Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★★

Quentin Tarantino’s newest piece is commonly referred to as a love letter to Hollywood, to the 1960’s Los Angeles and a certain atmosphere the filmmaker surely has fond memories of. This is most certainly true and thus should not be subject to any substantive challenge. Though, it has to be said that Once Upon A Time In Hollywood hides much more under its veneer of fantasy and Tarantino’s infatuation with the era he most assuredly identifies as formative. And in order to comprehend what may be lurking beneath the surface of the film, some attention has to be paid to the importance of the murder of Sharon Tate as a watershed event in American and even global popular culture.

Perhaps partially because she met her demise at such a young age, Tate is rarely seen as a person with dreams, desires and fears, but as a symbol. I don’t think it would be a stretch to assume that she was a bit like a bridge connecting the Old Hollywood with the new emerging wave of change. With the backdrop of The Vietnam War and the counterculture movement, the Hollywood studio establishment was slowly realizing it had found itself in an increasingly precarious situation of creeping obsolescence. Lavish productions designed from the ground up by bean-counting producers were no longer en vogue as the society was slowly embracing the new hot-blooded filmmakers who wanted to challenge the form and tell stories they thought people would find more relevant than sandal epics and musicals. The wind of change was growing in strength. Though, it should be remembered that Tate’s arrival at the scene didn’t exactly coincide with the turning of the tide. She successfully transitioned from small uncredited stints and TV appearances into the big screen world thanks to J. Lee Thompson, an Old Hollywood filmmaker of Cape Fear fame, before she crossed paths with Roman Polanski who cast her in The Fearless Vampire Killers. What is more, the films she worked on thereafter were all essentially driven by the old guard who were on their way out. She was the symbolic connective tissue as she was a child of the old building a family with the new, a family she did not get to have in the end.

Tarantino treats her as such as well. To him, she is not a person, but a very specific symbol. As played by Margot Robbie, Tate represents a type of artistic purity, pristine and childlike. This is visible in how she dances, frolics and mingles with industry people, but more so in the key scene where we shadow her as she goes to the cinema to watch her own movie, The Wrecking Crew. This is where Tarantino informs us how we should deconstruct her character. She is not a seasoned Hollywood veteran, but a movie fan who miraculously got her big break. She loves movies and – more importantly – she cherishes the fact that other people like them too. Combined with the historical context of where she came from and who she was involved with, this makes her the aforementioned bridge, a shining herald of change. This is of course where the difference between what actually happened to her and what Tarantino shows us becomes extremely important to his thesis.

However, before I touch on this crucial issue, a few words have to be said about Rick Dalton, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Character, who is equally important in this equation, though decidedly treated by the filmmaker as a more completely fleshed-out person. He represents the old. More accurately, he is a victim of the changing times as an actor who spent his entire career not really caring about the craft of acting because that’s just how movies were made back in the day and who suddenly woke up in a world he could no longer recognize. Thus, we end up stuck to his shoulder as he tries to find his footing within the world of method acting and more visceral filmmaking the New Wave was bringing to the fore. His struggle is additionally emphasized by the symbolic fact he lived right next door to Tate and Polanski without ever having met them. He was literally falling asleep and rising each day only mere steps away from the future of Hollywood and yet he could never close that distance, because for all intents and purposes, Dalton, Polanski and Tate lived in different universes altogether.

Tarantino wants us to be fully aware of this divide because of the way he warps historical record. He cleverly uses our pre-existing knowledge of Sharon Tate’s death at the hands of Manson’s followers to build a sense of impending doom throughout the film, but he isn’t interested in recreating what happened. All he wants us to take away from this process is the understanding of what the Manson family and their relationship to Tate meant for Hollywood and the culture in general. He wants us to see this cult as a perversion of counterculture, a cancerous growth on the hippie movement that slowly and methodically encroached on Hollywood. By murdering the beacon of purity and positivity in the shifting cultural landscape the Manson family precipitated a descent into the darkness that eventually enveloped the cinema of the 1970’s. Tarantino’s act of heavily modulating this narrative and effectively turning it into a fantasy uncovers the film’s real mission. This isn’t just a love letter to Hollywood, cinema, L.A. and all that, not superficially. It is a dreamlike desire to turn back time, set the record straight and let the old live in harmony with the new.

Therefore, I am now more confident than ever that Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is a very special film in Tarantino’s catalogue. It is undeniable that it stands apart from his recent works as it is not immediately embedded in genre to any appreciable extent, but it is my opinion that it is what elevates it above them. It is definitely a highly meditative and thought-provoking film that will require multiple sitting to tease out more nuances out of the narrative and allow for a more multidimensional analysis. But if there is anything I am certain of, it is this: Once Upon A Time In Hollywood may be one of Tarantino’s least flashy or visually audacious movies, but it is probably the smartest film he’s made since Jackie Brown. Or maybe it is the smartest movie he made in general…

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