Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood
“The portrayal of Bruce Lee and the othering of Mexicans has the appearance of Tarantino punching down for the sake of cheap humor.”
Title: Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood (2019)
Director: Quentin Tarantino 👨🏼🇺🇸
Writer: Quentin Tarantino 👨🏼🇺🇸
Review by Robert Daniels 👨🏾🇺🇸
Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood, the ninth film by writer-director Quentin Tarantino, opens in the summer of 1969 six months prior to the murders of Sharon Tate and her houseguests at the hands of the Manson family. The film’s title takes inspiration from Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West and pays homage to spaghetti and TV westerns of the 60s through the format of a dark buddy comedy.
The film follows two fictional leads: Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), former star of a popular TV series, and his best friend, stuntman, and driver Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) while they navigate their changing lives and careers. Against a historical backdrop of real icons and real shows, DiCaprio and Pitt—in their first ever on-screen pairing—display wonderful chemistry and comedic timing as they deliver marquee performances.
Incredible levels of detail effectively capture the period. On the studio backlots, Tarantino creates built-in sets and uses cameras and furniture from the era. The same can be said of 1969 Los Angeles, decorated with retro cars that roam the streets. In fact, some of the most visually stunning scenes occur when Dalton and Booth drive through L.A.’s neon landscape while recognizable theaters and restaurants, such as The Vine Theater or Casa Vega, alight the background. Costumes from designer Arianne Phillips feel immaculately tailored, down to the characters’ tassel-hanging jackets and tacky ascots.
Tarantino and his editor Fred Raskin, along with the help of cinematographer Robert Richardson’s 35mm photography, coolly craft a film that takes numerous tangents to show admiration for works like The Great Escape (1963), C.C. and Company (1970), and FBI (which ran from 1965 to 1974) without ever feeling superfluous, despite a daunting 161-minute run time. And of course, with a film dependent upon capturing the look of an era, production designer Barbara Ling serves as an integral part of the team who adorns every set with a remarkable amount of movie posters and billboards.
If there’s one weak link in the film, it might be Taraninto’s script. Though Once Upon a Time is the director’s least violent work overall, the final five minutes do stage a return to his signature gore when a pitbull rips two people to shreds. Unfortunately, Tarantino provides zero reasoning for why these people deserve such fates, making the scene more shocking than satisfactory. So while he expertly creates indelible characters, and generally forgoes the usage of violence as a crutch in favor of more introspection on the fate of cinema and his own career, this remains a Tarantino movie, where violence appears in flashes but without quite enough foregrounding in this instance.
Tarantino has a spotty history with female characters. For every woman who has agency, like The Bride (Uma Thurman) in Kill Bill Vol. 1 (2003) and Vol. 2 (2004), someone like Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) from The Hateful Eight (2015) suffers from body horror played for comedy. Considering this penchant for gratuitous violence, Tarantino seems like the last director you’d want getting anywhere near the Manson murders. But for the most part, audiences find Tarantino on his best behavior as he refrains from exploiting Tate’s demise. Instead, he morphs the events surrounding her story into a tale of male friendship and the dying age of the studio system.
Whether the decision to make Margot Robbie’s rendition of Tate into a third-billed character is right, Tarantino initially handles the material well. For one, he gives due deference to the slain actress. In pop culture, the Valley of the Dolls (1967) star has become an ingénue, a tale of innocence and beauty snuffed out at too early an age. Tarantino follows suit with that image, but he adds contours as well.
In one scene, while buying a book for her husband Roman Polanski (I’m not even going to go there), played by Rafal Zawierucha, Tate notices a theater playing her film, The Wrecking Crew (1969). Barely recognized by the theater staff, she has to convince them to give her free entry. Tate picks a seat and puts on the largest square-rimmed glasses this side of Harry Caray. The touch of glasses is subtle, yet effective: Tate needing glasses to see isn’t widely known. Her putting on those goofy spectacles takes her from the studio system’s concept of beauty, and the fear of starlets appearing geeky, to normalcy. Tarantino adds additional shades of realism by playing the actual footage from The Wrecking Crew. When Tate’s character on the silver screen must fight her Asian antagonist, played by Nancy Kwan, Tarantino inserts a flashback of Tate training with Bruce Lee for the role. All of the above—the bubbly persona, the glasses, and the training—make Tate into more than what the world remembers her for. In Once Upon a Time, she becomes human—an artist dedicated to her craft. And in the process, Robbie also gives one of the more understated performances of the film.
Another wonderful female character in Once Upon a Time is child actor Trudi Fraser (Julia Butters) who appears on the set of Lancer, a TV series that actually aired for two years in the late 60s. Trudi meets Dalton as he hacks loogies in front of her, yet she remains the picture of professionalism. She prefers to stay in character on set, a disciple of “the method.” In fact, Trudi would rather not be called an actress. She finds the term nonsensical. And when Dalton breaks down in tears after recounting to her the events of the book he’s reading, a book with a central character akin to him, he calls her “pumpkin.” She retorts that she doesn’t like pet names, but she’ll let it slide…this time. Butters offers a surprise performance from a relative newcomer here, and Tarantino provides her with exceptional moments such as these.
Nevertheless, Tarantino uses violence against women as a gag, an uncomfortable pattern in the director’s films that Joelle Monique eloquently details for THR. Furthermore, in Once Upon a Time Tarantino unnecessarily insinuates that Booth killed his wife. In a flashback, a drunken Cliff holds a harpoon, listening to his wife’s insistent complaining. While his spouse isn’t directly named, the scene clearly draws parallels with the real-life murder of Natalie Wood who was found drowned next to the boat of her husband, Robert Wagner. Eerily, Wagner remains a person of interest today—the same conclusion for Booth’s narrative in Once Upon a Time. This needless backstory is mostly played for laughs. In fact, the audience I sat with filled the theater with laughter at the hint that Booth might have murdered his wife. The license for men to find comedy in violence against women is routinely promoted by Tarantino to devastating effect.
Still, the thorniest characterizations occur with the Manson women. One we meet: Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) crosses paths with Booth on multiple occasions as she hitchhikes to and from Spahn Movie Ranch. Qualley plays the girl as innocent and funny. However, when Booth gives her a ride to the dilapidated ranch, she offers to give him a blowjob in the car. While Booth quips that he’ll need to see some ID, it still feeds into the nauseating cliche of older men cavorting with much younger women (Pitt is 55 years old and Qualley is 24). The same could be said of Squeaky (Dakota Fanning, 25), another Manson disciple, and her intimate relationship with George Spahn (Bruce Dern, 83). Though this component has roots in the real life events of the murders, the fact remains that Once Upon a Time is a new film made for 2019, and Tarantino chose this particular story to tell and prominently features gender dynamics that belong firmly in the past.
On a final note of incongruity, Tarantino takes it easy on many of the Manson women, refusing to demonstrate their sinister real-life crimes. Maybe his decision stems from the belief that their transgressions are well-known enough to do the legwork for him. The creative decision fails, however, when their bloody and cartoonish demise feels like overkill. Had Tarantino portrayed some of their real-life evil—they did stab Tate and her unborn baby sixteen times—the finale would have felt more satisfying.
GradeMyMovie.com Assessment: 0% of key cast and crew members were POC.
Only one character of color with any significance holds a speaking role: Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). Even before Shannon Lee (the daughter of the martial arts legend) spoke out against the characterization of her father in Tarantino’s fairytale, the humor used at his expense left many uneasy.
Lee’s confrontation with Booth serves as the film’s most controversial scene with respect to racial representation. Booth, while fixing Dalton’s roof antenna, thinks back to when he played his stunt double on The Green Hornet. Dressed in a tux, he sits on a truck’s flatbed drinking milk as Lee describes Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali) and the nature of boxing. The crew of The Green Hornet moseys around this backlot, listening to Lee directly claim that he’d “make Clay into a cripple” if he ever faced him.
Lee challenges Booth to a fight. And though the Asian action star sets the stuntman on his backside with one good kick, on the next attempt, Booth throws him into the side of a car. Unlike the film’s archetypal white characters of Dalton and Booth, who are based on figures like Pete Duel, Burt Reynolds, and his stuntman Hal Needham, no one is paying homage to the martial arts sensation here. Instead, Lee looks like a buffoon and a caricature. His mannerisms, cadence, and look, which initially demonstrate a confident likeness to the legend, quickly turn into punchlines over Lee’s hubris. And while these events are occuring in Booth’s mind, making him an unreliable narrator, the audience still perceives Lee as Booth sees him: a gag. Decidedly, Lee's only purpose comes in the service of adding greater dimension to his white counterparts, Booth and Tate. Little fault exists in Moh’s performance. He captures the spirit of Lee remarkably well. Nevertheless, Tarantino’s writing is suspect.
Unfortunately, the only other people of color In Once Upon a Time are the Mexican extras who adorn Lancer, the series Dalton films while Booth fixes his antenna. They’re trinkets of the period, fulfilling the same roles their counterparts would have in the 60s as prop background baddies. Which, for accuracy, is fine, but a throwaway line earlier in the film also irks. When Dalton is crying outside of a restaurant, Booth puts his aviators over his friend’s eyes and says, “Don’t cry in front of the Mexicans,” an unnecessary quip that adds nothing to the story and objectifies a demographic for laughs. The whole affair, from the portrayal of Lee to the othering of Mexicans, has the appearance of Tarantino punching down for the sake of cheap humor.
Mediaversity Grade: C- 3.00/5
Like most of Tarantino’s work, one must take the good with the bad when it comes to diversity and representation. The writer-director’s ability to create thought-provoking cinema alongside hearty laughs remains unquestionable. But his methods should be open for thoughtful criticism.
Though Once Upon a Time is clearly a farce based on real events, Tarantino chooses not to add more characters of color, nor does he treat the historical ones who do appear with much attentiveness. And while he does actualize the person Sharon Tate was, which might be the film’s biggest accomplishment, his writing falls short in portraying the Manson women as anything more than ethereal (and by film’s end, as anything more than simply mutilated). Instead, every component fuels Tarantino’s fairytale revenge comedy where, once again, aging white men are the heroes whose fears and hopes take center stage. Meanwhile, women and people of color helplessly peer in from the sidelines.