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The Cultural History Behind Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood

Note: the following article contains spoilers

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, a film filled with nostalgia for old movies, music, television programs, cars, and celebrities, is Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to Los Angeles.  In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, the writer/director declared:  “I grew up in Los Angeles….the only people who love it the right way, are the people who grew up here….The film became a big memory piece.”  Though he does not make much of an effort to dig deep into historical issues, he creates a cast of characters (some real, some fictional) and provides images that offer an interesting and sometimes provocative glimpse of life in L.A. in 1969. He also explores some of the tensions between old-time Hollywood and the 1960s counterculture that was becoming more prevalent and menacing by the end of the decade.  Tarantino leaves few doubts about where his sympathies lie.  

The plot, if we can call it that, is very simple, covering just three days in 1969, two in February and the October day of the Manson family massacre.  We follow the activities of two fictional aging Hollywood figures, a former big time TV star, Rick Dalton, (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).  Dalton is passed his prime as an actor and is struggling to remain relevant, though his roles are now limited to playing the “bad guy,” which talent agent Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino) tells him is the kiss of death.  The movie also follows Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) as she shops for presents for her husband Roman Polanski, sees herself in a movie, and parties at the Playboy Mansion with numerous celebrities.  As Rick works on the set of the TV show The Lancer, Cliff spends his days fighting Bruce Lee, fixing Rick’s TV antenna, and picking up a hitchhiker who happens to be a member of the Manson “family.”  After a six-month stay in Italy where Rick tries to revive his career by taking roles in spaghetti westerns, Rick and Cliff return to LA several hours before the time of the massacre. 

Los Angeles was (and still is) a city filled with cars. Many scenes in the movie are set in cars travelling through the remarkably recreated streets of 1960s L.A. The director emphasizes the personal nature of the film by using shots in moving cars that are pointed upwards, as if from the perspective of a six-year-old Tarantino sitting  inside his stepfather’s Karmann-Ghia, which happens to be the type of car that Cliff drives when he’s not using Rick’s. Through the eyes of a child, we see the billboards for old products like RC and Diet Rite Cola, movie theater marquees announcing names of films being shown, and, of course, classic cars like Mustangs, Cadillac Coupe de Villes, and VW Beetles.  The producer acquired nearly 2,000 cars to use in the background to help set the tone. Avid car enthusiasts may be bothered by the inclusion of some cars that had not been produced before 1969, but the overall impact of the old cars in the film is terrific.  

Car radios supply much of the soundtrack throughout the film, which includes a number of hit songs by well-known artists who remain popular to this day, such as Neil Diamond, Deep Purple, and Simon and Garfunkel. Yet the soundtrack goes beyond a predictable 60s-greatest-hits collection and includes numerous songs by lesser known acts like the Buchanan Brothers, the Box Tops, Buffy Saint-Marie, and Willie Mitchell, which puts the viewer in the back seat of a car listening to whatever happens to come on the radio, just as it would have been in 1969 before the days of personal playlists and specialized satellite radio channels.  We even have to hear the commercials. Tarantino also includes some news bulletins, including one on Sirhan Sirhan, Robert Kennedy’s assassin.  (More of these kinds of bulletins would have added to the richness of the historical context.)  The soundtrack also raises some interesting references in the film. For example, Cliff is listening to “Mrs. Robinson” as he eyes a flirtatious hippie teenager named Pussycat, who ends up being a member of Manson’s cult.  In an interesting twist on the song and the film with which it is inextricably linked, The Graduate, the older Cliff rebuffs Pussycat’s precocious sexual advances because she can’t provide proof of her age.  The scene also brings to mind a comparison with one of the historical figures in the film, Polanski, who in 1977 sexually assaulted a thirteen-year-old girl.  

More than anything else, Once Upon a Time is about the entertainment industry, and it is filled with dozens of references to movies and TV programs.  In one of the more memorable scenes, in the middle of the day Sharon Tate walks into an LA theater showing Wrecking Ball, starring herself and Dean Martin, and asks the manager if she can go in for free because she is in the movie, just as Tarantino had once done while trying to impress a date by taking her to see True Romance, which he had written.  Instead of reshooting scenes from Wrecking Ball with Margot Robbie playing Tate’s role, we see the actual fight scene between Tate and Nancy Kwan that was choreographed by Bruce Lee, as the fictional Tate (Robbie) soaks up the audience’s reaction.  In this writer’s favorite scene, as Rick reflects on how his career would have been so different had he been given the role of Virgil Hilts in The Great Escape instead of Steve McQueen, Tarantino splices Rick into the actual movie.  We see Rick’s Hilts defiantly delivering the same lines (“I intend to see Berlin…before the war is over”) to Commandant von Luger as he is sent to “the cooler” after his first escape attempt was thwarted. We also see many classic TV programs like Mannix in the background of several scenes, a show Brad Pitt told Entertainment Weekly was his father’s favorite. The film includes many actors playing the stars of the era.  At a party at the Playboy Mansion, we see Michelle Phillips, Momma Cass, and Roman Polanski.  Damian Lewis, who bears a striking resemblance to Steve McQueen, makes the iconic star seem rather creepy and strange as he talks about Tate and Polanski’s relationship.  Mike Moh’s portrayal of Bruce Lee is also unflattering, so much so that the martial arts star’s family publicly objected to it.  

An overarching theme of the film is the clash of old Hollywood and the counterculture.  Early in the film, a group of teenage hippies—who end up being part of the Manson cult—is shown digging through a dumpster as they sing the lyrics to an actual Charles Manson song, “I’ll Never Say Never to Always”:  “Always is always forever/As long as one is one/Inside yourself for your father/All is more all is one.”  Rick and Cliff, the Hollywood heroes, are repulsed as they catch a glimpse of the hippies in the dumpster and they frequently show contempt for them throughout.  Though Manson (Damon Herriman) appears only once in the film driving his Twinkie truck outside the Tate/Polanski home months before the murders, his presence is felt throughout by the way his “family” members talk about him.  There is a very convincing portrayal of the cult at its home base at Spahn Ranch, an old site used in westerns like the ones Rick used to star in.  

Cliff, a decorated war veteran from either World War II or Korea, is the hero in this movie.  It’s not hard to imagine Cliff doing stunts for actors like Gary Cooper and John Wayne. Though Cliff was rumored to have killed his wife (in a flashback, we see Cliff on a boat pointing a spearfishing gun at his wife as she berates him for being a “loser,” but we don’t see him pull the trigger), he acts with a cool, detached dignity for most of the film. For example, after refusing Pussycat’s sexual advances in his car, he drops her at Spahn Ranch where she lives with dozens of members of the Manson “family.” He asks the teen and other members of the cult about George Spahn (Bruce Dern), whom he remembers from his work on Rick’s TV show at the ranch. In his attempt to get to Spahn, Cliff encounters Squeaky Fromme (the future would-be assassin of Gerald Ford played by Dakota Fanning), who refuses to allow the stuntman to see Spahn. (Tarantino accurately portrays the fact that Fromme had a transactional sexual relationship with Spahn that enabled the cult to live at his ranch.  Spahn also gave her the infamous nickname by which she is known.)  Cliff calmly yet firmly informs Squeaky that he’s coming in and that she can’t stop him. Once convinced that Spahn is not threatened by the hippies, Cliff leaves the ranch, but not before pummeling one of the male cultists for slashing his tire.  

As the time of the massacre approaches, the washed-up Hollywood duo are hardly in any condition to heroically prevent the horrific violence at Tate’s home next door to Rick’s.  As the Manson murderers walk up Ciello Drive, Rick is drunk, floating in the pool with headphones on, and Cliff is at the beginning of an LSD trip from an acid-laced cigarette. At this point, Tarantino abandons the original events and creates a fictional ending.  Instead of breaking  into Tate’s home, the three cult members (four were actually present) go to Rick’s, only to be brutally beaten (in Tarantino-style violence) by Cliff and mauled by his pit bull.  Rick is oblivious to all of this until one of the screaming assailants jumps into his pool to escape.  As if to punctuate the point that these old- time heroes are still relevant, Rick retrieves a flame thrower used in one of his movies to incinerate a group of Nazi officers, and turns it on the girl flailing in the pool to eliminate the threat of the cult.  (We see the scene from Rick’s movie earlier, and it’s a clear reference to the climax of Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds.)  The film concludes with a pregnant Sharon Tate and one of the other guests greeting Rick and finding out about all the commotion. Old Hollywood has saved the day.  

Make no mistake, this movie is a folktale, just as the title suggests.  Tarantino does not really attempt to explore in any great depth the many critical political, economic, and social developments at this critical juncture in history.   Viewers looking for signs of the environmental distress in the city brought on by the ubiquitous cars, racial tensions in the aftermath of the Watts riots, or other issues confronting the city will be sorely disappointed.  But like most folktales, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is filled with interesting characters, events, and messages from a bygone era.