Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is an indulgent romp through bygone Hollywood, reaching its climax on August 6, 1969, night of the Manson family’s infamous Sharon Tate murders. It follows fictional star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), struggling against the looming obsolescence of an aging actor, and his inseparable buddy and stunt-double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) as they attempt to stay relevant in perpetually youthful Hollywood. The film touches on the lives of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), and their friend Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch), who in this universe are Dalton’s new neighbors. There’s even a brief cameo from Manson himself (Damon Herriman); we also meet the young hippies occupying his ranch.
Tarantino is a heavyweight of American filmmaking—there’s no escaping seminal works like Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction—and while he probably has bigger fans, the director earned my respect with Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and Jackie Brown, two narratives with complex, self-possessed female protagonists. In both of these, violence is held accountable, and retribution is unforgivingly exacted by the women that violence affects. This makes Once Upon a Time’s horrendous treatment of women all the more disappointing: female characters are routinely sexualized and dismissed. Failing the opportunity for a critical lens, nothing clues us in that, hey, this is how things used to be, but we know better now.
Polanski, noted director and child rapist, is a glamorous figure with the power to revive Dalton’s withering career. The incident with a 13-year-old girl occurs years after the film is set, but his appearance is still unnerving—luckily, his character is largely absent from the film. And for the screen time she gets, Margot Robbie depicts his wife, actress Sharon Tate, with skill and compassion. But the supposedly central character has so few lines, she’s often reduced to an object of desire and pretty smile. At a Playboy Mansion party, the camera watches her dance as we get her background via Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis)—she broke an engagement with Sebring to marry Polanski but the three remain close, and wouldn’t McQueen love to get a piece of her, too.
Then, particularly in light of Polanski’s presence, things get pretty creepy when Cliff Booth pulls over for a young (emphasis on young) hitchhiker, Pussycat (Margaret Qualley). He agrees to drive her to Spahn Ranch, but not before a lewd, lengthy shot of Pussycat’s behind, hanging out of the car in revealing short-shorts as she leans in to talk. If female viewers weren’t uncomfortable enough after this boorish male gaze, never mind the slow, gratuitous pans up women’s bodies throughout the film, sexual tension breaks when Pussycat unceremoniously offers Booth road head—which he declines when he (and the audience) learns the eager young lady is underage. This doesn’t keep Tarantino from continuing to sexualize Qualley’s character, though, and for the rest of the car ride, there’s the implication that Booth is foolish for passing her up. Then we meet the girls at Spahn Ranch, most of them unnamed, some appearing as young as fourteen. Still, there are lingering shots to highlight the dusty, bare feet of Squeaky Fromme and friends.
To be fair, Manson’s family did include underage girls. But glamorizing the victimization of these brainwashed women, who the film portrays as fairly lucid operators within the cult, is problematic. While some excuse the treatment of women here as depicting historical sexism, it is imperative we examine how these dated attitudes are reproduced. Tarantino explicitly made a fairytale, and the airbrushed portrait of late 1960’s L.A. at least has that to lean on, but who exactly would think of this fairytale as idyllic? The women are patronizingly shallow, scarcely more than objects for sex or demonization. Further, the only character of color is a young Bruce Lee, who is portrayed as little more than one-dimensional, provocative braggart. The cameo is merely a tool to showcase Booth, aging American Cool Guy, as the strong, white hero who puts a cocky icon (history is rewritten here) in his place. The scene has unsurprisingly faced some criticism.
The film, though, is not wholly without merit. The sets and costumes tantalize, and the cast is rife with talent—Pitt and DiCaprio give particularly impressive performances. Booth and Dalton are engagingly authentic, in fact, and the love between their two characters is delightful, wholesome and rejuvenating. The chemistry is rich, the mutual support tangible. Their friendship is the emotional core of the film and a genuinely redeeming plotline. Booth’s relationship to Dalton is described as “more than a brother and slightly less than a wife,” a sweet line and ostensibly true.
They’re both endearingly flawed characters, but we also learn Booth may have murdered his wife. Cue the flashback to him and his former spouse on a boat, and gosh, if she isn’t nagging up a storm! I was unsettled that the audience found this, and the implication of her death, which we don’t see, hilarious. Just another mouthy broad who gets what’s coming to her, right? Booth faces no repercussions, unless we count Kurt Russell’s character, Randy, hesitating to hire him for The Green Hornet because of his own wife’s unease. But he’s hired anyway, and when Randy’s wife, who also works on set, lambastes and then fires him for throwing Bruce Lee at her now deeply dented car, the termination isn’t valid until Randy repeats her words nearly verbatim. On paper, it sounds like Tarantino may be critiquing mid-century sexism, but the result is a chance to laugh once more at the overdone “hysterical woman” cliché. Booth’s past is swept away and forgotten.
The movie bungles another chance at redemption when Rick Dalton is on set for a TV Western, waiting to film his scene. He sits down with a book next to a child actor (Julia Butters) who makes him promise not to bother her. “At last,” I thought, “an authoritative female character!” Hope faded as Dalton’s continual disruptions win over the eight-year-old, and she asks about the book he’s reading. When his description of the plot becomes a tearful metaphor for his own irrelevance, she kneels at his feet and lies that the plot is so sad she’s crying, too, just to soothe him.
Okay, so she’s compassionate. She even articulately objects to the pet name he calls her. But when, impromptu, Dalton throws her to the ground during filming, she sarcastically replies after the cut that, no, she throws herself down all the time for fun, only to come back and laud his performance. That the only female character to explicitly challenge her poor treatment is a child—except Dalton’s trophy wife, who fends off an attacker only to get a laugh from the audience as she, distraught, tells police about the incident in her native Italian—feels questionable. In this fairytale, women are murdered wives, practically voiceless starlets, or hot young teens, and the only one openly dissenting to blatant sexism is a child, feeble enough to throw to the ground, easily dismissed.
Big, glaring spoilers lie ahead, so if you haven’t yet seen the movie, now is the time to step out.
We know Tarantino enjoys toying with historical fact. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s productive and entertaining in Inglorious Basterds, and I think we’re all put at ease when the film’s looming tragedy, the Polanski murders, fails to bear fruit. What replaces the presumed climax, though, is not as satisfying as Hitler’s assassination. Our mostly lovable duo, Booth and Dalton, thwart the three Mansonites before they can do much damage, taking down the intruders with brutality so excessive, it’s grotesque. The male hippie gets off relatively easy. True, he suffers a stab wound and then a crotch mauling from Brandy, Booth’s dog, before collapsing, but an acid-tripping Booth then sics Brandy on a screaming female follower just prior to decimating the other Manson girl, slamming her head into a colorful variety of surfaces, stopping to look at the faceless, pulpy mass before dropping his grip on her hair.
The screamer, in classic 1970’s horror flailing, runs outside and falls in the pool, disturbing a clueless Dalton lounging on a float, headphones blasting. Plastered drunk, he clambers out of the water and retrieves from his shed a flame-thrower, then proceeds to roast the remaining life out of the young woman. This is a Quentin Tarantino movie, after all. We even get an indulgent shot of her charred body bobbing in the light blue waves.
When it’s all done and the cops leave, Dalton finally meets his neighbors, curious about the commotion, and the fairytale ends optimistically—maybe he’ll be cast in an upcoming Polanski flick? And at least one character, Sharon Tate, is shown clemency.
However merciful his rewrite of history, it’s difficult not to see Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood as a paragon of the male gaze, glorifying misogyny in the attempt to conjure nostalgia for an era that really only serves the fantasies of men. And with no hint of the struggle for racial equality that was pervasive at the time, especially in a metropolis like Los Angeles, access to this nostalgia is further reduced to white men. It’s a shame to see Tarantino, who despite habitual fascination with violence against women and racial slurs has crafted some incredible and nuanced films, stoop to what feels like a regurgitated mass of his own archetypes and pitfalls. Once Upon a Time should, and hopefully will, signal to filmmakers and executives that movies in this vein, movies that function to mystify oppression under the guise of old-fashioned glamour, are obsolete. Once upon a time, indeed. Let’s leave it that way.
S.G. Jones is a writer and musician currently based in the Pacific Northwest. They spend their time working on a book-length poetry project, composing and recording music, and communing with their companion, Oblio the cat. Their current obsessions are Elton John’s sunglasses and the 1986 nuclear disaster of Chernobyl, Ukraine.