Film Review: “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” — Chekhov’s Flamethrower
By Jay Atkinson
Quentin Tarantino delights in exhausting his audiences as much as he does in entertaining them.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, directed by Quentin Tarantino. Screening throughout New England.
In Quentin Tarantino’s latest cinematic hall of mirrors, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, Leonardo DiCaprio, a fine movie actor, plays Rick Dalton, a washed up TV star trying to resurrect his career. His sidekick is Brad Pitt, another gifted actor, portraying Cliff Booth, a knockabout stunt man and “goddamn war hero” who’s Dalton’s best and only friend. These two fringe players are free falling into middle age while trying to stay afloat in 1960s Hollywood.
The story takes place in 1969, a watershed year for American culture in general and Hollywood in particular. Paul Newman and Robert Redford were captivating audiences in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a film with obvious parallels to Tarantino’s efforts here. Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, Pan Am jets featured a piano bar in first class, and a three-day festival at Woodstock canonized several rock stars. But the year that Vietnam War correspondent Michael Herr called “some kind of awful 1969-X” also included a Rolling Stones concert that ended in deadly violence by the Hells Angels and several gruesome murders committed by Charles Manson’s “family.”
It’s interesting to note that Tarantino’s story about an actor and his body double had a real life crew of nearly fifty stunt men and women, performing Cliff Booth/Rick Dalton’s gags as their various identities march around, fading into each other like one of M. C. Escher’s loopy stairwells. No filmmaker takes more delight than Tarantino in stripping off his players’ masks, removing them with one hand while adding new facades with the other.
In a funny sequence, Booth, secures a gig as a stunt player on The Green Hornet, an actual 1966-67 TV show that starred martial artist/actor Bruce Lee. In the scene, crew members stand around listening to the karate master’s pseudo-philosophical soliloquy on the manly arts. When Booth chuckles at the budding celebrity’s posturing, it soon escalates into a physical confrontation between the two men.
At first Lee, played to the hilt by Mike Moh, begs off, insisting he’s a “killer.” But with a wry grin, Booth offers Lee a free shot at knocking him down. The karate master strips to his wife beater t-shirt and black pants, then retreats a few paces to make animal noises, slicing at the air with both hands. Booth stands there in his tuxedo, the picture of cool.
Lee soars through the air, landing a flying drop kick to Booth’s chest, sending him into the dirt with a solid thump. Lee exults, thinking he’s bested this wiseass nobody. But, true to his profession, Booth gets up, dusts himself off, and smiles. “Try it again,” he says.
With a gaggle of sycophants oohing and ahhing at his prowess, Lee can’t resist. He backs up once more, soaring toward Booth with the grace of a dancer. This time, Booth catches his partner in mid air and throws him against a nearby sports car, bashing in the fender.
Woozy, Lee gets to his feet and a brief fight ensues, Lee’s balletic quickness pitched against the stuntman’s red meat punches, as well as his ability to take—and inflict—pain. Cliff Booth, unknown except to a circle of respectful insiders, outmans the most celebrated fighter in the movies without getting a scratch.
The show’s stunt coordinator, Randy, played by a grizzled Kurt Russell, happens onto the scene and is irate that Booth has bloodied the show’s star. Tarantino again proves his mastery at slipping in bits of exposition despite the frenetic scenes that fill up his pictures. Some years earlier, Booth was scuba diving with his wife when she died in a nasty spearfishing accident. As a favor to Rick Dalton, Randy had agreed to hire Booth as an extra, despite his own wife’s misgivings about Booth’s past. Now he’s fired on the spot.
The accident, which occurred when the Booths were alone on the water, has a striking resemblance to Natalie Wood’s unsolved death in 1981, when the beloved actress mysteriously drowned while sailing with her husband Robert Wagner and fellow actor Christopher Walken. But Tarantino has always been endlessly referential, laying on the acknowledgements to earlier films, TV shows, and pop music so rapidly it’s impossible to keep up. By setting this story in the Land of Make Believe, Tarantino has issued himself a license to borrow from other peoples’ imaginations, serving up a bouillabaisse of recycled characters, scenarios, and musical performances.
When I watched Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, people in the theater snickered, giggled and laughed at the cultural onslaught — The Dick Van Dyke Show, Land of the Giants, The Man From U.N.C.L.E, Bob Conrad in his tight pants, Mannix, Robert Goulet singing “MacArthur Park,” Paul Revere and the Raiders, Joe Cocker, Jim Morrison, a rendition of “California Dreamin’”— snippets of music and slices of TV emanating from car stereos, poolside transistor radios, and blaring televisions — Dean Martin, Steve McQueen, Telly Savalas, the Playboy Mansion, and the Van Nuys Drive-in flashing by like the History of Entertainment in all its penetrating, vapid glory. Certainly, Tarantino delights in exhausting his audiences as much as he does in entertaining them.
Amidst all the dazzling gewgaws and visual tchotchkes that career across the screen, Tarantino always manages to keep steady pressure on the narrative, the rising action in his films inevitably leading to a volcanic climax. To build the tension, he cuts back and forth between Rick Dalton’s failed auditions, crying jags, and booze soaked self-pity, and the more charmed, placid lives of his Benedict Canyon neighbors, actress Sharon Tate and her husband, film director Roman Polanski.
These parallel threads aren’t immediately interwoven, as Dalton trashes his on-set trailer after bungling his lines on somebody else’s TV show, and Tate and Polanski cruise blithely around town in a convertible, bopping to the radio. But once Tate appears on screen, portrayed as a kindhearted and playful free spirit by the luminous Margot Robbie, the audience realizes that things are about to go dark, with Manson and his sinister dupes lurking somewhere beyond the edge of the frame.
Giving a master class in storytelling, Tarantino slides more backstory into the script by having Tate and Polanski motor up to the Playboy Mansion for a pop music pool party. There, a tousled Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis in an awesome blond wig) explains to his companion that although Tate is married to Polanski, she has an ardent suitor in celebrity hair stylist, Jay Sebring, who’s dancing with another starlet, ignoring Tate just a few feet away.
Channeling McQueen’s wide-eyed, roguish charm, the actor explains that Polanski will soon jet off to make a new film and Sebring will begin wooing Tate “just as sure as God made little green apples.”
Gradually, the plot threads begin to tighten. Dalton lands a guest starring role in the pilot for a new western, Lancer. While Booth drives his pal back and forth to the set in Dalton’s Caddy, he begins a curbside flirtation with a young hippie chick, Pussycat, played by Margaret Qualley as an acid-dropping Olive Oyl to Booth’s Popeye. Soon the bemused stuntman agrees to give Pussycat a ride to where she’s crashing with her “friends.”
After offering him a sexual favor in exchange for the lift, Pussycat tells Booth that they’re staying at the Spahn Movie Ranch near Chatsworth, a familiar spot to a stuntman from TV’s golden age. After referring to Booth as an old cowboy, Pussycat learns that years earlier her driver was a regular on Bounty Law, Dalton’s hit show, which was shot at the ranch. Booth asks Pussycat her age and when she demurs, throwing herself across the front seat with her head in his lap, she wonders if he’s “too old” to take her up on the offer.
Booth smiles sadly. “What I’m too old for is going to jail for poontang,” he says.
When the Caddy lumbers into the dusty collection of ramshackle buildings, various hippies start eyeballing Booth, whose built-in, shockproof bullshit detector, as Hemingway called it, begins to clang in his head. Despite attempts to deter him, the stuntman heads for a particular shack to check on his old compadre, ranch owner George Spahn. Spahn’s steely-eyed caretaker, Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning), meets him at the flyblown screen door. In an unfriendly tone, she tells Booth that Spahn was so tired after she “fucked his brains out” that he is taking a nap. She’ll be sure to tell him that Booth stopped by.
Booth shakes his head at Fromme, declaring that he’s coming in. He walks past the murmuring, anesthetizing TV, goes through the squalid kitchen, and enters a back bedroom, where he discovers a crotchety Bruce Dern, portraying real-life ranch owner George Spahn. Spahn is dazed and confused, blind as King Lear to the machinations of the ne’er-do-wells keeping him captive in his own home. Booth shows genuine concern for Spahn, helping him sit up in bed.
“Everybody don’t need a stuntman,” the old man snaps .
After a short visit, Booth realizes his old drinking buddy is completely addled and gives Fromme a hard look as he departs. Pussycat intercepts him outside George’s shack, not so flirtatious now, telling Booth that coming there was a mistake and that he should leave.
“Way ahead of you,” he says, brushing past.
As the stuntman crosses toward his vehicle, more hippies begin popping up like prairie dogs, giving Booth the finger and telling him to get lost.
When he arrives at the car, Booth sees that one of his grungy hosts has stuck a large knife into his tire. His face darkening, Booth turns to confront a bedraggled, shirtless man sitting on a nearby fence, giggling at the situation.
Booth opens the Cadillac’s trunk, removes the spare tire and jack, and says he’ll leave as soon as the hippie changes the tire. When the man refuses, Booth walks over, still outwardly passive. He yanks the guy off the railing and proceeds to give him a thorough ass whipping that leaves him with a mouthful of bloody teeth.
Booth’s actions are the harbinger of the utter mayhem to come. Tarantino has always used graphic depictions of violence to make us laugh — and squirm — forever questioning his audience’s predilection for concupiscentia oculorum, Saint Augustine’s lust of the eyes. By setting the action in the proximity of Charles Manson and his soulless followers, the filmmaker is toying with our appetite for blood. We may cover our eyes, but we always peek between the fingers.
Meanwhile, Rick Dalton’s star turn on Lancer leads to an opportunity to try his hand at spaghetti westerns. Fretting that he’s reached the nadir of his career, Dalton is buoyed by Booth’s insistence that the Italian job will provide the much-needed boost to his prospects. In a fleeting montage, Dalton makes a fistful of dollars on a film called Nebraska Jim, becoming the darling of the paparazzi. Several months later, he returns to L.A. with a Prince Valiant haircut, fifteen extra pounds, and an Italian starlet as his wife. (He and the missus are traveling first class, and Booth is in coach.) After blowing most of his money in Rome, Dalton tells Booth that he can’t afford him anymore, and fires his old buddy, proving that no good deed goes unpunished.
The Russian writer and playwright Anton Chekhov famously observed, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” The same can be said for a flamethrower, and Booth’s large, well trained dog. Early in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, a clip from one of Dalton’s films shows him immolating a bunch of Nazi officers with a flamethrower (a nod to Tarantino’s own Inglourious Basterds). It’s a brief appearance, but it’s a fair bet we’re going to see that particular weapon again.
Late one night, a loud muffler outside his home interrupts Dalton’s boozing. When the tipsy thespian goes outside, he encounters three hippies in a beat-up car idling on the private road connecting his home to Sharon Tate’s. Occupants of the car include two hippie chicks from the Spahn Movie Ranch and Manson’s henchman, Tex Watson (Austin Butler), none of whom Dalton has seen before.
Watson and company are looking for the Tate residence, seemingly confused by the winding street connecting that property with Dalton’s. One of the hippie chicks notes that all of them grew up watching television, and that every show that wasn’t I Love Lucy was focused on murder.
“Let’s kill the people who taught us how to kill,” she says.
While Dalton stands in front of the car, gesturing with his frozen margarita, he berates the interlopers while Tex Watson, his face blank, reaches for a handgun on the front seat. Still posturing, Dalton flings the worst insult he can think of, referring to the unkempt driver as “Dennis Hopper,” and telling him to get the fuck out of his neighborhood. Watson has other evildoing in mind, and withdraws.
Dalton’s bluster, naiveté, and his ridiculous bathrobe save him from a nasty fate. But he looks lost without his stunt man to back him up. The audience knows Watson and his gang will return, as will Cliff Booth.
Since the days of D.W. Griffith and his 1915 silent film, Birth of a Nation, Hollywood has re-edited history, presenting a slanted, sanitized view of the American experience. To cite just one example, many Americans believe actor John Wayne won WWII singlehandedly, performing heroics in Back to Bataan, Sands of Iwo Jima, They Were Expendable, and other films. But during and after the war, the former Marion Morrison raised the ire of his mentor and friend, director John Ford, for remaining in Hollywood for the duration. (Ford risked his life as a combat cameraman at the age of fifty, joining fellow directors George Stevens and William Wyler, as well as actors Jimmy Stewart, Robert Montgomery, Clark Gable, Neville Brand, and others in wartime military service.)
In Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, history is perverted almost by divine right. There will be blood, and there is. But the movie’s altered history is shiny and smooth, of the Tom Wolfe Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby variety. Sure, Chekhov’s flamethrower will come into play, as well as Cliff Booth’s loyal dog, Brandy. But what Tarantino underscores most of all — in this story and in his body of work — is an unwavering faith in the persistent illusion of film.
Jay Atkinson is the author of eight books. His latest, Massacre on the Merrimack, is newly available on several platforms as an audiobook. He teaches writing at Boston University.