vengeance, the tawdry 1974 thriller where he recreated, Audie Murphy-style, his greatest personal act of heroism. It could have tarnished more than one star had Sharon Tate agreed to star as herself. As it was, the success of her role as Nancy in What? placed her beyond the film's budgetary boundaries.

A better illustration of the transient morality of the American cinemagoing public could hardly be asked for. What? is one of Polanski's weakest films; a barely-there plot linking a series of largely ad-libbed sex comedy set-pieces. Yet it was an enormous hit, largely because of a marketing campaign which placed Tate's effervescent performance and physical charms front and centre. LA Vengeance, meanwhile, repulsed an audience who had previously been happy to let the Cielo Drive murders nestle in the back of their mind when they watched Dalton. We enjoyed all those late-period Dalton vehicles, all those winking references to his past roles, all those indistinguishable lank-haired hippies he blew to kingdom come with exotic weaponry. We knew what these films were about, and we loved Dalton even more through this lens. As soon as those characters were given their real names - as soon as we could no longer deny what we were watching for - we turned away, as though some Eden had been closed off to us.

The simplest answer might be that society had changed in that packed five years; the youth takeover of Hollywood that Dalton's resurgence had put a lid on finally bubbled over. Dalton privately admitted to crying after attending a screening at Haight-Ashbury where young audience members yelled "Fascist!" at his performance and cheered Susan Atkins (Shelley Duvall) when she outlined her plan to kill Dalton and his friend.

The irony is, by this point Dalton had more in common with the people heckling him than the good ol' boys who reliably turned out to see him smash some longhair's face up. You could see it in his clothes and facial hair, which increasingly had the whiff of the ashram about them. You could read it in his interviews, where he spoke openly about the spiritual retreats he had visited to exorcise the memories of Atkins's burnt corpse floating in his swimming pool. His friendship with Tate and Polanski, not to mention the influence of his formidable, culturally adventurous wife Francesca Capucci, had opened him up to new ideas and influences, not least when he met Michelangelo Antonioni to discuss a new film project.

Nebraska Jim meets La Notte? It nearly happened. The master had come to America planning to make a film about student radicals with Pink Floyd, but the post-Cielo Drive turn against hippies caused funding to evaporate. Refusing to be defeated, Antonioni arranged a dinner with the man who'd inadvertently killed his film, and outlined an idea for a new kind of star vehicle to Dalton. Conventional movies, Antonioni explained, assumed people like movie stars because of what they do, whereas audiences are actually fascinated by who they are. He proposed a Rick Dalton film where a canonically Daltonesque character - a bounty hunter, say, or a private eye - simply goes about his day-to-day life, driving around LA, watching TV and eating meals. The spectacle of a star doing nothing other than be, he believed, would be a whole new sensation.

Antonioni's film was never made, but its ideas seem to have stuck with Dalton. Watched now, in the middle of a cycle of action films whose heroes always do and never be, LA Vengeance looks almost radical in its scenes of relaxed flirtation with Capucci and boozy nights in with his friend Cliff. The latter offers another hint as to why audiences turned on the once-hero of Cielo Drive: in between the initial incident and the release of LA Vengeance, a long-dormant controversy had erupted underneath Dalton's friend, co-producer and former stunt double Cliff Booth. Shortly after the deaths of Atkins, Krenwinkel and Watson, the Manson family killed the stuntman Donald Shea after mistaking him for Booth. During the resulting police investigation it was discovered that Booth had killed his wife; not only that, Dalton had helped him get work after the charges were dropped for lack of evidence. The scandal sparked a huge conversation about the abuse of women in Hollywood, and though Dalton was far from the worst offender, he could hardly claim to have remained aloof from the prevailing culture.

Viewed through this lens, LA Vengeance is an elegy to a friendship as much as it is a celebration of brute justice. Flawed, suspicious Cliff is reimagined as something in between Robert Redford and Billy Jack, capable of holding his own against Bruce Lee in a fight, his chiselled looks unperturbed by any of the injuries the real Cliff had suffered on behalf of his best friend. Dalton severed his production ties with Booth as soon as the scandal came to light, but LA Vengeance shows a deep, pained sense of loss for those days of camaraderie and innocence. A dinosaur is a formidable creature, but it becomes romantic once it is extinct."

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