Roundtable: Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood (2019)

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The 9th Film by Quentin Tarantino

Aren: Quentin Tarantino is no longer the young upstart, but something approaching an old master, and Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood feels like the work of a mature director. Following Leonardo DiCaprio’s fading actor Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt’s stuntman Cliff Booth in Los Angeles in 1969, the film takes place at a key turning point in Hollywood history. The studios are slumping, the European industry is growing, and New Hollywood is right over the horizon. It’s the end of an era, where the new, liberal Hollywood would supplant the star-centred, studio-backed industry that had dominated for the previous 30 years. 

Within Hollywood history, few events mark this turn in the industry more than the Manson Family Murders, which helped to destroy the fantasy of Hollywood and fed into the jaded cynicism of the following decade. Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood structures itself around the Manson Murders and use them as symbolic stand-ins for New Hollywood and change in general, while Rick and Cliff represent Old Hollywood and its romantic allure. Of course, things don’t turn out quite like they did in reality with the Mansons, as we’ll discuss later. But that change in the history of 1969 only goes to make Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood even more of an elegy for a pop-culture past, one that might not even have existed in the first place.

But before we get into any more thematic discussion of Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, let’s back up a second and get a general take. What did you guys think of Tarantino’s latest film?

Anders: I’m very much on board with Tarantino as “elder statesman” of movie brats at this point. I think that Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is clear evidence of his maturation as a director. I don’t just mean more mature themes, though the film does offer a reflection on growing old in the industry, but a maturation in his filmmaking style. I feel like this film shows us a more relaxed Tarantino, less anxious to show off his film knowledge and references, or have flashy compositions. But yet at the same time it’s so controlled, so in command of the medium and the history of cinema that it is comfortable taking its time to tell the story it wants to tell. It’s long, but it’s not baggy: it doesn’t need an edit. The screenplay may have fewer bon mots than some of his other films, but it does a wonderful job of realizing its characters.

I’ve been meaning to try to find the time to go back and rewatch all of Tarantino’s other eight films, because I want to know how much of the deep satisfaction I had in watching this film comes from his development as a director in contrast to how different this film is from the vast majority of films today, either in art house or multiplex. It’s a breath of fresh air!

Aren: It’s because it’s a movie first before being a product. In the age of Disney, even good movies feel like consumer products first and movies second.

Anton: Yes, this is a movie that is interested more than anything in telling a good story about a few characters. This sets it apart from the franchise/content “products” that dominate our multiplexes these days. I think Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is more content to just be itself than QT’s other films. It certainly aims at a few grander themes about the culture and Hollywood, as Aren suggests, and it still has a number of playful Tarantino-esque moments, but it is somewhat different than his other works.

My immediate reaction, as the film was still unfolding, was that it was offering less payoff and less genre satisfaction than I had expected. But by the end of Anders’ and my car ride home after the movie, my view of the film had already changed. It had grown on me rather quickly. I mean, I enjoyed it a lot during the viewing, but I wasn’t sure what to make of the build up to the murders and then not letting them take place.

Anders: I think I was OK with the lack of “payoff” and genre satisfaction while watching it. If anything, the fact that this is the Tarantino film with the least amount of violence for the bulk of its runtime makes the final scenes on the night of August 9, 1969 all the more intense and shocking. But like you, Anton, the film is growing in my estimation the more I reflect on it.

Aren: The lack of extreme violence, outside of the one scene, is certainly refreshing. I like on-screen violence more than most people (otherwise I wouldn’t be so into horror movies), but after the scale and volume of violence in Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight, it’s nice to have a film that isn’t centred on bloodshed.

Beyond that, I find Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood a great hangout film, not unlike Jackie Brown. For instance, the scene of Rick and Cliff watching FBI and offering commentary on it is a hoot, but entirely because it’s borne out of our affection for the characters. As well, the ending is genuinely touching and I was left with a bit of a glow after the film. The movie nails the atmosphere of 1969, or at least the vibe of it, since I wasn’t alive then and don’t know what the real thing was like. But it has an energy that seems authentic and appealing and I kind of want to jump inside the film and live in that energy for a while.

Anton: I agree about the feel of the film. I think the constrained time frame, only taking place over the course of a few days, with several months in between them, adds to that hangout movie feel. Think most of Linklater’s films. I was also reminded of The Nice Guys, that Shane Black LA mystery starring Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling. It’s certainly a different kind of film, but it also has a period focus (the late seventies) and a hangout vibe going on between the characters. And the Hollywood Hills on a summer night just feel so, well, summer, if you know what I mean.

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The Cast

Aren: The cast is also stacked. Tarantino has never had a problem casting big stars in his movies, but even by his own standards, the cast of Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood is ridiculous. It has Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie in the main roles, Al Pacino, Emile Hirsch, Kurt Russell, Timothy Olyphant, Margaret Qualley, Dakota Fanning, and Bruce Dern in the supporting roles. And then you also have the likes of Scoot McNairy, Michael Madsen, Damian Lewis, Luke Perry, and Clifton Collins Jr. showing up for a line or two. 

Anton: DiCaprio and Pitt make a great buddy duo. They show genuine chemistry and affection.

Anders: I love the acting in this film. Each of the characters is brought to life by the actors in ways that are enhanced by the actor’s own strengths and characteristics. For instance, Brad Pitt’s Cliff draws on Pitt’s ability to project strength in his performances and his aging, but still handsome and sculpted body. Cliff needs to be someone that maintains the audience’s rooting interest even after hearing the “rumours” about his wife.

I think Leonardo DiCaprio is perhaps even more interesting in the film and has a hard role here as Rick. Rick is a pathetic character, someone who just can’t seem to figure things out in Hollywood as the world around him changes. It’s brave of DiCaprio to play the role, as DiCaprio himself has firmly moved out of the pretty-boy roles that launched him to stardom as a teen and young man. It’s an unflattering role. Also, it’s actually hard to perform “bad” acting on screen and then contrast it with the good acting, which is why I think that DiCaprio is excellent in the scenes filming the Western show, Lancer.

Anton: The inane word “bromance” gets thrown around when talking about the relationship between Rick and Cliff. Instead, we should simply say it’s a friendship, friendship being understood not just as two people who hangout frequently, but rather as one of the different kinds and deep forms of human relationship and love. 

There are some interesting levels to their friendship. One example is that it’s unequal. Cliff was first Rick’s stunt double and now is something of a man-servant—which also adds to the old-school nature of the two characters. Close yet socially-unequal relationships between men are pretty common in older stories and movies, and they get sort of phased out as the culture turns and equality becomes the paramount ideal. 

Anders: Also, a word on Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate, who despite not being a main character of the film is something of its heart and reason for being. The scene where Tate goes to see The Wrecking Crew and enjoys hearing the audience laugh at her character’s scenes is just perfect. There’s a self-confidence to the role, and Robbie plays Tate as human even as she’s set up as an icon of what the “young” Hollywood could be.

Aren: There’s a lot to the casting of these stars at this particular stage of their careers. Pitt has matured into this chiseled, aging vision of Hollywood stardom, DiCaprio is the prettyboy become a man, and Robbie is the ingenue. Our associations with these actors in real life feeds into their effectiveness in terms of their specific roles. Tarantino also knows how to exploit our thoughts towards certain actors. And considering that directing is 90 percent casting, he shows that he has the essential eye for casting the right people for the roles.

As well, the enormity of the cast actually contributes to the film’s exploration and adoration of the movies. Since the film is a celebration of working Hollywood—as in the business of working in the movies, and not just being adjacent to them or famous in general—as exemplified by the police procedurals, Western shows, and other B-movie fare that kept an industry afloat during transition, it only stands to reason that Tarantino would go out of his way to celebrate actors he admires by having them inhabit the smallest parts imaginable. In doing so, he essentially says that these small roles (much like the ones that Rick has to start taking in the film) have their worth too, and that the fading movie stars who play them are worth celebrating alongside the current big names.

Anders: Absolutely, that’s why I enjoyed seeing guys like Lewis (great casting as McQueen) and Collins Jr. and Perry show up for the small roles. Just thinking to myself that this is probably the last big screen appearance for Luke Perry, sadly.

Aren: It is. I’m not sure whether he’ll show up in Riverdale again, even if it’s just unused footage, but as for movies, this is it.

Anton: I enjoyed the cameos. Would you say there were more than is usual for a Tarantino movie?

Aren: I think so, since this film has a larger scale than most of Tarantino’s work. Tarantino is known to surprise with cameos in past films—an unadvertised Channing Tatum showing up in the final act of The Hateful Eight is the biggest example of this—but the fact that he’s depicting the working industry lets him sneak so many movie stars into the film, since he needs actors playing real-life stars of the past that populate the movie and TV sets. Also, the film is a celebration of Hollywood, and one of the best ways to celebrate Hollywood is to celebrate actors.

Anton: One tangential thought about casting and the character of Rick. It’s pretty interesting that he’s a once-upon-a-time star who’s become a go-to villain in B-movies, someone, as Pacino’s agent-character explains to Rick, that producers use to build up new male stars by slamming him, the old washed-up star. It’s interesting in light of Tarantino’s movies, since he’s well-known for taking on just such washed-up stars and rehabilitating their careers, making them leading men again. And that’s what Rick is hoping will happen to him. Tarantino had, who, Travolta, David Carradine, Kurt Russell. Am I missing anyone? 

Anders: Even Bruce Willis in Pulp Fiction was a rehabilitation role. Great point.

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The Manson Family

Aren: Of course, the film also shows the dark side of Hollywood and the decade, as personified by the Manson Family. The Manson Family haunts this film, on screen and off. Even if Charlie Manson (Damon Herriman, who will also play Charlie Manson in the upcoming season of Mindhunter) is only in one scene in the film, his shadow creeps over the rest of the film, especially the middle sequence where Cliff unsuspectingly visits the Manson Family at the old Spahn Movie Ranch. That sequence is as tense as anything in a recent horror film. I was convinced that Cliff would bite the dust there because Tarantino had created such a compelling atmosphere of daylight horror, almost like something out of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. That Cliff ends up surviving the sequence doesn’t take away from how unsettling it is. It’s the standout sequence in a film with a few of them.

Anton: It’s a great scene and very important for how it suffuses the rest of the film with tension. Walter Chaw makes a great point that the Manson Murders pervade the film as Pearl Harbor does in From Here to Eternity. The Spahn Ranch scene allows there to be more than audience knowledge and expectation generating the dread.

It’s certainly the most formally superb scene in the film.

Anders: It’s an absolutely masterful and almost unbearable scene. I think that this scene at Spahn Movie Ranch is really the core of the film, more even than the ending, and the closest the film comes to anticipating the dark reality that coexists alongside Hollywood. I think it’s very interesting that the Family lives on the abandoned refuse of Hollywood. I think it’s as much an indictment of the Hollywood system as the film offers. Why was Manson so fascinated with actors and musicians? Manson himself wanted to break into Hollywood and become famous for years.

Anton: I think he wanted to break into the music industry. There are some crazy stories about him stalking (I think) Dennis Wilson, and he selects the house that Polanski and Tate live in because a certain music producer was the former resident. 

Anders: Isn’t Wilson mentioned in the film?

Aren: Yeah, he is. When Charlie visits Polanski and Tate’s home and runs into Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch), he mentions that he was looking for Dennis and Terry, meaning Dennis Wilson and Terry Melchor, the music producer (and son of Doris Day).

To be clear, Tarantino isn’t inventing any of those details about Manson and the connection to Hollywood. They really did live at the Spahn Movie Ranch and a blind, aging George Spahn (Bruce Dern) really was manipulated into letting them stay by having sex with Squeakie (Dakota Fanning) and other young women in the cult. But Tarantino is surely leaning into the Hollywood aspects of the Manson Family. Even the fictionalized conversation near the end where they discuss death in the movies is basically Tarantino applying his usual pop-culture wit to real-life villains.

Anton: In that very meta-moment, I think Tarantino links the Manson cult with detractors of his movies. Think about how the three hippie-killers talk about how violence on TV has poisoned society, and so it’s right that they kill the people who taught them “murder.” Tarantino has famously sparred with critics about violence in film. He always argues that it’s just movie violence, it’s not real. With the recent flack Tarantino has received from censorious viewers and critics, I don’t think this sort of connection is unconscious.

Anders: To me, the Manson Family and their murders can’t simply be bracketed off from the rest of the violence in the society of the time. There’s a deep sadness to the film that reminds me of Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice.

Aren: David Robert Mitchell’s Under the Silver Lake has a similar vibe as well. Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye kind of pioneered this approach to the time period and the city. Perhaps all LA noir and crime adjacent film has a deep sadness to it.

Anders: Anton, I think you remarked in an earlier conversation upon Hunter S. Thompson’s famous reflection on the feeling of the counterculture in the mid-sixties and its failure to establish a long-lasting societal transformation in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. The Manson Murders occur after “the wave finally broke and rolled back.”

But Cliff and Rick are also lost souls in a sense, and it is only they who are able to provide any kind of respite against the forces of darkness, because they themselves are part of this ending of something, though on the opposite side of youth. Man, the seventies were a dark time!

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Historical Revisionism

Aren: But Tarantino doesn’t let the darkness win the day. Like he did in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, Tarantino again changes history in Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood. But it’s not a redundant move, or an attempt to repeat past glories. The ending of Inglourious Basterds is a provocation above all else. Not only does it allow Tarantino and the audience to revel in the sight of the Nazi high command getting murdered in brutal fashion, but it shocks the audience by changing one of the key facts of history, which is that World War II did not end in 1944 in a Paris movie theatre, but in August of 1945 after hundreds of thousands more people died.

Anton: And it reinforces a message in that movie, that the war might have been won sooner if the Allies played dirty (I don’t really agree with his reading of history, but that’s for another time).

Aren: Instead, I believe the ending of Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood is more similar to the ending of Django Unchained, which isn’t tied to history in quite the same way as Inglourious Basterds or Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, but does take place in a version of the real world and allows Django to get away with a level of revenge that did not exist in Antebellum South outside of the Nat Turner rebellion. Like in Django Unchained, the ending in Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood is something of a happily-ever-after in a world that never affords such things. It makes the film a fairytale and adds some bittersweet notes to the finale. 

Anders: Yes, that fairy tale element is key. 

Anton: As I alluded earlier, as it began to dawn on me that Tarantino was going to alter history and have Rick and Cliff kill off the Manson Family attackers, I was somewhat unnerved by the alteration. Part of the feeling was that we weren’t going to get the satisfaction of having the grisly horror of the event told by Tarantino. That’s pretty disturbing for me to admit—that going into this movie expecting a Manson movie I was disappointed that we weren’t getting a Manson ending. I had been curious about how scary that ending could have been, and how Tarantino, a horror buff, would shoot it. So a part of me wasn’t sold on the alteration as I was watching the movie, or at least not entirely. 

Another part of me thought he was doing the obvious Tarantino thing to do (not something most directors would do, however), by changing history to tell his own funny story. In fact, I think Aren called it in a text before we each saw the movie.

Aren: I did. I should’ve put money down on it, because I was right.

Anders: Ironically, of all three revisionist endings, this one feels both the least provocative and the most modest. Like, it isn’t going to change the world on the whole. Vietnam is still raging. Nixon is still president. But, it makes a difference in one person’s life: Sharon’s. She gets to have her life.

Anton: And it actually comes across as a nice ending, in the final minutes, which is the total opposite of Inglourious Basterds, which is satisfying, but dark. Dark in that it revels in our bloodlust and desire for violent retribution.

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A Hollywood Fairy Tale

Aren: The ending of the film, and specifically the title placement, makes it clear that this is a fantasy. However, despite the happy ending, fairy tale aspect that we’ve discussed, I also think there’s a deep well of melancholy in this ending. It is self-consciously a fantasy and since we know that Sharon Tate did actually die, it sits alongside that gruesome fact in our heads, making us pine for it all the more, even if we know it’s a lie. Thus, there’s an ironic disconnect that reinforces the melancholy.

It’s also hard to think of a better placement of the title card in a recent movie. We see a crane shot of Rick Dalton coming over to chat with Sharon Tate after commiserating with Jay Sebring at the gate. At this time of day in the real world, Sharon Tate was dead, but in the movie here, she’s chatting with her neighbour and a new friendship is born. Furthermore, Sharon’s star can continue to ascend. She may never be recognized by movie attendants when she goes to the movies and may be little more than the wife of a famous director who also acts, but she is allowed to live, to carry her child to term, and to keep on chasing her dream.

For all the talk about the movie robbing Sharon Tate of much character (or dialogue, to be more specific, as the hubbub at the Cannes press conference focused on), Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood may be the only movie about the Manson Murders to allow Sharon to remain simply a human being living her life and chasing a dream, instead of being nothing more than a victim of a ghastly and famous crime. It gives her back the life that the last 50 years has taken from her in relegating her to a famous footnote of Hollywood history.

Anton: The movie is a strange affirmation of life, something I wasn’t expecting to find in a Tarantino movie. 

Anders: It really is.

Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood (2019, USA)

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino; starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Julia Butters, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Mike Moh, Luke Perry, Kurt Russell, Al Pacino.