Tuesday January 28, 2020
Movie Review: Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood (2019)
It’s not until we see the title at the end that we realize we didn’t see it at the beginning. We also realize why. At the end, it’s an admission. The author is basically saying he did his best but he can’t change history like he did with “Inglourious Basterds.” He’s breaking the fourth wall. I’d argue it’s the most poignant moment in any Quentin Tarantino movie but I’m not sure what else would rank. Poignant isn’t a word we normally associate with the man.
Thinking of QT’s movies, I recall George Will’s distilment of football as “violence punctuated by committee meetings.” Like that, but reversed. Tarantino puts two people together, they yak and yak, then it’s blood on the wall. The people who admire Tarantino and those who don’t basically agree that this is what he does.
Less commented upon is Tarantino’s penchant for resurrection. He started with careers (John Travolta, Pam Grier, et al.), then it was onto genres (grindhouse, spaghetti westerns). Now he’s trying to resurrect an entire time and place. He wants his childhood back—Los Angeles 1969—but he wants it to end right. He’s trying to banish an absolute evil.
The whole movie feels like an enormous act of will.
Poor Easy Breezy
Tarantino stuffs it all in, doesn’t he? “Mannix” and “The Illustrated Man” and “C.C. & Company.” I was reminded a bit of Philip Roth resurrecting every shop in the Italian section of Newark in “I Married a Communist,” and J.D. Salinger telling us the entire contents of the Glass family medicine cabinet in “Zooey.“
Does all the detail make the movie a bit uneven? Oh yeah. We get, what, two days in February 1969, then the big August night six months later, and it’s kinda sorta tied together with some Kurt Russell narration, but it feels clumsy. Plus Tarantino keeps tossing in the unnecessary. He can’t kill his little darlings.
Like that early scene at Musso & Frank, where Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), is talking to a new agent, Murray Schwarz (Al Pacino), and we’re getting a sense of where Rick’s career has gone since he starred in “Bounty Law” in the early ’60s. Schwarz talks up the movies he’s done, including “The 14 Fists of McCluskey,” a low-budget “Dirty Dozen”-type of WWII movie whose flame-thrower finale will factor into this movie’s finale. But then he mentions “Bounty Law” again? And we get a clip from the show? I mean, the clip is perfect: from the suspense line (“I’ll be sure to introduce you when he gets here”), to the camera closing in on Rick/Jake as the music wells before commercial cut. But we already know “Bounty Law.” It feels like we’re spinning our wheels here.
Or take the “Hullabaloo” bit: Rick in skinny tie and cig singing and kind of twisting with Hullabaloo cheerleaders dancing around him. Fun? Yes. Necessary? Nah. We’re already getting Rick’s downward career trajectory—guest-starring as the villain on other people’s shows, each time making himself less viable as the potential hero again. This is just another wrong choice.
And yet ... I get it why Tarantino can’t let it go. Rick is trying to prove his cultural bona fides on a mid-60s hipster variety show that normally features the Lovin’ Spoonful or the Mamas and the Papas, and he singing “Behind the Green Door”? A #1 single by Jim Lowe from 1956? It’s exactly wrong for what he’s trying to do. Then you dig deeper and see even more connections. Lowe, it turns out, was from Missouri, which is where Rick hails from; he was also a one-hit wonder, which is what Rick worries he is. And in a few years, this song will be less associated with the safe 1950s (Rick’s heyday) than the decadent ’70s when it becomes the title of a hit porno starring Marilyn Chambers. Rick thinks he’s looking backwards to a safe place but the future holds other plans. As it always does.
Did we need to go to the Playboy Mansion to see Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) dancing with Michelle Phillips and Mama Cass, while Steve McQueen (Damien Lewis) talks about the Tate/Polanski/Jay Sebring love triangle? Of course not. McQueen is only in the movie for this scene. And yet ... connections. McQueen also starred in a late ’50s show about a bounty hunter (“Wanted: Dead or Alive”), then made the successful leap into film stardom that Rick couldn’t. We saw part of that leap, “The Great Escape,” with Rick imagining himself in the role. More, McQueen was friends with Sharon; on the fateful night, he was supposed to visit her. He could’ve been there—to either die in gruesome fashion or maybe change the course of history, as Rick and Cliff wind up doing. It’s all about paths taken and not. Rick imagines himself as a McQueen movie hero but maybe becomes a real-life one instead.
I could go on. Instead of the obvious films of 1968/1969—“Bullitt,” “Funny Girl,” “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid”—Tarantino stuffs in references to mostly forgettable ones:
- “Lady in Cement”
- “The Wrecking Crew”
- “Ice Station Zebra”
- “The Boston Strangler”
- “Mackenna’s Gold”
What do they have in common? Each features a 1950s star trying to stay relevant: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Rock Hudson, Tony Curtis and Gregory Peck. But the cultural tide is shifting; the clock is ticking. They’re reminders of what Rick is going through; of what we all eventually go through.
“Once Upon a Time...” has three big set pieces that take up the first two hours of the film:
- Sharon enjoying her own semi-celebrity and watching herself in “The Wrecking Crew”
- Rick on the set of the TV western “Lancer”
- Rick’s buddy and longtime stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), encountering the Manson family at the Spahn movie ranch
Alfred Hitchcock once said that the drama off camera is sometimes better than the drama being filmed, and that’s what the above Rick/Sharon scenes reminded me of. “The Wrecking Crew”? Awful. Sharon’s reaction to being in it? Glorious. Ditto “Lancer.” For us, the drama isn’t in the show but whether Rick can get it together. Look at his journey that day: from hungover arrival to back-and-forth with Trudi (Julia Butters), a precocious 8-year-old on the set who seems more assured about her craft and career than he does about his. Their dialogue is as close to a Jules/Vincent vibe as we get in this movie, but the payoff is emotional rather than violent. Describing “Easy Breezy,” the protagonist in the western he’s reading, whose downward trajectory is like his, he begins to break down; then he forgets his lines on the set (DiCaprio’s idea) and rants in his trailer (DiCaprio’s improv, brilliant); but it all leads to his triumph as the “sexy Evil Hamlet” on his throne, getting accolades from his director, Sam Wanamaker, as well as from Trudi, who whispers in his ear, “That was the best acting I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” So sweet. Also a little sad. That he needs it, I mean. Her whole life? She’s 8. But better this than his morning fumblings.
(Extra credit: Turns out “Lancer” was a real TV show, starring James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant), with the pilot episode directed by Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond). And that seemingly superfluous shot of Stacy leaving the set on his motorcycle? It’s an indication of what the future holds for him. Hammond, meanwhile, is best remembered as the oldest Von Trapp boy in “The Sound of Music” and Peter Parker/Spider-Man in the 1970s TV show. He’s another QT resurrection.)
If 1) and 2) match in Hitchcockian terms, 2) and 3) are variations on classic western confrontations. They’re High Noons. Rick is acting his on a TV set, of course. Cliff is also on a TV set—the Spahn movie ranch, where they shot “Bounty Law”—but the confrontation with the Manson family is real. Question: Would he have given a lift to Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) if it hadn’t been to Spahn? I get the feeling that Chatsworth was a no-go, but once he found out she and her friends were living at George Spahn’s place, he had to investigate.
That whole scene is like something out of a horror film. As Pussycat pulls Cliff along, silent, bedraggled women emerge from the storefronts. Pitt’s great here—that round, amused way he has of talking—but it’s such a creepy scene. I actually flashed on an earlier Pitt movie (“Se7en”) and feared some similar fate for George amid the mess, lassitude and warm Velveeta. Would he be tied up? Dead? When Cliff sees him on the bed and pulls him back, I was ready for the worst, but the payoff is humorous rather than violent. It’s just George (Bruce Dern), near blind, cantankerous as hell, misremembering Cliff, and wanting an afternoon nap so he can watch Sunday night TV with Squeaky (Dakota Fanning), the girl he thinks is his girlfriend but who is obviously manipulating him. She's so nuts she will attempt to assassinate the president of the United States in 1975.
The violence we expect isn't in the house but comes after Cliff leaves the house. I still don’t get what the Manson kids are doing here. Don’t they want Cliff gone? If so, why give him the flat tire? Just to fuck with him? I also don’t get the supposed suspense of retrieving Tex (Austin Butler) to confront Cliff, since Tex seems no match for him. Which, on the fateful night, turns out to be true.
On such a winter’s day
So, yes, the two parts of the movie—two days in February, one in August—are a bit clunky but they juxtapose well. In the beginning we see Polanski/Tate arriving at LAX, trailed by the press; in the second part, Rick returns from filming four spaghetti westerns in Italy with his new bride, Francesca Capucci (Lorenza Izzo). There’s just no press. That’s really the only real difference. Both couples are glamorous, both have someone else haul their matching luggage, and both go to basically the same place. They’re 100 yards apart. The Polanski place just has a gate. For all the good it did.
The soundtrack music is great, by the way, full of the well-played and obscure, but two moments stand out for me. The first is the first time Cliff sees Pussycat. She and other Manson kids have been dumpster diving, and as they pass Cliff’s car the two exchange looks, smiles, peace signs. And what’s playing on Cliff’s radio? “Mrs. Robinson.” Nice. Even nicer: that bass guitar twang when she turns to give Cliff another look.
The second moment is on August 8. As Cliff takes his dog for a walk, smoking his acid-dipped cigarette, members of the Manson family—three girls and Tex—pull into the long steep drive that leads to the rented home of Roman Polanski; and on the soundtrack, using irony like a scalpel, Tarantino plays The Mamas and the Papas’ “Twelve Thirty” with this exuberant line:
Young girls are coming to the caaaaan-yon!
Holy shit. John Phillips’ song is about how great Southern California is, particularly compared to New York City, which is “dark and dirty,” and where things are so broken the clock outside always reads 12:30. Time has like stopped there, man, but LA is the future. You lift your blinds, say “Good morning” and mean it. Right. Until the Manson kids are on the other side. Tarantino is playing the most pollyannaish song about So Cal at the moment that everything it stood for ended. (Cf., “California Dreamin.’” He didn't go with the famous, triumphant Mamas and Papas version but the plaintive, tired Jose Feliciano rendition. Perfect.)
Did I say two great soundtrack moments? Make it three. The third is at the very end.
I assumed Tarantino would fuck with the history. He killed Hitler in Paris in 1944, after all, so what are a few Manson kids? Even so, throughout, I had a sense of dread, which peaked as Tex and the three girls arrived on Cielo Drive. Then they‘re sent back down the hill by crazy, drunk Rick Dalton, wearing his short robe and holding his blender of margaritas. That’s the first step in changing history; Rick starts it. Then one of the girls flees with the car. Then Tex and the remaining two go to the wrong house.
I’m curious: Did Tarantino give Cliff the acid-dipped cigarette because Pitt was so good as the stoner Floyd in the QT-written “True Romance”? Either way, it works. Plus being stoned puts Cliff at a disadvantage. We assume he’ll take the kids easily otherwise. Or is being stoned an advantage? Tex doesn’t know what to make of him until it’s too late. The horrific violence that’s implied throughout is finally visited upon the ones who tried to bring it.
In the quiet afterwards, after the cops leave and Cliff is taken away in the ambulance, Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) appears on the other side of the gate; and he and Rick talk about what happened and how fucked up it is. Turns out Jay is a fan. So is Sharon. Two things are happening here. Rick is finally getting what he’s long wanted—entrée into the culturally relevant world of his neighbors. At the same time, we get to celebrate the fact that Jay, Sharon and their friends didn’t die horrific deaths. And as the gates open, we hear this eerie, ethereal sound that I initially associated with some early ’70 movie about, say, a haunted woman. Close. It’s from the 1972 Paul Newman movie “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean,” and it’s titled “Miss Lily Langtree”—his great unrequited love. That accounts for its eerie, “what might have been” quality. And that’s the sound I assume Tarantino was going for. Because this is when he owns up. With ”Langtree“ on the soundtrack, he finally puts the title on the screen, leading with “Once Upon a Time...” He doesn't let us leave the theater thrilling at the revenge fantasy. He’s telling us it was just a fairy tale. It’s what might have been.
Opening the gate
Is two hours and 41 minutes too long? Usually. But here it breezes by. It’s easy breezy. Doesn't mean there aren't problems. I don’t quite get the Kurt Russell narration. Is he supposed to be his character in the movie—Randy Miller—or a third-person omniscient narrator? And the scene with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) is troublesome. Lee has been treated worse in Chinese movies—see: “Ip Man: The Final Fight”—but there he wasn't repping his whole race; he was just repping himself.
That said, there aren’t many movies this rewarding when you go down the rabbit hole. Cultural references keep pinging off of one another like in a pinball machine.
Here’s another one and I’ll stop. I didn’t think about it until afterwards—until I thought about QT and resurrections. But the scene at the gate where Jay is talking up “The 14 Fist of McCluskey”? That’s basically Tarantino on “Blow Out” or ”Rio Bravo" or “Patrick” or any of the movies he loves and doesn’t give a shit if you do or not. He’s always been this way. He loves cool, but what he thinks is cool, not the culturally sanctioned cool. In the early ’90s, no one was less cool than John Travolta. To the industry, he was washed up. But then Tarantino opened the gate. He opened the gate for Pam Grier and Robert Forster in “Jackie Brown,” and David Carradine in “Kill Bill.” “Django” is chock full of forgotten actors from this period: Dennis Christopher, Tom Wopat, Don Stroud, Ted Neely—Jesus himself, buddy. He keeps doing it. And now he's done it with a fictional character. Maybe now, after this night, Rick will make a movie with Sharon Tate. Maybe it’ll be directed by Roman Polanski. In this fairy tale, his future is bright. He’s Rick Fucking Dalton forever.