Tarantino’s Most Transgressive Film

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood celebrates values that have been repeatedly dismissed as dangerous and outdated.

Leonardo DiCaprio, Quentin Tarantino, and Margot Robbie
Regis Duvignau / Reuters

As soon as I heard that Quentin Tarantino was making a movie about the Manson killings, I knew I would be there on opening night. As the release date neared, and the ravishing still photography of Andrew Cooper, Tarantino’s regular photographer, began to appear—beginning with a January spread in Vanity Fair, which operated like an injection of Narcan on that slumbering magazine—I wondered whether I would be able to make it to July.

I knew that the film would not be a biopic in any conventional sense, and that it would explore the sexually louche Hollywood of the late 1960s alongside the sinister element of the once-joyful hippie movement, an element that was hardly in its infancy before it crested in the Manson murders. (“Just in time,” everyone told Joan Didion when she went to San Francisco to report on depravity in the Haight in 1967; “the whole fad’s dead now, fini, kaput.”) And I knew that Sharon Tate—cipher, beauty, Texas pageant girl, and Euro sophisticate—was a character Tarantino could have invented. I assumed that the film would, in the director’s characteristic way, include digressions, set pieces, flights from narrative logic so prolonged they would bring the viewer to points of murderous rage, and that the director would reemerge in the third act, fully in possession of his narrative powers, to stick the landing.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a swoon of a movie. It’s full of so much beauty and menace and humor and intelligence that I couldn’t do anything but sit flattened while it rolled over me. In anyone else’s hands, the long middle section would have walked the room. In Tarantino’s, I just kept watching, helplessly. Eventually that long digression ends and you’re back in business, back in the place of childhood daydreams and nightmares. I was 7 years old when the Manson killings happened, a child up in Berkeley who, like all children at the time, heard words—Manson, Tate, the killings, something about words written in blood—before radios were switched off and mothers changed the subject.

Every generation has its crime that looms over the children, its details slowly making their way into their nightmares. Leopold and Loeb in the 1920s, the Black Dahlia in the ’40s. For my generation—Tarantino’s generation—the Manson murders were the crime that had the children’s attention. In Berkeley, we lived through Patty Hearst’s kidnapping—which everyone had some small connection to, and which dominated the city’s life—but when it was over, we went right back to Manson. It’s deep in our imagination. The justice critics, the ones who want to count up every movie’s sins against approved sensibilities, say that the film is nostalgic, a term intended to damage it. Only another artist would understand the way that Tarantino has deployed that potent force. Guillermo del Toro tweeted that the movie was “[chock-full] of yearning,” that it was “a tale of another time that probably never was but feels like a memory.”

The justice critics aren’t interested in fictions that feel like memories. They want movies that adhere to their vision of the way the world should be. To them, the movie is too white, too violent toward women, and too uninterested in Margot Robbie, whose Sharon Tate has few lines. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody reviled the picture, calling it “ridiculously white.” But Charles Manson was a white supremacist, a fact that does tend to put a lot of white people in a movie. The majority of these white people are drugged-out sadists who live in filth, and scrounge in garbage, entirely repellent. And the Hollywood of the time was a deeply insular place from which progressive values flowed easily, but that never stopped to examine itself as a racially exclusive enterprise. Depicting it as inclusive would give the lie to the decades of hard work that have gone into changing that fact, work that is finally beginning to pay off.

As to violence against women, what can I tell you? If you don’t like it, don’t go to a movie about the Manson killings. Say what you will about Charles Manson; he really empowered women to pursue excellence in traditionally male-dominated fields. From armed robbery to sadistic murder at knifepoint, he put women in positions from which they had been traditionally excluded, and ultimately helped them to break that hardest, highest glass ceiling, the one that makes death row such a male purview. The Manson crimes became famous because of the savagery of the killings, the killers became famous because so many of them were women, and the most famous of the victims was a very specific woman, so particularly feminine—and at the height of femininity, the peak of her young beauty, and eight-and-a-half months pregnant—that her slaughter instantly assumed a mythic importance. Moreover, without giving away the ending, for many of us the violent scene that the justice critics hate was something we’ve been waiting 50 years to see. As for me, I closed my eyes during part of it, an option available to any ticket holder.

Sharon Tate doesn’t get many lines, a fact that may not make feminist sense, but which absolutely makes artistic sense. We didn’t know her. All we knew were the facts of her murder and of her impossible beauty. We created her from the endless publicity photographs that would appear and reappear in newspapers throughout our childhoods. She was living in the midst of the ascendant and dangerous new Hollywood, and yet she was also living a very conventional life. Two photographs in particular, both of them shot in the back seat of a limo, came to stand for those things. In one she is wearing a wedding dress and veil, orange blossoms in her hair, her groom beside her. In the other she’s holding up a tiny knit sweater, as though on her way home from a baby shower.

For a very brief moment it seemed possible to be a sexually free woman of the new era and also to round out that period of freedom with the old, square punctuation points. She was part of the new Hollywood royalty, at the height of the youth movement, and yet she was also a girl living out the dreams of Enid Haupt’s Seventeen magazine. Because of this, and because of the blunt force of her beauty, she stood for two of the most powerful forces in history: sexuality and femininity. Hence the scenes of her dancing, first at the Playboy mansion and then in the sun-drenched privacy of her bedroom. In truth, even the most beautiful girls of 1968 didn’t spend much time putting on shorts and dancing alone in bedrooms while drenched in the golden light of a California afternoon—but we weren’t interested in sociological observations. We were deep into mythic territory.

Tate was an interesting person, the daughter of an Army colonel, a pageant winner at six months—Miss Tiny Tot of Dallas—someone who moved regularly because of her father’s job and who was therefore lonely and shy. She went to her senior year of high school at the American School in Italy, already famous in her father’s world because a photograph of her in a bathing suit had been published in Stars and Stripes. Margot Robbie’s evocation of her as a happy, sexy, beautiful girl who basked in the attention her beauty brought her brings to life exactly the dream girl we loved so fiercely. And Tarantino has paid Tate the ultimate compliment: When Robbie goes to a movie theater to watch herself in one of her few movie roles, he didn’t reshoot that film with the modern actress in the role. We’re watching Margot Robbie watching Sharon Tate, and the half century that separates those two real women looms over the scenes. Why are Robbie’s feet, slipped out of immaculate white go-go boots and slung over a movie seat in front of her, so filthy? That is between Quentin Tarantino and his God.

What’s really got the justice critics worked up, however, isn’t the violence or the nostalgia or the silencing of Sharon Tate. What’s rattling them more than they realize is that this movie is transgressive as hell. Only Tarantino would have the balls to make something like it, something that embraces values that have repeatedly been proved—proved!—to be dangerous, outdated, the thing that people don’t want anymore. Box-office poison. And only Tarantino could do it so skillfully that it’s not until you’re back in the car that you realize what he’s done: made a major motion picture in 2019 about a man with a code, a man who hews to the old values of the Western hero.

The movie is about Leonardo DiCaprio’s character, Rick Dalton. But this is Brad Pitt’s picture, and he carries it so easily that you don’t realize it until the end. Rick is the washed-up star of a TV Western, whose career has wound down to guest-star appearances on other actors’ Westerns (in the career-killing role of villain), heavy drinking, and indulging in fits of crying. He’s weak. Pitt is Cliff Booth, Rick’s stunt double, the one who does all the dangerous things and who—literally—takes no credit. Rick is so dependent on Cliff that he has hired him as driver and houseman, a role that should diminish Cliff in our eyes—1968’s Kato Kaelin—but doesn’t. Cliff is cool, funny, laconic, and tough. His competence and emotional reserve make us more aware of Rick’s weakness. So it’s a depth charge of misgiving to learn that he’s not welcome on some television sets. He brings a bad energy, apparently, because many people believe he killed his wife. It’s an anvil dropping: Is he a threat? Did he do it? In the one flashback, the truth is never revealed. For most of the picture, we know we can’t trust him, and Pitt plays with us throughout, one moment charming, the next lost in something inward.

At the end of the movie, after he’s redeemed tenfold, we realize who he was all along and why we couldn’t help falling for him—a hero. Rick spent the movie trying to portray a hero; Cliff spent it being one—and like all heroes, he didn’t spend any time bringing attention to the fact. The beautiful teenager who keeps trying to get him to give her a ride finally succeeds, but when she tries to seduce him, she doesn’t have a chance. He spares her feelings by telling her that it’s because she doesn’t have a photo ID to prove she’s over 18, but that’s not the reason. He doesn’t need “affirmative consent.” He has a code: A man doesn’t sleep with teenagers.

Cliff faces great danger at the Manson compound to make sure an elderly man of his slight acquaintance is safe. He doesn’t start fights, but if he gets into one, he’ll lay out the challenger. His dog loves him, he doesn’t like to see a man crying, and he’s got his passions under control. One afternoon, he climbs to Rick’s roof to fix his television antenna, a potent symbol of Rick’s failing television career, but also one more reminder of their relationship: Rick’s things are broken, and Cliff repairs them. In the bright sun, he takes off his shirt (heaven help us) and then he hears music from the house next door. It’s Tate, alone in her room. He glances over—does he see her? Maybe. But he’s not a man who climbs on roofs for a peep show, and he turns back to his work. Most of all, he’s loyal—even when Rick might not deserve that loyalty. In the end, he’s Gary Cooper facing Frank Miller all by himself.

We can’t have a movie like this. It affirms things the culture wants killed. If men aren’t encouraged to cry in public, where will we end up? And the bottom line is the bottom line: Audiences don’t want to see this kind of thing anymore. The audience wants the kind of movies the justice critics want. But the audience gave Once Upon a Time in Hollywood the biggest opening of Tarantino’s career. The critics may not get it, but the public does. Is Tarantino making a reactionary statement at a dangerous time? Or does the title tell the truth, that the whole thing—including those old masculine values—was always just a fairy tale, a world “that never really existed, but feels like a memory”?

In the sexiest scene in the movie, Cliff roars out of Rick’s driveway up in the canyons in his rusted blue Karmann Ghia, Bob Seger blaring—“I was born lonely, down by the riverside”—taking mountain turns at impossible speeds, racing across the old L.A. freeways late at night, bound for Van Nuys and sliding across lanes with ultimate cool. But in a TMZ video clip, you see Pitt surrounded by a large crew, trying to make the easiest part of the journey—the three-point turn out of Rick’s driveway—at about five miles an hour and falling short every time, despite a closed road. Over and over the crew pushes the car back up the driveway, while Pitt sits in it miserably, much more Rick than Cliff.

What’s real? Who knows? It’s all Hollywood.