Musings on ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD & Tarantino’s treatments of women + minorities

It’s nearly a week ago that I saw the movie, and though there are parts that I did enjoy, there are more scenes that did not sit well with me. In fact, I didn’t even feel like writing about the movie, but posted my friend Ted’s review on it this weekend. The movie has received a high praise since its premiered in Cannes, which reportedly received a standing ovation, but the one bit I remembered most about its Cannes’ premiere was how Quentin Tarantino snapped at a reporter during the film’s press junket. NY Times’ reporter Farah Nayeri, asked Tarantino about Margot Robbie’s lack of dialogue in the film in which she played Sharon Tate. QT’s terse response was “I reject your hypothesis,” which in and of itself shows the kind of arrogance that he only plays by his own rules and doesn’t care how others perceive his movies.

After days ruminating on Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, I feel compelled to write about my reaction on the movie. So this post isn’t so much a film criticism per se, so if you haven’t seen it and don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read any further. Consider yourself warned.

Now, after seeing the movie, I totally understood where Nayeri was coming from. Given that the movie’s plot (if you can even call it that) is practically a build-up to her and her friends’ gruesome murders by members of Charles Manson’s cult, Tate herself didn’t really have much to do here. Most of the 161-minute running time is spent on luxuriating on the two white male leads… they’re talking to each other, in a group, even talking to themselves, while we merely see Tate but rarely hear what she has to say. The writer of this Jezebel article says it best, “The audience learns about as much about Tate from these male characters as we do from Tate herself.” whether it’s via a male friend (secret admirer?) or via a narrator who suddenly shows up midway through explaining exactly what is happening on screen [shrug]. Thankfully, Robbie still manages to turn in a memorable performance as Tate, but her character (and the Manson family) are nothing more than a macguffin.

I suppose when you’ve got two of Hollywood’s biggest stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, in one movie, you better make the most of it. Well, QT sure did, perhaps over-indulgently so. DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton is a faded TV star navigating the changing landscape of Hollywood, while Pitt’s Cliff Booth is his loyal stunt double/lackey who’s ‘more than a brother, and a little less than a wife.’

Let’s start with Pitt’s character, which has more problematic scenes than DiCaprio’s, though both are basically antiheroes. There are countless scenes of Cliff driving recklessly through the Hollywood hills, up and down the LA streets day and night (apparently there’s no traffic in 1969??), but the scenes play up like a retro music video as they don’t seem to serve any purpose. Cliff is portrayed as a dashing, cool guy, apparently way too cool to go to jail for murder. QT’s flashback-within-a-flashback scene shows Cliff holding a harpoon gun pointing at his wife who was berating him. We never see him actually firing the gun, but to me, the scene is more than a mere suggestion that he did kill her, and somehow he got away with it. The fact that Kurt Russell‘s stunt coordinator character Randy and his wife Janet (Zoë Bell) are reluctant about hiring him speak volumes about Cliff’s reputation. Beneath the nice guy persona there’s something really dark lurking beneath. But yet QT seemingly puts the blame on the woman. The boat scene is made to look as if Cliff’s wife is an annoying, nagging wife and therefore she’s ‘asking for it’ and we’re supposed to be okay with a man getting rid of his wife because of that, in a violent manner no less.

Another scene that didn’t sit well with me is the Bruce Lee scene. Lee is played brilliantly by Mike Moh, and initially I was excited about the scene featuring the legendary martial artist who’s also a Hollywood icon. But here his depiction made me cringe. As I was watching it, I wondered how his family would’ve thought of the scene of him being insulted AND beaten by Pitt’s character, and sure enough I saw this article came through today from The Wrap. Lee’s daughter Sharon Lee was quoted as saying, “It was really uncomfortable to sit in the theater and listen to people laugh at my father,” The article mentioned her saying that ‘…her father was often challenged, and tried to avoid fights’ which is NOT how he was depicted in the film, which was all puffery and arrogance. Lee was the only prominent non-white character in the film, yet he only serves to make the white guy appear even more heroic and invincible. Even if Lee was reported as a braggart in the media, there are SO many different sides of him that are positive and admirable. Another quote from Sharon Lee in the article states that “…as an Asian-American in 1960s Hollywood, he had to work much harder to succeed than Booth and Rick Dalton, the fictional, white protagonists of the film.” As if that wasn’t disturbing enough, as I did more reading on Sharon Tate, I found several articles about how Roman Polanski once thought Bruce Lee was the perpetrator of Sharon Tate and her friends’ murders, oh my!

Speaking of Polanski, lest we forget that Tarantino once defended him for having sex with a minor in an interview with Howard Stern (an excerpt is available here) to which QT has apologized for. After reading that, I was even more disturbed by the scene between Pitt and Margaret Qualley‘s Pussycat, who’s 31 years his junior in real life, where she propositioned Cliff oral sex while he’s driving. Qualley’s presence here seems to represent the gullible, morally-loose hippies and just like Tate (and also Dakota Fanning as another Manson family member), she’s also hyper-sexualized, the quintessential male gaze. But yet again, Pitt’s Cliff is seen as a chivalrous hero who refuses this pretty young thing’s offer, hence his heroic status.

This happens to be Tarantino’s first film without Harvey Weinstein’s involvement (all his previous films were produced by Weinstein). He admitted to NY Times back in 2017 that “I knew enough to do more than I did,” about Weinstein’s sexual misconducts. This fact warrants a mention here given the topic is about his treatment of women. In a similar way, Rick is largely tolerant of his friend/confidant Cliff’s dark, violent past, as many in the biz have been with Weinstein until the allegations finally came to light.

Cliff’s ‘heroism’ culminates in the brutal finale where I had to avert my eyes several times. Just like Inglourious Basterds where we see Hitler being riddled with bullets, we’ve come to expect revisionist history once again in QT’s latest, that is in regards to the Manson murders. The gruesome crime on Cielo Drive has been reimagined to happen at Rick Dalton’s house, where the young members of Manson’s cult encountered Cliff who’s high on acid-dipped cigarette [just what the heck is that exactly?]. The whole scene is extremely violent… I opened my eyes right at the time Cliff threw a can of dog food that smashed a girl’s face. The camera lingers on her bloody, smashed-up face and it just kept getting more and more vicious.

As if the gratuitous violence weren’t enough, they’re played for laughs. It seems that in QT’s mind, if he deemed that the people on the receiving end ‘deserve it,’ we can laugh at their misery and even revel in it. People in the theater were laughing when Leo’s Dalton grabs a flamethrower, apparently a prop from one of his movies, and burns one of the Manson girls to a crisp in his own pool. You couldn’t help but giggle at the utter preposterousness of what unfolds before you, but I also couldn’t help but shudder at the gratuitous violence. Yes, the Manson cult members are criminals and should be punished for their crime, but they aren’t in the same vein as someone like Hitler. In many ways, these young hippies were also victims, of Charles Manson’s deceptions and of the era itself. Perhaps QT thinks he’s doing Sharon Tate’s legacy a favor by ‘saving her’ in his reimagined Hollywood, but yet she barely even has any involvement in her own story. This is ultimately Rick’s story, even more so than Cliff ‘s even though Leo and Brad have a pretty equal screen time. When the violent commotion came to an end, Tate’s never even seen again, we only heard her through the intercom inviting her neighbor Rick for drinks as he chats with her friend Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch). So her only purpose seems only to fulfill the protagonist’s dream that he revealed early in the movie (that one day he’d be cast in a Roman Polanski movie).

I wouldn’t call myself a Tarantino fan, given I’ve only seen a handful of his films–Pulp Fiction, Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Inglourious Basterds–the last one being my favorite of his. But from reading about his work lately, there seems to be a disturbing pattern that is often seen in his film. In this THR’s article, writer Joelle Monique said ‘Even more distressing is the fact that violence against women is generally played for laughs in a Tarantino picture’ and she listed several movies where brutality against women are done so overtly. There is always a danger that brutal scenes in movies would normalize real life violence. It’s all the more disturbing when it comes to violence against women considering the statistics of how many goes unreported. So I simply cannot ignore, or worse, enjoy films where women are depicted as if they somehow ‘earned’ the violence done to them.

It’s been reported that Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood, QT’s ninth movie, is his most personal. It’s apparent that the movie is full of tributes to everything QT hold dear, the spaghetti Westerns, the foot fetish, and a plethora of other classic Hollywood obsessions that his fans would no doubt notice with glee. The painstaking detail to production design is no doubt astounding, transforming LA into what it would’ve looked like in the 60s. What is definitely apparent to me, who might not be too astute in pointing out the ‘easter eggs’ in QT’s movies, is how nostalgic he is to the bygone era. As the New Yorker article points out, ‘Tarantino’s love letter to a lost cinematic age is one that, seemingly without awareness, celebrates white-male stardom (and behind-the-scenes command) at the expense of everyone else.’

QT compared Leo and Brad as the dynamic duo since Robert Redford and Paul Newman. But in an era where the #MeToo and #DiversityMatters movements are gaining more and more momentum, this indulgent, nostalgic movie about the Hollywood’s Golden Age in the 60s seems, well, old fashioned. Now, I’m not saying that filmmakers can’t pay homage to a certain era, but it does bear the risk of going ‘backward’ if it isn’t done with care. It seems to be the case here with the protagonist’s constant gripe that the ‘good ol’ days’ are behind him and his reluctance to change. Perhaps it’s QT’s way of lamenting that ‘times are changing’ (with new, diverse filmmakers offering new voices and storytelling) and his fear of being viewed as a ‘has been.’

Lastly, putting all of the women/minorities discussion aside, is Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood a good movie? Visually speaking, it’s a gorgeous film shot by DP Robert Richardson. I’ve mentioned the amazing production design by Barbara Ling and I’ll say it again, it was astounding. But overall, this movie is way too long at 2 hours 40 minutes. It doesn’t help that the pacing is pretty sluggish, meandering and even disjointed at times. The ‘six months later’ jump when Cliff and Rick were in Italy seems pointless, just like many elongated scenes in this movie that go nowhere. Most of the movie’s running time is spent lingering on the outer beauty of the leads, but there’s not much depth beneath.

The one scene I did enjoy was the scene between Leo’s Rick and his 8-year-old co-star Trudi (scene stealer Julia Butters) on the set of the TV show Lancer. The young girl is the ‘mature’ one of the two and in the end, she ends up being a huge boost of encouragement the disillusioned Rick desperately needs. That’s perhaps the only meaningful male/female scene where the woman isn’t sexualized, mocked or brutalized. Acting wise, I think both Leo and Brad did an excellent job in their roles. I especially enjoyed Leo’s performance here, who’s charming and often hilarious while wallowing in self pity. I think the scene of Rick going berserk in his trailer would likely nab Leo another Oscar nomination.

In the end, it’s a stunning production to be sure, full of clever lines, gorgeous visuals and terrific performances. But it’s a soulless movie… I couldn’t really relate to the main characters and there’s barely any moment that truly moved me. Yes the film ends in a fantastical ‘happy ending,’ but it’s tough to feel joyful after such a barbaric gore-fest. Neither Cliff nor Rick were remotely changed by such a traumatizing incident, both of them pretty much stay the same from beginning to end. It’s as if it’s a commentary on QT himself. At 56, it seems he hasn’t evolved much as a filmmaker. I think the title ‘once upon a time’ is fitting here for a filmmaker who revels in the past. Reportedly QT is retiring soon? I doubt it, but I certainly don’t mind if he did.


So what are your thoughts on Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood? Let’s hear it!