Review of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)

Moving picture, 161 minutes

Seen in 2021.

It’s Pulp Fiction (1994) but about 1959 Hollywood as it was remembered in 1969 Hollywood — as it was remembered in 2019 Hollywood. Same length as Pulp Fiction, same sprawl of characters, same amount of music and sex and foot fetishism and violence. Slightly less dancing, slightly more allusions, and slightly more coherent plot.

The savvy (meta)filmmaking technique is very good, like Scola’s We All Loved Each Other So Much (1974), except that the editor should have lost five minutes of over-the-shoulder driving scenes, airport slow-mo and other such excesses. Thankfully, there isn’t much nostalgia here, and Tarantino—like Scola—isn’t blind to the economic gap between Cliff and Rick.

The film is set at a breaking point, when classical Hollywood—like Rick’s career—was over the hill. The “Big Five” studio system had been busted up 20 years earlier, television was draining theatre profits, the Hays Code was out and a new generation of directors were making bold new things like Night of the Living Dead (1968), independently of the studio system. None of that is actually stated in the script, and actors were getting washed out just like Rick is here, long before 1969. He meets Trudi Fraser, a consummate professional at age 8, but she doesn’t represent the new Hollywood, just a generic fear of ageing out, like the 4-year-old in Synecdoche, New York (2008).

The purpose of the setting, specifically 1969’s Vietnam-and-Manson era after Robert Kennedy was assassinated, is to have fiction collide with reality and avert the murder of Sharon Tate and her friends by the Manson “Family”, some of whom are gruesomely killed in place of their would-be victims, under comedic circumstances reminiscent of The Wolf of Wall Street (2013).

The killings are framed by one of the cultists—who lives on an old Western set—saying that stars in violent Hollywood films taught the youth of the 1960s to kill. Tarantino rejects this thesis by having the person who voices it killed by a Hollywood star, nonsensically using a flame thrower from a dumb WW2 action movie like Inglourious Basterds (2009). This is not unlike the killing of Paris Hilton in House of Wax (2005). The extreme violence is motivated extradiegetically. It marks the intended audience’s dislike of a woman, in this case a woman who has insulted the use of violence for entertainment. As in Django Unchained (2012), Tarantino employs fantasy, comedy and force to achieve a happy ending: Tate surviving into the new era and Rick getting a new shot at his career through his acquaintance with her.

Whether Polanski would turn out to commit statutory rape in the resulting alternative history isn’t known, but the way Cliff rebuffs Pussycat suggests that Polanski might just fly right in the better world built here by ultraviolence. That, of course, is in spite of the way Cliff most likely killed his own wife. The conterfactual is the heart of the film: Not nostalgia or grief over anything that really happened, but fantasy. Wishful thinking and entertaining cinema. In that category I would have preferred a bizzaro showdown with the Mothers of Invention who—in reality—were hanging out near the “Family” farm until Frank Zappa suddenly dissolved them in 1969.

moving picture fiction