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Tarantino's Pitch-Perfect 'Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood'

Published: Fri 23 Aug 2019 06:26 PM
Tarantino's Pitch-Perfect Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood
“You know, a long time ago being crazy meant something. Nowadays everybody's crazy.”
- Charles Manson.
On August 8 and 9, 1969, the Manson Family killed actress Sharon Tate and her companions as well as Leno and Rosemary LaBianca inside their Hollywood home. These ghastly crimes saw the killers stab their victims dozens of times, disembowel them, and leave messages scrawled in blood on the walls. According to prosecutors, Manson ordered his followers to invade the house at 10050 Cielo Drive and kill everyone inside. The house previously belonged to Doris Day's son, the record producer Terry Melcher, who had turned down Manson's request for a contract, which some said was his motive for choosing that location. However, the explanations for the killings remain murky and there is evidence that Manson knew Melcher was no longer living there before he gave the murderous orders. Instead of Melcher, it was film director Roman Polanski and his new wife who were renting the house at the time, and though Polanski was away at the time, it was Tate who was brutally stabbed to death - while eight months pregnant - alongside four others who happened to be there that night.
Welcome back to the violent and misogynistic, yet always entertaining world of Quentin Tarantino, who this time around focuses his dyspeptic lens on Tinseltown's pimply backside. Those who delight in his depiction of dismorphic sociopaths, laced with lavish doses of febrile humour and mordant wit, will find plenty to applaud. The script was initially in development by The Weinstein Company, but after the sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein, Tarantino summoned a bunch of studio executives to his agent's office to read the script. Warner Bros, Universal, Sony, Paramount, Annapurna, and Lionsgate were all encouraged to buy the theatrical rights, before a second round was pitched to Tarantino himself. In the subsequent bidding war, Sony triumphed. Originally scheduled to be released on the fiftieth anniversary of Tate's murder, Sony brought forward the release date to July 26. In the White Album, Joan Didion theorized that August 9 was the day the era of free love came to an abrupt end, but this seems a little premature, given that 400,000 people attended Woodstock a week later. Perhaps the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont Speedway in December, which ended with an unruly fan being stabbed and beaten to death by Hell's Angels, provided a more apposite epitaph.
Besides the Manson murders, various other real life tragedies also surrounded the movie's production. On Sunday night, Rick and Cliff sit down to watch "Rick's episode" of The FBI. The ensuing clip from All the Streets Are Silent (1965) is the actual opening to that episode, with one important difference. Rick has been edited into the place of the guest star villain 'Michael Murtaugh,' who was originally to be played by Burt Reynolds - which explains the gum-chewing that Rick and Cliff refer to as "a nice touch." Tarantino originally cast Reynolds as ranch owner George Spahn, but Reynolds died and was replaced by Bruce Dern. This was the final film for Luke Perry who plays Wayne Maunder, the Western star of Lancer (1968). Perry suffered a massive stroke in late February 2019 and died in March, while Maunder himself had died in November 2018, ten days after filming wrapped on this movie. Lancer's sidekick James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant) is shown leaving the set on his motorbike. In September 1973, Stacy took his girlfriend for a ride in the Hollywood Hills and they were mowed down by a drunken driver. She died and Stacy lost his left arm and leg.
Tarantino worked on the screenplay for five years and referred to the project as his "magnum opus," claiming that the director whose work most resembles this film is that of French filmmaker Claude Lelouch. The working title for the film was '#9', as it is his ninth feature film. Prior to its release, Tarantino curated and presented a "Swinging Sixties Movie Marathon" of films that influenced Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, which was broadcast on television in eighty countries. Tarantino said, "Sony Pictures made their Columbia Pictures catalogue available to me so that I could select a series of films representative of the era in which Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is set ... I'm thrilled to host these movies so we can enjoy them together." In addition to obvious picks from 1969 like Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, Cactus Flower, and Easy Rider, he also included much more obscure fare such as Gunman's Walk (1958), Battle of the Coral Sea (1959), Arizona Raiders (1965), The Wrecking Crew (1968), Hammerhead (1968), Model Shop (1969), and Getting Straight (1970). Manson follower Nancy Pitman was quoted as saying "We are what you have made us, we were brought up on your TV. We were brought up watching Gunsmoke [and] Have Gun Will Travel.” Both of these shows were long-running, prime-time Westerns and it is no coincidence that Tarantino's film depicts the Manson killings of 1969 through the eyes of a faded Western TV star.
The narrative arc spans three-days-in-the-lives-of declining, alcoholic actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is having a problem remembering his lines, and his stunt double and general factotum Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Almost the entire one hundred and sixty minutes consists of a series of set pieces exploring their bromance, interspersed with brief flashbacks and visual asides, before leaping ahead six months to the night of the Tate/La Bianca murders. The coolest moment is deftly delivered when Cliff, preparing to repair Rick’s TV antenna, straps on a tool belt, strips to the waist, and, dispensing with a ladder, leaps from the driveway to the roof in a few easy bounds. Pitt was reportedly in early talks for an unspecified role, rumoured to be a detective investigating the murders. Negotiations stalled for a couple months and it was assumed he was no longer interested. Tarantino then considered Tom Cruise for the role, but that never materialized so he returned to Pitt months later, this time offering him the stuntman role which he conceived as a cross between Ed Byrnes, Ty Hardin, and William Shatner. In one of the clips from Rick's past movies, the 'Fourteen Fists of McCluskey,' he is seen wearing an eyepatch on his left eye. Kurt Russell, who plays Randy, starred as left-eyepatch-wearer Snake Plissken in Escape from New York and Escape From LA. The casting of Russell and Zoe Bell as the man and wife stunt coordinators on The Green Hornet is a double inside joke. Russell previously played 'Stuntman Mike' in Death Proof, in which Bell, a real-life stunt performer, also appeared playing herself. In addition to his on-screen role, Russell provides the voice of the off-screen narrator.
Other casting decisions are similarly incestuous and nepotistic. Perla Haney-Jardine, who played B.B. in Kill Bill: Vol.2, plays the hippie chick who sells Cliff an acid-dipped cigarette. Rumer Willis is the daughter of Bruce Willis, who previously worked with Tarantino in Pulp Fiction (1994), while Maya Hawke's mother, Uma Thurman, was previously used and abused by Tarantino in Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill: Vols. 1 & 2. This is his only movie in which Michael Madsen, who featured in Reservoir Dogs and Kill Bill: Vol.2, plays a character who does not die. Madsen claimed that after filming The Hateful Eight, he jokingly complained to Tarantino that every character he has him play ends up dying, and was given a brief cameo in this film in response. If the cream-coloured Cadillac Coupe Deville with a pillarless two-door hardtop body style and prestige trim seems familiar, that's because it belongs to Madsen.
In lieu of actual content, the film is crammed with inside references. Roman Polanski calls his dog "Dr Sapirstein," which was the name of a character in Rosemary's Baby, his latest film at the time. The design on the wall in the airport is identical to the airport mural in the opening scene of Jackie Brown. Like many of Tarantino's films, there is a 'Mexican standoff' of sorts - Tex points his revolver at a stoned Cliff, who responds by making a mock gun with his hand and pointing it back at Tex. Rarely for a Tarantino film, some scenes contained improvisation, particularly when Rick forgets his lines in Lancer and rants to himself in his trailer afterwards. DiCaprio had difficulty playing Dalton's roles as Dalton might, rather than how he himself would have. Since Rick is supposed to be an actor of hidden depth and range, he suggested forgetting his lines mid-scene to help him stay in character. The following breakdown scene in his trailer was also unscripted. During the mid-credits Red Apple Tobacco commercial, Rick says, "Take a bite and feel all right" - a phrase in the published screenplay of From Dusk Till Dawn spoken by Seth Gecko during that film's climactic fight, but was dropped from the final cut. In another scene, a framed issue of MAD Magazine is visible in Dalton's apartment, with a drawing of Dalton himself on the cover. As a tie-in with the movie, MAD Magazine printed that issue as a full-length magazine, billing it as a "Special Tarantino Time-Warp Issue." It includes a full-length comic book parody of 'Bounty Law,' and all of the jokes are written with period-appropriate references to the sixties.
When the narrator lists Rick's Italian films, he mentions 'Operation Dyn-O-Mite' by a director called Antonio Margheriti, the undercover Italian name that Donny Donowitz uses to sneak into the premiere of 'Nation's Pride' in Inglorious Basterds. Also known by a variety of pseudonyms, including Antony Daisies ('daisies' are known as margherite in Italian), the real Margheriti worked in many different genres in the Italian film industry, and was known for his sometimes derivative but often stylish and entertaining science fiction films, sword and sandal epics, spaghetti Westerns, and other action movies that were released to a wide international audience. His specialty was directing low budget efforts on short production schedules with multiple cameras, which allowed him to shoot master shots and close-ups simultaneously. This technique not only forced Margheriti to light his films very carefully, but also enabled him to churn out several per year, a technique Tarantino has claimed as a major influence on his style.
When Tate (played by Margot Robbie with brown contact lenses to match the colour of her eyes) goes to a screening of her movie The Wrecking Crew, rather than recreating the scenes with Robbie, Tarantino uses clips from the actual film and the real Sharon Tate briefly appears onscreen. When Cliff recognizes the Manson Family members from his visit to the Spahn Ranch, he cannot remember Tex Watson's name. Tex responds by saying, "I'm the devil, and I came to do the devil's business," the precise phrase that the real-life Watson said to his victims at Polanski's house before murdering them. Donald "Shorty" Shea was a stuntman who worked on the Spahn Ranch, the final victim of the Manson Family who tried to warn Spahn about being taken advantage of by Manson and his followers. When Cliff visits the Spahn Ranch in search of his old pal to find out more about the hippies, the name Randi Starr is visible on a sign on one of the buildings. Starr was a real ranch hand and stunt man who died during the Tate/La Bianca trial. As the Tate party enters Hollywood's El Coyote restaurant for dinner, Tate and Sebring discuss a movie premiere they can see taking place at an erotic movie theater down the street. "They have premieres for dirty movies?" asks Tate, played by Margot Robbie (who wore brown eye contacts to match the colour of Tate's eyes, while Tate's sister Debra supplied some of her real jewelry). The theater in question was the Eros, a real adult theatre of the time, and a marquee can be seen advertising an M rated movie, which eventually evolved into GP, and not long afterwards to the PG rating that is in use today. The building itself also still exists - it is a repertory cinema on Beverly Boulevard known as The New Beverly and owned by Tarantino. As one of Manson's acolytes, Margaret Qualley let her armpit hair grow out over the course of the shoot for her 'Pussycat' character with no merkin necessary.
Tarantino’s images are decorative and typically busy, but relentlessly functional. There are many bravura crane shots and long tracking shots by award-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson that display Tarantino' technical finesse without carrying any freight of expressive energy or symbolic resonance. His film is filled with the pop-culture iconography of the era, but he voids these artifacts of any substance. Richardson has said that one of his most gratifying experiences was filming Al Pacino for the first time. He had seen all Pacino's films, but having the opportunity to place him in the same frame as Pitt and DiCaprio was a milestone in his career. In an unprecedented production move, a section of the Hollywood Freeway was completely shut down from noon to 2 PM for a sequence populated with period cars. No VFX were used to create this sequence. Editor Fred Raksin's first assembly cut of the film was four hours, twenty minutes long. Although performances by both James Marsden and Tim Roth (as a very English butler to Hirsch's Sebring) were cut from the final version, and there are a few more scenes that would certainly benefit from being trimmed back further, Raskin and Tarantino seamlessly combine old TV and movie footage with the 'present.'
The song Rick sings on Hullabaloo is The Green Door, a number one hit for Jim Lowe in 1956. The background song at beginning of the teaser trailer is Straight Shooter, released in 1968 by the Spanish group Los Bravos, and it opens with Bring a Little Loving by The Mamas and The Papas. In the movie, Michelle Philips is seen meeting her band mate, Momma Cass, at the Playboy Mansion party (the party sequence was actually filmed there, Tarantino having been enjoyed Hugh Hefner's hopsitality on numerous occasions), and California Dreaming later turns up on the soundtrack, albeit not their version. When Manson shows up at the Polanski house and Jay Sebring (Emile Hersch) tells him that Terry and Candy don't live there any more, he's talking about Melcher and his then girlfriend actress Candice Bergen. When Booth drives away from Rick's home and the camera pans over a drive-in theatre, the music is the soundtrack from Our Feature Presentation, a start clip used in various other Tarantino movies. Despite this soundtrack of assorted Top Forty needle-drops, vintage radio commercials for products such as Tanya tanning oil and Heaven Sent perfume, the movie marquees and posters for contemporary films, and some excellent costume design choices that embody the flamboyant sartorial fashions of the times, nothing much more is conveyed by these relatively antiquated artifacts than a vague sense of cultural nostalgia and a compulsive desire for period authenticity. Although Tarantino absolutely nails the sets and wardrobe, and makes some masterful choices in terms of music and sound design, there is no sense of the political protest or social conflict of the era.
The title of Tarantino's film connotes the kind of fairy-tale that is never intended to be taken seriously, since it is a cartoonish fable based only loosely on actual events. The drifting dots and intermittent voiceover suggests that it is a memory piece, a paean to past attitudes and retrograde values in the mold of Billy Wilder's Hollywood Boulevard. It is difficult to disagree with Richard Brody's astute assessment in his New Yorker review which chastised the movie for being “obscenely regressive.” Tarantino clearly enjoys planting racial slurs in the mouths of his characters and Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood is no exception. When Cliff picks up Rick in the parking lot at Columbia Studios it is actually an entrance to the Paramount Studios Tour (the building in the background is now part of the Paramount Studios Complex, but used to house the KHJ radio studios and ads for the now defunct station are scattered throughout the movie). As Rick tearfully acknowledges his career is in terminal decline, Cliff obligingly lends him a pair of sunglasses in a gesture of male solidarity, accompanied by the line “Don’t let the Mexicans see you crying.” Cliff and Rick both take great delight in using the word 'hippie' as a term of abuse and the intensity of their narrow outlook explains their shared hostility to anything they perceive as different. Tarantino’s depiction of women is equally bitter, with Cliff’s unhappy marriage to a foreign-born wife, Francesca (Lorenza Izzo), with her stylish clothing and truckload of luggage providing just another opportunity to display an object for derision. Her only function is to usurp Cliff's position, bring the burden of a different dependent, and allow Rick to show his stoic endurance in the face of the shrill rage of a shrew.
Tarantino spices up his very clever, yet colour-blind movie with a nasty dose of resentment, distracting his audience with plenty of inside jokes, recognisable landmarks like the Capitol Records building, and Hollywood references such as the Columbia Pictures logo at the start of the film, which is not the modern version, but the one that was used in 1969. The only non-Caucasian character, Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), is played for laughs and gets humiliated in a fight with Cliff, who refers to him as a 'dancer,' a reference to the fact that Lee was the Cha Cha champion of Hong Kong in 1958. British Chinese martial arts actor and choreographer J. Cheung turned the role down, just as he had previously turned down the role of Lee in Birth of the Dragon, citing its lack of respect to Lee's spirit. Lee's daughter was similarly disappointed with the way her father was portrayed, feeling he was sorely misrepresented as a haughty and arrogant blowhard. Tarantino’s love letter to a lost cinematic age is one that celebrates, at the expense of everyone else and with a complete absence of tongue in cheek self-awareness, the image of white male stardom and machismo. He has recreated a loving dramatization of the power of professional cynicism, in conjunction with an entire system of production that simply serves to enable misogyny and racial prejudice.
The Cannes premiere of the film drew stars from around the globe, including Zhang Ziyi, Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna, Lea Seydoux, Tilda Swinton, Guillaume Canet, Gilles Lelouche, Xavier Dolan, Dakota Fanning, Adrien Brody, and Michelle Rodriguez. It was so highly anticipated that a large number of people, including film executives, were unable to get in. Journalists queued for two hours before the film's 4:30 PM press screening. When the attendants came to the entrance barrier at about 3:50 PM to start admitting the celebrity guests, a round of applause went up from the crowd. The crush to get in became such a heaving mess of sharp elbows that staffers had to admonish people not to push their way into the theater. In a statement on social media before the screening, Tarantino begged the audience to avoid spoilers - "I love cinema, You love cinema. It's the journey of discovering a story for the first time. I'm thrilled to be here in Cannes to share 'Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood' with the festival audience. The cast and crew have worked so hard to create something original, and I only ask that everyone avoids revealing anything that would prevent later audiences from experiencing the film in the same way. Thank you." The scene in which Pitt reveals his ripped physique drew gasps and spontaneous applause from the audience, who also gave the movie a seven-minute standing ovation.
Such an ecstatic response merely confirms Brody's conclusion that “Tarantino never suggests the existence of a world outside of Hollywood fantasy, one with ideas, desires, demands, and crises that roil the viewers of movies, if not their makers. He rigorously and systematically keeps the outside world outside of the movie’s purview until, in the final twist, his fiction intersects with history in a way that only hammers his doctrine home. Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is about a world in which the characters, with Tarantino’s help, fabricate the sublime illusions that embody their virtues and redeem their failings - and then perform acts of real-life heroism to justify them again. Its star moments have a nearly sacred aura, in their revelation of the heroes that, he suggests, really do walk among us; his closed system of cinematic faith bears the blinkered fanaticism of a cult.”
Howard Davis
Scoop Arts Editor
Educated at Cambridge and UCLA; worked on several major Hollywood feature films and as a Kundalini Yoga instructor in Los Angeles; currently enjoying life in Wellington.
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