Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★½

I’ve been wondering how to phrase this review, how to organize my thoughts and feelings, trying to determine whether or not sharing them is worth it for my own well-being. Writing all this down has definitely helped me release at least some of the tension, heartbreak, and anger I’ve been harboring. There will be spoilers, which I don’t care to flag because I wish I had been warned, explicitly, of the gory details. So tread lightly, or not at all.

You see, up until last week, I was adamant about never seeing this movie. Ever since I had heard Tarantino’s name in the same sentence as Sharon Tate’s, I knew his film was going to be a misogynistic, disrespectful disaster. But when I read spoilers about an alternate, historical revisionist ending, my valid ethical concerns about the way Tate’s and her friends’ tragic and brutal murder would be represented dissipated, at least enough for me to agree to see this.

I’m not a squeamish person, I’m not easily disturbed. No movie has ever made me feel physically sick, none have brought me to tears out of sheer anger and despair. Until now. I wish I had been alone instead of in a full theatre because the crowd just heightened the horror of it all. When the climax arrived, there was howling, applause, and cheers as two women were getting brutally murdered. I had to look away while the sounds of their screams and their skulls being fractured echoed through the theatre. Fiona Apple’s words were ringing in my ears: “There’s no hope for women, there’s no hope for women, there’s no hope for women...”

It’s not the satisfying historical revisionism of Inglourious Basterds, where a Jewish woman whose family had been killed burned down a theatre with Hitler in it, or a group of Jewish vigilantes massacring nazis. No, it was a man who probably got away with killing his wife, and it's justified because she was a “bitch”. A man who laughed as he bashed a woman’s skull over and over and over and over. An audience who cheered as another man burned a woman alive (for merely trespassing since he didn’t know anything about her plans). Taking pleasure in women’s pain is one of the most defining and cruel traits of our society. And please tell me why the two women’s deaths were so much bloodier, gruesome, and graphic than the man’s?

And by this point, apart from repeating Fiona Apple’s words like a mantra, I was thinking about all those men who scoff at feminism and say “if women really wanted equality, then they’d let us beat them up without whining about it,” about using women's pain as entertainment, how if some women’s actions are terrible enough, it is justified for their torture to be represented, graphically, on screen. If they’re deemed horrible enough, people will cheer as they’re violently killed.
And if it had anything to do with giving Sharon Tate some agency (it doesn’t, she is a nearly silent, empty shell of a character and her fate rests solely into some fictional men’s hands), then maybe I’d be willing to stomach this. But her tragedy is still exploited. The audience is given a countdown to the time of her death; an anticipation of the moment where we can finally consume her tragedy. And even if it never happens in this film, we still consume it. We will always consume it because that is what we do to women.

Even what the film has to say about stardom, about the aging and fading of celebrities, about the death of “cinema” is unfocused and not particularly interesting. The audience’s perception of Cliff rests solely on whether or not you believe he killed his harpy of a wife. And that reflects our perception of the entire industry and the entire world—do you believe women who accuse men of abuse in hollywood? in the rest of the world? do you continue to defend men who have abused women? even when they are found guilty? when we can’t know the exact truth, who do you choose to believe? who do you choose to defend?
Is it Roman Polanski, who was found guilty of drugging and raping a 13 year-old girl? Emile Hirsch who choked a female producer? Robert Wagner who might have (most likely) killed Natalie Wood? Harvey Weinstein? Quentin Tarantino himself?
These cases are intentionally woven into this film; Tarantino’s own defense of Polanski becomes Rick Dalton’s admiration for the director; Emile Hirsch, who pleaded guilty to said choking, was hired for this movie and survives the ordeal; Wood’s death is a subtler allusion, but Cliff’s wife dying on a boat under suspicious circumstances for which he might be guilty seems clear enough; Rick defending Cliff against accusations that he killed his wife feels especially gross since Tarantino was complicit in Weinstein’s crimes; and Quentin’s own dangerous creative practices are mirrored as Rick pushes an 8 year-old girl onto the floor (but don't worry guys! she wore pads and she likes flinging herself on the ground for fun! and artistry trumps safety, anyway).

It’s a deeply self-reflective film about a lost era, cinema, and an actor fading into obscurity and irrelevance. He seems to accept it, bittersweetly. You can feel it’s Quentin reflecting on his own career. But it’s not a moving portrait; it’s a privileged, entitled, stubborn man who has trouble facing the fact that times are changing, in many ways for the better. He’s mourning an entire industry, for its greatness, yes, but also for all of its horrible realities.
And if this is what cinema is, if this is what we have to mourn with the changing times, then I say burn it all to the ground.

It’s not all bad though:
1/2 star for Hollywood nepotism (Maya Hawke! Margaret Qualley! Harley Quinn Smith!)—one of my favorite aspects of celebrity culture is loving celebrities’ children more than them
1/2 star for Lorenza Izzo as an Italian actress
1/2 star for Margaret Qualley’s hairy armpits—by far the highlight of the film

ADDENDUM: If you have read this far, thank you. I want to say that I didn’t write this to be a contrarian, I don’t care if you liked or loved this film, and I don’t aim to change your mind about it or about Quentin Tarantino. I wrote this because when I saw it, there were almost no negative reviews and I wanted to share my experience seeing this and allow people who felt the same way to find a text that resonated with them among the waves of positive reviews. This review is for them, as well as for myself. Thank you.

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