Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

I figured a second viewing was necessary to cement my feelings. I was right, but what it cemented was still a profound ambivalence.

To begin with, I have to admit that this film is endlessly fascinating to me on a metatextual level. I'm considering the irony of Rick Dalton's lamentable villain roles against Quentin Tarantino's own gallery of iconic villains; I'm examining the correlation between Cliff Booth and QT's other stuntman-turned-unproven-woman-killer Stuntman Mike; I'm pondering the significance of Uma Thurman's daughter, Maya Hawke, playing the one Manson Girl to be spared from the climactic bloodbath. And more than anything, I'm challenging this dreamy depiction of Old Hollywood from a director known to be far more influenced by the sordid and violent crime, exploitation, and martial arts films of the 1970s, following the Tate-LaBianca murders. For this reason, I resist classifying this movie as a straight-up nostalgia trip. Yet it's still outrageously conservative for Hollywood's most famous rebel filmmaker.

For one thing, Tarantino egregiously deletes the racist ideology at the very heart of the Manson Family. It was literally their raison d'etre to start a race war. This omission feels especially strange on the heels of QT's most recent socially-conscious work (Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight). Hell, Charles Manson even had a swastika carved into his head in prison like he was a fucking Basterds villain. Yet there is not the slightest hint of this fundamental ideology in the entire film. Even the Family's takeover of Spahn Ranch seems to be regarded as a perversion or betrayal of the classic Westerns that had been filmed there, rather than a natural continuation of that genre's historically entrenched racism -- of which Quentin Tarantino is unquestionably aware ("Red Blood, Red Skin" has to be the most blatantly racist title for a Western that I have ever heard).

Lacking any nuance, Tarantino chooses instead to conflate the Manson Family with the 1960s counterculture, apparently ignorant of how Manson himself exploited the Hippie movement and preyed upon its young women. In QT's mind, the Manson Family appears to be unironically representative of radical feminism. I keep thinking, for instance, of how Tex declares that they've been ordered to make the murder scene look "witchy," a very gendered word (and not in any way indicative of their actual directive, which was: make it look like the Black Panthers did it -- again, fucking racist). I also keep thinking of the opening-day audience's audible disgust at Pussycat's armpit hair when she draped herself over Cliff's lap. It's specifically in this way that the film seems to even create a kind of Madonna/whore dichotomy between the Manson Girls and Sharon Tate. While on a certain level I do appreciate the attempt to humanize and honor Tate as the sweet, lively woman that she was known to be, she also serves here as an angelic symbol of model femininity -- the kind that conforms to the patriarchal systems of Hollywood and beyond, as she parties at the Playboy Mansion and appears literally barefoot and pregnant.

As a result of all this (not to mention the timing), whether intentional or not, the whole film ultimately reads as Quentin Tarantino's knee-jerk reaction to the fall of Harvey Weinstein and the rise of Time's Up in Hollywood. Many people have noted Cliff & Rick's obvious similarities to Weinstein & Tarantino: the close personal and professional partnership between the behind-the-scenes powerhouse and the sensitive artist, the alleged abuser of women and his apologist. What I refute, though, is any claim of a remorseful reckoning on QT's part. Cliff is never characterized as anything other than a cool dude, a great friend, and finally a hero, as the opening-day audience literally laughed and cheered at the sight of this suspected wife-murderer brutally smashing the faces of the new-wave feminists out to destroy him.

And this narrative even carries over into the real-life production of the film itself, with the casting of Emile Hirsch as Jay Sebring. In 2015, Emile Hirsch was convicted of assault for strangling a young Hollywood producer, Daniele Bernfeld, to the point of unconsciousness after she spurned his sexual advances at a nightclub at the Sundance Film Festival. Yes, it literally happened at the Sundance Film Festival in front of dozens of witnesses; there is no way in hell that everyone in Hollywood, including Quentin Tarantino, didn't hear about it. So judging by his longtime support of men like Roman Polanski, Harvey Weinstein, and now Emile Hirsch, Tarantino definitely seems to believe that it doesn't matter what horrible thing a man does to a woman (or a 13-year-old girl), as long as that man makes or fascilitates great art. It honestly makes me wonder if he might even feel differently about Sharon Tate's murder if Charles Manson had been a better/more successful musician.

Anna liked these reviews