Editor’s note: This post contains spoilers for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. So maybe don’t read it if you haven’t seen the movie and don’t want anything spoiled for you. Duh.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood has inspired plenty of talk of controversy and arguments against that talk, and yeah, we’re basically in the Quentin Tarantino zone now. It’s not a bad place to be, and it only happens every few years, so we might as well appreciate this plentiful supply of conversation starters. This particular film, of course, is a love letter to many things — cinema, the ’60s, friendship, Sharon Tate — but some are calling it a revenge fantasy.
I feel like, to a degree yes, there are elements of that in this movie but not to the level of Inglorious Basterds or Django Unchained. It’s much more of a (revisionist) fairy tale, and that’s obvious from the title. QT is playing on Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time movies because he’s an homage junkie, but he’s also evoking Brothers Grimm stylings. That sort of framework can soften the blow of the film’s controversies, but there’s still some awkwardness involved with how QT maneuvers around this story’s women, including Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), in a story about two dudes mourning the passage of time and the influx of all those hippies. I dug the movie and laughed along with everyone else when all acid-fueled hell broke loose, but this doesn’t quite hold up as a fairy tale, does it? Most fairy tales have a hero, and there might not be one here. Or maybe the hero is hiding from us?
The focus of the movie on these two longtime pals isn’t a problem in and of itself. Fairy tales do usually contain a simplified plot, as is the case here, along with plentiful meandering. There’s also a lot to unpack, as is customary with a Tarantino film, along with wrestling with both the subtext and the obviousness of it all. Yet I’m still grappling with how the fairy tale framework could excuse some of the film’s hiccups, if not for a Tarantino-esque complication.
For one thing with fairy tales, the good-vs-evil dichotomy is usually straightforward with characters — with grey areas being rare. That may have presented a challenge, given that Tarantino’s a fan of layered characters and likes to add some background flavor. We know, obviously, that Tate is “good” (she’s blissfully angelic while onscreen), and the Manson Family is “evil” (along with being dumb, especially Tex) and spurred on by a madman, even though Charlie is largely absent (what a waste of
Dewey Crowe Damon Herriman). Most of the other characters are easy to categorize, except Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth, and that wouldn’t be a huge deal if he wasn’t so central to the storybook outcome.
Cliff’s a tidal wave of ambiguity, man. His acid cigarette can arguably represent the enchanted or magical aspects of a fairy tale, but the guy himself doesn’t inhabit a clear-cut good or evil orientation. This is the case despite his affable mannerisms and the fact that he looks like a simple guy and spends some of his time shirtless on a roof. We do know that he’s steadfastly loyal (as a stunt double, driver, assistant, and armchair therapist) to Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton and is an endlessly cool “war hero.” He’s also smart enough to decline the advances of the probably-underage Pussycat (Margaret Qualley).