margaret qualley once upon a time in hollywood

(Welcome to The Soapbox, the space where we get loud, feisty, political, and opinionated about anything and everything. In this edition: is it still surprising when Quentin Tarantino decides to rewrite history?)

Sitting in the theater, waiting for the lights to dim, I couldn’t help but wonder how Quentin Tarantino would surprise me with his latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. (Tarantino, and the marketing campaign, would argue this is his ninth feature film, but I am firmly in the “Kill Bill is two movies” camp, so I’m calling it his tenth.) I’d heard the mostly positive reactions out of the film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival, and was generally intrigued not only by the cast, but the 1960s setting. I was a bit cautious, though, because I kept wondering if the movie would end with a mirror of the history it captures, or by revising it. In the end (and this is where I warn you about major spoilers), the movie revises history in ways that are unfortunately more predictable than I’d hoped.

A Revisionist History

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood takes place in the Dream Factory circa 1969, fairy-tale title and all. The two lead characters – has-been actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman/best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) – are fictional, but they butt up against history. Rick’s swanky Hollywood Hills house is right next door to the abode of director Roman Polanski and his wife and actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Tate, tragically, was brutally murdered in one of the Manson Family killings on August 9, 1969. 

The marketing for the film has, if not directly leaned into this knowledge, hinted at something ominous afoot including a brief image of cult leader Charles Manson (played by Damon Herriman). So as I waited for the film to start, I wondered more directly: would this movie lean into revisionist history the same way that Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained did, gleefully ignoring the horrors of real-world history in favor of a more cathartic revenge fantasy? Or would this film represent those horrors, thus becoming even more grisly than the fantasy?

Those other movies are enough of a hint to what happens here: revisionist history all over again. Yes, Manson and his many followers are part of the movie, and some of them even have a good deal of screen time. (Manson, notably, does not: he’s in just one scene and has maybe three lines of dialogue.) And yes, we follow a few of them as they intend to break into Sharon Tate’s house, where she (and her unborn baby) were, along with a few friends, gruesomely murdered in real life. 

But Tarantino’s version doesn’t even let those killer hippies get to Tate’s house. They’re distracted by a grouchy, anti-hippie-ranting Dalton, a high-on-acid Booth, and then are killed by Dalton and Booth in variously florid and bloody ways. In the end, the film is slightly worse off by wedging its characters into real history. It took three times, but it’s finally become an unsurprising distraction for Quentin Tarantino to turn history into a playbook of fantasy.

A Solid Start

I need to emphasize here (because I’m sure I’m losing a lot of you by this point): I really enjoyed Once Upon a Time in Hollywood…for about 120 of its 161-minute runtime. If this movie had entirely focused on Cliff Booth lazily driving around Los Angeles, and Rick Dalton trying his damnedest to survive by doing guest spots on various TV shows in the late 1960s, I might have placed this very close to the top of my list of the best Tarantino films. This film is at its strongest when its characters are inserted into the real world without directly affecting too much of history’s arc. DiCaprio is unsurprisingly excellent, playing an intensely insecure and vulnerable character who’s desperate to stop the downward arc of his career. And Pitt, at his most laconic, is a lot of fun as a deadpan, gone-to-seed type who knows and accepts his place in the world, thus enjoying himself more than the rest of us struggling to get by. 

Margot Robbie, too, is quite good in her limited time on screen as Sharon Tate. (I realize that there was a kerfuffle at Cannes when Tarantino “rejected the hypothesis” of a reporter who asked why Tate, as a character, isn’t in much of the movie, but…uh…she’s not in a lot of the movie. Not so much a critical hypothesis as a statement of fact.) Robbie’s best scene, like many of the scenes she has in the film, doesn’t require her to talk too much, reacting instead to how everyone else reacts to her either in person or on screen. Tate, on a whim, goes into an LA theater showing the movie The Wrecking Crew, a caper in which the actress co-starred with Dean Martin. Robbie-as-Tate, watching the real Tate on the big screen, enjoys the experience so much because she thrives in the audience laughing in tune with her character’s klutziness. It’s a sweet moment, but just one of few she has in the film.

Throughout the first two hours or so, which all takes place on one February weekend in 1969, Tate is almost a ghost hovering over the film. Tarantino cuts to her and her Hollywood hangouts every so often, but the meandering story is much more focused on Dalton (struggling to accept that his future may include making Spaghetti Westerns in Italy) and Booth. The Manson Family specter exists in this section, but somewhat on the periphery: while Booth is at Dalton’s house, fixing a cable antenna, he sees a stringy-haired guy go to Tate’s house next door, not realizing she and husband Roman Polanski are the new owners. That guy is, of course, Charles Manson, whose reputation already seems to precede him. 

A Run-In With Ominous Destiny

The film’s best scene is its most suspenseful, when Booth comes into the most direct contact with real-life history. Throughout that February weekend, he keeps driving by a pretty young hippie (Margaret Qualley) named Pussycat who’s hitchhiking through the metropolis. Eventually, their paths line up and he offers to drive her to her home, which happens to be one of his old stomping grounds, Spahn’s Movie Ranch. For Booth, it’s a place where he and Dalton used to shoot Westerns; for Pussycat, it’s where the Manson Family holed up in advance of their summer-1969 murders. 

Once Booth arrives at the deserted ranch, with boarded-up sets and a tiny house that looks as imposing as the Bates Motel, it’s clear to him (as well as to the audience) that something is very wrong. But the stuntman wants to see the elderly owner of the ranch, George Spahn (Bruce Dern), precisely because he finds it so hard to believe that the old man would let hippies run rampant there.

The ensuing setpiece doesn’t have too much in the way of action, but a great deal of tension suffusing the atmosphere. After getting stonewalled by Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning), Booth goes into the house at the end of the ranch, sees that Spahn is alive and grumpy as ever, and apparently let the hippies there of his own volition. Booth exits, only to find that the hippies slashed the tires on Dalton’s car, which he’d been driving. Instead of becoming an early corpse, though, Booth makes one of the only male hippies fix the tire, after beating him nearly unconscious. All told, it’s a tense scene precisely because Tarantino sets things up so you have no idea how the scene could end. By now, we’ve already seen Booth in a fight (real or imagined, we’ll never know) with Bruce Lee where he more than held his own. But these hippies could easily off Booth. When he escapes, it feels like he’s escaped fate one more time.

Living Happily Ever After

That, unfortunately, isn’t a feeling replicated by the final 40 minutes, set on the night leading up to the fateful murder of Sharon Tate. After the hippies recognize Dalton as the star of an old TV Western, they change up their plan: they’ll kill him as a representation of how Hollywood teaches young people to murder. But Booth, even after smoking an acid-tipped cigarette, is able to viciously murder two of the Manson Family members (with the help of his well-trained pit bull). Dalton, who’s otherwise completely unaware of the intruders, takes the third hippie out with a working flamethrower that had been a prop in an old film of his. It’s not just that Dalton and Booth stop the Manson Murders from happening (or, at least, those specific murders, since the Manson Family did kill again after August 9). It’s that they don’t even realize the historical weight of what they’ve done. They just took out a few house invaders on one weird night.

Stopping the murder of Sharon Tate feels, on the surface, like a sweet way to pay homage to an actress whose legacy has cruelly turned into her presence as a dead body. But there’s never a moment in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood when Rick and Cliff (the ostensible leads of the film, though they’re often doing their own thing, as opposed to hanging out with each other) directly interact with Tate, Polanski, or Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch), at least until the very last scene when Sebring invites Dalton into Tate’s abode to talk about the bloody climax. It’s not that this film shouldn’t take place in 1969 — its setting is key to what makes the film so charming for so long. It’s that the direct convergence of history doesn’t quite resonate the way it’s done before.

That’s largely because it’s no longer a surprising twist, but just another familiar trick for Tarantino to pull. When Inglourious Basterds ended with the eponymous group, along with the fierce young Jewish woman Shoshana, literally killing Adolf Hitler and other key Nazis, well before they were actually taken down, it wasn’t just viscerally cathartic. It was shocking without feeling too prurient or puerile. Django Unchained isn’t quite the same as Basterds, in that it takes place during a violent period of American history while not culminating in the hero ending the Civil War all on his own. But the successful rebellion from Django feels like a deliberate rewriting of history to allow black men agency they were robbed of. 

When I sat down to watch Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I mused that there were really only two ways the film could end: either Sharon Tate would be murdered, or she (or someone else) would stop the murders from happening. Despite a recent Wikipedia page update that implied the film ended with her, Dalton, Booth, and Bruce Lee (who shows up here briefly, played by Mike Moh) taking down Charles Manson and his followers, the ending is both not nearly so wild and also exactly in line with that way of thinking. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is mostly action-free, which adds to its charm. When blood is spilled in the final stretch, it feels almost perfunctory, a sense that is anathema to Tarantino’s best films.

If Once Upon a Time in Hollywood had ended with Rick Dalton flying off to Italy for six months to make a series of Spaghetti Westerns, with the rise of the Manson Family coming soon, it might have had a more bittersweet taste, but it would have felt more satisfying. All told, this is still a thrilling and often suspenseful step back into the past (or at least a step back into an idealized version of the past) that allows two of the industry’s biggest modern stars the ability to show off how talented they still are. But the end of this movie, in which fantasy and history collide, isn’t as fresh as the way they’ve collided in other Tarantino films. 

If, as the director has said, he’s only going to make one more movie, and it’ll be a Star Trek adaptation, I can’t wait. Not just because it’s a Tarantino film, and not just because I like Star Trek movies. It’s because Quentin Tarantino is at his best when he’s surprising audiences. The first two hours of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a pleasant surprise; the last 40 minutes don’t quite get there because they play familiar notes.

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