Forceful Fiction: “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood”

A coarse narcissist, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) dislikes that he is no longer the beloved star of a Western TV series. His stuntman and close buddy, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), is probably a murderer; we don’t know. The best thing about them, as Kyle Smith describes, is that they “stand for an old-school way of doing things—all macho movies and masculine camaraderie.” These are the protagonists of Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood (2019), written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. There is no toxic masculinity in this film. What there is is nostalgia for pop culture in the late 1960s, such as the drive-in movie theatre showing Lady in Cement. Indeed, this even includes the sexiness of hippie chicks, when they are sexy.

But the hippies blow it. The backdrop of the Charles Manson murders exists here. Rick Dalton lives next door to Polanski and Tate, whose house three of Manson’s hippies are approaching. These are obviously dark moments, and Tarantino alters history so he can cheer himself up—and because he is a moralist of sorts. Does he not have Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) refer to Polanski as a “Polish pr–k”?

Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie, is in the film and, like Rick, she is a narcissist; but a friendly one. And in any case, she is not an authentically human character. Neither are Rick and Cliff; they’re caricatures. Hollywood was meant to be a revenge fantasy, a work of artistry but not art. And it’s entertaining. It’s lively and peppery, with dandy costumes by Arianne Phillips. It emanates, moreover, from a man coldly aware that Manson does not invite nostalgia.

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