Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: An Epic Masterpiece

Last night Peggy and I accompanied Peggy’s brother to a local theater to see Quentin Tarantino’s “Once upon a Time in Hollywood.” All of us came away disappointed and wondering why we didn’t leave the theater about half an hour into this two-hour-forty-five-minute marathon, even though it featured A-list actors including Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, and Al Pacino. We all agreed the film was too long, too slow, too violent, and on the whole seemed pointless.

I’m glad we didn’t leave. After-thought has made me realize that we would have missed a thought-provoking and revealing parable about entertainment-fantasy and its influence on our lives. Even more, the film had the epic quality of all the great classics, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Lord Tennyson’s Ulysses. It was about our lives’ journeys, their purpose, about love and friendship.

After all, the film’s very title alerts the viewer to Tarantino’s larger intent. “Once upon a time” is the way all fairy tales, myths, legends, and fables begin. They are vehicles for teaching larger truths — for rewriting history. Typically, they feature:

  • A main character (all of us) facing decline and death
  • A long, twisted journey
  • Its quest for meaning in the second half of life
  • The character’s double who is more grounded and wiser
  • A child who inspires and teaches
  • An alternative community representing the story’s readers
  • And mirroring the condition of the main characters
  • Class struggle between the communities
  • A blind man who more clearly sees life’s true purpose
  • A dog who saves the day
  • All resulting in insight about how our lives might be different

Significantly, “Once upon a Time in Hollywood” is set in 1969, the year of the bloody murder of actress, Sharon Tate, her unborn child, and four of Tate’s friends at the hands of the infamous Charles Manson family of hippie stoners. In fact, the whole story can be understood as a commentary on that tragic event as encapsulating American life with its senseless violence specifically provoked by the art of directors such as Quintin Tarantino. As such Tarantino’s own film is a kind of self-parody – yet another feature often characterizing the great literature just referenced.    

“Once upon a Time in Hollywood” is about a washed-up TV actor, Tom Dalton and his stunt-man double, Cliff Booth. Tom’s an actor whose identity has been fixed by the success of his past role as an old West bounty hunter. Everybody knows him that way. But in mid-life, he suddenly finds himself jobless, filled with self-doubt and lacking clear direction. He wants to maintain his Hollywood image and lifestyle and is terrified with the prospect of losing them. Who is he without his on-screen role? He’s afraid of death and life’s inevitable call to enter its second half.

Meanwhile, Tom’s stunt-man double (his real self) is a doer. He’s entirely capable of accomplishing in real life, what Tom does only in film. Whereas Tom pretends to be brave, take chances, fall off horses, fight and prevail, Cliff actually does those things. What’s more, Cliff’s not worried about his image or living large. He’s content to be in effect Tom’s butler and chauffeur. His home is a beat-up Airstream trailer; he eats Kraft Macaroni, and his only companion is his fierce and obedient pit bull, Brandy. The dog is actually Cliff’s better half; like his master, he’s simple, faithful, loving, and valiant. Brandy is to Cliff what Cliff is to Tom.

So, shadowed by his double and better-self, Tom sets off on his journey. Tarantino drives the theme home by introducing virtually every character in terms of their footwear – cowboy boots, sandals, go-go boots, and bare feet.  Everybody’s on a journey. Tom’s own has him advised by standard Hollywood types – always telling him how to cope with life’s changes by adopting new roles, different costumes, makeup, facial hair, and public image. For them, everything is image and performance.

However, Tom’s best professional advice comes from an eight-year-old girl far wiser than her years. Trudi Fraser tells Dalton to sober up, pay attention to his craft, be true to himself in the roles he plays, and never break character. As a result of listening to her, Tom delivers his greatest performance in a film called Lancer. For him, it’s the turning point in his professional journey. Yet, we find, there’s much more for him to learn. Life’s not merely about professional success.

It’s his better self, Cliff Booth, who makes the deeper discovery.  And ironically, it’s the Manson Family who conveys that truth. Led on by a flirtatious Siren, Cliff suddenly finds himself in the midst of the Manson family. Significantly, they live in an abandoned movie lot owned by a declined movie mogul, George Spahn.  

Over the objections of the Manson Family members, Cliff insists on consulting his former colleague who turns out to be a blind oracle revealing life’s true meaning. He’s Booth’s interior voice who’s deeply asleep and must be shaken back into awareness. Sightless, old George can’t even remember his former meaningless life. He doesn’t recognize Booth or remember who Tom Dalton is. He only knows that Squeaky Fromme (Manson’s best-known disciple) loves him and that he wants to please her. Loving her is what’s truly important to him, nothing else.

Moreover, the Manson community itself teaches Booth. It proves to be deeper and more loving than the Hollywood assemblage of self-seeking individuals that the Manson Clan mirrors. Yes, they spend their lives in exactly the same way of their better-off counterparts. They even live on an abandoned movie lot and spend their days watching old movies on TV. For them, it’s all sex, drugs, and rock and roll.  

However, overwhelmingly composed of women, the Mansons have abandoned the Culver City rat race. They dumpster-dive for food. But more importantly, they exhibit solidarity, sympathy and support for members who suffer or are in danger.

The contrast leads them on the one hand to resent the actual self-centered lives of Hollywood personalities, and on the other to imitate their on-screen violence. (Here’s where the class-struggle comes in.) They reason: The films we’ve watched from childhood have taught us lessons. The actors we’ve admired have advocated senseless violence, and they live like selfish pigs. So, let’s get our revenge and do some violence on them.”

And that brings us to Tarantino’s ironic, over-the top, cleansing and healing climax. (Spoiler alert!) In a riot of shooting, stabbing, beating and burning, Hollywood’s fantasy triumphs over real life. The heroic dog, Brandy comes to the rescue; the Mansons are decimated; Sharon Tate, her child and her friends are saved. History is re-written.

But more importantly, in terms of Tarantino’s fabulous intent, Tom Dalton and Cliff Booth discover their actual identity with one another. The two halves of Tom’s personality are united in expressions of their deep friendship. Tom gets over himself and joins a larger community of literally resurrected souls.

As a result, all of us are called to resurrection, love, and friendship. We’re called to own our True Selves.

I’m glad we stayed to watch it all.

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Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

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