Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood

Once upon a time, there was a girl who was a princess not by birth but by beauty. An idyllic childhood gave way to a charmed adulthood, but only outwardly: An evil man taught the princess that beauty can be a curse as much as it is a gift. She learned that to be beautiful is to be both worshiped and hunted at once. 

The princess reclaimed her beauty almost by accident. A traveling bard gifted her access to a faraway land called Hollywood, and her beauty took her the rest of the way. She crafted a dream where she had none before. A knight with shining hair loved her, and for a time she loved him in return. If the reality of her new life did not quite match her dreams, she didn’t mind. She was happy. She was beautiful. She was loved.

And then she met her prince.

This prince from a war-torn kingdom across the sea stole her heart from the knight, but the knight never stopped loving her. He stayed by her side as the prince and princess married, waiting for the princess to see who her prince really was. He loved her, yes, but his eyes and hands roved. Something broken in her allowed this humiliation to pass time and again, because she loved him. She wanted to keep him. But she was not happy.

The knight listened and bided his time. He stayed by the princess’s side when the prince went away to pursue his kingly craft. He comforted her when her belly grew big and her prince was still half a world away. He took care of her in all the ways her absent husband did not.

Still, the princess hoped at the end of that miserable hot summer that her prince would come home in time for the birth of their son. That this might change him, that their life would become the storybook romance everyone believed it to be. That they would be happy.

If this really were a fairy tale, that’s where it would end. The prince would come home in time to his princess, realize the error of his ways, and they would live happily ever after with their baby boy, a new prince in the kingdom of Hollywood. 

If this were a fairy tale, a band of brainwashed outlaws never would have entered the princess’s castle under cover of darkness. 

The knight, still by her side (along with another lord and lady sent to the castle by the prince to look after the lonely princess), never would have asked, “Who are you?” And the only man among the outlaws never would have answered, “I’m the devil, and I’m here to do the devil’s business.” 

This self-styled devil never would have shot the knight as he pleaded with the outlaws, imploring them not to hurt his princess. “Can’t you see she’s pregnant?”

The outlaws never would have stabbed and shot the knight, the lord, and the lady until they were dead. Until the princess was the only one left.

The princess never would have begged the most depraved of the outlaws to take her with them, to let her live until her baby was born in just two weeks. They could kill her then, she reasoned, so desperate, so scared. “Woman,” the demon girl never would have answered, brandishing her knife, “I have no mercy for you.”

You know the end of that story. It’s not a fairy tale. It never was.

But there’s some kind of power in the act of turning it into one. And that’s what makes Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film so special.


Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, it’s called. It’s an aptly named film because nothing in it is really true, but it’s peppered with facts. It’s an amalgamation of memory and feeling, history and invention, atmosphere and mundanity. It’s exactly what you think a Tarantino-style fairy tale might be.

For one, it focuses not on Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), but rather has-been western star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his loyal stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). The majority of the film follows Rick and Cliff’s separate and converging days on February 8 and 9, 1969, and six months later on August 8 and 9. Rick’s days in February take him through filming a pilot as he comes to terms with the nadir of his acting career; Cliff’s, meanwhile, take him to Spahn Ranch. Sharon, it should be mentioned, is Rick’s next-door neighbor on Cielo Drive.

I don’t have much to say about Rick and Cliff, even though Hollywood is ostensibly about them and their increasing irrelevance in a film and TV business that no longer needs them. Other reviews will focus on the two men, and I’ll let them, except to say this: Tarantino’s depiction of male friendship is at once beautiful and troubling. The narrator calls Rick and Cliff “more than brothers and less than wives,” which is the beautiful part: Their friendship is indelibly close, if a tad unequal, and Tarantino never has to justify it with anything resembling “no homo.” It’s clear they love each other and can’t function without each other, even as Rick’s pursuit of a second act threatens to separate them forever.

The troubling part? Rick stands up for Cliff when his reputation as a man who got away with murdering his wife nearly puts him out of work. Perhaps that’s Tarantino reflecting on his professional relationship with Harvey Weinstein and the way men in Hollywood let other men get away with the most terrible things they can possibly do to women. Still, Cliff’s past has almost no impact on his and Rick’s present, and thus assigning meaning to what is essentially a throwaway line feels a little too generous. But I guess that’s par for the course for Hollywood. Self-preservation is the order of the day; men in Tarantino’s position will always tread lightly when they should confront harshly.

The fact that Sharon has fewer lines and less screen time than Rick and Cliff will rankle some people. It would rankle me more if this were an earlier Tarantino, when he was more concerned with being clever than with being kind (Jackie Brown is, of course, the notable exception). With Sharon, his approach of “less is more” is downright brilliant because every scene gives her what she has been denied since the moment of her death. Every scene gives her a chance to simply be alive.

Tarantino has called Sharon the living ghost that walks through this film. He’s perfectly right; there are no other words to describe her. Sharon’s February and August days run parallel to Rick and Cliff’s, and they’re so normal that she could be anybody — except, not really, because she’s Sharon Tate, and even her most routine interactions with other people were given an air of unreality simply because she was so beautiful. Only someone like Sharon Tate could go from picking up what was probably a very expensive first edition of Tess of the D’Urbervilles — a present for her husband, who made a movie based on the book after her death — to getting into a movie theater for a screening of The Wrecking Crew (her last film) without paying the measly 75 cents to get in just because her lovely face is on the poster. 

Even at her lowest, Tate lived a star-touched life, but it’s virtually impossible to blame her for exerting that kind of privilege — partially because of her tragic murder, of course, but also because there wasn’t a malicious bone in her body. Proving herself to be one of the most capable actors her age, Margot Robbie captures that part of Tate’s character to heartbreaking perfection. The joy she feels at seeing herself in a movie and hearing the audience around her laugh and cheer for her character, the way she quietly but proudly does her Bruce Lee moves in tandem with her on-screen self, even the dorky glasses she puts on once she’s safely in the dark theater and out of the LA sun — that’s all just one scene, and with it, I feel like I know Sharon better now than I did before as a true-crime and Hollywood-history enthusiast who’s gotten lost in Manson lore more than once in my life.

And there’s the word I’ve been avoiding: Manson. Tarantino avoids him. too, placing him in one scene that depicts the single moment when Charles Manson’s life intersected with Tate’s. The moment is true but slightly altered for the sake of the narrative. In reality, it happened in March 1969, not February, and Jay Sebring (Sharon’s former boyfriend and current best friend, played by Emile Hirsch) was not the friend who informed Manson (Damon Herriman) that the house on Cielo Drive was no longer the Melcher residence, but the Polanskis’. Manson’s appearance is brief, as it should be. It’s also a little banal because Manson wasn’t an obvious criminal mastermind. He was a hippie with a weird vibe, a creep, and you can tell from Robbie’s body language that Sharon knew it.

“So many encounters of those years were devoid of any logic save that of the dreamwork,” Joan Didion writes of the late 1960s and her own recollections of the Manson murders in her famous essay, The White Album. It feels like a dream that Sharon met Manson at all, or that Cliff drives a pretty hippie hitchhiker (Margaret Qualley) to Spahn Ranch, where he meets would-be presidential assassin Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning) and the three future murderers of Cielo Drive. It feels like a dream that Sharon died in real life because she lived in Terry Melcher’s old house, and Melcher was the record producer who finally squashed Charles Manson’s dreams of becoming a rock star.

(Slight tangent: It’s interesting to consider that Melcher was second-generation Hollywood — he was the son of Doris Day — while Tarantino populates his Manson family with second-generation Hollywood girls, namely Qualley, Maya Hawke and Harley Quinn Smith.)

It’s this dreamlike quality that Tarantino really nails in Hollywood. At times, it feels like the film is taking too long, lingering on TV sets that seemingly have no bearing on where you think the story is going to end, until you realize those long scenes serve a dual purpose. First, they envelope you in this dreamlike Hollywood that no longer exists — and, like a dream, it’s often fairly mundane. Second, and more importantly, they help delay the inevitable. Tarantino doesn’t want to reach the end of the movie, and the end of Sharon’s story, any more than we do.

Which is why he changes it.

It’s not much of a spoiler to say Hollywood is alterna-history in much the same way Inglourious Basterds is. Just like Basterds, Tarantino changes the August events not to go down a wormhole of what-ifs but for catharsis. There is nothing satisfying about the real end of the Manson story. Yes, the perpetrators either died in prison or will die there soon, but Sharon is still dead and her baby was never born. That story leaves you feeling hollow. Tarantino knows that.

And so unlike Basterds, without grandiosity, he gives you want you want to see. What you wish would have happened in real life — a fairy-tale ending for a woman who did not deserve her real end, who did deserve to become the mother she wanted to be, and the justified (and Tarantino-level absurd) evisceration of the people who took that away from her. 

But then … changing the ending only makes it more sad, doesn’t it? Tarantino knows that, too. There is so much maturity in the end of Hollywood, so much weight. This movie may not be Tarantino’s masterpiece, but the ending certainly is because you can feel the bittersweet pill he is swallowing right along with you. You can feel the story-fied hope marred with truth. It’s his way of telling you it’s OK. 

Didion also wrote this in The White Album: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” In Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, Tarantino tells us that sometimes we have to rewrite stories in order to live, too. Sometimes rewriting them is the only way to make sense of them. And it’s OK to still feel sad when rewriting them changes nothing at all.



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Aly Caviness is lifelong film obsessive, co-owner / administrator of Midwest Film Journal, and member of the Indiana Film Journalist's Association. Through Lynch, her grandmother taught her how to spot “The Girl,” and through Frankenstein, her grandfather taught her how to love in spite of fear. She blames Jack Sparrow for her MA in colonial Atlantic history and Guy Pearce for her marriage.


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