Note: This review contains spoilers.
Any storyteller worth his salt knows in his bones that he can improve on history. Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood is the third film in which Quentin Tarantino has rewritten events to give the players—both victims and victimizers—the endings each so richly deserves. The central event here, the August 1969 murder of Sharon Tate and her friends at the hands of Charles Manson’s minions, exists on a much smaller scale than the history that provided the basis for the revisions of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. But the film is suffused with longing in a way that’s new for Tarantino. Whether or not he retires after his next film, as he has claimed he will, Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood is, in essence, his valedictory.
The Manson murders are swept up into the movie’s true subject: the moment at which the last, staggering remnants of old Hollywood were about to be replaced by the young-Turk directors plugged into a new audience ready to see their sensibility reflected on the screen. Tarantino’s heart is with the old guard. You would never know from Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood that 1969 was the year Easy Rider announced the change in Hollywood and left the studios scrambling to keep up. In fact, you wouldn’t know Easy Rider existed at all.
Here’s what you do know: that Dean Martin’s last Matt Helm secret-agent adventure The Wrecking Crew was playing at the Westwood Bruin. That Krakatoa East of Java was on at the Cinerama Dome. You’d know people still watched The FBI on Sunday nights, and that for the youngsters, as they used to say, ABC offered It’s Happening, a daytime variety show hosted by Paul Revere and the Raiders. You’d know that Michelle Phillips and Cass Elliott still commanded the dance floor at the Playboy Mansion, even though The Mamas and the Papas hadn’t cracked the Top 40 in a year. You’d know that movie theaters weren’t yet sliced and diced into bowling alley–sized auditoriums, that movies stayed in release for months instead of being whisked through in a few weeks, that paperbacks could fit in the back pocket of your jeans, that people listened to music on vinyl, which they kept in leaning, front-facing stacks (the better for flipping through) near their record player. You’d know that clothes and cars looked cooler. You’d now that Musso & Frank, then, as now, Hollywood’s oldest restaurant, looked the same in 1969 as it does in 2019. And you’d think that the stars of about-to-be forgotten TV westerns, like James Stacy or Wayne Maunder, performers who seemed hopelessly square in terms of the new era, were the absolute shit.
In other words, Once Upon a Time is pop Proust conducted by a master reverist who has never forgotten the smallest detail of the culture that obsessed him as a young boy. The greatest revision Tarantino achieves here is the vitality with which he infuses a world that, even at the time, was creaking. This might not be your pop-cultural paradise, not your 1969, or the one you’d recreate if you could. But rarely has a filmmaker’s nearly fetishistic recreation of the past been as brimming with affection as this one.
Tarantino frames this reverie through the story of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), the star of a cancelled TV western (it looks a lot like Wanted Dead or Alive, the show that made Steve McQueen a star) whose movie career never took hold and who’s been reduced to guest shots in TV series, usually as the villain. Rick is barely hanging on to his L.A. bachelor pad on Cielo Drive and cannot drive because of a final DUI. He gets around town with the help of Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), his former stunt double whose work dried up with Rick’s career and who now makes just enough as Cliff’s gofer to tool around in a battered Karmann Ghia and live in a dinged-up Airstream trailer near the Van Nuys Drive-In with his pit bull Brandy (a three-year-old beauty named Sayrui). Rick has just been offered a chance to go to Italy to make spaghetti westerns, and, taking the offer as confirmation that he’s a has-been, his fondness for booze and self-pity kick in. He looks at his new neighbors, Sharon Tate and her hotshot director husband Roman Polanski, and wonders why he can’t get cast in one of Polanski’s movies, why he can’t be taken seriously.
Cliff isn’t just Rick’s stunt double but a kind of model for the man Rick could be if had more fortitude. Rick, in his chocolate-brown leather jacket and mock turtleneck looks desperate to be thought of a hip, masculine action hero, while Cliff, in his worn Levis, suede moccasin boots, and Hawaiian shirt thrown carelessly over a Champion spark plugs T-shirt, looks effortlessly cool. The personas of these characters leak into the very texture of the performances. Bad acting does not come naturally to DiCaprio and at times he overdoes Rick’s fumblings and explosions. But DiCaprio is so likable he still gets us to laugh at Rick’s vanities—and to feel his insecurities.
Pitt has grown to embody the kind of quiet, unshowy yet charismatic authority that we associate with the great male movie stars. His performance, which also makes space to show off his talent for goofy comedy, is a dazzling piece of star acting. There is, in Cliff’s casual saunter through life, always a coiled possibility of violence. When someone is shining him on he wears a forbearing smile that says, “it’s a bad idea to fuck with me.” That’s the smile we see in the movie’s creepiest section, when Cliff finally picks up the sexy teenage hitchhiker (Margaret Qualley) he keeps seeing around town and gives her a lift to the place she calls home, Spahn Movie Ranch, headquarters of Charlie and the Family. Cliff knows the place from his days shooting TV westerns, and he finds it hard to believe that the owner, old George Spahn (Bruce Dern), could just give this ragged band of hippies permission to take it over.
Cliff is determined to find out what’s going on. Tarantino orchestrates the sequence as if it were one of the westerns Cliff shot at the ranch. He’s the stranger in town, making his way down the dusty main street, gradually realizing he’s stumbled into the middle of something as he’s watched suspiciously from the sidelines. The scene proceeds at a slow deadly pace, allowing the squalor of the surroundings to crawl under our skin, and to register the increasingly open hostility of the gradually massing inhabitants. None is more threatening than Dakota Fanning, utterly unnerving in her one scene as Squeaky Fromme. Instead of the cliché of the dead-eyed Manson follower, she is scarily, intensely alive.
From the minute it was announced that Tarantino was making a movie in which the Manson murders figured, he has been criticized on the assumption that he was so crass he was actually going to stage the killing of Sharon Tate and her friends. That Once Upon a Time does not depict the murders has not stopped the charges of exploitation, currently emanating from various piddling voices trumpeting their higher consciousness. It is a measure of grace that Sharon Tate is more here than just Hollywood’s most famous murder victim. Margot Robbie’s Sharon is this movie’s muse, the embodiment of the free spirit Tarantino sees in this vanished time. Tarantino isn’t pretending Tate was a great actress, or even a great star. She was one of the people he has taken delight in watching on screen, and he’s saying she deserves to be remembered for her life more than for her death. In one charming sequence, Sharon ducks into a Westwood theater to watch a matinee of The Wrecking Crew, the Matt Helm movie in which she was featured. She wants to hear a live audience respond to the movie, to her. And what we see is joyous. Sitting there with her huge oversized glasses, miming along as her onscreen character executes the martial arts moves she’s been taught by Bruce Lee, she breaks out into a big grin whenever the audience cheers her or laughs at her. The scene is both an act of generosity to Tate’s memory and a fan’s wish fulfillment—the notion that, after movie stars give us so much pleasure, we can return the favor. Sharon is the person on screen who looks at this world and says, Yes. And that is the key to Tarantino’s determination to give her a better ending.
In the issue of Rolling Stone dedicated to John Lennon’s assassination, the novelist Scott Spencer contributed an obituary in which he said that had he written the story of a talented, witty, charismatic, and daring man who gained the love of the world only to be murdered by a puny, twisted nobody, he would have been so ashamed he would have locked the thing away in a drawer and never shown it to anybody. The historical variations Quentin Tarantino invented for Inglourious Basterds, for Django Unchained, and now for Once Upon a Time all spring from that same conviction, that some stories deserve better endings. It also springs from Tarantino’s taste for retributive justice.
Alternative histories gain their power (and their poignancy) from our knowledge that things didn’t really happen this way. To pretend that a filmmaker or a novelist who imagines an alternate version of events is somehow dangerously altering available historical fact is to announce yourself unable to distinguish between the artist and the historian. That didn’t stop the film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum from calling Inglourious Basterds “morally akin to Holocaust denial” or saying about Once Upon a Time that Tarantino alters history to make his point in the same manner that Trump does. (A version of this nonsense, the filmmaker as Trump, was used against Martin Scorsese in some of the dumber pieces on Rolling Thunder Revue.)
The notion that revenge fantasies are inherently morally repellent seems to me the fear of people who keep their lids screwed on very tight. Nobody seems to get worked up when it’s children reading about Hansel and Gretel tricking the witch into the oven. But let Tarantino make R-rated adult fairy tales in which Jews take revenge on Nazis, or freed slaves on slaveholders, and some people start reacting as if enjoying them means your next step is applying for a guard job at Abu Ghraib. Charles Manson didn’t perpetrate the Holocaust, or the American holocaust of slavery. But the horror of what he and his followers wrought has lodged in our collective consciousness for fifty years. In Once Upon a Time they are the monsters ready to wreak havoc on the world Tarantino has so lovingly recreated. And so, as with all monsters in fairy tales, they must be destroyed. In order to believe, as some reviewers have charged, that the climax of the film constitutes some sort of sadistic relish in violence against women or hippies, you’d have to be willing to accept the Manson family as representative of all hippies or Susan Atkins (who said of Sharon Tate, “She kept begging and pleading and begging and pleading and I got sick of listening to it, so I stabbed her”) as a fitting representative for all women.
As Once Upon a Time leads up to what we think we know is coming, Tarantino keeps us off balance by affecting a light, casual tone. He allows one moment of pure dread as the Mansonoids make their way up Cielo Drive to the tune of the Mamas and the Papas’ 1967 hit “Twelve Thirty,” and we hear the lyric “young girls are coming to the canyon,” waiting all these years to be joined to the killers it unconsciously heralded. The unexpected collision of characters gets us laughing even as we’re so keyed up we’re about to come out of our skin. The release of the nearly unbearable tension comes much faster than you expect and proceeds to go so gruesomely far that you laugh even harder. It’s sick, absurd, outrageous, and bracingly, mercilessly funny.
What follows, though, restores the movie’s affectionate tone and serves as a kind of wish fulfillment, both for Rick and for Tarantino. Rick knows his Hollywood is on the way out, knows that his neighbors Sharon and Roman represent the new Hollywood that’s sweeping him aside, just as Tarantino knows this world of fading cowboy shows on TV and studios trying to carry on making the sort of pictures they always had has never gotten the same respect as the daring work that replaced it. That judgment may be critically just, but it doesn’t quell the love Tarantino feels for that fading world and for the people who created it. In the lovely final shot, an ending as simple as it is moving, Tarantino finds a way to introduce these worlds, both of them a part of the Hollywood he adores, to each other, and it happens as simply as two neighbors meeting. The real audaciousness of Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, its beating heart, is the way Tarantino turns Hollywood’s most infamous night of horror into the dawn of a beautiful day in the neighborhood.
Charles Taylor is the author of Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You.