After being sorely disappointed by Quentin Tarantino’s last two films— “The Hateful Eight” and “Django Unchained” —I decided to wait for a studio screener of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” in November. This is when I customarily get freebies from studio publicists hoping to influence my vote in NYFCO’s awards meeting in early December. But when I discovered that the film had antagonized some people on the left, I decided to get a senior’s ticket to see for myself what was going on.
Tarantino has the distinction of being the only filmmaker whose entire corpus I have seen. Since he has made only 8 films in the past 27 years, that’s a relatively easy task. Unlike Woody Allen, who churns films out like they were made on an assembly line, Tarantino takes his time. As for time itself, you can say that it erodes the talents of even the greatest artists. In the case of Hollywood legends like Woody and Quentin, the erosion process combines with their control of every aspect of film production to degrade the quality of the product. Who would dare say anything about the Emperor’s New Clothes?
After Tarantino left The Weinstein Company in the aftermath of #MeToo’s spotlight on Harvey Weinstein and joined the Sony Corporation, he was guaranteed full control over “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”. That’s too bad because someone might have vetoed the film’s co-star Brad Pitt playing a stunt man whose claim to fame (or infamy) was killing his wife and then being found not guilty in OJ Simpson style. Why was he cleared, you ask? You won’t find the answer in Tarantino’s film. Maybe he lost the pages of his script answering this question one morning on the way to the studio and forgot all about it.
Clocking in at 161 minutes, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is essentially a buddy film that stars two of Hollywood’s most bankable male stars, Brad Pitt and Leo DiCaprio. Leo DeCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a washed-up B-movie actor who made Westerns in the 1950s and then was forced to work on TV shows similar to “Rawhide” in the sixties when he was no longer a bankable star. Now it is 1969 and his career has hit rock-bottom. No longer playing heroes, he is cast as a villain in a new TV oater with a fake mustache like Zapata’s, adhering to the director’s orders. Dalton probably cringed at the idea of having such a mustache because he doesn’t like “beaners”, nor does he like native peoples, repeating the infamous words at one point, “The only good Indian is a dead Indian.”
Perhaps the only excuse that Tarantino could have made is that such a character probably had such views in 1969 and was not inhibited from making them in public. When Spike Lee complained about all the characters using the word “nigger” in past Tarantino films, you heard a similar defense. Those expecting Tarantino to make films geared to the sensibility of oppressed peoples will be sorely disappointed. With “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained”, you do enjoy Nazis and slave-masters getting annihilated but that’s hardly a risky proposition in terms of audience acceptability.
When not at the studio, Rick Dalton spends most of his time with Cliff Booth, his longtime stunt man played by Brad Pitt as a laconic and easy-going hunk whose only character debit is having killed his wife with a spear gun when she was nagging him on the boat he owned years ago. Thankfully, we don’t see the spear penetrating her midsection but it clear that this is what transpired that day in a flashback.
Most of their time is spent watching TV shows of the same kind of mind-numbing stupidity that Dalton’s career was built on or VHS tapes of his old movies and TV shows that are equally banal. As they sit and watch, drinking one beer after another, Dalton tearfully confesses to Booth that he will no longer be a star because his shelf-life has passed. If you have a nagging sense of déjà vu, I would suggest that you see these scenes in light of “Sunset Boulevard” with William Holden trying to convince Gloria Swanson that she is still a superstar.
For the first hour or so of the film, we see Rick Dalton trying to get his career back on track. He meets with his agent, a Jew played by Al Pacino, who urges him to go to Italy and make spaghetti Westerns. At the very least, he should not expect to be cast as a hero on a TV western.
Using his influence at the studio where he is working on his new gig, he convinces a producer to hire Cliff Booth as a stunt man for “The Green Hornet”, a show that featured Bruce Lee as Kato, the chauffeur and right-hand man of the titular character. That the show ended two years before 1969 didn’t seem to bother Tarantino. That should only be the worst flaw in this film. We see Booth and a bunch of other extras in a semi-circle facing Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) as he lectures them on his prowess as a martial artist. Since his fists are registered as dangerous weapons, he must not use them in a fight. He assures them that he could knock out Cassius Clay if he wanted to, a statement that elicits a chuckle from Booth. This leads Lee to challenge him to a fight that goes poorly for the Chinese actor and martial artist. Booth lands a blow that sends Lee flying into the side of a car that leaves a massive dent, as if the car had been hit by another car or a wrecking ball. If I had been on the set, I would have whispered in Tarantino’s ear that this looked like something out of a Loony Tunes cartoon rather than one of his movies. Who knows? Maybe that was the effect he was striving for.
This scene has antagonized Asian-Americans. Unlike Rick Dalton’s racist jibes, this combat struck most people as completely at odds with Bruce Lee’s career. Everything suggests that he was a cool-headed professional and hardly deserving of the caricature Tarantino has whipped up. More to the point from a cinematic standpoint, the scene adds nothing to the overall plot, which I will address momentarily. It could have been cut with zero effect on the narrative arch. This is something that Tarantino was very good at in the past. His plots were made up of scenes that were tightly connected. Remove one link and the story would collapse like a house of cards. Given his celebrity and massive ego, he must have thought that people would have gotten a chuckle out of it. Perhaps some did but that speaks more about the average audience’s IQ than anything else.
It is only in the final hour or so that the plot begins to gel. Cliff Booth is driving down a Hollywood street in Dalton’s Cadillac (drunken driving violations have lost him his license) when he spots a sexy young woman hitching a ride. It is the same woman he spotted a day earlier and they connect at once. She tells him she needs a ride to the Spahn ranch where she and her young pals are living. It turns out that she is part of Manson’s cult and Booth is more interested in what she is doing at Spahn’s ranch than in having sex with her (he tells her that he doesn’t sleep with women under 18, a sop to the women watching the film who have become fed up with predators like Harvey Weinstein or Roman Polanski.)
In real life, George Spahn’s ranch was occupied by Manson’s cult who used it as a home base. Some of the characters besides Spahn (Bruce Dern) are based on real figures including Tex Watson (Austin Butler) who led the attack on Sharon Tate and her friends on August 9, 1969. Once he arrives at the ranch, Booth becomes convinced that the “hippies” are up to no good, especially after one of them punctures a tire on Dalton’s Cadillac.
As for Tate, she is played by Margot Robbie as a brainless nubile ingenue whose chief pastime, when not acting, is listening to bubble-gum rock and dancing the Frug at Hollywood parties. Once Tarantino decided to make a film that was centered on the Manson cult, he didn’t bother to make Tate a more rounded and complex character.
Without offering up too much of a spoiler alert, I can say that the film ends with a confrontation between Cliff Booth and a foursome led by Tex Watson that saves Sharon Tate’s life. Like Tate, the Manson characters are paper-thin and instantly forgettable. We have no idea who they were or what made them embark on such heinous deeds other than that they were “hippies” gone bad.
In his earlier and classic work, Tarantino’s villains stood out. For example, David Carradine as the eponymous Bill in parts one and two of “Kill Bill” had a serpentine charm that was as gripping as the Black Mamba that killed Daryl Hannah, another mesmerizing villain. Back in 1963, I took a class on Shakespeare’s plays with the poet Ted Weiss at Bard College. I’ll never forget what he said about Shakespeare’s villains. They were the real heroes of the plays since they had a depth the “good” characters lacked. I only wish that Tarantino had taken this class.
Let me end with some thoughts on Tarantino’s career that until this film was intimately tied to The Weinstein Company, which was called Miramax at first, an homage to the Weinstein brothers’ mom and pop Mira and Max.
Quentin Tarantino not only made Miramax a roaring commercial success, he also defined “indie” esthetics for more than a decade using his “outsider” image as a wedge to gain entry into privileged circles—the same ploy used by Harvey Weinstein. Both men cultivated street credibility, with the Miramax boss flaunting his Queens bridge-and-tunnel background and Tarantino turning his humble background as a video store clerk into the stuff of legend. And, above all, there was the tough-guy image that the two men used to intimidate their adversaries in the film business, as well as those who criticize films for a living. Like a wrestling tag team, the two heavyweights slammed their opponents to the mat— sometimes literally. In 1997 Tarantino caught up with producer Don Murphy in a trendy Hollywood restaurant and slapped him around for reasons known only to the two principals. Murphy sued Tarantino for $5 million but later dropped the case.
Tarantino also developed a grudge against Spike Lee who took such exception to the Black characters calling each other “nigger” in “Pulp Fiction” that he even instructed one of his interns to count up the number of times the word was used: 38. Lee complained in the press that Tarantino aspired to be an “honorary black man” after the fashion of Danny Hoch’s role in “Whiteboyz”, a dark comedy about a farm boy who sees himself as an aspiring gangsta. Weinstein jumped into the fray, saying: “If Spike wants to take his gloves off with me, come on.”
Tarantino’s defended himself as a champion of class, as if he had been writing one of those anti-identity politics articles in Jacobin:
More or less every single thing I’ve ever done in film is about the division between black and white this country. And how this division actually is a sham. . . . The poor blacks in Chicago have more in common with the poor hillbillies in the Appalachian Mountains in Tennessee than they have with affluent blacks living in Pasadena, California. They’re at the same place.
Whether this is true or not, nobody could mistake Quentin Tarantino as the downtrodden video clerk by the time Miramax released “Pulp Fiction”. Using Tarantino’s “indie” credibility from his first film “Reservoir Dogs”, Weinstein persuaded the cast to work for scale, including Bruce Willis, whose astronomical pay for “Bonfire of the Vanities” helped to shipwreck it. “Pulp Fiction” went on to gross $109 million in the U.S., the first “indie” film to break the $100 million barrier, and twice that globally. This success prompted Weinstein to say that Miramax was “the house that Quentin built”. With money pouring in by the wheelbarrow from “Pulp Fiction” and a string of other hits, Harvey and Bob Weinstein decided to “go Hollywood”, a strategy that was implicit from the beginning. Like just about every other “rebel” art, the “indie” film lent itself to commercialization. Capitalism has an enormous capacity for cooptation, especially when the purveyor of “rebel” art secretly wants to become rich, famous, politically connected, and most importantly the object of adulation.
Despite his break with The Weinstein Company, it is obvious that Tarantino has retained its corporate ethos.