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On the Troubling Subtext of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Rick Dalton to the … rescue? Photo: Andrew Cooper/Columbia Pictures

As critics have said, ad nauseam at this point, there is a lot to love in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s grand, meandering flashback to the final months of the 1960s. It’s got outstanding performances from an exceptional cast; production design that plunges its audience into a distinct time and place that is — and this is an enormous added bonus — different from the same damned portrait of the ’60s we’ve seen a jillion times before; a fantastic, idiosyncratic soundtrack (a Tarantino specialty); and camerawork that is stylistic and dynamic without coming across as too showy. I fully enjoyed all of these elements and, for the most part, the entire movie.

But I was also disturbed by it in a way that I have not been able to shake. It took some processing and deeper consideration of the film’s context, within 1969 culture as well as the culture of today, to finally determine that what bothers me is what it tells us about men frustrated by cultural shifts, the ways we define and glorify old-school heroism, and how unwilling the movie is to dig more deeply into what it’s ultimately trying to say about both things. (If you haven’t seen Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, heads up: I’m about to spoil large portions of the movie, including the ending, for you.)

Most of the film focuses on the fading career of Western movie and TV star Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) and his relationship with stunt double and personal assistant Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick is a man frightened of the changing tides around him, specifically in terms of his career. As Marvin Schwarz, the agent played by Al Pacino, tells Rick in an early scene, he’s now officially transitioned from playing the perpetual hero to playing the heavy who’s always going to be beaten by the hero. (Fun side note: Pacino made his film debut in 1969, in a movie called Me, Natalie.) Rick is coming to grips with the fact that he’s been relegated to cameo roles instead of leads, a situation that probably isn’t going to change. Rick doesn’t like that. He doesn’t like what that portends for his show-business future, and, as a man aging farther away from his prime, he doesn’t like what that suggests about his future in a broader sense, either.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood lets us know all this early on, and also lets us know that Rick happens to live on Cielo Drive, in a house located right next door to the one being rented by Roman Polanski and his actress wife, Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie. The specter of what will eventually happen in that house in August of 1969 — the place where followers of Charles Manson famously killed a pregnant Tate and four others — hangs over the entire story until the fateful date of the murders finally arrives. On the night of August 8, 1969, which eventually bleeds into the early morning hours of August 9, 1969, a car filled with members of the Manson family putters its way up into the Hollywood Hills. But in Tarantino’s version, it goes to … the wrong address.

Rick Dalton — already drunk, drinking more alcohol out of a margarita pitcher, and wearing a weirdly emasculating robe — storms out of his house screaming at “the hippies,” whose muffler-deprived car is in his driveway and making a major racket. He tells them to leave and never come back, turning fully into an old man yelling “get off my lawn” at some young’uns. The so-called hippies do as he says, but then — after realizing he’s the Rick Dalton who starred in the TV Western Bounty Law — they decide to return. Three of them — Tex Watson (Austin Butler), Susan “Sadie” Atkins (Mikey Madison of Better Things), and Patricia “Katie” Krenwinkel (Madisen Beaty, formerly of The Fosters) — burst into Dalton’s house with the intention of murdering everyone present. But that plan, as well as history as we know it, gets upended in gruesome, darkly comic fashion when first Cliff, then Rick, violently kill the murderers before they can murder.

Rick’s hippie tirade is ridiculous — the robe helps in that department — but it also comes from a place of sincere scorn. His drunken shouting at the Manson crew is not the first time in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood that he expresses disdain for so-called longhairs. Earlier in the movie, he uses the term “hippie” as a pejorative. When he says that word, it’s caked in the resentment of someone who’s bitter that all these young, peace-signing kids are taking over his Los Angeles, both its streets and its primary industry. (Just in case this point might be missed, he even refers to Tex as “Easy Rider.”) What Rick Dalton is really mad at, of course, is time and the fact that it continues to move forward against his will, making him less and less relevant. But like most middle-aged or older folks who are really mad at time, he projects those feelings onto people who have more time than he does: the hippies, a.k.a. the young people rattling the status quo circa 1969.

Charles Manson and the brainwashed members of the Manson family technically were not hippies. They were killer sheep in hippie clothing. Actual hippies were not murderers. They were Vietnam War protesters and left-leaning peace advocates; pot smokers and acid droppers; free-love proponents who wore flowers in their hair and danced naked in the mud at Woodstock — which, for the record, took place a mere week after the Manson murders.

They also were the rejecters of mainstream society who questioned the rules under which it operated. As one unidentified hippie said in a 1969 New York Times piece about the impact of the Manson murders on the hippie movement: “Most Americans are always looking for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The hippie thinks the important thing is the rainbow. It doesn’t matter too much whether there is a pot of gold at the end. And there probably isn’t.”

Yes, some of them could be disruptive in their activism, and yes, some hippies got arrested. But generally speaking, most hippies did not represent a dangerous threat to anyone except those who were afraid of the societal change they represented. People like Rick Dalton.

Cliff Booth, on the other hand, is not initially threatened by them. As Rick’s best buddy, Cliff has at least one moccasined foot firmly planted in Rick’s world. But in many ways, Cliff is just a hippie in a Hawaiian shirt, something Tarantino makes a point of conveying. He lives in a trailer parked behind a drive-in theater, which isn’t that many steps up from the abandoned cottages the Manson family occupies on Spahn Ranch. Cliff’s job, when you get right down to it, is just hanging out. His ultra-zen attitude toward everything is pretty hippielike, too. At one point he makes a speech about how he’s never had much ambition and finds joy in the day-to-day. Which, to me, sounds a lot like thinking the important thing is the rainbow.

The first time he sees Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), the Manson follower who eventually guides him to Spahn Ranch, he’s drawn to her, and even flashes a peace sign in her direction. He also has no qualms about buying an acid-laced cigarette from a hippie. The only time he gets suspicious of these young radicals is when he starts to (rightfully) feel sinister vibes coming off of Squeaky Fromme (a barely recognizable Dakota Fanning) and the rest of the Manson group at the ranch. His cowboy wiring gets triggered, and he kicks the crap out of one of them pretty badly.

When members of that group show up at Rick’s house on that night in August, Cliff, who finally smoked that acid-laced cigarette and is under its trippy influence, recognizes them immediately. His cowboy wiring gets triggered again, and he fends them off in the most brutal ways imaginable, ways that involve face-stomping, dog attacks, knife fights, and beatings via rotary phone. As our Nate Jones noted in his discussion of the movie’s ending, the violence in this scene is played for laughs. But it’s also shocking in its lack of mercy. Even when it’s clear that one or two head-slammings into a hard surface have pretty much gotten the job done, Cliff keeps on slamming. The fact that he’s on hard drugs at the time suggests that he has something in common with the Manson group, who, in reality, were also on something when they killed everyone at the house up the road.

Meanwhile, Rick Dalton is blissfully unaware that any of this is happening. He’s floating in his backyard swimming pool with his headphones on, inebriated and listening to “Snoopy vs. the Red Baron,” a song about imagined World War I glories. He’s jarred out of his one-man Royal Guardsmen singalong when Sadie comes flying out of the house and straight into the pool, screaming like her skin is on fire because, actually, it is. Rick’s response is to grab the same flamethrower he used to incinerate Nazis in the movie The 14 Fists of McCluskey and use it to further incinerate Sadie. She’s already been mauled and nearly burned to a crisp, but sure: Fire up some more fire. The implication of this moment: He’s Rick fucking Dalton. And this crazy screaming hippie isn’t going to forget it.

At first, all of these outcomes strike a satisfying note. The real-life murderers get their comeuppance. The cowboys, Cliff and Rick, emerge as the heroes who defended themselves and their property. The life of the literal girl next door, Sharon Tate, is saved, along with the lives of everyone staying in the house with her. This feels good. Actually, indulging the fantasy that innocent people were prevented from being senselessly killed by the Manson family feels more than good. It feels like justice.

But in a world where justice is served — one that is helter-skelter-free, if you will — we shouldn’t wish what Watson, Atkins, and Krenwinkel did on anyone. The problem is the movie is still wishing that on someone, then amping up the fulfillment of that wish by several depraved degrees. I know, I know: That’s what Tarantino does. But there is something deeply discomfiting about watching this unfold, especially when much of the violence is being perpetrated against women in the name of sparing a more famous, pregnant one.

In a recent piece for the Atlantic, Caitlin Flanagan suggests that Tarantino is aware of the optics of having Cliff fight off the Manson killers and does so to confirm that Cliff is the movie’s real hero, the guy who possesses all the qualities we admire in strong men. She also characterizes this approach as transgressive at this particular moment in America. “We can’t have a movie like this,” she writes. “It affirms things the culture wants killed.”

The problem is that the person who truly gets the happy ending in the movie is not Cliff or Sharon. It’s Rick Dalton. Unlike Cliff, he emerges unscathed from the encounter with the Manson crew, while Cliff is last seen in an ambulance, recovering from a vicious stab wound. Unlike Sharon, who doesn’t know she just dodged an attack, Rick experiences the profound joy of having thwarted death. The conclusion of the film becomes the realization of what may be Rick’s ultimate dream at this stage in his life: He gets to be the hero once again, but in real life. He helps fight off a bunch of dirty, young hippies, and, via a conversation with Tate and her friend and former lover, Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch), he wins the respect of another, more glamorous group of young people with great connections. Rick Dalton is vindicated, even though — as sympathetic as DiCaprio makes him — it’s not clear he deserves to be.

Maybe Tarantino means this as one last dark joke: Of course Rick, who did only a fraction of the work Cliff did to fend off the intruders, gets to be the hero. That’s how it works in Hollywood. Meanwhile, the stuntman is pushed offscreen with a semi-serious injury and completely forgotten. But given the nostalgia in which so much of the movie is bathed, it’s difficult not to view the ending as a reward for a fading old cowboy and a celebration of an era in which “men were men.”

Rick has even less of a frame of reference than Cliff does about who these home invaders are and why they showed up thirsty for blood. Unlike Cliff, he does not know these people are from the Spahn Ranch. He definitely doesn’t know anything about Charles Manson or how he ordered Watson, Atkins, and Krenwinkel to journey to Cielo Drive. Rick explains what happened to him through his particular view of the events: A pack of wild hippies entered his house, tried to kill him, Cliff, and Rick’s new wife, and he fought them off. Rick’s preconceived notions about hippies are confirmed by what happened on that August night, as is his contention that he is superior to them.

To be clear: I’m not accusing Tarantino of unfairly demonizing the Manson family. Those people earned demonization. But the fact that the movie enables Rick to triumph — and to feel justified in his assumptions about young progressive types — taps into real, dangerous assumptions that existed at the time.

In that previously mentioned 1969 Times article, published in December of that year, members of the hippie community expressed concern that, since the murders, they were starting to be lumped in with the Manson clan and becoming targets of hate and fear. “They,” says one unidentified female hippie in the article, referring to the killers who came to Cielo Drive, “just confirm what everyone wants to believe.”

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood never addresses the loaded nature of Rick’s use of the word “hippie.” In fact, it’s an extremely apolitical film. Richard Nixon’s name is never mentioned, as best as I recall. The war in Vietnam comes up, but only briefly. The movie exists largely in a vacuum where none of that matters. But of course, that stuff always matters.

Now, I know that Quentin Tarantino did not intend to comment on the Trump era when he was writing this movie. I am aware that, as he told Esquire, he was working on it in novel form for five years before he even molded it into a screenplay, which makes it virtually impossible for contemporary politics to have entered into his thought process when he was shaping the story.

But every piece of art — whether it’s a film or an album or a TV show or a book — is evaluated and considered through the lens of the time in which it arrives.

You can’t see Once Upon a Time in Hollywood in 2019 and not notice the threads that tie it to what’s happening now. At least I couldn’t. When I caught the movie a few weeks ago at a press screening outside Washington, D.C., President Trump was speaking a few miles away at Turning Point USA’s Teen Student Action Summit. During that speech, as he had been doing for days prior, he once again criticized “the Squad,” the group of progressive woman elected to the House of Representatives during the last midterm election.

“The radical left,” he said, per the official White House website, “has nothing but contempt for America’s heritage … They see our history as a source of shame.”

The “radical left” is one term that Trump and other Republicans use to describe members of the Democratic Party. So is “socialists.” In the 1960s, both of those words were often used by men (and women) to describe — guess who? — hippies.

In an interview with Harper’s Magazine in 2016, a few months before the presidential election that put Trump in office, Nixon’s domestic adviser John Ehrlichman made it abundantly clear how much the president in that era disliked hippies. “The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the anti-war left and black people,” Ehrlichman said. “You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

This Republican playbook, it seems, is still being widely circulated.

As I said before, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does not get into any of that late-1960s history. It merely asks us to go back in time to a few dates at the end of that tumultuous decade and imagine them a little differently. Not with less violence — which, let’s be honest, would be the real righteous approach — just with redirected violence. The movie is so focused on getting to the moment of redemption for its principal protagonists — Sharon, Cliff, and Rick — that it doesn’t grapple with the ramifications of that redemption, nor does it explicitly wonder whether it’s a good or bad thing for Rick to be deemed a hero. The audience leaves the theater feeling happy that the Manson killers are dead, and high on the filmmaking buzz that Tarantino always elicits. But it isn’t until later, when the buzz wears off, that you realize how misleading it is to glorify a time period without providing a broader context for it or to consider its context through the prism of the present. You realize that Quentin Tarantino has just made his first movie since the downfall of Harvey Weinstein — the man who launched Tarantino’s career and became a symbol of poisonous male-dominated Hollywood — and made that movie a celebration of old-school, masculine Hollywood. That realization makes the final note it strikes, intentionally or not, feel even more stubborn in its vindication of old-school macho men.

With Once Upon a Time being (allegedly) Tarantino’s penultimate film, a lot of career-retrospective pieces have been published since it came out. Those got me thinking about Pulp Fiction and, specifically, its ending: the sequence in which Vincent (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) have a philosophical conversation over breakfast at a diner, where they cross paths with Pumpkin and Honey Bunny, who are planning to commit a robbery there. We know about the robbery plans. Vincent and Jules do not. Even back then, the buddies in the Tarantino movie didn’t have all the info.

Jules tells Vincent that he’s planning to give up the whole hitman thing and just “walk the Earth.” Vincent can’t even wrap his head around what that means. “You decided to be a bum,” Vincent declares, “just like all those pieces of shit out there who beg for change, sleep in garbage bins, eat what I throw away. They got a name for that, Jules. It’s called a ‘bum.’”

You know what other name they used to have for bums? “Hippies.”

After their conversation, while Vincent is indisposed in the men’s room — not in a backyard swimming pool, but you know, close — gun-toting Pumpkin and Honey Bunny enter the scene, threatening to shoot everyone in the restaurant if they don’t hand over their valuables. Jules, the lone holdout, refuses to give them the mysterious case that he and Vincent went to such great pains to acquire. But instead of firing a gun at both of them, Jules diffuses the situation with a conversation.

He discusses the Ezekiel 25:17 passage that he normally recites just before he assassinates another victim, the one that says, in part, “Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children.  And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers.” He wrestles with its meaning, which is to say, Tarantino wrestles with its meaning, too.

“The truth is, you’re the weak,” Jules tells Pumpkin, “and I’m the tyranny of evil men. But I’m trying, Ringo. I’m trying real hard to be the shepherd.”

I think that’s what really bothered me about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. I was waiting for the Tarantino who transparently wrestles with what he is trying to say to show up and finish his job in this movie. And at this particular moment, 50 years after the Manson murders, I was hoping Rick and Cliff would turn out to be the kind of men who would not only save Sharon Tate, but who might also try a little harder to be the shepherds.