Once Upon a Time in Hollywood forms a coda to Quentin Tarantino’s western trilogy of Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. Rather than taking place as a western, however, Hollywood takes place against a pivotal evolution in the western, and its role in the American imagination. Set against the backdrop of Hollywood in 1969, the film follows two different western narratives, finally converging them in an act of historical revisionism. The first western narrative revolves around Rick Dalton, an aging western actor played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and his stunt double, Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt. Dalton is well past his prime, and has resorted to doing guest spots on television shows, where he always plays the “bad guy,” and so is always beaten up at the end of the episode. To play the hero again, he is told, he needs to leave Hollywood for Rome, and star in spaghetti westerns. The second western narrative revolves around the Manson family, and their home at Spahn Ranch, which was used as a filming set for westerns, before owner George Spahn, played here by Bruce Dern, allowed Manson and his followers to use it as their own.
These two narratives converge on Cielo Drive in Beverly Hills, where Dalton happens to live next door to Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie, the most famous of the collection of people who were murdered by the Manson family in the Tate-LaBianca killings of 1969. This convergence only happens in the compressed final act of the film, however, as most of Hollywood follows these two western narratives as they intermingle and intersect in a variety of incidental and off-beat ways. This is the first Tarantino film that is set close to the cinematic period that he most loves, and it’s clear, for much of Hollywood, that he just wants to bask in the world he has created. As a result, Hollywood is almost entirely driven by atmosphere, rather than plot, but it’s such an obsessively curated atmosphere that I often found it had to be totally or genuinely immersed in Tarantino’s mise-en-scenes. With film signs, period ads and famous locations in the backdrop of nearly every outdoor shot, Tarantino’s version of Los Angeles feels like a film set, or a museum, or even his own bedroom wall as a teenager, decked out with a canon of taste that often feels a bit precious and inert. Beyond a point, recreating this period becomes an end in itself, along with recreating its cinematic and televisual style, as when Dalton is inserted into a scene from The Great Escape. This brings Hollywood close to the empty pastiche that Tarantino’s earlier films set themselves against, tapping into a taste for 70s period pieces that peaked about a decade ago, around the release of American Hustle, and which feels surprisingly dated now.
Against that backdrop, DiCaprio and Pitt play star images, rather than characters, with Dalton exuding a fading mid-century masculinity, and Cliff luxuriating in a new kind of swagger, closer to the exploitation and action cinema of the 1970s. For the most part, these characters are just poses and postures, but it’s also clear that these poses and postures are precisely what Tarantino wants to celebrate about this period. Rather than trafficking in realistic narrative, or naturalistic space, Hollywood instead yearns for a haptic connection between audience and screen – a gestural cinema – that has been lost with the disembodiment of digital cinema. This haptic communion between audience, actor and film is especially clear during the scene when Sharon Tate goes to see a screening of The Wrecking Crew at the Regent Theatre in Westwood. In one of the most memorable montage sequences in the film, Tarantino cuts between Tate’s martial arts moves on screen, Tate’s martial arts training sessions with Bruce Lee, and Tate herself in the audience, where she repeats the same moves as she is watching and remembering them. In this movement between cinema, memory and action, Tarantino yearns for films that speak to the body, and fuse the bodies of actors and audience, through the physicality and immediacy of film stock.
Watching this scene, I realised how much Tarantino has fetishized the vagaries of celluloid across his career. It’s most explicit in Grindhouse, where he introduces glitches, distortions and “flaws” into the image. However, all of his films opt for a discontinuous aesthetic at times, moving between different font types, image qualities and colour palettes, that seem designed to resist the seamless subsumption of analog contingency into digital continuity. The flaws of celluloid, for Tarantino, are therefore a way of maintaining cinema’s connection to the body, and cinema itself as a visceral medium, which is perhaps why they tend to coincide with the most violent moments in his actual films. While Hollywood may look quite polished, compared to Tarantino’s other films, its surface is often broken by plosive sequences that reiterate the film stock’s connection to the audience’s body in this way – a connection that is even more evident when the film is seen in 35mm, as Tarantino intended.
Two particular types of image in Hollywood fulfil this function – martial arts sequences and driving sequences. Tarantino has copped a fair amount of criticism for his depiction of Bruce Lee, who is played by Mike Moh, in an even broader and more orientalist performance than the Chinese and Japanese sequences in the Kill Bill films. In fact, it’s safe to say that Moh isn’t playing Lee at all, but a composite of the various orientalist figures who flit in and out of 70s exploitation cinema, while also embodying one of the archetypal sequences in Tarantino’s canon of taste – the sequence in which an American character is trained by an Asian character to achieve martial arts perfection. For Tarantino, this process seems to be an analogue for his own process of reinvesting cinema with physical immediacy, since the point of these training sessions is always to reiterate the connection between the eyes and the rest of the body. In Kill Bill, these training sessions turn the act of looking into a physical feat, but also result in a series of gory sequences that emphasise the eyes as physical objects in themselves. In both cases, the embodied physicality of sight makes these martial arts training sequences the perfect venue for Tarantino’s cinephilia, which is interested in using visual images to surpass visual experience, and to animate his audience’s entire body.
The martial arts sequences in Hollywood therefore fulfil the same function as the second type of haptic image in the film – driving sequences. Historically, Los Angeles has tended to be represented from behind the wheel, due to the unique role that freeway travel plays in its urban development. Yet Tarantino’s version of the city provocatively rejects the panoramic detachment of freeway travel, instead focusing on characters in tight close-up as they navigate winding roads, blind corners and narrow streets, in chaotic oblivion to their surroundings. Closer to a European chase film than a Los Angeles freeway film, the driving sequences are more attuned to the plosive close-ups that recur throughout the narrative than to the few panoramic shots of Los Angeles, working mainly to maintain the viewer’s own haptic connection to the film, rather than orient us spatially. Whenever Hollywood is at sinks too deeply into its own pastiche, Tarantino jolts us out of his polished images with one of these more embodied driving scenes, which make it feel as if we are careening down a vertiginous canyon road even when the action does occasionally stray out onto the highway.
This radical revision of Los Angeles space paves the way for the film’s audacious revision of the Manson murders. As Vincent Bugliosi outlined in Helter Skelter, the Manson crimes made white ideology and supremacy visible in a new way, for two distinct reasons. First, the crimes were motivated by Manson’s own racial ideology, which was bizarre in some ways, but also a logical conclusion of many facets of whiteness as they stood at the end of the 1960s. Basically, Manson hoped that the Tate-LaBianca murders would start a race war, and accelerate civil rights activism, so that black people could seize power quicker. However, he only wanted black people to seize power because he thought they were doomed to fail. When they did fail, his “family” would be waiting; a cabal of white supremacists who would come in to save the day, and to put a more humbled black population in their place. In addition, Manson’s attitude towards his “family” spoke to a widespread anxiety around the capacity of white men to command women and family on the cusp of the liberation movements of the 1970s, and in the face of Vietnam. During this period, various figures emerged to try and fill the space left by the waning of white masculine power, many of whom formed surrogate and compensatory families along the blueprint of Manson’s own.
Both of these factors meant that the Manson murders were able to articulate both the anxieties and the profound antisociality of white masculine aspiration as it was starting to configure itself in American culture at this time. Given Tarantino’s fascination with the 1970s, and the way this cinematic decade feeds into the white fragility and anxiety of his filmography, it’s not surprising that the Manson era should form a particularly pregnant point of reference within his aesthetic universe. Nor is it surprising that Hollywood should be particularly anxious about acknowledging the full implications of the Manson era, or the Manson crimes, resulting in an act of historical revisionism that effectively erases the significance of the murders, and their lessons about the role of whiteness in American culture. In an abbreviated final act, separated from the rest of the film by a six month ellipsis, Tarantino takes us to the night of the murders. Rather than building any suspense, however, he instead opts for a wry voiceover that takes us through the timeline of the evening in a deliberately cursory way, bathetically divesting the murders of the social forces conspiring around them. When the Manson family do arrive at the end of Cielo Drive, they are first confronted by Dalton, who adopts a cowboy pose and tells them to get out of Hollywood. They then return a second time, but are gruesomely disposed off by Cliff and Dalton before they have a chance to arrive next door, leaving Tate and her household alive.
This ending, in and of itself, is more an act of historical erasure than of historical revision. Yet the film, as a whole, has a broader attitude towards the Manson family that is even more unsettling. In Helter Skelter, Bugliosi focuses in some detail upon his decision to prosecute Manson for the Tate-LaBianca murders, despite the fact that he wasn’t present in any sustained way at either of the crime scenes. This was a risky move for Bugliosi, but also a historical move, since it forced him to make the trial about Manson’s ideology, philosophy and relationship to his family. Without this decision to prosecute Manson, the case would never have received the cult following and media presence that it did, and would never have become such a cornerstone in Los Angeles history. By contrast, there is no sense of Manson’s agency in Hollywood. We only see him once, and he is rarely mentioned throughout the film, while there is no sense of the LaBianca murders, which occurred the following day. The fact that he is played by Damon Herriman in both Hollywood and in the second season of Mindhunter makes his presence here feel even more extrinsic – like a “guest spot” – rather than the driving force behind the Family and the crimes they executed.
Without Manson really being in the film, the main criminal presence here is the Family. Moreover, without Manson present as a fascist figurehead, the Family is effectively presented as a matriarchy, or gynocracy, a feminised caricature of the hippie movement, whose squalid and unruly female agency emasculates the western history of Spahn Ranch. Much of Helter Skelter focuses on the kinds of rapturous gaze that Manson demanding from his women, theorizing the ideology of his heightened male gaze in ways that were just starting to be formalised in film theory as Bugliosi was writing. When Cliff goes out to Spahn Ranch, in one of the pivotal scenes in Hollywood, he is confronted by a collective female gaze that forces him to respond with the kind of masculine staredown that Manson would have enacted were he there. In the process, Tarantino clarifies how much Manson’s own outlook was indebted to the western – it’s no coincidence that he chose Spahn Ranch – as Cliff adopts a cowboy strut and long-distance gaze that sees him sink into the visual scheme that was synonymous with Manson’s presence, here presented as an evolution of the western into a new kind of white masculine optic, paranoid and fragile in the same moment.
In other words, Manson is presented here as an aesthetic outlook, rather than a discrete figure. What makes Hollywood so eerie is that the aesthetic outlook is almost identical with Tarantino’s own, to the point where he and Manson often seem to have the exact same aesthetic project. Rather than Manson simply being absent from Hollywood, Tarantino identifies so much with him that he can’t be in the film, since he is the film, just as Tarantino turns himself into a conduit for his presence, rather than merely depicting his presence. By disposing of the three would-be Tate murderers at the end, Cliff and Rick do just what Manson does – reign in a feminised hippie presence – but are celebrated for it. Cliff, in particular, fulfils Manson’s gaze, driving the violence of this final scene in an effort to contain the collective female gaze that confronted him at Spahn Ranch, along with the abject lesson in white male disempowerment that greeted him when he tried to find allies to help him withstand that gaze. Without Manson in place, all the men at Spahn Ranch are infirm, ridiculous, abject or otherwise absent, meaning that Cliff and Tarantino have to double down on Manson’s own visual scheme during these final scenes to avoid collapsing into the emasculated whiteness that Spahn Ranch was designed to deflect and rehabilitate.
Rather than “revising” Manson’s crimes, then, Hollywood wants to naturalise and normalize them. Where the Tate murders made white supremacy visible, Tarantino subsumes white supremacy back into paternalistic white masculinity, and the cinematic swagger of Pitt’s character, who pre-emptively embodies all the 70s style that would become the bedrock of Tarantino’s own aesthetic project. For all the period detail, Hollywood is thus one of Tarantino’s most violent ripostes to discourses around whiteness in the present, since it effectively presents the genesis of his career in one of the most iconic acts of white terror in America history, only to rob it of both its whiteness and its terror. Narratively, the Manson family are the victims of Cliff’s bloodbath, but because Cliff is so aligned with Manson, this final act is affectively more like seeing the Tate murders playing out with the criminals reimagined as heroes. Like Manson, Cliff and Booth use the desecration of hippie women as a way of brokering a connection between mid-century and post-liberation models of white masculinity, seizing upon the western as the ideal venue to perform and assuage these anxieties. In the end, Cliff is less a character than the burst of testosterone-fuelled auteurist attitude needed for this “revision” of the crime to feel plausible – a gesture of sheer auteurist audacity and affirmation in which Tarantino insists, against all the odds, that Manson was more invested in protecting households than in violating households. The 70s masculinity that Tarantino loves here becomes a phantasmatic supplement to, and continuation of, mid-century masculinity, much as Cliff’s surrogate masculinity finally empowers Rick. At the start of this bloodbath, Rick is little more than comic window dressing, listening to music in his pool while the battle between Cliff and the hippies rages inside, but by the end of the scene he has recovered the machismo of his former star image, translating his flamethrowing film persona into real life, as he disposes of the final hippie in a burst of fire that directly quotes his destruction of a Nazi cohort in one of his biggest films.
What Hollywood reveals, then, is that Tarantino’s 70s swagger has always been a thinly disguised longing for the more conservative gender politics of the 50s, and the forms of mid-century masculinity that they depended upon. By framing hippies as Nazis, in the final showdown with Rick, Tarantino thus pits himself against any possible dialogue with the present, where Nazism has been adopted as a catchcry for precisely the white supremacy that Hollywood wants to massage out of existence. The violence of this erasure perhaps explains the violence of the way in which Cliff disposes of the women in this final sequence, translating the ideological violence of the film itself into a sequence in which we are invited to enjoy the end of the hippie movement – or the female hippie movement – as a sustained exercise in torture porn. Yet Sharon Tate is arguably even more erased by this effort to normalize and naturalise her murder, since she’s barely in the film, and barely separated from film footage of the “real” Sharon Tate. In one of the odd timeframes that drive the narrative, she spends virtually all the action – hours and hours – in the Westwood cinema watching The Wrecking Crew, so collapsed into her own star image that she barely seems to exist. In a snarky twist, however, the cinema attendants can’t recognise her at first, as Tarantino gestures towards an alternative timeline in which Tate is rendered redundant by the absence of the Tate-LaBianca murders, and her career never really gets off the ground.
It’s thus not hard to see why reporters asked questions about Margot Robbie’s limited role, or why Tarantino had to dismiss them as “invalid,” since her odd absence from the film speaks to a broader fantasy of Hollywood in which white masculine agency was never queried. Early in the film, we learn that Cliff is probably a wife killer, due to a flashback in which he seems poised to push his ex-wife overboard after she berates him just a little too harshly, in a scene that is clearly meant to recall the mysterious drowning of Natalie Wood. Nothing much is made of it, however, and Wood’s death is treated more or less as a joke, as a second canonical moment in Hollywood true crime is one again subsumed and subordinated into Tarantino’s fragile vision. In an even uglier scene, Rick gets to know a precocious child actress, who challenges him about his career and relevance, before he spontaneously slams her to the floor during one of their scenes together. She reassures him, however, that his violence was not out of place, since she often slams herself to the floor when alone, as if internalizing and learning to enjoy the violence that will greet her when she graduates into a Hollywood career, a career Rick wryly warns her won’t last all that long.
The final scene of the film culminates this fantasy, as Cliff is taken off to hospital for the treatment of minor wounds, and Jay Sebring invites Rick up to the Tate mansion for dinner and drinks. While I wasn’t expecting sociology from Tarantino – his creative license with the past was often inspired during the western trilogy – I also wasn’t expecting a film that made the Manson murders seem less fascinating, or less relevant to the present. In the end, Hollywood plays less like a “reinvention” than an erasure of the past in the name of Tarantino’s Hollywood fantasies. I didn’t even really pay this as “alternative” history, since this is precisely the history and present that most mainstream conservatives are keen to deny, turning Hollywood into a flagship text for anyone wanting to repress the inequalities that have produced so much of the Hollywood aesthetic we know today. Since the murders are generally seen as the end of a certain kind of Hollywood innocence – and the end of a certain kind of western innocence – removing the murders continues this willful innocence into the present day. Only at the end of the film, as the camera pans over the Tate house, does the title appear, in two sections – “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” – and in that ellipsis lies Tarantino’s willful fantasy that Hollywood never needed to learn the lessons about race, gender and power encapsulated in the Manson era. This ellipsis prevents the 70s from happening, or keeps Hollywood poised on the cusp of the 70s, and the cusp of Tarantino’s fantasy of the 70s, whose violence, fragility and paranoia is subsumed into a more seamless and tasteful vision of Hollywood than at any other point in his body of work.