I wanted to see Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which takes place in a loving recreation of late-’60s Los Angeles. I knew that it starred one of my favorite actors, Brad Pitt, along with Leonardo DiCaprio and Margot Robbie and was set in 1969 at the time of the Manson murders. But that was all. I asked my older son if he was interested to see it and he came along. I was a teenager in last years of high school in 1969 and very clearly remember the Manson murders, as well as later reading a book by the prosecutor who got Manson and his followers convicted and sentenced to death. So I was quite interested to see what Tarantino would make of this material and era. We both thoroughly enjoyed the film, of which more below, but in our discussion after the movie ended, I discovered that we had had two extremely different experiences, as if we were watching two different movies.
Warning: this post will contain major spoilers about the movie “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”. I strongly recommend that you don’t read further if you haven’t seen the movie and intend to. It really will be a much more satisfying movie if you don’t already know the plot.
The movie centres on a former TV cowboy Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is grappling with a career that’s gone to seed, and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Cliff has his own career problems, not only is Rick’s clout in the industry on the way down, but Cliff has also difficulty getting work because of past behaviour. Cliff has taken on the role of driver, gofer, friend, to Rick. Next door to Rick lives Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) who is married to the up-and-coming young director Roman Polanski — super-hot off Rosemary’s Baby. Roman is away in Europe, but Sharon and her friends are enjoying life in Hollywood. Sharon is young, beautiful and enjoying her own newfound stardom. We see her go to a movie theatre to watch herself in a new Dean Martin–Matt Helm movie and enjoy seeing herself win a karate fight with Nancy Kwan onscreen. The footage onscreen is of the real Sharon Tate, who was murdered by Manson’s followers in August 1969.
I knew that four of Manson’s followers had gone to Sharon Tate’s house on Cielo Drive on 9 August 1969 and had horribly murdered Sharon and four of her friends. Sharon herself was the last killed. She was eight and half months pregnant and was strung up by a rope around her neck. She begged for the life of her unborn baby, but was stabbed to death. There were sixteen stab wounds on her body, any of five of which would have been fatal. I also know that Tarantino loves depicting extreme violence in detail in his movies. I’d recently rewatched Reservoir Dogs, the first Tarantino movie I’d ever watched, and was shocked by how violent it was, more than I remembered.
So for most of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I was watching it with mounting dread and awful anticipation, as I knew what was going to happen to Sharon and her friends. She was portrayed by Margot Robbie as a very likeable young woman enjoying life, revelling in her acting success and looking forward to her baby arriving. Particularly in the scenes showing her and her friends, I just felt awful. As the film moved towards its climax and Margot and her friends were out eating at a local pizza restaurant, I sat there thinking, “Oh no, in a few hours she is going to go through hell and die. These are her last hours of life.”
But that is not what happened. Rick Dalton comes across the Manton followers casing the street, and confronts them about disturbing his evening. They recognize him from his old TV Western series and decide to murder him instead. So they break into his house, where they surprise Cliff, who is high from an LSD laced cigarette one of Manson’s followers had given him earlier in the movie. He and his Pitt Bull (“Pitt” Bull!!!) fight back and they and Dalton’s new Italian wife manage to kill two of the three in a Tarantino orgy of violence. The third intruder staggers outside bleeding from her wounds and waving a knife. Dalton, who is floating in his pool, grabs his flamethrower (yes, there is back story to that) and finishes her off. Sharon Tate’s friend comes over to see what all the excitement is about, and Sharon invites Dalton back to her place to tell them all about it. Dalton had been hoping to get to hang out with Sharon and her friends all movie, and his wish is fulfilled.
This twist to the ending absolutely stunned me. I hadn’t seen it coming. I expected Cliff and possibly Rick Dalton to somehow get caught up in the Tate murders next door, most likely in the aftermath of the murders, or possibly to follow the Manson connection, as Cliff had been to visit the Manson family earlier in the movie. I’d been expecting Tarantino to wallow in the violence of the murders of Tate and her friends. And the ending was unexpectedly cathartic, those murderous Manson followers really got what they deserved, and it was also a fairytale ending, as I now realized that the title of the movie had signalled.
But when I talked to my son, I discovered that he had been completely unaware of who the victims of Manson and his family were, had no idea that they targeted Sharon Tate, and all through the movie was expecting the actual ending, a confrontation between Cliff and Rick and the Manson family. What’s more, because the movie set up Cliff as a very good fighter, he was expecting Cliff to wipe out the Manson attackers. Earlier in the movie, there was a scene where Cliff came across Bruce Lee, who is played as an arrogant dick lecturing Hollywood stunt men on his superiority and challenging them to fight him. Cliff takes up the challenge, and Lee “wins” the first round with a side kick that sends Cliff flying. The second round, Cliff evades the attack and throws Lee into a car, badly damaging the door panels. Criticised for disrespecting Lee’s skill in this portrayal, Tarantino has said that in a third round, Cliff would have definitely come off worst. Anyway, this scene was clearly setting up Cliff as a formidable fighter, so my son was expecting the fight scene ending and its outcome. Though he had not anticipated the crucial role played by the Pitt Bull (with a savage attack to a groin among other things). It also turned out that he did know about Manson, as he’d read a book profiling various psychopathic killers, but he was completely unaware of the names or identities of the Manson family victims.
We realized that our emotional experience of the movie had been totally different. To the extent that we were essentially watching two different movies. Apart from the growing dread and fear I experienced throughout the movie, it was also a very memory-provoking recreation of the late 1960s Hollywood and movie/TV world of my youth (more below). For my son, it was a fairly straightforward arc towards bad guys get what’s coming to them. Though with many genius scenes and themes along the way. Not least, the scene where Cliff visits the Spahn Ranch where the Manson family are living, and resists his attempted seduction by one of the girls, asking to see her driver’s licence for proof of age (likely a veiled reference to Roman Polanski’s later trouble arising from sex with an underage girl). And the scene where Rick is a guest villain on a pilot for another TV Western and has an absolutely brilliant exchange with a young child actress on a porch while waiting to film.
Tarantino lovingly recreates the Hollywood and culture of the late 1960s. The level of detail goes way past the buildings and TV shows and actors of the era, to recreate the look of the vehicles, the advertisements, the furniture etc. My only quibble is that the TV sets in people’s houses looked bizarrely antique, in ornately polished wooden boxes like the picture below on the left. My memory of TVs of the 1960s is more like the one on the right. Possibly, it was only a couple of TVs in the movie, particularly the one in Cliff’s campervan, and maybe he had hung onto an old TV from an earlier time.
Overall, this movie felt different to the typical Tarantino movie. No real violence until the end, and the first half of the movie was a loving and gentle series of extended cameos of 1960s Hollywood, often funny and also emotionally moving. But the momentum builds, and it gets better and tighter as it builds to its unexpected or expected cathartic climax – depending which movie you were watching.