“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” the latest film from writer and director Quentin Tarantino, premiered in July. The movie follows Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) as he navigates the ups and downs of a Hollywood career in 1969, as well as the looming presence of the Manson Family cult in Los Angeles. Editor Nina Wilder and Campus Arts Editor Kerry Rork chatted about their thoughts on Tarantino’s new film and the events that inspired it. Warning: spoilers below.
Nina: I’m a lifelong fan of Tarantino’s movies, and the first thought that came to me as I left the movie theater was, That might have been the lowest body count of any Tarantino movie, ever. Whereas violence has been a hallmark of the writer-director’s previous films, “Once Upon a Time” seemed like a heartfelt love letter to the birth of the New Hollywood era, and the tension of the decade that brought it. How did you feel leaving the theater?
Kerry: I definitely agree. I was shocked that a movie based around the violent deaths of Sharon Tate and her four companions would be comparably tame. It felt as though Tarantino wanted to instead focus on the death of the carefree 1960s and classic Hollywood films, like the Westerns Leonardo DiCaprio’s character starred in. What did you think about DiCaprio and Pitt’s roles in describing the demise of the fairy-tale-like 1960s?
Nina: DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton was undoubtedly a stand-in for the type of leading man who found success in the ‘60s — he had a singular, handsome look and cowboy swagger that faded into the background as hippies and antiheroes were pushed into the foreground of Hollywood. Brad Pitt’s role as the stuntman Cliff seemed like a nice foil to that vulnerable need to adapt, given that the position of a stuntman is relatively unflinching. He did provide some nice comic relief, though, especially during his encounter with the Manson Family.
Kerry: I found it interesting how Tarantino was able to play into Rick Dalton’s loss of popularity through his waning health from smoking and even his broken TV satellite, signifying his diminishing TV and media presence. Even Cliff is becoming less critical with the onset of special effects. How do you think this compared to Margot Robbie’s character, Sharon Tate?
Nina: Those are great thematic clues to point out! Tarantino can be heavy-handed, so it’s nice to find subtleties in his character development. I’ve been going back and forth over whether or not Tate’s character was critical to the overall film — couldn’t the movie exist (in perhaps a more condensed form) without her storyline? Then again, it was almost cathartic to see her experience so much joy and innocence throughout the movie, only to be met with an equally happy resolution. How do you feel about it?
Kerry: I found a lot of what Tarantino did with Sharon Tate’s character made her embody what the 1960s were — innocent, carefree, romanticized. And throughout the film, you’re met with this looming feeling of destruction at the hands of the Mansons, whether it be Cliff picking up one of the Manson girls or even the song the Mansons sang at the beginning. Yet, in the end, Sharon Tate does not meet the ending all of us in the audience expect. For me, her character’s survival was necessary for the preservation of what once was — at least, in part.
Nina: That rings incredibly true to me. It’s the same sort of ahistoricism that made “Inglourious Basterds” a war movie with a (somewhat) happy ending. If anything, it felt like Tarantino wanted to write about that pivotal transition within the film industry as an amicable transference of power, evidenced by the lovely meeting between Rick and Sharon at the film’s close. There were sly quips toward the era (at one point, Rick calls one of the Manson kids “Dennis Hopper”), but overall, it was Tarantino tipping his hat to a period in cinema’s history that greatly influenced him as a director. If there’s minimal violence, there has to at least be pastiche, right?
Kerry: I found the entire movie to be this celebration of film — the past, the present, and the future. You have Rick Dalton’s character representing the decade of Westerns and war films — both of which are foundational to the industry. Even the background noise of radio advertisements and theater marquees pays homage to this era of film. Your point about an amicable transference of power definitely occurred to me while watching the movie. Tarantino seems to be imagining a world where the industry could have simply aged naturally, rather than meeting its violent demise at the end of an era. Yet, similarly to “Inglourious Basterds,” I was simultaneously left feeling satisfied yet with this sense of longing for what could have been. How did you feel watching a different ending to a horrific event in history?
Nina: I quite literally shouted “Sharon Tate was a red herring!” as the end credits played. The release still came, in that Brad Pitt’s character literally annihilated the Manson kids that tried to kill him, but it almost felt like Tarantino was wittingly playing a trick on fans and critics alike. If anything, it shows a storyteller whose main goal is to entertain, not destroy emotionally. “Once Upon a Time,” I think, is a movie that could only come from Tarantino after a long career of shocking and awing the viewer, and it reads like an experiment in form and style. Were there any low points for you?
Kerry: I agree with a point you made earlier, that Tarantino may have been able to condense the film, at least portions of it. Even so, I loved simply looking at the sets that were created and admiring how detailed they were. Yet, I, like many viewers, have been following the news surrounding the portrayal of Bruce Lee. Shannon Lee, his daughter, recently came forward, claiming Tarantino produced an offensive caricature of Bruce Lee that only further plays into the depiction of Asian people in media. Even the actor himself, Mike Moh, was conflicted with the version of Bruce Lee that Tarantino chose to present. When watching the movie, how did you feel seeing the Bruce Lee Tarantino constructed and the characteristics he chose to highlight?
Nina: The characterization of Bruce Lee was most definitely excessive, one of those heavy-handed Tarantino moves that have long dampened his films. There was no need to portray him in such a paternalistic manner. It ties into the necessity of looping real-life characters into this otherwise fictionalized film, such as Roman Polanski, the real-life widower of the late Sharon Tate, who also happens to be a convicted statutory rapist. Those references surely enrich the story, but they also run the risk of bringing down an otherwise impressive movie.
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Kerry: Bruce Lee’s and even Roman Polanski’s portrayals definitely weakened the film for me. Ultimately, though, with those points aside, Tarantino did aptly play off of the 1960s nostalgia and almost dreamlike sense of innocence that defined the decade. It really was a perfect ending to what once was a gruesome story.