David Lynch chose the cryptic curves of Mulholland Drive. Billy Wilder chose the melancholic glamor of Sunset Boulevard. It’s only fitting that Quentin Tarantino opted for the murderous infamy of Cielo Drive.
The secluded road is located in the Hollywood Hills, a land rich with fable fodder. Isolated in their multi-million dollar mansions, movie stars and moguls look down upon the bright lights of the seedy city. In his recent book, Sleeping With Strangers: How the Movies Shaped Desire, film historian David Thompson writes of the Hills, “In those locations people can count their money, worship obscure gods, make love with whomever pleases them, or simple gaze into the mirror, studying loveliness. They call it a city of angels, with reverence.”
Until the Manson Family showed up to “do the devil’s business” in 1969. Slightly more than a backdrop, the (perceived) knowledge of what’s to come looms inconspicuously over the action, charcoal clouds on the verge of conjuring sparks. Tarantino doesn’t necessarily glamorize the olden days; he mythologizes. He rewrites cinematic and actual history –– for better or for worse.
At the center of his story is Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a washed-up and insecure television actor who unsuccessfully attempted to break into movies, and his loyal stunt-double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). What follows is a 165-minute hang-out flick that opts to linger in the day-to-day lives of the stars rather than pack in the action. Of course, the everyday for these demi-gods is wildly different from those living below the hills. Rick spends his time obnoxiously snorting and playing villain-of-the-week on spaghetti Westerns, while Cliff does household chores and aimlessly zooms around the city, eventually ending up at Spahn’s Movie Ranch: home of the Manson Family. Meanwhile, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) quite literally dances around the periphery as Rick’s neighbor.
But at night, these deified stars are just like us. They go home alone and talk out loud to their pets, their televisions. They go to their best friend’s house to have a drink and rewatch old movies. It’s at its best in these quiet moments: excavating the magic of reality. Just the opportunity to exist in Hollywood is a fairy-tale. Pitt in particular is hilarious, embracing silly physical comedy in a way he hasn’t since Burn After Reading in 2008. Often written off as merely a pretty face and ridiculously chiseled abs, Pitt’s stand-out performance reminds the audience of his knack for comedic timing and delivery. I could’ve watched a whole movie about Cliff’s tender, domestic relationship with his pitbull, Brandy.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is by no means a perfect film. While the scope and playful editing of Tarantino’s epics usually justify their lengths, this second act noticeably drags. The spaghetti Western recreations are unnecessarily masturbatory, elongating an already indulgent runtime; the resounding lack of Sally Menke, who suddenly passed away in 2010, has become all too apparent in his later work. At the same time, this is Tarantino at his most restrained yet. Unlike his previous films which consist almost entirely original characters, he mostly succeeds at limiting himself to the facts of the real world in regards to the Manson Family and their victims. Debra Tate, Sharon’s real-life sister, was personally consulted on the project and supports Robbie’s depiction, even if she does wish Sharon had more screen-time. Most of her limited scenes are innocuous and semi-mundane. She joyfully bounces about the city running errands, beaming when she spots a marquee with her name on it. It’s exactly what Sharon missed out on doing: simply living to witness her own success.
Which brings us to the big debate: women! I’ve admittedly always been a fan of the women characters Tarantino crafts. The Bride, O-Ren Ishii, Jackie Brown, the Death Proof ladies, Shoshanna, etc. are complex and badass, meaty roles that hadn’t traditionally been offered to women. Personally, it’s disappointing that this film doesn’t allow for any of his trademark She Did That! moments. Much like the television serials of the period, it deigns to unquestionably value and valorize masculine power. Cliff is portrayed as superhero-adjacent, so physically strong that he’s on par with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), so cool that we still like him even after learning about his dark open secret that swirls around his presence on set.
I am not suggesting that every character must always be a shining beacon of morality. I am suggesting that the experience of being in a theater full of men cheering and laughing as a man violently attacks a woman (even in self-defense) is wholly unpleasant.
It’s also unpleasant to watch scenes of these powerful men in the film industry defending their friends from (probably true) rumors, particularly in the context of Tarantino’s own history of protecting and enabling his go-to producer buddy, Harvey Weinstein. Roman Polanski’s (Rafal Zawierucha) brief appearance is historically accurate and understandable, but Rick gushing about the director’s work isn’t the latter, even if it is the former. True, the characters don’t know what violent crimes he’ll go on to commit, but the audience does. Just say Rosemary’s Baby was good and move on! The whole thing feels especially icky considering Tarantino’s 2003 comments on Polanski victim Samantha Geimer, though it’s important to note that Geimer has since accepted Tarantino’s personal apology to her, and has expressed discomfort with her rape being used to attack him.
The dialogue points out this tendency for men to stick together and ignore the women who protest, but then doesn’t offer any real critique of the practice. You could argue that it’s merely accurate to the period, that Tarantino is intending to build an authentic and true-to-life time capsule. But… these abuses of power still happen now. Tarantino himself hired Emile Hirsch, who publicly assaulted a female executive, to portray Jay Sebring in this very film.
This lack of empathy for all of the women — not just the Manson Girls — affected by these men’s repugnant actions makes this casual misogyny much more difficult to swallow. The Manson Girls are completely villainized, even compared to the Nazis that one of Rick’s film characters annihilates. Obviously, the girls should not have done what they did. Stabbing five people, including a pregnant woman, to death is inarguably reprehensible. To place the blame squarely on the shoulders of these disadvantaged and impressionable girls, to compare them to the Nazi villains from one of Rick’s movies, to omit the ways in which Manson brainwashed them however, are baffling choices.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is not a crucial story begging to be told. It’s tailor-made for a niche crowd of those intimately familiar with the culture surrounding late 60s Los Angeles, and for people like me who just want to sit in the dark and Female Gaze™ at Pitt with his shirt off. Leave expectations of constant spectacle at the door and enjoy it for what it is: a laidback joyride through the haze of Hollywood.