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

The Oscars are almost here again, which is why I’m looking at Quentin Tarantino’s latest opus, which is nominated for a few Academy Awards this year and has already gotten Golden Globes for his screenplay and Brad Pitt’s performance. For the few that may not be familiar with the premise of this movie, it takes place in 1969 Hollywood, specifically just before Charles Manson’s killing spree shook up Los Angeles, and subsequently the world.

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But the main characters are fictitious actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio, who previously worked with Tarantino in Django Unchained) and his BFF/stunt double Cliff Booth (Pitt, who was previously in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds). The movie basically follows them around as they contend with how Hollywood is changing as the ’60s draw to a close. At the same time, like Forrest Gump, they encounter real-life figures, such as Sharon Tate (here played by Margot Robbie), who in the film is Dalton’s neighbor and would tragically become one of Manson’s victims, as well as Manson himself (here played by Damon Herriman), and even Bruce Lee (played by Mike Moh).

Tate’s sister Debra, who’s dedicated her life to ensuring that the perpetrators of the horrific events of that August remain behind bars, initially took issue with Tarantino making a film revolving around this subject, but the director assured her that his work would not glorify Manson and his murderous followers. Debra would go on to praise Robbie’s performance, even loaning her perfume and jewelry that belonged to her sister. More critical though, was Bruce Lee’s daughter, Shannon. The Manson killings occurred basically as Lee himself was beginning his rise as a movie/martial arts legend. Lee and Tate even met shortly before her death, and on a more sad note, Lee was briefly considered a suspect in her murder by Tate’s widower Roman Polanski.

But Shannon’s issue with Tarantino’s film centers on a moment where Booth meets Lee on the set of the TV show The Green Hornet, which Lee starred in, and the two proceed to kick each other’s asses before Booth is thrown out. Shannon stated:

[Lee] was continuously marginalized and treated like kind of a nuisance of a human being by white Hollywood, which is how he’s treated in the film by [Tarantino].

This sequence also drew criticism from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, whom Lee worked with in Game of Death.

Of course, Tarantino has the artistic right to portray Bruce any way he wants. But to do so in such a sloppy and somewhat racist way is a failure both as an artist and as a human being.

Moh, a fan of Lee’s, would state that while Lee didn’t always go easy on stuntmen, Tarantino sought to respect his legacy with the film.

Now as to my view of the movie itself, it’s certainly as watchable and as flamboyant as Tarantino’s other works, and pays homage to numerous other movies. Indeed, this film begins with the Columbia logo as it was presented in the ’60s, and the film’s title is inspired by the Sergio Leone masterworks Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America.

DiCaprio, Pitt, and Robbie are all great, as is the rest of the cast. I especially got a kick out of Dakota Fanning playing Manson follower Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, who herself would make headlines just a few years after Manson was convicted when she attempted to assassinate Gerald Ford.

Considering that the main characters are fictitious, it was pretty much inevitable that some dramatic license would be taken with the drama in this film. Not that Tarantino was the first director to do such a thing, of course. Heck, I’ve actually become more lenient about this sort of thing in recent years because some films, such as Steven Spielberg’s thrilling Bridge of Spies, begin with the words “Inspired by True Events” rather than “Based on a True Story”. However, for all of Once Upon a Time‘s good points, I honestly don’t know what to make of this film.

This is because of the ending, where we expect a recreation of the murders themselves, or at least Dalton and Booth’s reactions to them. Instead, we find Manson followers Tex Watson (Austin Butler), Susan Atkins (Mikey Madison), and Patricia Krenwinkel (Madisen Beaty) cutting phone lines before coming, not to Tate’s home, but to Dalton’s. Watson gives Booth his infamous “I’m the devil and I’m here to do the devil’s work” line, but Booth sics his dog on them and ends up killing Watson and Krenwinkel before the noise wakes up Dalton, who finishes off Atkins thanks to a flamethrower that he got as a souvenir on one of his films, which makes me wonder if any of the crew on Return of the Jedi got to keep one of those cool speeder bikes.

This ending sequence is both hilariously thrilling (you gotta love the site of the dog literally having Watson by the balls) as well as a bit sad, as it’s such a tragic shame that the real-life victims were unable to get this kind of help.

I’m all for a film that ends on a completely unexpected note than what the audience was anticipating, so I don’t condemn the movie for such a turnaround. But the ending, which has Booth taken to a hospital for his injuries while Dalton accepts an invitation for drinks at Sharon’s house after the commotion, actually took me aback. This is probably because we know that real-life events didn’t end on such a nice note for her or the guests that were in her house that night.

By 1969, Sharon herself was known for being Mrs. Polanski as well as making her way up the Hollywood ladder. She had memorable roles in Polanski’s The Fearless Vampire Killers and The Wrecking Crew, while her heartbreaking performance in Valley of the Dolls is the only reason that movie is worth watching. In his biography on the actress, Sharon Tate and the Manson Murders, Greg King notes that she could have potentially gone on to become an acclaimed actress had she been allowed to continue with her career.

But the ending of this film basically says that these horrific events never occurred at all, and that makes me uncomfortable. Plus the fact that, while those who actually committed the killings end up as worm food in the movie (in real life, both Watson and Krenwinkel are still rotting in prison, while Atkins died in 2009), the film ends with Manson himself and the rest of his clan still at large. Tarantino has stated that he plans to make just one more film (which would be his 10th, or 11th if you count Death Proof) before taking a hiatus. Maybe his next film will be a sequel concerning the wrath of Manson.

Call that last comment sarcastic or even stupid if you like, but I can’t help but think of it considering that there are still reports stating that Tarantino may direct a Star Trek movie. The director is a lifelong Trekker and I’m open to him helming a Trek production as long as there’s no Neelix. So I can’t help but wonder if Trek was an influence on Tarantino’s ending to this film, as alternate realities were a Trek staple that became annoying once Voyager decided to regurgitate it in basically every other episode. Hence, if Tarantino plans a follow-up to this film, Manson could come back like Khan to avenge the deaths of his followers and begin his reign of terror anew with presumably Dalton and Booth playing the Kirk role.

Yes, I’m aware that Tarantino did something similar in Inglourious Basterds, but the fact that this film ends with Sharon and her guests happily resuming their restful evening prompts me to call this movie out on it. Imagine if Sir Richard Attenborough’s classic epic Gandhi had the title character surviving his assassination in 1948 and having him reminisce about the experiences that the movie chronicles. Somehow, I doubt that that film would be as acclaimed as it is with such a twist.

The Hollywood system itself began changing as the ’60s ended for numerous reasons and films that were coming out in the latter part of the decade such as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, In the Heat of the Night, and Easy Rider were reflecting those changes. Manson’s killing spree sent both the industry and Los Angeles itself into a panic, and many say that it was also the beginning of the end to the idea that hippies were a peaceful sort. Sharon herself was a tragic victim of circumstance because Manson was acquainted with the previous owner of her home, where her murder took place. Hence, I came to this film expecting a study of how people like Dalton and Booth were adjusting to an industry that was slowly but surely demanding different expectations of them while contending with a series of murders which put others in their line of work on edge for a while. Instead, the film depicts these two actually becoming bona fide heroes, with their careers certain to keep thriving as a result.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood convincingly recreates the time and place, and it’s certainly entertaining. But while dramatic license is one thing, saying “oh, these people didn’t really die” is something different. I’m still anxious to see what Tarantino plans to do next, but his latest film is a double-edged sword for me.

Rob Kirchgassner

Rob is a blogger, critic, and author. His latest novel is The Thoughts of a Proud Nerd: A Story of Hope, available now from Amazon.

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