And the Perils of Nostalgia
Calling a Quentin Tarantino film nostalgic almost seems redundant. He has built an entire career romanticizing and looking back on films from the past. He pays tribute to the cinema he grew up on while making something that is distinctly his own.
But Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood isn’t just inspired by nostalgia; instead, it’s defined by it. In essence, it’s the movie’s very reason for existing. A lot of people described it as a love letter to the golden age of Hollywood. Although that seems like an apt description, it also romanticizes what the film actually says. The inherent problem in longing for “the good old days” is that it ignores the simple fact that those days weren’t good for everyone. So, let’s take a look back at Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and dissect its less publicized, perhaps unintentional message.
Even during a time when Hollywood seems ever more reliant on film franchises, Quentin Tarantino is a member of a very select group of filmmakers. He’s one of the few directors whose name alone is enough to pique audience interest.
Before anyone knew what Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood was about, it was already a hotly anticipated movie. All people needed to know was that it was Quentin Tarantino’s latest film. Over almost 30 years, he has carved out a place for himself in Hollywood history. Ever since Quentin Tarantino burst on the scene with Reservoir Dogs, he has reshaped modern cinema in his image.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a filmmaker in the last century who has been as influential as Quentin Tarantino, for better or worse. He has built a body of work that — while heavily influenced by movies from the past — is undeniably his own. In fact, there are few directors whose work is as instantly recognizable as Tarantino’s.
And that’s undoubtedly true with Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. Aside from being masterfully crafted and beautifully acted, the movie is undeniably a Quentin Tarantino film. As you watch it, you get the sense that only one person could have made this film; in fact, it’s hard to believe that anyone else would have even thought to make it.
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood tells the story of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an aging Hollywood actor, coming to terms with the fact that his career has peaked. As he struggles to find his place in this new world, his stuntman and best friend, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), keeps him company. Living next door to Rick is Roman Polansky (Rafał Zawierucha), fresh off Rosemary’s Baby, along with his up and coming actress wife, Sharon Tate. (Margot Robbie) We watch their day-to-day lives unfold as they march towards the fateful night when members of the Manson Family will forever change their lives.
Like most of Tarantino’s work, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood received critical acclaim. At Rotten Tomatoes, the movie’s score stands at 85%. The film was nominated for ten Oscars, winning two. It also enjoyed plenty of box-office success, grossing over $142 million domestically and more than $374 million worldwide, becoming Tarantino’s second-biggest film, behind only Django Unchained.
Most of Tarantino’s work is a love letter to the past; usually, the movies he grew up on. There’s a sense of nostalgia that permeates his work. With Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, Tarantino is nostalgic for the golden age of Hollywood. “Ages” tend to be fluid because it isn’t until after a moment has passed that people label it. And because of that, it’s usually hard to pinpoint precisely when a moment started or ended. But Tarantino seems to make a clear case that Hollywood’s golden age ended the night that members of the Manson Family killed Sharon Tate and four others.
Tarantino has already shown us that he is not beholden to history. With Inglorious Basterds, Hitler was killed in a movie theater after all. Even though people know how that particular night played out, Tarantino aimed to rewrite history with his film. The movie provides a simple but significant twist of fate; The members of the Manson family wind up at Rick Dalton’s house instead of Sharon Tate’s.
In Tarantino’s version of the events, Sharon Tate and her guests were not killed that night. More importantly, his movie saves the golden age of Hollywood. The film has been described as Tarantino’s most personal, and that seems plausible.
With his film, Quentin Tarantino is saving the thing he loves the most, cinema, the version he grew up on. The movie could also be described as a testament to the power of cinema itself. Although the events are fictional, they speak to the medium’s ability to change the world and, in this case, rewrite history.
Although that sounds undeniably nice, it does seem to overlook the undertones of it all. I am a firm believer in the idea that art isn’t done once it is released to the world. When the audience assigns their own meaning to something, they are, in a way contributing to a piece of work.
Because of that, I believe that Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood says more than it intends to. I think because Tarantino failed to look at his film’s message from outside his own perspective, he has unwittingly made a movie that really only aims to speak to some people. That’s not to say that everyone can’t enjoy the film. The movie was funny, exciting, contains moments of genuine suspense, and features two great performances. But in a way, the film really isn’t FOR everyone.
In fact, a less romantic way to describe this movie could be to call it Tarantino’ fight against change. It feels like the director is digging his feet in the sand, decrying the passage of time, and longing for the “good old days.” He seems unaware or indifferent to the fact that at least part of the reason those days were so good for him is that he’s a white man.
Long before the final showdown, the movie clearly spells out who the heroes and villains are. Rarely is the word “hippie” said with such disdain as in this movie. Like a western, the film foreshadows the inevitable confrontation between these two groups. But the showdown isn’t so much between Rick and Cliff vs. the hippies but what they represent. It’s the good old days vs. the ugly, dirty future — nostalgia vs. modernity.
We first see the group of hippies as Rick and Cliff are driving. Even though they are just crossing the street, Rick is unreasonably upset by the mere sight of them. His anger would be confusing if it didn’t serve the clear purpose of setting up the tension between the two groups. Rick and Cliff express their obvious disdain not just for the hippies crossing the street, but to everything they represent. However, one of the hippie girls, Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), catches Cliff’s eye, and she goes on to play a larger role in the movie.
Because Pussycat spends a lot of time hitchhiking and Cliff spends a lot of time driving, it’s not surprising that their paths cross. The first couple of times, she tries to get a ride from Cliff, it doesn’t work out because he is going in the opposite direction. However, one day he sees her on the sidewalk when they happen to be going the same way, and he gives her a ride to the Spahn ranch.
Cliff had been there before when they shot Rick’s old show “Bounty Law.” When they arrive, Cliff notices that there are a lot of hippies living there. It turns out Pussycat is a member of the Manson family, and they are staying at the ranch. Because Cliff is worried that George Spahn (Bruce Dern) is being taken advantage of, he decides to check on him, despite the hippies’ objections.
In, arguably, the movie’s best scene, Tarantino, a master of building suspense, teases the ultimate showdown that will come between the past and the future. However, the movie expertly subverts audience expectations by diffusing the tension. Cliff winds up leaving without the showdown that seemed so inevitable. But not before beating the crap out of a really dirty hippy. This is a gratuitous scene that mostly exists as a sort of wish fulfillment. That’s not to say that Tarantino wants to beat up a hippy but what this hippy represents; the approaching modernity that is about to end the golden age of Hollywood that the director loves so much.
The movie casually moves along, and if there is one major problem the film suffers from on a structural level, it’s that it moves at such a leisurely pace. The first time I saw it, I felt like I was waiting for the movie to start, almost the entire time. Eventually, the film jumps forward six months, and we find Rick and Cliff returning from Italy. Rick had been shooting Italian Spaghetti westerns there. Now, as they head back, they are preparing to go their separate ways professionally. Rick will no longer be needing Cliff as his stuntman.
They decide that the only way to close the book on their adventure correctly is to go out and get really drunk. And on the fateful night of the murders, they do just that. Meanwhile, we also see Sharon Tate and her friends out on the town. Eventually, they all wind up back home. Not long after that, we see the Manson Family members arrive to do their mission, or as one character describes it, the devil’s business.
From here, it seems that the awful events of that night are finally going to play out. But not in Tarantino’s version. Here, Rick Dalton, a relic of the past, steps out and drives the hippies away, rewriting history in the process. Eventually, they compose themselves and decide to carry forward with their mission. The members head to Rick’s house, and things go very differently than they did in real life. Once they enter the house, they find Cliff and surround him. Initially, it seems like the stuntman is about to meet his untimely death.
However, that soon changes when Cliff’s dog comes to the rescue. Brandy (the dog), Cliff, and Rick dispense brutal and very graphic retribution to the hippies. At one point, Rick even burns one of them alive in his pool with a flamethrower from one of his old movies. But they didn’t just kill the hippies; they fought back the waves of change, saved the golden age of Hollywood, and made the world a better, safer, and even happier place.
At the end of it all, Rick finally sees the gates open for him. He is finally invited into the home of Sharon Tate and Roman Polansky. In essence, the aging cowboy gets invited past the gates of Hollywood. Tarantino saves an artifact of the past, extending his days in the sun.
Some people have pointed out the fact that Sharon Tate barely registers as a character. And I think that’s because Tarantino isn’t interested in “saving” her. He’s “saving” the old Hollywood he clearly romanticizes.
But he seems to completely miss the fact that this era of Hollywood wasn’t so golden for everyone. At a time when people are starting to realize the importance of representation and inclusivity, Tarantino seems to yearn for an era when only white men were allowed to be the stars. It’s kind of hard to believe that a movie, released in 2019, would seriously have its white protagonist crying about the fact that he’s no longer the center of the universe without realizing the subtext in that.
That’s not to say the movie is bad. The film deserves a place among Tarantino’s best work. The leads give great performances, and the ranch scene with Brad Pitt was a master class in building suspense. It was so good that it could have been a short film itself.
However, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood also highlights Tarantino’s and, by extension, Hollywood’s narrow outlook. The white male perspective is so often treated as the default that people don’t even notice when they are excluding others.
Although the movie is undoubtedly entertaining, Tarantino’s choice to portray the past through the rose-colored prism of nostalgia robs his film of some of the impact it could have had. It also makes you wonder who has a place in Tarantino’s Hollywood or, more accurately, who doesn’t.