Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★

It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that the penultimate film from a director who has predetermined he will only be making one more is about legacy. From that of a stunt man who forms the unseen working class backbone of the film industry, to the comparatively vain status anxiety of a fallen celebrity who feels inches away from immortality (or at least an antidote to existential dread), to the reactionary legacy of Hollywood’s ‘slain virgin’ Sharon Tate, ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ charts a free and meandering course of legacies in the making. But what does feel surprising for Tarantino’s metatextual self-homage to his own legacy is the abandonment of almost any familiar hallmarks of structure or style when he is no longer aping other genres or being reined in by a non-linear structure. Instead, the film dedicates itself to depicting the milieu of Hollywood like the centre of the universe from which all legacies, including his own, originally emanate - one which is lensed simultaneously from the past looking toward the future of the potential legacies its characters hope to create, and from the present looking back on those same forgotten dreams which haunt it like a ghost town.

Cliff Booth (Pitt) is our proletariat point of entry to the fantasy of Los Angeles. As the stuntman and for-hire best friend of struggling actor Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), he is used to being subject to his friend’s petty grievances whilst receiving none of the limelight himself - but despite a humble lifestyle and lack of notoriety, his way of life seems to represent the most romantic ideal of what a life in Hollywood has to offer. He is a nomad, able to live below his means without complaint, getting by in life through brawn and savviness, so long as he has his few essentials: his car, his noble hound, and a sufficient stock of beer in the fridge. He even lives on the backlot of a drive-in movie theatre where he can watch free movies under the stars whenever he wants, although generally preferring to crash in front of the TV to watch ‘The FBI’. In many ways he epitomises the masculine ideal, defined in large part by the western genre, that was coming to an end by the year 1969, and operates as a kind of non-imaginary Tyler Durden figure (to reference another Pitt role) for Rick Dalton, who still clings to the fantasy that he represents.

If Tarantino’s Hollywood is a nostalgic fantasy of the year 1969, it is as indulgent in that fantasy as it is reflexively melancholic about its own disconnect from reality. When the lights on Hollywood Boulevard slowly flicker awake, there is as much a sense of vicariousness for bringing the forgotten machine back to life as there is loneliness in the knowledge of its abandonment - and the streets, though filled with the iconography of a burgeoning ‘New Hollywood’, feel strangely empty. Thirty minutes into the film, the audience has the rug pulled out from underneath them when it is revealed that Cliff’s current makeshift existence is a result of the fact that he murdered his wife. The clipped nature of the moment in which this is revealed represents the attention span paid to the kind of perspective-altering details (which bear striking resemblance to the ‘alleged’ murder of Natalie Wood) that have long orbited the public consciousness, but have been ignored in favour of a cultural narrative dominated by men who choose to believe in their own heroism. Cliff is both the recognisable protagonist of the bygone era of westerns Rick clings to as he orbits an eventual showdown with the Mansons which frames him as a hero by comparison, and the modern perspective of this masculine archetype which knows that his glory days are numbered, as we witness the upturned hourglass of his life where his awareness of the fate of his friendship with Rick due to his criminal past converges with the audience’s understanding that the looming Manson murders also signify the end of an era.

Much of the movie centres around Rick Dalton’s struggle to reconcile his boyish dreams of starring in westerns with the changing of the guard, ultimately culminating in his decision to go to Italy to shoot ‘spaghetti westerns’, as he brushes off his former fear of ridicule at the low-grade reputation of the genre with a newfound confidence in the power of belief that dignifies his craft as an actor. With Rick and Cliff’s working relationship coming to an end, on the evening of Rick’s return the film’s voice-over narration prophetically explains that this will be the last time Rick and Cliff ever see each other. This comes at a point in the narrative where Rick no longer needs Cliff both in the literal sense of no longer requiring his services as a stuntman, and in the sense that he has outgrown the need for what he represents as a role model for his own idealised vision of himself. Though Rick is shielded from the revelation of his masculine hero’s true nature, the necessity for him to shed his idolisation of Cliff in order to find new ways of believing plays on the audience’s understanding that his naive reverence for the illusion of what Cliff represents could be easily unravelled by the truth, as Tarantino chooses to preserve his naivety and keep his dream alive.

Just as Cliff Booth is both a murderer who must leave this world by the end of the film and a hero who kills the Mansons, Tarantino cannot close this chapter of history without going out on a note that begs for it not to be forgotten - choosing to have his cake and eat it too against the irony of the film as a knowing relic of an irretrievable past which is also an attempt to preserve that time forever on celluloid. Despite this inability to reconcile nostalgia with reality, he perseveres with the duality of Cliff as hero and villain in what reads as an admission that he, like Rick Dalton, is also in need of a fantasy that can only be realised by cinema. Through Rick’s journey into spaghetti westerns, Tarantino seeks a divine redemption of the masculine ideal, where the dream of the fifties never has to die and is instead brought back into the fold by the eventual reappraisal of the genre which reintroduces this ideal to the zeitgeist.

Early on in the film, Rick’s agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) reveals the artifice behind the hero’s triumph when he explains to Rick that casting agents will “bring in a legendary old-school heavy hitter to face [the] new hero, so that the new hero can win and look much cooler by comparison.” In the first of two showdowns we see Cliff get into, he faces off against Bruce Lee on the set of ‘The Green Hornet’. Tarantino gears the audience up for the kind of highly choreographed spectacle with which Lee as a performer is associated, but instead ends the scene unceremoniously with Cliff throwing Lee into a car. The jarring anti-climax of the scene reflects Cliff’s inability to believe in the fantasy that Bruce Lee represents, with Lee as the perfect symbol of the audience’s desire to believe in fiction as someone whose movie star persona as an invincible opponent is merely an entertaining pretence for showcasing his real talents as a highly skilled stunt performer and artist. Cliff leaves the scene as a disgraced former hero turned jaded outsider who can no longer believe in his own myth.

Foreshadowed by this earlier scene between Cliff and Bruce Lee, Cliff comes to the realisation that whilst he has become too jaded for the innocent dreams of Hollywood, he also wants to preserve that innocence for the people who still believe in it. Cliff’s showdown with the Mansons is the final vindicating act in which his implied brutality is put on full display as both the reason why he can no longer inhabit this innocent world and a tool necessary for defeating the Mansons - exiling the masculine icon to the annals of film history while also vindicating his place in it. Having set up the artifice of heroes and their redemption, Tarantino denies the artificial hero’s triumph initially in the Bruce Lee scene in favour of the brutal dissatisfaction of reality (Bruce Lee, though a skilled fighter, is unlikely to beat a retired war veteran who fights dirty), only to bring it back in the final scene to show that we prefer this fiction to reality.

More than any other character in the film, Sharon Tate embodies the idea of the innocent dream of Hollywood. In resurrecting her for the film, Tarantino redefines her legacy around her life instead of her death, countering the reactionary serial killer fascination that has remained popular even since the Manson murders and provided justification for a fear-based society where the kindness of strangers and openness of community is no longer what it was. Her angelic presence in the film as a thematic character rendered through light imaginings of her daily encounters treats her memory with reverence and centres her hopefulness rather than the tragedy of her light being extinguished. A centrepiece scene in which she goes to the cinema to watch her film ‘The Wrecking Crew’ with an audience imagines that light as stemming from her belief in Hollywood and in fiction itself.

Films within this film are important, and none is more thematically so than ‘The Fourteen Fists of McClusky’, in which Dalton stars as a war hero who slaughters Nazis. During this scene, we see Rick behind the scenes as a stereotypically vain movie star who can’t commit to the fantasy he’s playing, held back by his anxiety that a flamethrower prop will mess up his eyebrows. In the final scene the flamethrower prop makes a return, with Rick’s newly discovered confidence as an actor giving him the confidence to play the hero in real life as he uses the flamethrower to deliver the final blow against the Mansons whilst recreating the scene from the film. In this moment, Tarantino pays loving tribute to the artifice necessary to create art and to the power of art as a weapon against fascism and fear, while also playing on the dynamic between actors and stunt performers through the one-two punch defeat of the Mansons by Cliff and Rick. His defence of the masculine hero being used for good as a weapon against fascism is less a tribute to masculine heroes and more to the power of belief in fiction in those who grew up worshipping them. With the reactionary fear caused by the Mansons being as much a product of the imaginary as anything coming out of Hollywood, even if Rick’s belief in masculine idols is a regressive one, he at least stays true to a belief in fiction that is ultimately a weapon against our most regressive instincts. 

‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ is Tarantino’s ultimate tribute to the power of fiction and the people who earnestly commit their lives to believing in it, and to the fantasy of Hollywood - that in spite of things that have happened there behind the scenes, its fiction was never about masking the reality of the world or the reality of itself, and that only through the naive optimism of fiction can we move towards a better future.

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