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Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood and the Power of Tarantino's 'What If?'

Updated: Jan 11, 2023

Note: This article was originally posted on Tom's blog, Carruthers, Leggetter & Whoever.

“Maybe this isn’t the way it was... It’s the way it should have been”.

We know of the joy of Tarantino’s ‘What if?'. With it he has offered us some of the most triumphant and viscerally enjoyable moments of catharsis on film in some time. The brutal killing of Hitler at the end of Inglorious Basterds is just as hilarious as it is perversely, graphically violent and fleetingly victorious. The revenge on multiple slavers brought about by Django in Django Unchained has a similar feel of justified violence that we long for, and appreciate, every drop of blood. Tarantino continued this motif of alternate history in his 9th film which, if he is to be believed, is his penultimate feature. In Once Upon a Time... In Hollywood we find ourselves in the late 60’s paralleling the final months of the beautiful, wonderful, albeit ultimately tragic life of Sharon Tate, with the fictional final career moves of Rick Dalton - a western actor whose star is slowly fading. Through an extreme set of circumstances, Tarantino’s ‘What if?’ comes into effect again as the film reaches its blood-soaked finale. But what makes Hollywood the beautiful and majestic film that it is, is that we get to view the power of the ‘What if?’. We get to see what happens after, where we didn’t

really with the death of Hitler and we only elude to with Django and his bride riding off into the sunset. Many have commented that Hollywood is Tarantino’s most mature work, but I think many have failed to reckon with it as his most immensely powerful. For me, it’s another masterpiece in his cannon of them, it’s probably my favourite and I think one could certainly make the case for it being his finest effort yet.

For as grand as its scope is, Hollywood is more or less a film in three acts. Our first act brings us into the world we will be inhabiting for some time. We are introduced to the general lives of our three leads; Rick Dalton (a career best from Leonardo Di Caprio), Sharon Tate (a stunning and effervescent turn from Margot Robbie) and Rick’s stunt double Cliff Booth (one of the most deserving Supporting Actor wins in some time for Brad Pitt). This is the day prior to the single day where the film will spend much of its runtime, and there is a sense within all of the interactions that a reckoning is coming. One of Tarantino’s most playful choices is to instead place that reckoning suddenly six months later at the 2 hour mark of this feature. During this first half hour or so we follow Rick as he meets with Marvin Schwarz to discuss the current nature of his career. This is ultimately the meeting and instigator for Rick’s journey in the film, as he comes to terms with what his career and stardom will look like from this point on. Through Rick’s weeping eyes we drive around the L.A of 1969 that is so exceptionally and carefully brought to life in this film, leading to one of the film’s two Oscars (Production Design for Barbara Ling and Nancy Haigh). Without a lick of CGI in sight, a tangible and effortless re-creation of a bygone era was made in front of our very eyes. Making every scene more realistic and every element of the world feel more believable, thus helping tremendously when we get to the more outlandish sequences later in the film. Upon arrival back home, Rick views his new neighbours pull into their house. These neighbours just so happen to be

Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. Their street just so happens to be Cielo Drive. From this point on we understand the correlation and paralleling that will drive this film. No matter how much we care for the plight of Rick’s career, we understand that far more evil and tragic end awaits us at the end of his drive.

When the film was first announced I recall a lot of trepidation and worry surrounding how Tarantino would depict this tragic event, with his known previous proclivities for playing fast and loose with facts in his period piece films. I too held a certain amount of worry, also regarding the then-casting of Jennifer Lawrence in the role of Tate. However, I think Robbie is sublime in the film and brings all the warmth, charm and pathos that this character needs with the famously commented on lack of dialogue she has (which I don’t agree is a problem as I shall illuminate later). But I did have horrific visions of a pregnant Tate wielding a samurai sword like the bride of Kill Bill, chopping down Manson family members. I knew this was a naturally worst case scenario and my implicit trust in Tarantino was not unwarranted to feel that he would approach the murders with great sensitivity and appropriateness. Hitler’s death doesn’t come out of nowhere for example, it is built into the tone and presentation of Basterds to an extent that the most ridiculous ending possible is seemingly the ultimate inevitability. I also personally felt that the paralleling of the main story against the backdrop of that horrific incident was a perfect correlation of what 1969 Hollywood was like. As soon as I read Peter Biskind’s great book Easy Rider and Raging Bulls exploring that era of Hollywood as a catalyst

for the fervent and dynamic creative times of the 70’s, I realised how much of a turning point that tragedy was. For Tarantino to simultaneously mythicise and depict it wholly as it happened, as the background for the simple story of a fading star and his stunt double best friend and confidante was a move that I saw as frankly ingenious. All my worries were, of course, quashed as soon as the film started and as soon I saw that beautiful ending. An ending that we built to in the third act of the film almost in the fashion of a police procedural “Final days of a star” sort of show style. This final act comes after the meat of the movie, which follows each of our three leads over the course of a normal day in their lives, which in some small ways and some large ones will colour the most important day of their life six months later. The lead of our film is Rick Dalton, TV’s 'Jake Cahill', star of 'Bounty Law', as he shoots today his feature guest appearance on 'Lancer', a new show starring an up-and-coming

actor. His best friend and stunt double is Cliff Booth, an elliptic and unknowable figure. The only thing we do know about him is that he’s ungodly charismatic. It is through these characters that Tarantino brings the concept of myth and ‘what if?’ earlier in the film, bringing a possibility of revision and re-contextualisation into the language and text of the film. With Cliff this comes in the extended flashback, ambiguously presented through the lens of his own memory, as he fights Bruce Lee behind the scenes of the shooting of a Green Hornet episode that Rick was starring in. The more obvious example of a ‘what if?’ prior to the climax is Rick discussing his possible casting in The Great Escape. In presenting this scene Tarantino even places Di Caprio through CGI in Steve McQueen’s (presented earlier in the film by Damien Lewis) shoes in a scene from the film. This depiction of possibility fuels the finale in a very subtle way.

But for me the heart of the film lies with Sharon, and her portrayal by Robbie and Tarantino as an angel unknowingly wandering her final days on this earth. Much criticism was given at the time about Robbie’s lack of dialogue, however I find that if anything deeply offensive to Robbie’s stellar performance. With just her eyes and a slight smile Robbie delivers a wholly encapsulated Tate, melding the starlet image we know of her already and the private interior life of a woman who loved to act and was having the time of her life, before going through the trials and joys of pregnancy with a man she loved deeply. Tarantino positions Tate for most of the film in a cinema as she watches herself on the screen. For as much as Robbie is Tate completely, we are also removed and watching Robbie watch Tate, rather than Tate watch Tate. Tarantino’s decision to have the real The Wrecking Crew footage (with the real-life intact) ultimately puts us in the mind-frame of Tate in many-ways, as we watch for the first time audiences laugh with her on-screen. Robbie’s subtleties as she reacts to the people in the cinema watch her character, laughing and later applauding, is some of my favourite smaller parts of the film. The realism of the film is even in the smallest detail, with Robbie wearing some of Tate’s own jewellery, provided by Sharon’s sister Debra, who was one of the Tarantino’s first people to talk to when contemplating bringing the film to the screen. In performance and even in the props, the spirit of Sharon Tate haunts the entire film. The ultimate power of the film’s finale is chiefly due to the amount of normal time we spend with Sharon, exploring what a joyous and enlightening presence she actually was in this world. Tarantino’s focus on her natural naivety in the face of what will happen to her makes the film perennially more haunting than any foreshadowing dream sequence of murder could ever do. The highlight of this joy in the film is in the early Playboy mansion sequence, set gloriously to Deep Purple’s Hush before segueing into The Buchanan Brothers Son of a Lovin’ Man.

If there is one thing that is lost in repeat viewings of the film, a film that in my eyes garners more repeat viewings than any of Tarantino’s previous work, it’s the fact that we now know what’s coming. Whereas that first watch was enriched by what we thought was coming, making every scene haunting and tense – we now realise that instead of propelling towards Sharon’s death, we are propelling to Sharon being saved. Not that she, or anybody in the film, knows that Sharon is being saved. Hollywood of course ends not with the brutal murder of Tate and the rest of the residents of her Cielo Drive house on that fated night, but rather the violent and uproarious killing of those evil Manson would-be murderers by our very own Cliff Booth. For, in this reality, the Manson murderers decided to fight against the lessons of murder that they had been taught on TV and so went to Rick’s house instead. What follows is one of the most gloriously graphic and cathartic sequences of violence I have ever seen. So uproarious and brutal that we forget what we should be watching, an ending that has been looming over the entire film and that we have been dreading since Margot Robbie’s Tate first came on the screen. It is in that forgetting that we gain the true and full effect of the film’s closing; Emile Hirsch’s Jay Sebring coming to the gate to talk with Rick, before Sharon comes over the intercom. Her voice beautifully effected by the static of the radio, her voice unaffected by the pain she will thankfully in this reality never know. Her naivety in the face of a tragedy that will never cross her mind is beautiful and so elegantly depicted that I can only keep repeating the word ‘haunting’ to describe it. It is because of this final moment that we understand the true power of Tarantino’s ‘What if’. Following the grand crane shot up through the darkness and shrubbery, we finally see Sharon and everybody else come out of the house and an unsettling and moving feeling of loss overwhelms us. This, in turn, however is overwhelmed by a tinged happiness for this fairy tale ending that we know is a deeply longed for lie. This moment is also imbued with triumph due to our relationship with Rick and what possibilities could come from his new found relationship to Tate and Polanski. This melding of two intense feelings of joy makes the ending the powerhouse of emotion that it stands to be.

At the end of this film a music cue is heard; haunting, delicate and deeply moving. This is a cue composed by Maurice Jarre from his score for the John Huston-directed, Paul Newman-starring, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean. What at first seems like a wonderful choice of music to close out the film, gains far more importance when one returns to the 1972 film it is taken from. That film opens with a series of title cards explaining certain facts about the reality of what the film is based on, the final title card simply reads “Maybe this isn’t the way it was... It’s the way it should have been”. If there ever was a sentence that perfectly exemplified the power of Tarantino’s ‘What if?’, it’d be that one. Whereas Tarantino previously in his period films has used anachronistic music choices to better fit the mood of a scene regardless of whether it was period accurate, this is the only piece of music in the film not released prior to when the film is set, thus bringing us deeper into the realism of the world up until this final point, before leaving us with an implicit message of a future beyond the film. If people ever wondered whether Tarantino’s lifting of different film elements was superfluous or ever unintentional, or wondered what Tarantino’s motivations with this film’s revisionist ending was; I feel that simple quote does it quite nicely. “Maybe this isn’t the way it was... It’s the way it should have been”.

Hollywood is in my opinion Tarantino’s greatest effort, a far more mature work it could be said for his oeuvre, with one of the most painfully haunting and beautiful endings that I have seen in some time. But Tarantino does naturally relish and give us some of the most of that what we want, excellent extended dialogue scenes, scenes of horrific and entertaining violence and indelibly unforgettable characters.  For as much as Hollywood is a subversive film in Tarantino’s cannon – it’s also the exact film we want from him. Oscar-wise I felt that this was bound to be Tarantino’s time, with another writing win inevitable and a true “finally” moment for Best Picture and Best Director. It’s not that Parasite isn’t excellent or well-deserving, but for me this really is a more complex, subtle and affecting piece of film. Which makes it, for me, the finest Tarantino effort yet and, for me, the greatest film of 2019, or at least my personal favourite.


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