Through the two hour and forty minute runtime of “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” one image has stuck with me. That being the image of a group of hippie girls rooting through a dumpster. It was a that moment that I realized what the film was truly about: the self-destruction of the privilege of the hippy movement. Clearly, these hippies have the privilege to not live like a homeless person. None of them seem to be struggling in any way. Instead, they choose this lifestyle. This is the very definition of race and class privilege, one that Tarantino demolishes with childish glee.
Let’s go back a little bit. “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood,” after a brief prologue, opens with a shot of the protagonist, Rick Dalton. Except, it’s not really Rick. Instead, it’s a painting of Rick on a movie poster, shot in a way that it almost appears to be a caricature, leaning over the two protagonists like a behemoth. This is the shadow of not only Rick’s past, but of Hollywood’s past. It’s no longer the glamorous industry it used to be, but almost a parody of itself. This is also shown through the cutbacks of Rick’s previous work: they are clearly ridiculous and often played to comedic effect, showing an industry in desperate need of transition. “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” is all about transition, both on a personal and societal level.
This metaphor for societal transition is represented through the three main characters: Rick Dalton, his stunt double, Cliff Booth, and Sharon Tate. Rick and Cliff are both representative of the Hollywood of old, neither willing to budge or adjust to changing times. In fact, neither man really has a discernible character arc, serving as a microcosm to Hollywood’s general resistance towards change. Sharon Tate, on the other hand, is the up-and-coming star, a shining beacon for the new Hollywood. She is a light in the film, a force of true optimism for what’s to come. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, we know that this optimism is only going to last so long. But this isn’t our world, this is Tarantino’s world, and history changes on his own terms.
The tone of the film might be off-putting for some. Tarantino doesn’t construct a pulpy revenge plot, nor does he pull any outrageous genre thrills. Instead, the film takes the form of a languid cruise, easily moseying through the landscape of Hollywood that he has constructed. Despite the attention to historical detail, this Hollywood is not one ripped straight from the pages of history. Rather, it’s an alternate universe, one viewed through rose tinted glasses. It’s not meant to be a historical artifact, but rather the conveyance of a perspective – -specifically Tarantino’s perspective. In light of Tarantino’s and Paul Thomas Anderson’s friendly rivalry, Tarantino has basically made his “Inherent Vice”: a hangout movie that takes us through a period of time that, while may not be true to reality, is true to a specific mindset that the characters hold.
Then, the ending comes in like a sledgehammer. Without spoiling it, it dips into what Tarantino does best: an explosive bout of cathartic violence. The statement is clear: this is Tarantino’s version of history and it’s going to end the way he wants it to end. But what exactly are the implications of this ending? Well, if viewers know anything about the real, tragic events that happened to Sharon Tate, they can see an ending that may appear happy on the surface, but is actually tinged with sadness. Unlike the ending of, say, “Inglorious Basterds” or “Django Unchained,” we are reminded of the real history of these events. This act of wish fulfillment is exactly that, a desire for a time in history where things were innocent, where the world was not corrupted by the self destructive acts of privileged monsters unaware of the world around them. The Manson family was a collective bent on creating violence, disrupting an equilibrium of happiness, innocence, and love. Tarantino’s message is clear: the hippie movement is not one of progress, but of self-destruction, and they must be destroyed.
There is another image that has stayed in my mind. In one of Tarantino’s most heartwarming sequences, Sharon Tate is seen watching her own movie with glee. The look on her face, the happiness she feels when she realizes the joy she brings to an audience, is indicative of the importance of the Hollywood fantasy. People go to the movies to fall into a different world outside of theirs, to be reminded how to feel and to access emotions we may not have entertained otherwise. It’s one of the few times where a nakedly emotional response is warranted. This catharsis is something that Tarantino plays with the film’s finale. If we view the world through art, it is the responsibility artists to create a fantasy that will enrich rather than desecrate. It’s why racist films such as “Birth of a Nation” and “Triumph of the Will” have fallen to the wayside while anti-fascist films like “The Great Dictator” still resonate today. The Hollywood fantasy is important to hold onto, for in a world filled with evil, it’s a necessity to hold onto a semblance of goodness.