Editor’s note: This post contains spoilers for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. So maybe don’t read it if you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want anything spoiled for you. Duh.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood has inspired plenty of talk of controversy and arguments against that talk, and yeah, we’re basically in the Quentin Tarantino zone now. It’s not a bad place to be, and it only happens every few years, so we might as well appreciate this plentiful supply of conversation starters. This particular film, of course, is a love letter to many things — cinema, the ’60s, friendship, Sharon Tate — but some are calling it a revenge fantasy.
I feel like, to a degree yes, there are elements of that in this movie but not to the level of Inglorious Basterds or Django Unchained. It’s much more of a (revisionist) fairy tale, and that’s obvious from the title. QT is playing on Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time movies because he’s an homage junkie, but he’s also evoking Brothers Grimm stylings. That sort of framework can soften the blow of the film’s controversies, but there’s still some awkwardness involved with how QT maneuvers around this story’s women, including Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), in a story about two dudes mourning the passage of time and the influx of all those hippies. I dug the movie and laughed along with everyone else when all acid-fueled hell broke loose, but this doesn’t quite hold up as a fairy tale, does it? Most fairy tales have a hero, and there might not be one here. Or maybe the hero is hiding from us?
The focus of the movie on these two longtime pals isn’t a problem in and of itself. Fairy tales do usually contain a simplified plot, as is the case here, along with plentiful meandering. There’s also a lot to unpack, as is customary with a Tarantino film, along with wrestling with both the subtext and the obviousness of it all. Yet I’m still grappling with how the fairy tale framework could excuse some of the film’s hiccups, if not for a Tarantino-esque complication.
For one thing with fairy tales, the good-vs-evil dichotomy is usually straightforward with characters — with grey areas being rare. That may have presented a challenge, given that Tarantino’s a fan of layered characters and likes to add some background flavor. We know, obviously, that Tate is “good” (she’s blissfully angelic while onscreen), and the Manson Family is “evil” (along with being dumb, especially Tex) and spurred on by a madman, even though Charlie is largely absent (what a waste of
Dewey Crowe Damon Herriman). Most of the other characters are easy to categorize, except Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth, and that wouldn’t be a huge deal if he wasn’t so central to the storybook outcome.
Cliff’s a tidal wave of ambiguity, man. His acid cigarette can arguably represent the enchanted or magical aspects of a fairy tale, but the guy himself doesn’t inhabit a clear-cut good or evil orientation. This is the case despite his affable mannerisms and the fact that he looks like a simple guy and spends some of his time shirtless on a roof. We do know that he’s steadfastly loyal (as a stunt double, driver, assistant, and armchair therapist) to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton and is an endlessly cool “war hero.” He’s also smart enough to decline the advances of the probably-underage Pussycat (Margaret Qualley).
(Side note: I’m still not sure why Tarantino made an extended point of aiming the camera straight up the shorts-clad butt of his probably-underage character while she leaned into Cliff’s car. That shot was as nausea-inducing as waiting for the Manson Family to launch their inevitable attack.)
We’re never entirely sure what to think about Cliff. It’s possible that he’s a wife-killer, and QT wants us to mull over the prospect, which is troublesome if he’s a hero (or even an antihero). The thing is, Cliff doesn’t intend to be a hero to Tate. He was likely running on autopilot along with the acid. (Our own Steven Hyden posed his own theory about that cigarette that’s well worth a read.) We see him out-fight Bruce Lee, so three Manson Family members aiming “to do the devil’s business” were no match for the seasoned stuntman. Would he have been so cartoonishly violent in vanquishing the hippie home invaders had he not been tripping on acid? We really don’t know how brutal Cliff is, given the suggestion of harpoon violence earlier in the movie, which is (I guess) supposed to be funny because his wife was apparently a relentless nag.
That made me recall a time when Tarantino actually did kill off a nagging woman, in Jackie Brown. Yes, Ordell killed Louis after he shot Melanie for “running her f*cking mouth,” but he didn’t do so to avenge Melanie. He killed Louis for going soft as a criminal. Likewise, Cliff’s motivations have zero to do with Tate. He isn’t aware that her home was the real target, so Tarantino gained revenge for what happened to her, but his characters did not. He clearly harbors rage about what became of Tate’s legacy and is possibly the unseen hero of his own movie, but we’re still left with him fumbling some female characters.
I don’t think his intent is sinister, yet this incredible director (who has written many strong, complex female characters, Beatrix Kiddo and Jackie Brown among them) seems perhaps a little hesitant or confused about how to handle female characters in this current climate. It’s not out of the realm of possibility for him to avoid the risk of tackling multi-dimensional female characters after being called out during #MeToo for looking the other way during Harvey Weinstein’s heyday and not treating Uma Thurman so well while making Kill Bill 2. Crafting Sharon Tate to be something of a shadow in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood feels like a safe move (even though it works for the story). It’s a little jarring to see Tate presented in a one-dimensional way, and maybe her character could have used a little more texture, in addition to knowing that Tate picked up hitchhikers and enjoyed dancing and secretly watching her own movie.
Still, Tarantino’s efforts with Tate are clearly noble. He aimed to rewrite her legacy, one that history has defined in two ways: (1) A brutally murdered victim of the Manson family; (2) The wife of Roman Polanski (whose name unavoidably conjures an ick factor for multiple reasons, including QT’s own history of remarks on Polanski’s crime). For these reasons, Sharon Tate’s never really been recognized for her work or as an actual human, and this movie feels like Tarantino’s attempt to retroactively breathe new life into her. It’s a worthy cause, even if the means of doing it are a little awkward, and Tarantino’s back-pocket goal is always to seem effortlessly cool (kind of like Cliff Booth).
Still, Tate is presented as benevolent and selfless. She is secretly even kind-of a Rick Dalton fan, as we learn at the end of the movie. He leaves his wife alone in their blood-filled home to chase more fame. It’s a dreamy ending, facilitated by the magic of acid, but there’s still a biting aftertaste. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is not a perfect film, but QT is thought-provoking as always, so his mission is accomplished.