Here’s our official first review, written by @FuMikechu
Here is the one by @Pete at FC
Wow what a movie… review coming soon
Quentin Tarantino’s Apocalyptic Vision of the Future.
Reading the reviews, from amateurs and professionals alike, of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood , I believe the film’s profound message has been lost on its audiences. There’s a big assumption here, namely, that the film has a profound message, that it is much more than a valentine to Hollywood. To my mind, the film is allegorical , and I would like to offer an interpretation of its esoteric teaching. If I’m ‘out to lunch’ and entirely wrongheaded in my understanding, you’ll see a potential vice of esotericism displayed before you. If I’m right, however, or at least on the right track, than I’ll be offering an analysis entirely different than all others, and well worth reading for the gravity of the topic.
To my mind, Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood isn’t merely Tarantino’s best and most ambitious movie, it’s his most important work by far. The fairytale Tinseltown backdrop is just a thin veneer for the greater story of “America” and its bloody future. Tarantino even has us sitting in the backseat in the car scenes, going along for the ride. Once upon a time isn’t 1969, the time is now ; Hollywood isn’t a hillside neighborhood in LA, it’s modern America . This film is Tarantino’s book of revelation , so to speak, a scathing critique of our past and an apocalyptic vision of our violent, “witchy” future.
While audiences take the bait and consider the movie some form of homage to the classic age of Hollywood, accusing QT of everything from historical revisionism to childish nostalgia and self-indulgent racism, they entirely miss the subplot. Murderous for-profit wars (as in Vietnam), an openly decadent, elite class disdainful of the masses and utterly oblivious to their plight (and their hidden dagger), the Hollywood hills and their empty promises of fame, material splendor, and paradise . . . the entire film is, as mentioned, allegorical . As such, one understands the deeper meanings only by recognizing what the surface is representing , recognizing what real world phenomena correspond to the narrative. Characters, scenery backdrops, radio advertisements, dialogues, songs, and in short every detail of the movie is pointing away from itself . . .
As a critique and vision of America, three classes are represented: the government, the military, and the common citizenry (the hoi polloi or “vulgar many”). These three correspond respectively to Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), and a pit bull terrier. One might also add a fourth class, the intelligentsia , those who mold and shape the narrative of lies for public consumption; in short, the propagandists and storytellers (represented in the movie by an absurdly intelligent, self-aware, and self-serious child of only eight years, played masterfully by Julia Butters).
The film begins by pointing to the great but morally ambiguous history of the United States, in its founding and its foreign policy. It does this through a scene of “Bounty Law,” starring the handsome, masculine, leading man that is Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio). This is the American heyday: frontier justice, self-confident expansion, unapologetic pride, the victories in Europe and the Pacific, defeating Nazism, and so forth. Dalton is an idol to be adored and an example to be followed. But we later learn that the audience has ‘turned’ on Dalton when he says they’ll never forgive him for the last season of “Bounty Law,” having gotten it cancelled so he could go off on some selfish, self-glorifying pursuit, like the US government, exposed the world over as a nation devoted to itself and it’s naked material self-interests, and not the higher principles it espouses so loudly.
Like Dalton, an actor in decline and desperate to revive his sinking career—having gone from playing heroes to villains , and at risk of becoming a permanent punching bag for up and coming stars—the US is in desperate need of an image update for its ‘public relations’ problem. The US, spiraling into decline, no longer has any credibility as a moral force in the world. And why should it, considering the theft from, and murder of, the indigenous peoples, centuries long slavery, foreign wars and the countless victims of US foreign policy? Like Dalton, who we see weak and weeping, stuttering and addicted to alcohol, in complete contrast to his public persona , the whole freedom and justice spiel was just an act , a show for public consumption. In short, our politicians and public officials are a bunch of lying criminals who conceal themselves with noble slogans and enchant with moral rhetoric. The ideal of “America” is a fairy tale (hence the film’s title). Everyone has come to know of the man behind the curtain. It’s this new reality—the demythologizing of America before its own people and the rest of the world—and not the ‘changing Hollywood’ from out of its golden age, that is the historical transition Tarantino is profoundly concerned with.
Now, if Rick Dalton represents the government broadly conceived—the politicians and public officials—how can it reasonably be said that these people defeated the Nazis or accomplished anything heroic? After all, it’s not the politicians who do these acts, since they themselves are almost always armchair warriors and chicken hawks. It’s the military that does these deeds. Enter Dalton’s stunt man, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), the unknown, behind-the-scenes tough guy who actually does the dirty work for all those dangerous and climactic action-sequences, and who ‘carries Dalton’s load’ (an obscene, anachronistic, but highly meaningful pun).
Lest the meaning of Booth’s servile pun be lost on anyone, Tarantino displays Booth’s complete adoration and willful enslavement to Dalton. Booth, having gone from being Dalton’s professional stuntman to being his personal driver and errand boy, is as servile as the best trained dog, even doing unthinkable acts on Dalton’s behalf (like refusing an insanely seductive invitation from a young hitchhiker just to rush to Dalton’s home and fix his antenna, even though he had all day and it was hardly urgent!). Booth’s dogged loyalty to Dalton, his pathetic worship and admiration, is especially jarring given Booth’s own incredible manliness and superhero like virility. Booth is the ultimate tough guy, the kind of guy who could beat up you and everyone you know— at the same time . Tarantino takes Booth’s toughness to a seemingly absurd level when he has him manhandle Bruce Lee on a film set. This only makes sense when you understand “Cliff Booth” as representing the military and soldier class, for without doubt the US military has proven itself incomparable in war and killing. Like Booth with respect to Dalton, the military takes orders from the government, and is entirely obedient , (a point further highlighted by Booth’s odd fastidiousness, throughout the film, concerning the law). The military (and law-enforcement generally) will kill whoever they are ordered to kill and are ready to die when ordered to die, and all for the noble ideals espoused by the politicians who give the orders, and who supposedly embody those ideals in themselves.
Having seen Booth as Dalton’s pathetic sidekick, Tarantino next shows us the ‘alternate personality’ of Booth. Freed from his duties, we see Booth speeding home, driving like a juiced up teenager. Upon arriving home (a shoddy trailer house behind a drive-in cinema), we see Booth’s military style stoicism and regimentation as he prepares food for himself and his dog. Booth is a tyrant over the dog, an oversized pit bull terrier that could only be dominated by an uber-tough guy such as himself. Booth’s tyranny is on display when he makes the hungry, salivating beast wait patiently for its meal without so much as a whimper . The slightest disobedience, Booth tells the desperately hungry dog, will be severely punished. The dog loves Booth and is entirely obedient. Together, they make quite a pair, and in many respects they’re mirror images of one another.
Booth is obedient to Dalton, and the dog is obedient to Booth, just as the military is obedient to the government, and the demos obedient to the military. The people must serve, cheer, and love the military, and likewise the government that the military serves, cheers, and loves. “Hey, you’re Rick fucking Dalton. Don’t you forget it,” Booth says to Dalton, for Booth admires Dalton and believes in him as his superior (despite embodying the reality of confident, rugged masculinity that Dalton can only fake ; Dalton repeats the line, “Rick fucking Dalton,” to himself alone with victorious glee later in the film, upon being praised for his incredible acting performance). No doubt, Booth would defend Dalton against any attack, just as the military is sworn to do concerning the government that rules it. No disobedience from the populace is tolerable, lest the army be forced to step in and restore order. Martial law and violent crackdowns are ever-present possibilities . . . In the end, both classes are carrying the load of the governing classes, living in poverty and squalor, Booth eating his Mac and Cheese, and the dog eating rat and raccoon flavored goop.
As with Dalton’s and the US government’s fall from grace, both Booth and the US military suffer a similar fate. Booth is known as the guy who ‘killed his wife and got away with it.’ Booth—the war hero (though we’re never told which war he fought in)—is a criminal, a murderer who has escaped all justice for his crime. With the exception of Dalton, nobody trusts him or wants to be around him any more (not even the stunt coordinators on the film set). In the background the radio speaks of the dead in Vietnam, but one could substitute any number of the US’s more recent escapades.
Booth delivers one line in the movie that audiences will surely remember. While consoling a sobbing Dalton, Booth advises Dalton not to cry in front of the Mexicans, the valets and laborers who populate the scenes and go about their menial tasks in almost total silence. The point: don’t let the Mexicans see your weakness, and hence your vulnerability. This isn’t Tarantino’s racist indulgence nor an exhortation by Booth for the purpose of saving Dalton’s pride; California once belonged to these seemingly docile and contented Mexicans—a fact that is never lost on the Mexicans themselves—and they may ‘make their move’ when they see the opportune moment. (You have to own your house, you can’t rent, Dalton says). That, at least, is the fear of the governing and soldier class, eager to preserve their white privileges on a stolen and blood drenched land.
The legacy of white privilege and racism is dealt with at many points in the movie. For instance, in a somewhat lighthearted vein, an ad for Tanya Tanning Oil plays on the radio, pointing to the strange fixation of whites to become darker, even though dark-skinned people are looked down on and detested (apparently it’s not color per se that is the problem, it’s race ). Indeed, Tarantino conceals (so as to highlight ) the fact that Manson’s claim to fame was his call for a race war . Almost nobody seems to notice the fact that there isn’t a single black person in the entire movie, right up to the last scene. A black person finally shows up at the end of the movie—in uniform —in the perfect, racism free America where all are equal under just laws, with harmony and prosperity for all. The fault lines of race are cutting through the Hollywood hills, or rather, modern America, and are ready to burst. Helter Skelter is perhaps on the way.
Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) represents VANITY, or more broadly, the unapologetic display of American materialism, consumerism, sexuality, and lust for fame and beauty. She’s fleshy and colorful, innocent yet sinfully seductive, with a this-worldly beauty that leaves us gaping and thunderstruck. Through her Tarantino brings out the contrast between reality and illusion. We’re introduced to her while she’s unattractively snoring in bed, and we later see her ridiculous, giant eyeglasses in the theater, also her dirty feet (in stark contrast to the killer white shoes she walked in with). She looks nothing like the character she plays on the screen. She clearly orgasms upon watching her character’s climactic action scene, choreographed by no less than Bruce Lee. Tarantino shows us Tate as someone unknown and unrecognized as an actor but dying to be famous and adored, entirely for her body and its beauty if necessary but preferably for the beauty of her soul (she clearly laments having to identify herself as “the one who ends up doing dirty movies,” when referring to her role in Valley of the Dolls ). With a dark and disturbing irony, Tarantino points to the fact that she does get famous for her body, but not in the way she could ever have imagined.
The 8-year old girl (Julia Butters), as mentioned, represents the intelligentsia, the propagandists and makers of images on the walls of our cave. Here one might consider such characters as Edward Bernays or Henry Kissinger, or any of the three Walts: Lipmann, Cronkite, and Disney. Through the 8-year old girl, we see the intelligentsia taking their propagandizing and brainwashing activity seriously, taking themselves seriously, or at least, trying to take themselves seriously (as the little girl says, it’s the pursuit of believability that matters, though the task is never fully accomplished, namely, the task of merging reality and public perception). As a character she is completely unrealistic, and Tarantino uses her non-reality precisely to point away from her, as a believable character, to her greater narrative importance. Ironically, Butters delivers a performance so phenomenal that were it possible for this character to be believable, she would have made it so.
Though it may have been different in the 1970’s, in the 21st century at least, anyone who thinks of Polanski thinks not of the Manson murders but of pedophilia and child-rape. In fact, pedophilia is seething under the surface at several points throughout the film, and it’s screaming out of Polanski’s smirk. Consider the Manson-cult-hippie-girls and the early ambiguity of their ages when we’re introduced to them; Tarantino sets a trap, forcing us to become uneasy in the guilt of our looking . . . and looking away. The hideous topic emerges again in the character of the eight-year old actor, also at the Spahn Ranch and in the character “Pussycat.” As for Polanski himself, his deafening silence in the movie reflects the lack of gravity of his person, and yet the fate of everyone in the movie is somehow circling around this little, foppish shithead whom we know will escape justice.
The character Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) represents youthful female beauty and sexuality. As the idealized object of our lusts, she’s the Aphrodite character, the Jungian anima in the male psyche (and no doubt the US is a ‘male’ country). Like a travelling Odysseus trying to withstand the Sirens, we see Booth lusting for Pussycat at a red light as the radio plays an add for “Heaven Sent Perfume.” She’s carefree and beautiful, and seemingly harmless and weak, but actually vicious and violent and angry. In this sense she and all the hippies correspond to a potential in the modern political left (everyone already knows of the potential violence of the modern right). The point is unmistakable in Manson’s one and only appearance in the movie. He’s quickly dismissed as a raggedy-ass hippy, a joker, smiling and meek and harmless . . . yet he’s concealing something more monstrously powerful than they can possibly conceive from their self-righteous oblivion.
Bruce Lee represents China and the emerging Far East. Tarantino surely knows that his depiction of Lee will enrage the latter’s cult followers. As with the eight-year old actor, the absurdity is Tarantino’s way of pointing us to a deeper interpretation. The fight between Booth and Lee represents the uncomfortable détente presently at play between the US and the emerging superpower. Lee’s opening dialogue—surrounded by a bunch of white ‘extras’ sitting lazily around the set, wondering who would win a fight between Cassius Clay and Mr. Lee—shows us that China and the East have an energy, vision, and purpose that is sorely lacking in the modern West. Note: Cassius Clay, not the revolutionary and self-aware Muhammad Ali, despite that being his name by 1969. At any rate, only in the film’s fantasy world is Bruce Lee so easily mocked and manhandled. In the real world he (i.e., China and the Far East) isn’t going to be so easy to laugh at or toss around.
The Italian wife of Rick Dalton—picked up after making a run of spaghetti westerns overseas to revive his career—represents the US’s new allies and hanger-ons. They are dependent on the US, but there’s a language barrier. No real communication is possible and hence no common mind or common purpose in their union. Each has different agendas and motivations; conflict and divorce are an all but foregone conclusion.
I’m not sure what the agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) represents, and likewise concerning the jewelry worn by the characters. I will, however, say the following: Schwarz(s) tells Dalton the hard truth about his decline and ultimate demise, but only so as to exploit him for his own profit.
The first dating of February 8 and 9, 1969, is America ‘pre-trump.’ Six months later, on August 8 and 9, the time of the Manson murders, we’re in Trump’s America. The last night of Dalton’s and Booth’s partnership represents the government and military today , going on one last bender, effectively robbing the castle before its inevitable storming by the masses. War and pillaging will be the order of the day: behold Trump’s tax break for the obscenely rich who need it least, and his saber rattling against N. Korea, Iran, and Venezuela. But whereas their last bender will only speed up their inevitable demise, in Tarantino’s fairy tale version it all magically works out. Walt Disney himself couldn’t have written better. Booth and Dalton destroy the evildoers and are vindicated. (One such evildoer seems to represent the ‘Islamic Terrorist,’ a ridiculous caricature of mindless evil that is set ablaze in a swimming pool!). Dalton’s heroic image is restored, and his future appears brighter than ever as he enters Polanski’s residence, sure to get a role in one of the latter’s upcoming movies (which of course will mean work for Booth too). Tarantino’s absurd, fairy-tale ending only highlights the gruesome reality to come.
Seen it three times now. I love how audiences react
Great review Andy! Like you, I have found that most people I know who have seen this movie completely missed the point and as a result, mostly were disappointed. The film is a metaphor. Yours is the first review I have read which I think has gotten it right.
I posted my own review on my blog, please take a quick look and compare notes with me: https://www.shadowfaxblog.com/post/once-upon-a-time-in-hollywood-my-spoilerific-fan-theory
“Frontier Justice” what a great phrase, wish I’d thought of that…
Excellent review. Thank you!
Please comment, either here or on my blog, i’d love to hear your feedback, whether you agree or disagree!
You certainly are a shadowy figure! I tried several times and with great excitement to read your review, but I cannot access your blog. The screen goes completely blank (I’ve never seen anything like it). I’d love to read it, if it exists! Is this your own peculiar form of esotericism? Lol.
I thank you for taking the time to read my review and to drop me a message! I was delighted by your appraisal but even more so simply to hear that someone else out there ‘got it,’ or at least, saw what I was seeing. Perhaps we each share the same peculiar madness? You’re only the second person to read it, and if agreement were proof of sanity the world wouldn’t be in its present state of madness. My review needs some editing, and there are some outright mistakes. I saw the movie a third time and had cause for some further reflections.
I hope I get to read your spoilerific fan theory!
I would love to do a review of the movie here but I’m still digesting it and it’s more a single observation.
I see the world on a bit of a skew so I’m not expecting much in the way of agreement but I do like the idea of sharing this somewhere where it might be appreciated. Please note I realize there is a TON more to OUATIH than what I am outlining here, but I think this is worth mentioning:
I know Tarantino considers Death Proof his “red-headed step child”, which is a shame because I actually really like it a lot. It’s incredibly fun and watchable and I do not consider it at the bottom of his oeuvre. Actually if I told you where I rank it, you’d probably be surprised. It sounds patently obvious but there’s no doubt he would think a lot better of DP had it not bombed. That’s the problem with being an artist. You make art you want to make but it still burns like hell when it’s not received well.
This movie feels to me somewhat like part of him wanted to “do Death Proof” but get it right and make it appeal to a wider audience. As if he had said something he had really wanted to say with Death Proof but it got buried somehow in comparison to all his other movies so he wanted to say it again. This time louder. Sharper. Better.
Beyond the two clearly distinct “muscle car/grindhouse” and “celebration of Golden Age” themes, there are striking similarities between the movies.
- Both celebrate a specific earlier period of cinema from QT’s formative years and transport you to that time
- They both center heavily around the actor and the stuntman
- In both we leisurely hang out with these people and we get a sense of their real everyday lives, each with absolutely no sense that they are in any danger until they suddenly are
- In both, violently disturbing and purely evil killer(s) get a fist-raising beaten-to-a-pulp comeuppance from their potential stuntman/actor victims who easily rise to the challenge
Like I said, a whole lot more to this movie than that alone. And while Tarantino’s films all touch on a series of the same easily memorized themes, I cannot help but see a significant overlap between these two films in particular.