Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film has proven that the director still has the imaginative energy that continues to make him one of Hollywood’s hottest talents. It also manages to be perhaps his most sentimental, low key, and perhaps even his most outrageous film to date. In case the title didn’t make it evident, we’re going to be entering spoiler territory.
So without further delay, let’s discuss how Tarantino’s latest film makes a joke out of the Manson family.
Once Upon A Time in… Hollywood is Tarantino’s tribute to 60s era Hollywood, still known for the major strides it promoted in the film industry. This era of Hollywood is shown drawing to a close through the eyes of aging Hollywood leading man Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), and Dalton’s stuntman and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). The story takes place in 1969, ending on the night of the tragic murders of rising star Sharon Tate and her friends by the hands of Manson’s cult. Dalton happens to be Tate’s next door neighbor, so we assume he’ll be getting a front row seat to one of Hollywood’s greatest tragedies. But this is Tarantino, so he has more than a few tricks up his sleeve.
Sharon Tate is one of the film’s central characters. There have been those who have criticized Tate, played by Margot Robbie as not having a lot of lines or much to do in the film, but this seems like a misinterpretation of this character. In this film, Tate is the embodiment of the Hollywood dream. She’s young, beautiful, full of ambition, and is slowly watching her dreams come to life. This is beautifully shown in a touching scene where Tate goes to see one of her films (the real life movie The Wrecking Crew), and smiles warmly at the audience’s reception to her performance. Robbie may not have a lot of lines, but she doesn’t need them. Here, Tate is more than a character. She represents the idea of the Hollywood dream coming true. It’s in sharp contrast to the lives of Dalton and Booth.
DiCaprio plays Dalton as a neurotic mess who spends his day chasing the fame of his youth. The opening finds him and Booth at a meeting with his agent (played by Pacino) where he pitches him a chance to play the lead in several Italian Westerns. He lands a role on a TV pilot (the real life show Lancer) but is upset that he’s playing the villain. DiCaprio paints a picture of a man who thinks his life is over, breaking down in front of a young actress and having an emotional breakdown in his trailer after flubbing a line. This is shown via a rich sequence that shows the events playing out in the context of the show, occasionally interrupting them when Dalton flubs a line. The sequence is classic Tarantino, and gives DiCaprio a fine stage to flex his acting muscles.
Dalton however receives a sudden boost of confidence when, during the last shot of the day, he delivers a powerhouse performance, impressing both his young co-star and the director. This boosts Dalton’s confidence, motivating him to accept the roles on the Spaghetti Westerns and continue his career overseas.
Booth’s story is more grounded in reality, as is the character played by Pitt. Booth has difficulty finding work after the death of his wife, which many of his co-workers believe he’s responsible for. In spite of this, Brad Pitt plays Booth as a content and hard working professional, who has quite a temper beneath his cool exterior. We first get a glimpse of this temper during a sequence where Booth is working on the set of The Green Hornet, and he bests an egotistical Bruce Lee in a fight. In spite of the character’s violent nature, he never once raises his voice. Pitt keeps him calm, and that makes the character seem that much more solid.
Booth’s main arc follows him as he meets a young hitchhiker and gives her a ride. Though she propositions him, he declines since he believes she’s underage. The pair eventually arrive at the real life Spahn Movie Ranch, where he comes face to face with the Manson Family. The sequence is the most uncomfortable in the film. We know that Booth is in danger as he demands to see his old friend who owns the ranch, certain that he’s being taken advantage of. We fully expect him to meet a grisly end, but it’s here that the film starts re-writing history. After meeting his friend, Booth attempts to leave and finds that his tires have been slashed by Manson cultist Steve Grogan, who would later participate in the LiBianca murders. When Grogan threatens Booth, Booth responds with a savage beating, humiliating Grogan and forcing him to change the tire. It instantly turns a very tense sequence into a very funny one, turning the family into something more comical than frightening. The scene displays one of the core ideas of this film.
Sharon Tate is the real legend. The Manson family is a joke.
The third act of the film is superb at building tension, slowly building up to what we think will be the fateful attack on the Tate residence. Instead, after a heated exchange with Dalton, the Manson family members decide instead to attack his home, and run afoul Booth and his dog Brandy. Though the members of the family repeat much of the same dialogue they actually did during the murders at the Tate residence, here their lines are met with laughter from Pitt. Any tension the film has built up to now is completely destroyed. But that’s just the start of the film’s signature set piece. In an unexpected frenzy of violence, it’s the Manson Family, rather than Dalton and Booth, who are killed. The highly cathartic sequence where Booth and Dalton fight off the invaders lasts a full three minutes, increasing in ridiculousness until Dalton roasts one of the cultists with a flamethrower he kept from a previous film. Watching this scene in a darkened theater, I couldn’t tell which was louder. My laughter or that of the audience around me.
But it would be a mistake to think this film makes light of the Tate murders. Rather, it sets out to destroy the myth of the Manson family. Rather than portraying them as crafty and menacing, Once Upon A Time In… Hollywood portrays them as inept idiots. In the end, Dalton dismisses the episode as ‘some hippie assholes,’ and they’re left to be forgotten by the other characters of the film. Tate, worried about Dalton after the episode, invites him up to her home where he can finally rejoin her and the others in the Hollywood dream, the older generation allowed to join the new in the changing landscape of Hollywood.
The closing ten minutes of Once Upon a Time In… Hollywood turns the Manson family into a joke, while simultaneously elevating Sharon Tate into a legend. That’s precisely the way it should be.
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