Vol. 41 No. 17 · 12 September 2019
At the Movies

‘Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood’

Michael Wood

1512 words

It was​ so quiet that night, we learn in Helter Skelter, Vincent Bugliosi’s book about the Manson murders of 1969, that you could hear the ice rattling in cocktail shakers all the way down the canyon from Cielo Drive, Los Angeles. At least this is what ‘one of the killers would later say’. In Quentin Tarantino’s new film, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, we not only hear the ice, we see a drunken Leonardo DiCaprio making his margaritas with it, and taking a sip from the ice-cruncher as he berates a group of intruders in a car (he calls them hippies) for making a noise on the street outside his house. His character is fictional, of course, but he does live next door to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate.

Let’s pick up the story a little earlier. DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, the once-upon-a-time star of a television series called Bounty Law. He was the man who killed the bad guys and collected the money. Now he still makes a few movies (and lives in a fancy, fashionable house), but he’s the bad guy, and always gets bumped off at the end. He knows he’s ‘not the best any more’, as he says of the ageing hero of a book he is reading, but he never was the best of anything much, just more fulsomely admired than he is now. He is not very mature about this; apt to cry in self-pity, drink too much and throw objects at the mirror image of his failed self. In one of the film’s several great scenes he meets an agent, Marvin Schwarz, fabulously hammed up by Al Pacino, who explains to him that it’s not good to be defeated in film after film. Audiences start to think it’s you who’s the loser, not the string of characters you play. Schwarz has an ulterior motive. He wants Rick to believe he’s had it, so that he will accept a leading part in a series of Italian westerns to be shot in Rome. Rick is scornful, and ready to weep again. ‘Nobody likes spaghetti westerns,’ he says. Tell that to Clint Eastwood. Or better still, to Sergio Leone, who provided Tarantino with most of his title.

Rick does go to Rome and makes the movies. He makes some money too, and comes back with an Italian wife, played by Lorenza Izzo. But he’s sadder than ever, an angry icon rather than a person. This is when he gets drunk, rattles the ice, and tells off the people on the street. Meanwhile, though, much of the movie’s plot has also concerned Rick’s friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), his stunt man, who works on the odd film when he can, but is mainly the old star’s driver and factotum, or as he puts it, ‘more than a brother and a little less than a wife’.

If you’ve ever had some difficulty, as I have when not concentrating, in distinguishing DiCaprio from Pitt, this is the film to watch. They can be interchangeable – that’s what a stunt man is for – but offscreen (off the fictional screen) they’re miles apart in temperament and dress and income. A high-angle shot of their two cars – a vast Cadillac Coupe de Ville and a rusty Volkswagen Karmann Ghia – is a sort of picture of their lives, and all the more so because Rick has been banned from driving and Cliff uses both vehicles. There’s also an elegant criss-crossing effect in our feeling that the increasingly petulant Rick – he really is quite good at playing the bad guy, as we see in an extended sequence of him shooting a film – is quite harmless, and our learning that the genial, always amused Cliff is supposed to have killed his wife. Both actors are on top, mildly ironic form as actors.

Into this buddy film, although not yet into the lives of Rick and Cliff except as a name and a neighbour, steps Sharon Tate, remarkably played by Margot Robbie with a radiant ingenuity that can’t be true, and might even, if you’re the suspicious type, be dangerous. We can’t disentangle vanity from charm in this performance – in Robbie’s performance as Tate, or in this imaginary Tate’s performance of herself. She stops in a used book shop to pick up a copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles for Polanski, sees that a film of hers – The Wrecking Crew, starring Dean Martin – is showing at a local cinema, and drops in to watch it, having made sure that the woman in the box office and the manager know who she is. You have to do that when you’re on the road to fame, but haven’t arrived yet. They didn’t know until she told them.

There is something brutal in the thought that this silly, likeable woman is going to die. Of course death doesn’t care how silly or likeable people are, but this is a movie, it doesn’t have to have death in its script, and still less a death underwritten by history. But then Sharon Tate doesn’t die in the movie, and this spectacular, overproduced alternative account of what happened on Cielo Drive on the night of 8 August 1969 leaves us literally in the dark. When Rick tells off the people in the car – they are four members of the Manson family, whom we met earlier when Cliff gave another of the members a lift home – they are very polite in response, and back off mildly down the drive. Once we see them alone, we realise they are hesitating over their instructions to kill the people in one of these houses, trying to work up their nerve. One of them pretends to have forgotten her knife, and takes off with the car. Another has a brilliant idea for a way to justify their actions. They were brought up on television shows that were all about killing, that taught people to kill (like Rick’s Bounty Law, although the series is not mentioned at this point), and therefore it will be an act of virtue to kill the now ageing people who made those shows. Or people like them, the murder-constructing class. The Manson group enters Rick’s house and says and does a number of things the historical killers are said to have done in the Polanski-Tate mansion. Tex Watson, for example, the leader, claims he is the devil and here to do the devil’s business. None of this is remotely persuasive as plausible human behaviour, even of mad or stoned killers, and isn’t meant to be. This is a movie, and in the right kind of movie the bad guys have to growl and then get their comeuppance, with as many broken bones and as much blood as possible.

This is what happens here. The would-be killers come across Cliff and his dog – Rick’s wife is in bed, and Rick is outside, floating in the pool with his margaritas – and Cliff, as we have seen on two earlier occasions, is a useful man in a fight. He and his animal friend take care of two of the intruders, with a lot of scary biting and smashing of faces against hard surfaces. The other escapes into the night, but encounters Rick, out of the pool now and armed with a flame-thrower – he used this weapon in a movie once, and knows how to hold it. He scorches the escapee to death.

All good fun, if you like that kind of thing. As some of us used to, probably too much. But the end of the film is eerily quiet, and puzzling. Rick puts Cliff in an ambulance – one of the Manson invaders managed to stab him in the thigh – and walking back towards his house sees one of Sharon Tate’s guests at her garden gate, wondering what has been happening. Rick explains. Again he calls the intruders hippies. At this point we hear Sharon Tate’s voice on the intercom at the gate. Her guest tells her the story, and Tate invites Rick in for a drink, saying nice things about his old movies. He is delighted. He and the guest make their way towards the house.

I would need to rewind the film to see whether the gate automatically starts to close behind them or stays open. I thought it stayed open, implicitly announcing the later return of other Manson-mandated killers, perhaps to be shown or hinted at in further footage. But the film ends right there, and perhaps I was being too literal about the known historical event. What if the beat ’em up scene I’ve just described is not a parallel or a prelude to real killings but a replacement of them? This is what the careful time-stamps at the bottom of the screen suggest. In this other world Sharon Tate could still be alive, like Polanski. Manson died in 2017.

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