Admittedly, I should probably confess that I went into seeing Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood with my expectations on the floor.
It was a first date activity that I suggested, and I can’t tell you which I was more disappointed by: the man or the film. Luckily, I’ve been conditioned by both dating cishet men and mainstream cinema to go in with the understanding that disappointment is absolutely always on the table.
For as long as I can recall, I have been fascinated with the Cielo Drive and LaBianca murders, the mind control, cult vibes, and acid soaked crimes of the Manson Family, and the general kitsch and loss of innocence that came about in Los Angeles in the summer of 1969. I was prepared to walk away from the film disappointed — mostly because the subject matter that it relies heavily upon is so deeply personal to me that it would be difficult for nearly anyone to get it “right,” as in, to my exact specifications.
Although my desire for a quality film about these topics has lingered for years, I realized going in that I had no reasonable expectation that my dream of a nuanced depiction of the events that occurred August 8th, 1969 in Los Angeles’ Benedict Canyon would be met in a film directed by Quentin Tarantino — especially considering that my opinion of his more recent work could be summed up with a gif of Shania Twain wearing that amazing leopard print outfit from the That Don’t Impress Me Much video. (The line “Okay, so you’re Brad Pitt?” is oh-so-relevant right now.)
So, ‘why even buy a ticket?’ you might be asking.
On one level, I think it’s really good thing that this film had such a solid opening weekend in this era of reboots and summer blockbusters that have so many sequels that they’re beginning to feel like feel like porn titles. I mean, is there really that big of a difference between Spider-Man 48 and Big Booty Incest Party 74?
In that respect, I’m glad that Chris or whatever (I think his name was Chris) paid $13 to Alamo Drafthouse on my behalf so I could see the film. We vote with our dollars. So, if we want more original, creative work to get green-lit by the powers that be, we have to go and see the few movies that are actually original, creative work.
If it would have been my money, I’d have rather it be spent on the Awkwfina driven film The Farewell, which is currently enjoying an 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But I also acknowledge that I’m privileged to live in a city in which I have easy access to independent cinema. I realize that I am no longer relying on the whims of a big box cineplex like I was when I first went to see the Kill Bill films and Death Proof in my local mall’s Kerasotes theatre in high school.
On another level, I think (some possibly naive) part of myself still carried out some hope that the man who created the spectacular titular character of Jackie Brown could somehow muster in him the ability to take some existing human women (Sharon Tate, Sadie Atkins, Squeaky fucking Fromme) and make them shine on screen.
But, alas, I once again found myself walking away from something a white man created with the gif of Jason Bateman as Michael Bluthe in my head saying “I don’t know what I expected…”
Of course, being familiar with Tarantino’s body of work, I was also not expecting historical accuracy in the slightest. I realized that was unrealistic; but to the film’s credit, the scenery, the music, and the costumes were so spot on to what I had imagined them to be while listening to Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This podcast season on Charles Manson’s Hollywood. I enjoyed this part of Once Upon a Time immensely — so much so that it almost held my attention throughout the entire duration of the two hour and 45 minute film.
My biggest points of contention lie with the story, and in particular, who’s story it is being told and, of course, who is telling it. (Spoilers abound.)
I don’t even really care to get too deeply into the plot because I am already so inundated with white guy bullshit through the course of every day life that it feels exhausting to willingly discuss more of it, but here we go:
Basically, Leonardo DiCaprio is a washed ass star of TV Westerns or some shit, and Brad Pitt is, like, our underdog-but-really-a-misunderstood-hero character. And woe is him, because he used to be a stunt man, but now he can’t work, all due to a silly, petty little misunderstanding… IN WHICH HE MURDERED HIS WIFE. But he has a cute dog that he loves, and he is a loyal friend to Leo’s comparatively selfish character, and he opts not to statutorily rape a hot underage hippie. And in his defense, his wife was being REALLY annoying, so we are led to believe he is an Official Good Guy.
Anyway, on the night of August 8th 1969, our good old boys get drunk and, predictably, shenanigans ensue.
At the same time, Tex Watson, Sadie Atkins, and a character who is unnamed in the film, but I can infer from my knowledge of actual events, is Patricia Krenwinkel, are out doing their “creepy crawl” thing. They have been given instructions from their cult leader, Charles Manson, to go to the Cielo Drive home that was once occupied by record producer Terry Melcher, and murder its new occupants in a “witchy” manner.
(The use of the word “witchy” here is one of the few plot devices that Tarantino borrows from the real life events, and as a member of the Witch community, I’d personally like to say fuck you very much.)
Anyway, in a very on-the-nose twist in Tarantino’s wet dream, those silly hippies end up at the wrong house! Zoinks! Brad’s character is on acid (and if this were even remotely historically accurate, his would-be assailants probably would have been, too) but he’s still 100% That Pitt, so he brutally beats the Manson Family kids to death — save for the Sadie Atkins character, whom Leo’s character takes out with a flame thrower that he casually keeps on hand in the shed out back, should such an occasion arise.
Our boys save the day, and probably go on to grow old to become delightful old Tr*mp supporters who have gotten away with all kinds of murder and mayhem. Ah, good old days. Makes ya really wanna make America great again.
Their heroism also allows Sharon Tate and her pals to remain safe and sound on Cielo Drive, and also hopefully prevents her wretched husband Roman Polanski from going on to commit his own future statutory rape, since he can’t blame it on the murders. And I have to admit, for a moment, it did feel nice to imagine an alternate universe in which this is what happened.
But as I was walking out of the theatre and getting my bearings after spending nearly three hours of my life lost in that universe, my feminist instincts came creeping back to me (they always do that, darn them) and I was like, you know what? Fuck this movie.
The portrayals of all the film’s female characters, aside from maybe one scene in which someone’s wife objects to a work environment in which an unpunished domestic violence perpetrator is allowed to pick fights on set with Bruce Lee, are utterly insipid.
I challenge anyone who has just watched Dakota Fanning’s pretty one-note portrayal of the well known eccentric Manson family member Squeaky Fromme to spend a minute or two reading through her Wikipedia page.
That woman is what we might colloquially refer to as “a character” — so, as to say, she’s out there, to say the least. You’d damn near have to try to make depiction of her come across as lackluster; and yet, the film portrays her as nothing more than an slightly acerbic and very unkempt hippie chick.
The real Squeaky Fromme went on from her time with the Manson family to attempt to assassinate President Gerald Ford, and she damn near succeeded. Granted, that’s not what Once Upon a Time is about, but still. This is a woman, whom if she is going to be mentioned at all, deserves more than a brief character arch as the territorial sugar baby of Spahn Ranch’s elderly proprietor, George.
The character of George Spahn is well cast in the incomparable Bruce Dern. In his brief performance as an old man being disturbed from a nap, he has more nuance to his role in the film than any female character does, if that tells you anything.
I also challenge anyone who has just watched Mikey Madison’s portrayal of Susan “Sexy Sadie” Atkins to watch ABC’s 20/20 produced documentary Truth and Lies: The Manson Family to hear about what a disturbed, sadistic, and cruel killer Sadie Atkins was. In particular, watch the footage around the one hour and seven minute mark of Virginia Graham, a jailhouse informant and former cellmate of Sadie Atkins, to whom Sadie proudly boasted of killing Sharon Tate to, which eventually lead to the total unraveling of the crime.
In Once Upon a Time, Sadie Atkins is depicted as simply a spaced out, paranoid hippie. You know this for sure by the way she says “man”… and she says it a lot. The character is listed on IMDB as simply “Sadie,” which is an insult, even to a woman as vile as real life Atkins — especially since Tex Watson’s full name is credited in the film.
In the movie, the Sadie No Last Name character serves as nothing more than a body to be brutalized. And having knowledge of the horrifying details of her real life crimes, it’s not unsatisfying to watch. However, the real Sadie is as satisfying of a horror movie villain that one could ever dream up. Sadie Atkins, a mother herself, personally murdered a heavily pregnant Sharon Tate. Her darkness met and conquered Sharon Tate’s light, which ended the peace and love era of the late 60s.
In Tarantino’s film, she is merely Brad Pitt’s final punching bag and Leo DiCaprio’s final punchline.
Finally, I challenge anyone who has just watched Margot Robbie’s portrayal of Sharon Tate to watch Valley of the Dolls. You really should watch whole film. It’s trash, but it’s delightful trash. But if you can’t bear it, please just watch highlight reel on YouTube entitled “The Valley of the Dolls” 1967 ~ All the Scenes with Sharon Tate to get a feel for Tate’s presence, charm, and acting ability.
In Valley, Sharon portrays Jennifer North, a beautiful but not particularly talented woman who aspires to be a star. Real life Sharon Tate proves through her performance in the film that she was anything but talentless.
She really brings to life the character as she is portrayed in the book, which I also recommend reading for its delicious trashiness. Sharon brings the exact amount of authentic sadness and conflicted dutifulness of a woman having an abortion because it’s right choice and doing porn to pay the bills in 19fucking67.
The life of Sharon Tate has been overshadowed by the enormity and the depravity of her tragic murder, and the salaciousness of the crimes that followed from her widowed husband Roman Polanski.
Once Upon a Time does nothing to alleviate this unfortunate truth.
Instead, the film further strips Sharon Tate of her humanity by reducing her memory to that of a beautiful object to be possessed — by her husband, her former lover Jay Sebring (who’s enduring legacy as a hair styling genius and his genuine affinity for Sharon also deserves more than a boring performance by known abuser Emile Hirsch), by movie audiences both real and meta, by Charles Manson, and lastly, by Tarantino himself.
Losing the legacy of the women of Manson Family to reductive story telling and uninspired performances was a gross oversight, but intentionally dissolving the legacy of Sharon Tate into an unnecessary story of two fictional white guys engaging in badassery is an assault of egregious cruelty.
No one in the world deserves that less than Sharon Tate.
I am frustrated by the content of the film, but I’m also deeply concerned that Once Upon a Time has taken from us the possibility that we might one day see actual nuanced portrayals of these complicated women on the big screen.
When I first read Joan Didion’s recollections of that summer in LA and her interactions with the Manson Family’s driver for that fated weekend, Linda Kasabian, in The White Album, I dreamt of seeing it made into a movie one day. In the hands of a feminist filmmaker, this is fertile territory for an examination of light and dark, and to explore fascinating topics such as cult behavior, celebrity, the effects of long term use of hallucinogens, Stockholm Syndrome, innocence lost, so many things!
But now I worry that such a film can’t or won’t be produced by the powers that be in the foreseeable future because Tarantino already went there.
And poorly, I might add.
A friend (a cishet male friend, I do have a few!) said to me of Tarantino, “You can only be BFFs with Harvey Weinstein so long before people fairly start to muse about your personal judgment,” and… points were made. But also, aside from A24, I struggle to think of an indie studio that would even consider giving the green light to a project such as a film adaptation of the essays from The White Album now that the Weinstein Company is defunct.
Please, don’t get me wrong. Fuck Harvey Weinstein, forever and always. He’s just as bad as Manson in my eyes.
I’m just so sick of these terrible men continuing to have power over the stories being told. And if we were magically be given the opportunity to right the wrongs of the unjust portrayals of the three white women I mentioned from this film, that does nothing to highlight the stories of any queer people, people of color, disabled people, and everyone else whom mainstream cinema either ignores or flatly capitulates to.
When I first heard Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood was being made, I was looking forward to it. Now I hear Tarantino might be retiring, and I’m looking forward to that.
It might be the first time in a long time that he hasn’t disappointed me.