This essay discusses plot points in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” The author strongly recommends bookmarking this for after you have seen the movie.
The notion that Quentin Tarantino’s films are too obsessed with other films has always struck me as intriguing but somewhat beside the point. You don’t have to understand every blaxploitation reference in “Jackie Brown” or every wire fu homage in the “Kill Bill” movies to know that you’re seeing a visually arresting and intricately plotted piece of filmmaking. And dismissing Tarantino’s fascination with cinematic history misses the point: The second half of his career, beginning with “Inglourious Basterds,” is dedicated to revealing the power of stories, including the movies he references, to shape our reality and mold our perceptions. “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” his new exploration of Los Angeles at a moment of profound transition, is his most graceful lesson on this front yet.
Think back to the moment in “Inglourious Basterds,” Tarantino’s 2009 revisionist World War II revenge movie, when the Nazi high command has gathered to watch the crowning achievement of Joseph Goebbels’s (Sylvester Groth) career as a propagandist. They are screening “Nation’s Pride,” the story of German sniper Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl). Adolf Hitler (Martin Wuttke) is gleeful as he watches Zoller mow down Allied troops. Tarantino cuts from the audience for “Nation’s Pride” to a scene from the film itself, in which Zoller asks, “Who wants to send a message to Germany?” The image the Nazis are watching suddenly changes, Zoller’s face replaced by that of Shosanna Dreyfus (Melanie Laurent), a movie theater operator whose family was gunned down earlier in “Inglourious Basterds”: “I have a message for Germany,” she declares. Hitler and Goebbels look on, panicked, as the screen bursts into flames, film stock itself serving as the fuel to incinerate the trash of the Third Reich.
“My name is Shosanna Dreyfus,” we hear her saying. “And this is the face of Jewish vengeance.” For a moment, there is no face. And then, eerily, through the ash of the charnel house she has ignited, her face does become visible. The projector displays her image not on a movie theater screen, but on the smoke rising from the burning bodies of the Nazi leadership.
The face of Jewish vengeance isn’t Shosanna, exactly: It is film itself. The Nazis understood the power of this medium and its importance in the propaganda war, as did Americans exposed to it. Mark Harris wrote in “Five Came Back” that when Frank Capra first saw Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will,” the director “was shattered: ‘The first time I saw the picture, I said, “We’re dead. We’re gone. We can’t win this war.” ’ ” But Hollywood took in Jewish filmmakers fleeing Hitler; their talent helped the Los Angeles-based film industry master the most powerful storytelling medium in the history of the world. And thanks to film’s power as a storytelling medium and Hollywood’s dominance of the form, Nazis will forever be remembered as monstrous bad guys nonpareil — a very watchword for evil.
Three years later, in “Django Unchained,” Tarantino approached these questions in a slightly different way. Given that the main characters are fictions rather than characters of historical import, he is not mucking about with history. Rather, the film reflects the manner in which stories have helped shift public opinion at important times and on critical issues.
“Django Unchained” follows bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) and freed slave Django (Jamie Foxx) as they seek to liberate Django’s wife, Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington) from deranged plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio). In the movie’s most important scene, Schultz and Candie retire to Candie’s library after settling on a price for Broomhilda. As Schultz has been sitting, waiting to complete the transaction so they can leave Candie’s plantation, he has been tortured, mentally, by what he has seen during his journeys with Django. In particular, his memories flash back to the sight of a runaway slave named D’Artagnan (Ato Essandoh) being torn to pieces by dogs on Candie’s orders. When the film began, Schultz may have been repelled by the institution of slavery, but he was more or less willing to accept the ugly business as just that: business. He even used it to his advantage early on. As “Django Unchained” progresses, however, his conscience is shocked out of acceptance and into disgust.
Now, it’s possible that Tarantino set this particular scene in a library solely because it would look cool to see shotgun blasts tearing apart books. Given the brief digression between Schultz and Candie on the fact that D’Artagnan was named for the lead character in a book written by a black man, Alexandre Dumas’s “The Three Musketeers,” I find this unlikely.
Consider instead the idea that Schultz is a stand-in for Northern whites, many of whom may have been opposed to slavery in some nominal way but did not really turn against that vile institution until the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Whether Stowe and her novel “started this great war,” as President Abraham Lincoln supposedly said, is neither here nor there: What matters is the perception that this story was vivid enough to spark a conflict that ended up killing hundreds of thousands and profoundly changing America forever.
Schultz, unable to shake Candie’s hand because he can’t stand to treat the slaver as an equal, instead shoots the Southerner. Django is forced to do battle with Candie’s minions, and the resultant action calls to mind less a shootout than a battlefield. Pay attention to the sound design during the shootout (warning: extremely bad language throughout), especially between 1:30 and 2:35 of the linked clip. The weapons often sound more like artillery fire than bullets; when projectiles strike, blood splashes from bodies as though they were hills kicking up dirt following a cannon ball’s impact. In short: Scarred by what he’s seen and surrounded by books, Schultz kicks off the Civil War in miniature.
In “The Hateful Eight,” Tarantino’s 2015 Western, a story is used as a protective talisman of sorts. Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a bounty hunter caught out in the snow, purports to carry with him a letter written by Lincoln, part of an ongoing correspondence between the two. Impressed by the letter, John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) asks to read it after picking Warren up and giving him a ride to Minnie’s Haberdashery, the nearest shelter in the snowy Wyoming wilderness. Ruth, a rough man, chokes up a bit, treating the letter with reverence. Indeed, when we first see the missive, cinematographer Robert Richardson lights it up with a hotspot, giving it an almost holy aura. A relic of America’s martyred saint couldn’t be held by a bad man, now could it?
Ruth mentions the letter to one of the temporary residents of the snowed-in Haberdashery — and a former Confederate raider, upon hearing of the letter, can’t believe that someone as tough as the Hangman could be so gullible. Warren, after hemming and hawing, admits the letter is a lie, and Ruth is clearly hurt: He feels taken advantage of, made to look foolish. Warren’s story was a good one. Its dissolution makes Ruth question his judgment — and question Warren’s value. But the Major had a good reason for his ruse.
“Now I know I’m the only black son-of-a-[expletive] you ever conversed with, so I’m gonna cut you some slack,” Warren says. “But you got no idea what it’s like being a black man facin’ down America. Only time black folks is safe is when white folks is disarmed. And this letter had the desired effect of disarmin’ white folks. … You want to know why I lie about somethin’ like that, white man? Got me on that stagecoach, didn’t it?” Warren’s story may have hurt Ruth’s feelings — indeed, the white bounty hunter is practically pouting while the black bounty hunter explains the concept of white privilege in a 19th-century setting — but it saved Warren’s life, and probably more than once. That is the power of storytelling.
Which brings us, at last, to “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood.” Let me ask: When you think of “Sharon Tate,” what comes to mind?
I put “Sharon Tate” in quotes because when we think of Tate we mostly think of an idea of Tate, and we generally think of her in relation to someone else. We think of her as a murder victim, the star of a grisly melodrama starring Charles Manson that played out one balmy August evening in the Hollywood hills, her death all the more horrifying for the life she was carrying within her. We think of her as a wife, a prop in the ongoing saga that was Roman Polanski’s legal drama, a bit player used to soften Polanski’s reputation against the allegation that he sodomized an underage model.
When we think of Tate’s career at all, it’s often dismissively. “Though [Polanski’s] ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ was a smash success, Sharon’s own career had never quite taken off,” prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry wrote in their definitive work on the Manson murders, “Helter Skelter.” “She had appeared semi-nude in the March 1967 issue of Playboy. … Though a number of reviewers commented on her striking looks, neither this nor two other films in which she played — ‘Don’t Make Waves,’ with Tony Curtis, and ‘The Wrecking Crew,’ with Dean Martin — brought her that much closer to stardom.” Bugliosi and Gentry suggest critics believed a line of dialogue delivered by Tate’s character in “Valley of the Dolls” best sums the actress up: “I have no talent. All I have is a body.”
In “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood,” Tarantino deliberately sets out to upend that story. Though he has used onscreen chapter titles as a signature stylistic device since the “Kill Bill” movies, in “Once Upon a Time,” Tarantino instead announces new sections of the film via dates that mimic the chapter breaks in "Helter Skelter." Sure, Tarantino’s latest feels more focused on the adventures of fading TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Rick’s stuntman Friday, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) than it does on Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). But Dalton and Booth are only in the story, really, because they happen to live next door to Tate and Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha). And one gets the sense that Dalton’s primary purpose is to serve as a fictional reflection of Tate, to demonstrate the amount of effort and skill that goes into creating a decent performance on even something as disposable as a network pilot for an unmemorable TV western.
The heart of the film, what feels like more than half of the 161-minute running time, covers a single day in Hollywood. The action cuts between Dalton, Booth and Tate. Booth takes a trip to the Spahn Movie Ranch, where he encounters the Manson family in all their troubling glory. Dalton struggles through his performance on the aforementioned pilot, flubbing lines and stumbling through scenes before pulling it together and cranking out a performance the director dubs “Evil Hamlet.” Tate, meanwhile … goes to the movies.
More specifically, she goes to one of her own movies, a movie in which she’s on the poster but not quite the star: the Dean Martin vehicle “The Wrecking Crew.” Tate tells the girl at the ticket booth that she’s in the film, and the girl doesn’t quite believe her — but another hand at the theater recognizes her from “Valley of the Dolls” and invites her in. They ask for a picture with the movie not-star, but make sure to do it in front of the film’s poster, since she’s only recognizable in the context of other, more famous, figures.
And then we move inside the theater to see the fruit of her labors. Tarantino keeps the camera close on Tate’s face as she soaks in the reactions from her fellow moviegoers. They’re laughing at the right spots! They’re excited by the stunt work, which we see Tate meticulously practicing in a brief flashback! All her hard work has paid off. Her art — the art we see Dalton struggling with during the crosscuts, demonstrating the difficulty of making even pulpy trash — is bringing happiness to people. The joy on her face upends our sense of her story: This isn’t some automaton who just wound up dead on a floor one day. She’s a living, breathing person, one with joys, hopes and, yes, talent and work ethic. Tarantino is rewriting our perceptions of her.
The monsters of Manson’s cult are not given similar treatment. At the Spahn Movie Ranch, they are generally seen as a sort of floating menace, dead-eyed with clenched jaws when they aren’t dead-eyed and cackling. Manson is barely in the movie, suggesting that Tarantino hopes to downplay the idea that these were innocents under the sway of a Svengali. (Interestingly, Polanski himself is barely in the film as well. That the two men who have come to define Sharon Tate are largely absent from “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” feels deliberate.)
Instead of indulging the long-standing cultural fascination with the Manson family, Tarantino uses it to make another point about the power of story.
At one point, family member Sadie (Mikey Madison) suggests that, rather than killing those in the Polanski household, they should instead wreak violence on Dalton, arguing that this would prove that violence on TV influences violence in real life. Sadie’s point is so ham-handedly made and put in the mouth of such an obvious villain that it might feel, for a moment, that Tarantino is playing a trick on us. Perhaps he’s stuffing this straw man to show the weakness of arguments in favor of violence in art?
But I don’t think that’s the case. Sadie’s brief monologue is the cinematic equivalent of a half-thought-through think piece on the now-defunct Mic.com written by a 20-something who thinks she has something to say on the nature of violence in art. More importantly, it highlights the weakest argument about the power of stories and storytelling, the idea that we humans are such simpletons we’ll go out and commit murder because we see a lawman on TV blowing away criminals. Sadie wasn’t inspired to go out and commit murder by what she saw on TV: She’s simply grasping about for an excuse.
“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” dismisses that excuse in an act of alternate history that’s part mayhem and part melancholy: Dalton and Booth engage in an orgy of violence that saves Tate, the movie’s princess, in a castle on a hill. And the film’s closing moments — during which Sharon and a friend welcome Dalton into that castle to commiserate on the evening’s horrifying events, and the film’s title finally flashes on the screen — drive home the fairy-tale nature of what has come before. In these moments we see what Tarantino has been getting at all along in his newest, and possibly most profound, film. It is a beautiful, heartbreaking look at what might have been, almost elegiac in its sadness and its desire to reconfigure a world filled with ugliness and hate and horror and hurt.
“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” is an effort to retell the story of Sharon Tate. But not by giving her a “happy ending.” That’s too simplistic. Rather, Tarantino retells her story by reminding us that she had a story all her own in the first place. A filmmaker obsessed with the power of films has evolved into a storyteller obsessed with the power of stories. And that may be why he has evolved into one of our greatest living artists.