“And here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson. Jesus loves you more than you will know… God bless you, please, Mrs. Robinson. Heaven holds a place for those who pray.”
Quentin Tarantino has made no effort to hide how his filmography is born out of a love of movies. Specifically, his inspirations are from the specific genre influence of 50s-70s. In case the title Pulp Fiction was too subtle, that love of movies and led to a celebration of the influence. Tarantino’s multiple Academy Awards nominations and Best Picture win in 1994 was enough to vindicate the man’s affluent interests as something worth celebrating on a mass, consistent scale.
Tarantino’s pulp crime dramas, with their punchy dialogue, bear only a passing resemblance to our reality. It’s the heightened grounded by that divisive Tarantino pride. It’s not about any specific quality of movie where he found inspiration, rather about all the movies that inspired him and the value of meaning in any film’s relation to the audience. Maybe that’s why I found Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to be the most emotionally engaging Tarantino film to date, a movie about the tragic realities of myth-making and how understanding circumstances can matter just as much as the better dreams provided to us in a dark theater.
Following Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio as a fallen television star unable to make the jump to feature films), Clifford Booth (Rick’s stuntman who may or may not have meant to kill his wife, otherwise content to spend his days hanging with Rick) and the tragically real Shannon Tate (Margot Robbie as rising star of hope and optimism). These fictional characters are not A-list performers who make headlines. These are the people who, in reality, are the same people in the same stories that inspired Tarantino’s fictional worlds.
Behind the scenes, the Rick and Cliff contain multitudes of flaws. One is a murderer, or at least guilty of manslaughter, and the other is a high-functioning alcoholic. Surely this will end well. While Rick works on the pilot of Lancer, Cliff finds himself getting swept up with the Manson’s at Spahn Ranch and Sharon heads to the theater.
Rick, suffering from a night of whiskey sours, struggles every moment of the day trying to nail his performance. Flailing like a duck lost at sea, Ric retreats to his trailer park. Fearing he is on the way out of the limelight, he returns to his flask and comes across fictional child actor, Trudi Fraser. When conversing with the wise beyond her years professional, it almost operates as a life raft in Rick’s ocean of inadequacy. He returns to the performance and set with a rejuvenated presence, nailing his show-stopper moment in a single take. It’s a demystification of the artistic process. An exploration of struggle behind the scenes, one where it’s clear it’s not the only path to artistic success, as shown by young Trudi, but one that contains its own tumultuous nature. And yet, it also holds its own rewards. “That was the best acting I’ve ever seen.” Rick fucking Dalton.
Cliff only daydreams of his better world where he’s back on set, handing his ass to Bruce Lee, an event that would never happen in any reality. Whether it is Cliff’s vision of what would happen or a skewed recollection of events, he isn’t stepping near a film set again. Instead, Cliff is dealt the hand of his reality as he is drawn into the dark underbelly of fame. After picking up a hitchhiking Manson girl, Cliff heads to Spahn Ranch heads out to his old stomping grounds and to make sure his old pal George Spahn. There’s certainly some nostalgia in the day trip but we get the sense Cliff really wants to make sure an old man isn’t being taken advantage of. All that’s left is left a hollow shell of his career, filled with a murderous cult, empty houses and a senile old man.
It’s not all terrible around Hollywood. We follow angelic Sharon Tate, an almost angelic presence around the peripheries of the film. She doesn’t physically get as much to do as Rick and Cliff, but I think that would be a short-sighted criticism. Her presence is a beacon of a better tomorrow, a light that was taken from the world far too soon. Tarantino doesn’t approach Tate with the same conflicting morality as Rick and Cliff and it’s a justifiable criticism, given her marriage to noted monster Roman Polanski. And while I do think it’s a missed opportunity to not eviscerate Polanski on camera, I do feel as though Tate’s character here is built on a shrine of admiration. It’s the sole story in the film without conflict. Quite frankly, I’m not sure Tarantino was built to approach that subject matter as anything but a loving historian who plays loosely with reality on film. Whether or not that’s enough will be up to each viewer. As Sharon Tate kicks her shoes off and basks in the audience reactions to her supporting role, the film projection shining above her head almost like a halo of celluloid, only she sees the fruits of her artistic endeavors.
For the first time in Tarantino’s history, his wondrous appreciation of cinema is introspective. It’s not flashy or even entirely uplifting. There’s a real cynical bone in this film’s body, which still rightfully earns its notion of a fun movie with hangouts vibes. What we’re left with is a film that’s the most human thing the director has ever made outside of Jackie Brown. It’s a human experience in its aspirations to show failure and the triumph of when people succeed. For a film about the end of an era, it might be the most mature Tarantino film by ending on the warmth embrace of an unknowable future.
I say unknowable because, yes, Tarantino does revise history once again. Preparing to commit the historical murder, Rick drunkenly berates the group of Manson would-be murderers in their car to get off their street, causing them to shift their perspective, altering history.
Cliff brutally beats three Manson members, killing two, while Rick burns one to death with his flamethrower. Rick will always keep part of his film past stored nearby because that’s who he is, where he’s from, and all he’ll ever be. And maybe that’s not so bad. They’re heroes, to a magnitude which they’ll never fully comprehend. This does not exempt the men from their flaws, but maybe it serves as a reminder that even dreams are permeated by all too real elements we can’t escape from. Even in Tarantino’s version of a lackadaisical fantasy, the slow creeping in of reality acts as a ticking time bomb. Because this isn’t real.
After spending nearly three hours chasing back whiskey sours and margaritas, our distant daydream of a better yesterday starts its curtain call as reality comes knocking. The stuntman is rushed to the hospital. The gates only open to a friendly face just out of our perspective. Sharon Tate and her friends get to keep the party going.
And even in this vision of fantasy, Manson isn’t caught. George remains on Spahn Ranch. Cliff and Rick don’t actually save anyone. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood just welcomes us through the gates to spend a little more time in their presence while our screens rolls on. In Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino culminates his cinematic love affair with violence, righteously using it to erase the leaders of the Third Reich from history at the hands of their victims. In OUATIH, Tarantino doesn’t tear down anyone besides the Manson cult with his own creations. Certainly this choice is not the only way to approach film or its history, but it might be the only way Tarantino knows how to express it. Because despite all the unjust bullshit that manages to make its way into our celluloid fantasies, there is power in having connected to art. The events we witness aren’t real but the impact and reactions are. Those emotions will persist, engraving onto people forever. As Once Upon a Time in Hollywood welcomes us through the gates up to that mystical driveway, we get to spend just a little longer with them.