Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood

In August 1969, on two consecutive nights, people died at the hands of counterculture dropouts who lived on a rundown fake movie set used for TV shows during the height of westerns such as Wanted Dead or Alive and Shotgun Slade, both of which were cited as being too violent.

Quentin Tarantino’s appreciation for the old westerns is matched only by his divisive passion for pop culture landmarks and in-jokes, both of which resonate in his latest film, Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Rick Dalton, an actor who made his mark in TV westerns but is feeling the slide to oblivion encroaching on his celebrity status, having just bought his first house on Cielo Drive next door to newlyweds Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) as the short term couple caught up in the world of 1969 as it spirals out of the love movement toward a bad moon rising.

The film is NOT about Charles Manson (who is played by Damon Herriman in one scene!) but is a movie about 1969 unraveling the idealistic myths set in motion by a hedonic existence. LA appears as a metaphor of the doomed utopia that creates and crushes dreams. And as is known, old Hollywood was built on the western but the new raging bulls seem hellbent on deconstructing heroes, reimagined as anti-heroes in Spaghetti westerns and biker flicks! 1969 was the year of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. I remember hearing the story of how Clint Eastwood was anxious to get John Wayne’s assessment of his film High Plains Drifter, but Wayne hated the movie, because as he put it, “your character is every bit as evil as the bad guys!”

Accompanying Rick Dalton from job to job but mostly serving as his chauffeur, Brad Pitt is Cliff Booth, Rick’s stunt double. Their relationship is loosely based on Burt Reynolds and his stuntman, Hal Needham.

Director Martin Scorsese used the Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” as the backdrop for his misanthropic clutter called Mean Streets. In Michael Mann’s Manhunter (the first Hannibal Lecter film), the climactic Tooth Fairy scene was set to “In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida” to signify the delusions of godhood. With a wide range of choices, here Tarantino chooses Manson’s own “Always is Always Forever” to maximum effect but settles on Vanilla Fudge’s remake of “You Keep Me Hanging On” as his death ride battle cry. After all, it’s of that time and appeals to baby boomers who are the stuff pathological dreams are made of: broken homes, abandonment issues, guilt ridden and wanting to save the world but can’t save enough for their own retirement!

No Name Maddox drew moths to the flame.

Margaret Qualley as Pussycat (said to be loosely based on Kathryn “Kitty” Lutesinger but seems more obviously a stand-in for “Ouisch” aka Ruth Ann Moorehouse) dumpster dives and hitchhikes all over town, catching the eye of Cliff on numerous encounters. She brings him to Spahn Ranch, where he meets her fellow commune dwellers, including Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning), who takes care of George, the Spahn Ranch owner. Then there’s Lena Dunham’s Gypsy/Catherine Share, as a portent of damaged lives that will surely follow to populate art schools and colleges around the country. No one really looks like any of their real-life counterparts, which is fine since this isn’t a documentary…but lookalikes can be deceiving. There’s a guy in the film who looks remarkably like Kid Congo Powers as the operator of a movie theater. Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen had me questioning if it was a case of CGI effects using the real image of the Bullitt star as he is seen speaking with Connie Stevens (Dreama Walker)! And Rachel Redleaf resembles Cass Elliot returned from the dead!!

But if nothing else, Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood is a love letter to what is remembered as a decade of bliss, where 1969 alone stands apart from the myth!

Paul Revere and the Raiders. MAD magazine and TV Guide. LA’s TV horror film host, Seymour. An array of neon signs beckoning bars and dives line the street. The camera pans movie marquees and posters highlighting the films of that year. KHJ radio plays on car dashboards. The infamous riots on Sunset Strip occurred in front of Pandora’s Box over a curfew law. All that makes it in Tarantino’s vision. Teenage hitchhikers are reminiscent of Kay Lenz from the movie Breezy. A knife stuck in a tire reminds us that Rebel Without a Cause was a Hollywood love letter also. The use of LSD reflects Bruce Dern and Peter Fonda’s journey in Roger Corman’s The Trip, where Fonda continuously calls it a living room.

Everybody smokes. It’s last call for martini culture as the hallucination generation elbows them out.

And amongst it all grow the seeds of discontent. Charles Manson was originally known as The Gardner who weeded out the non-believers and seeded Helter Skelter into his followers. A memory of mishap and murder messes with our moviegoing meanderings.

Young people today cannot imagine how all this affected the oldsters back then. It was the writing on the wall.

1969! The Wild Bunch made excessive blood acceptable. Ali MacGraw uttered profanity in Goodbye, Columbus. There had been screen psychos in Hitchcock’s Rebecca and there was Norman Bates, but Tarantino understands how 1969 was a proliferation of psycho references to remind us that torch song serenades take many forms. With his eye-patch, Rick appears in a movie trailer burning Nazis. He looks like Marvel’s Sgt. Fury – then, later in the film we are treated to a stack of comics with Sgt Fury & His Howling Commandos on top of the pile! His bad guy suit (so he’ll look more contemporary, i.e. hippie, in a western he lands a role in) is a fringe jacket that has been dyed from beige to brown. It looks as though it came off Dennis Hooper in Easy Rider!

In one of my favorite inside jokes, Tarantino has “California Dreaming” playing – but not the original, the cover by Jose Feliciano! It’s used as the background for introducing George Spahn, played by Bruce Dern. Spahn is said to be blind. Feliciano, too, is blind. If 6 was 9…

Hollywood is a mixture of what’s real and what’s fake. Its product is an illusion.

Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood feels more like a Tarantino film has in decades, mostly because of director of photography Robert Richardson, whose every shot serves notice that 1969 is not necessarily what it seems to be. It’s a poisoned utopia…but, what if….