Warning: Significant spoilers ahead for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
More and more often these days, press screenings for movies are preceded by warnings to critics, asking them not to spoil the movie in their reviews. It’s an attempt to preserve a movie’s sense of surprise in an era where outlets race to jump-start the online discourse about new releases, as if a starter pistol went off at the beginning of every movie.
Generally, the anti-spoiler requests are reasonable. But the entreaties around Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood felt particularly odd. “Please don’t spoil this movie about the 1969 Manson Family murders” sounds as counterintuitive as the warnings issued over the Lion King remake. Doesn’t everyone already know how these stories turn out? Isn’t this information readily available to anyone with an internet connection?
But given Tarantino’s involvement, the spoiler warnings make more sense. Starting 10 years ago with his World War II epic Inglourious Basterds, Tarantino has made a hobby of histories so revisionist that they turn historical fiction into pulp. The audacity of this approach is clearest and most thrilling in Basterds, with its much-discussed alternate ending to the war. But Tarantino applied a similar history-as-wish-fulfillment technique to the Westerns he made next, too. Django Unchained has a freed slave wreaking vengeance on a Southern plantation. The Hateful Eight is less of a fantasy, but it still reimagines American history as a locked-room mystery inspired in part by old TV shows.
Classic (and not-so-classic) television also figures into Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino’s latest fake history project. Grouping it with his other historical rewrites isn’t a spoiler on its own because long before the film gets to the August night when a group of Charles Manson’s followers murdered actress Sharon Tate and four other people, the movie has established a series of playful fabrications around its historical re-creations. Though the story includes plenty of real people — including Tate (Margot Robbie), her husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), members of their Hollywood social circle, and members of the Manson “family” — the movie’s two biggest characters are not available in historical accounts. Tarantino’s leads were inspired by a number of real-life sources, but Tate and Polanski did not actually live next door to a fading-star TV actor named Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) whose longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) has become an all-purpose handyman and valet as Rick’s career has downshifted.
Though Rick — and, by extension, the more laid-back Cliff — are stuck wondering whether there’s a place for their TV Western skill set in a changing Hollywood, Tarantino clearly feels right at home noodling around in 1969 Los Angeles. Despite his interest in toying with broader historical issues, the writer-director is still seen largely as a preserver, appreciator, and remixer of cinematic history, an image Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does not dispel. But it does further blur the lines between our reality and Tarantino’s fictions with a cheekiness that connects it to his alternate narratives about WWII and slavery.
In Pulp Fiction, Tarantino makes plenty of pop-culture references, sometimes to real shows (Green Acres and Kung Fu) and sometimes to fake entries in real genres. (Even in the world of the movie, the Charlie’s Angels ripoff Fox Force Five never got past the pilot stage.) Hollywood’s version of this involves more visual trickery, with actual scenes from Bounty Law, the fictional TV show that made Rick Dalton a semi-star, and digitally fudged scenes from real shows like FBI, where Rick books a guest-star gig a few years after Bounty Law is canceled. There are even snippets where Rick imagines himself into a scene in the real Steve McQueen movie The Great Escape, in a role he supposedly just missed out on.
Tarantino uses subtler visual tricks to rewrite history, too. At one point during an up-and-down day in the life of Rick, Cliff, and their neighbor Sharon, Rick is shooting a guest spot on a different TV Western (the real-life show Lancer, with actual actor James Stacy being played by neo-cowboy Timothy Olyphant). Tarantino shows the audience a substantial chunk of the episode as Rick shoots his scenes, but filming continues for an unnaturally long time, and Tarantino keeps the actual filmmaking apparatus — the cameras, crew, and director — off-screen as much as possible.
He’s not just showing the episode as it would look on the air, as he does elsewhere in the film. He plays the scene out as a continuous story, shot more or less the way Tarantino would shoot one of his movie Westerns, complete with gorgeous Robert Richardson cinematography and striking, deliberate camera angles that wouldn’t be a part of a typical ’60s television production. Eventually, though, Rick blows a line and the reality of his job intrudes.
Some of this trickery is doubtless for Tarantino’s amusement. (Supposedly, he’s written a small batch of full Bounty Law episodes and would love to shoot them with DiCaprio, though he concedes this is unlikely.) But it also forms a powerful thematic backbone in a movie that often ambles along delightfully. In one of its loveliest scenes, Robbie’s Tate impulsively decides to watch one of her own movies at a real theater. Robbie’s reactions, as she takes private satisfaction when her on-screen antics get laughs from the crowd, are beautifully acted. They’re also paired with images from The Wrecking Crew that don’t appear to be doctored to feature Robbie in place of her real-life character. Robbie’s Tate watches the real Sharon Tate on-screen, and the effect is strangely transporting.
Rick is less confident about his place in Hollywood. It’s a source of explicit anxiety. He mentions to Cliff early on that he bought his house early in his career to establish himself as a real Los Angeles resident, not someone who’s just visiting and renting. That unease informs his actions throughout the film, and it makes Sharon Tate’s unselfconscious lack of it feel like a relief. She’s still in the stage of career (or the state of mind) where she can look up at the screen and simply enjoy seeing herself in a movie. Tarantino isn’t just playing with his audience’s perception of reality; to varying degrees, he’s making that part of his characters’ experiences and psychology, too.
Of course, the characters aren’t aware of what happens to the real Sharon Tate and her friends on the evening of August 8th, 1969. When Once Upon a Time in Hollywood reaches that fateful night, it pulls an Inglourious Basterds, only more so. Basterds let its characters kill off Hitler a little early and end World War II. Hollywood has Rick unwittingly intercept the Manson flunkies, which changes their path. Instead of coming for Sharon Tate and company, they impulsively refocus on the pernicious influence of television and decide to kill the TV gunslinger instead.
At first, it seems like Tarantino is going to sacrifice Rick and Cliff so Sharon Tate can live. But while Tarantino is capable of mercilessness (see The Hateful Eight), he evidently cares too much about his characters here to sacrifice them. Rick and Cliff fight off their attackers, dispatching them with bursts of horror-movie gore. It’s a slasher movie in reverse, with the wannabe slashers subjected to gruesome “kills.” The fairy-tale title of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (imitating the prelude to Basterds, with its “once upon a time in Nazi-occupied France…”) turns out to be accurate: Tarantino, in the end, gives Cliff, Rick, and Sharon happy endings.
Cliff is physically wounded, but no one suffers emotionally. Even Rick, who is less of a fighting machine than his double, gets to live out his flamethrower-abetted Hollywood fantasies, emerging merely “shook up” and ready for a relaxing, possibly career-boosting drink with his neighbor Sharon and her friends. The movie ends with Rick and Sharon meeting, warmly, for the first time.
At first glance, this looks like grindhouse-seasoned wish-fulfillment, aiming for the same giddy liberation from textbook history that comes when Hitler is machine-gunned to death on-screen. (Although it’s also ickier to witness such brutal, gory justice meted out to impressionable young women, even bloodthirsty, fictionalized ones.) But as a culmination of the movie’s fantasy-reality blur, it’s more than a Basterds encore, just as Basterds itself was more than a violent revenge fantasy.
Even Tarantino’s most obviously pastiche-heavy films, like Kill Bill or Death Proof, tend to play fine on their own terms for his many fans who might not actually share any of his reference points. At the same time, even his most sincere moments are rarely too far from some kind of movie reference, whether subtle or explicit. But his historical revisions do feel like a reassertion that his movies have more to say than just regurgitating references. By and large, his messing with history is a successful story gambit, startling and satisfying.
And Tarantino’s other recent subjects now look eerily prescient. The Inglourious fight against fascism and Nazi-ism feels even more cathartic now than it did a decade ago. The uniquely American cocktail of racism, misogyny, and lies at the center of The Hateful Eight now plays like a lurid coming attraction for the presidential election that happened less than a year after its release.
Despite the climactic violence, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is one of Tarantino’s gentler efforts, and it’s less attuned than his other work to the way historical atrocities echo into our present and our future. He’s embedded in pop culture again, particularly the movies, looking at an event understood as a cultural turning point, and musing over whether that turning point could have been delayed or even avoided. By focusing on Hollywood, in particular, he avoids hoary “loss of innocence” narratives that risk sanitizing and romanticizing the past.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has its nostalgic elements, but what makes its low-key final moments oddly touching is the wistfulness over a sense of community. Rick wants the comfort and security Sharon has, things that were cruelly taken from her in real life. At first, this seems like he envies her youth or her promising career. But whether he fully realizes it or not, Rick is ultimately looking for a sense of belonging. Inglourious Basterds saw many of its heroic characters meet tragic ends, but it was also a tribute to the power of cinema, with its heroine’s head projected over the anti-Nazi violence like a vengeful ghost. Tarantino’s new movie believes in that power, too.
But even as he bends reality, his alterations to history don’t appear so supernatural this time. He recognizes that cinema’s power comes from people working together, helping and protecting each other. Hollywood is bloody and messy, but its aims are sweet, bordering on cornball. The fantasy it’s offering goes beyond the righting of a historical wrong. For a moment, Tarantino’s fairy-tale Hollywood looks like an unlikely American utopia.