Why Quentin Tarantino’s Stunning ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ Is Shrouded in Controversy
Tarantino’s latest, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, has generated plenty of buzz for its quality—and criticism for its acclaimed filmmaker’s past misdeeds.
Note: This article contains spoilers for the ending of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
In Sharon Tate’s breakout role in The Valley of the Dolls, her character Jennifer is told again and again that her ambition will take her only as far as her looks. “I know I don’t have any talent, and I know all I have is a body, and I am doing my bust exercises,” she relents in a phone conversation with her hypercritical mother. (“To hell with ’em. Let them droop,” she resolves a minute after hanging up, plopping into bed.) Later, after her husband, a singer and aspiring actor, is committed to a sanitarium with Huntington’s disease, Jennifer is diagnosed with a malignant tumor and learns she must undergo a mastectomy. “It’s funny,” she tells a friend, in Tate’s airy, aristocratic lilt. “All I’ve ever had is a body and now I won’t even have that.”
Nothing lasts forever, even for the most talented or beautiful people in the world. Valley of the Dolls, like Quentin Tarantino’s latest, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is an expression of the anxieties and melancholy brought on by the passage of time, especially for those in show business. (Exploiting then discarding talent is as crucial to the churn of Hollywood as the elevation of new stars, both films remind us.) Knowing that Tate, three friends, and her unborn child were murdered in her home by Charles Manson cultists just two years after Valley of the Dolls adds extratextual notes of longing to that film’s images of her: If only those brainwashed hippies had never found their way to Cielo Drive the night of August 9, 1969. If only an era of “paranoia” had never been “fulfilled” with Tate’s death, as Joan Didion estimated it had. If only the ’60s never died. In Once Upon a Time, Tarantino takes those wistful notes and composes a feature-length symphony, scripting a sprawling “what-if” scenario that seeks to restore the future Tate lost. It’s the most hopeful, vulnerable movie Tarantino’s ever made, and one of his best in years.
Tarantino’s ninth feature covers the months leading up to Tate’s murder, unspooling a warm, dreamy vision of late-’60s Hollywood. It’s a moment of cultural upheaval, as the demise of the old studio system makes way for a younger, scruffier generation of “Movie Brat” filmmakers—Coppola, Lucas, Spielberg, Scorsese, etc.—who in turn shaped Tarantino’s independent film career in the ’90s. (There’s more than a touch of self-reflection on Tarantino’s part here, as he approaches his tenth and allegedly final film in a landscape politically and culturally transformed from the one he started out in.) There are those who thrash against the change, like former western TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a self-pitying alcoholic who lives for stardom but finds himself “slightly more useless each day.” Then there are those who just aim to get by, like Rick’s stunt double best friend, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). He’s a chill if deceptively dangerous dude who once steered cars off bridges but now spends his days playing overqualified chauffeur, housesitting, and buying beers for their Sunday night TV appointments.
Rick and Cliff’s dilemma of middle-age recalls one of the most cutting lines from Jackie Brown, delivered by a snot-nosed cop to a 44-year-old flight attendant making $16K a year: “Didn’t exactly set the world on fire, did you, Jackie?” (Jackie Brown might be the Tarantino movie spiritually closest to Once Upon a Time, with its laid-back, character-driven, mad-about-L.A. pulse and musicality.) Still, the deep loyalty these men have for one another—along with DiCaprio and Pitt’s effortless rapport in their first onscreen pairing; neither has ever been funnier—gives the film much of its sweetness. The plot centers on the sunset of their careers, contrasting it occasionally with the rising stars next door: Rosemary’s Baby director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his angelic It Girl wife, Tate, played by Margot Robbie.
Robbie plays Tate like an irrepressible beam of light; she’s often dancing, is rarely seen without a smile, and seems to love being around people. Though he includes title cards that count down to the night of the real-life Tate’s murder, Tarantino distances this depiction of Tate from victimhood. Instead, we see her in everyday life: packing for a trip, listening to records, buying a copy of Tess of the D’urbervilles for her husband (who is barely in the movie at all). He even gently pokes fun at her a bit. She snores loudly in bed, mid-afternoon sun seeping through a window. She’s met with blank stares when she tries to get recognized at the Bruin, a movie theater in Westwood. Once the staff figures it out and lets her in to watch herself in The Wrecking Crew, it’s the real-life Tate onscreen, pratfalling in a cheesy gag that shows she had a sense of humor about herself. It’s the film’s most moving scene, in which Tate simply sits and takes pride in her work. She glows with every round of laughter that her performance draws from the audience. During her big fight scene with Nancy Kwan, she remembers training with Bruce Lee, the movie’s fight choreographer. The kicks they practiced, hers ever more awkward than his, the hugs and encouragement he offered. The audience cheers when she beats the baddie and she nearly bursts with joy.
Scenes like this emphasize that not only was Tate a person, she was an artist, a worker, and there is more to her memory than the way she died. It pairs nicely with the film’s other best scene, in which an eight-year-old actress on a TV set (played by Julia Butters) stuns Rick out of his jaded stupor with her commitment to her own artistry. Of course, Tate is less a character than a presence throughout the film; like the Manson cult, she is featured only sparingly throughout its runtime. That led to consternation at the film’s Cannes premiere, where a reporter tallied Robbie’s lines in the movie and confronted Tarantino. His response was predictably brusque (“I reject your hypothesis”). But it bears repeating that this is neither a Sharon Tate biopic, nor one of the recent slew of exploitation movies that fixate on conspiracy theories and gruesome details of her murder.
Tarantino consulted with Tate’s only living immediate family member, her younger sister Debra, on the script. As she told Vanity Fair, he implemented “ever so slightly a few” of her suggestions. She also lent Robbie some of Tate’s favorite pieces of jewelry and a half-used bottle of her perfume; the movie theater scene, she says, brought her to tears. “The tone in her voice was completely Sharon, and it just touched me so much that big tears [started falling],” she said. “The front of my shirt was wet. I actually got to see my sister again…nearly 50 years later.” Debra Tate, for the record, does much more than consult on movies. She has worked tirelessly since Sharon’s death to ensure Manson family members stay behind bars until they rot. She has attended surviving cultists’ parole hearings for nearly 50 years and has helped change California law in favor of crime victims. The effect of a scene that directs new audiences to Tate’s work and imparts a sense of how her loved ones knew her should be quantified in something other than word count.
Even so, calls to cancel Tarantino have drummed on in the lead-up to Once Upon a Time’s release. And it’s true that the director has not made himself easy to stomach—at any point in his career, but especially in the last two years. His relationship with Harvey Weinstein, who distributed each of his films through Miramax until being exposed as an alleged rapist and serial predator, by the director’s own admission, made him complicit. “I knew enough to do more than I did,” Tarantino confessed the same month that the allegations broke. Uma Thurman, the star of three of his films, then shared video of a horrific stunt gone wrong on the set of Kill Bill that Tarantino encouraged her to perform herself—though she stressed that the director “was deeply regretful and remains remorseful” and that she holds Weinstein and the movie’s producers “solely responsible.” (The two still seem to be on good terms.)
There was the vile Howard Stern clip, recorded during Kill Bill’s 2003 press tour, in which Tarantino defends Polanski’s rape of then-13-year-old Samantha Geimer. Tarantino called Geimer to apologize personally after the clip resurfaced, then issued a public apology. Geimer later told Indiewire, “I am aware that my rape is being used to attack him and I really don’t like that,” but the damage was done. All of this descended in the wake of the announcement that Tarantino, two years off his bleakest film, The Hateful Eight, would turn next to a story about Charles Manson and Sharon Tate, to be released on the 50th anniversary of Tate’s murder—a macabre idea that Debra Tate was right to persuade him to change. Topping it off, Emile Hirsch would have a role in the film as hairstylist Jay Sebring, Tate’s ex-lover and close friend, despite his 2015 conviction for violently assaulting a female movie executive at a Sundance party. Tarantino has yet to answer for that decision, and it continually seems to slip reporters’ minds while interviewing him.
There’s endless fodder for detractors to choose from. His films’ casual racism and love of stylized violence; how women are as likely a target for it as men. (See: Daisy Domergue.) The news that he’d choked Diane Kruger for a scene in Inglorious Basterds; the actress’ swift assurance to the public that Tarantino had treated her “with utter respect and never abused his power or forced me to do anything I wasn’t comfortable with.” There’s no easy answer. No one-size-fits-all way to square his mistakes with his apologies with the ways he has or hasn’t changed with his incredible gifts and the cinematic worlds he’s opened up for a generation. It is entirely up to a viewer, the individual. (So it would be nice if we stopped charging women, as a whole, with the sole moral responsibility of canceling someone with headlines like “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Is Not for Women.”)
But individuals make up an audience, and audiences are fickle. It’s no wonder Once Upon a Time feels so personal in its anxieties about middle age, and about being an artist running out of time. In some ways, Tarantino seems to identify with Rick, an incorrigible wannabe cowboy set in his ways, wondering if the gates are slowly closing in on him.
The movie’s fairy tale ending is as much for him as it is for Sharon Tate. After the would-be Manson killers are righteously flame-broiled, curb-stomped, and shred to bits at his house and Cliff, tripping on acid, is rushed to the hospital, Rick has his first run-in with Sebring. He asks what went down. Rick plays it cool and relishes the younger man’s admiration—turns out Sebring recognizes him from his old TV show, Bounty Law. That earns Rick an invitation from Tate to come in for a drink and meet her friends. He can hardly believe it. For him, it’s the invitation he thought would never come, into renewed relevance in the new Hollywood he thought was leaving him behind. And for her, it’s just the beginning. It’s a moment of grace and redemption, preserved forever in time just before the credits roll—the kind of magic only possible in the movies.