Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
By Justin Waters
“When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”
– The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance
Stuntmen occupy a strange place in movies. We accept what we are seeing on screen is fake, willingly we buy into it and enjoy the ride. We know that Johnny Depp is not a pirate and that Matt Damon defending himself against a knife wielding attacker with nothing but a ballpoint pen and a book would quickly result in a dead Matt Damon yet we don’t care. If anything the distance lets us enjoy the movies more because no one is really getting hurt. Then there is the stuntman. Watching legitimate stunts without CGI and special effects diminishing the danger of the performer changes the whole tenor of experiencing a movie. We can no longer be passive watchers, we must be active; marveling at their daring, wondering how much they were hurt for a few minutes of our enjoyment. They walk the line between fantasy and reality and that’s why Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, a fantasy filled with glamorous celebrities playing glamorous celebrities, is headed by an occasionally working stuntman. Someone to throw a bemused smirk at Hollywood’s myths and capable to face the dark realities of the town. We are now in Tarantino’s world where movies always trump reality, so of course our stuntman is played by Brad Pitt, and nobody smirks better than Brad Pitt.
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is a fantasy about how movies influence reality, which in turn influence movies, etc. etc. forming a pop culture circle– as we all know no one plumbs the hidden depths of pop culture quite like Tarantino. The movie is filled with fake movie sets and punctured Hollywood myths– i.e. Bruce Lee getting his ass kicked. This isn’t done with an air of skepticism, it is done with a passion for how movies are made. In a bravura sequence Tarantino uses these sets we have just witnessed moved around on rollers to create two fully realized western scenes. Even with some hilarious intentional dialogue flubs by DiCaprio, Tarantino remains committed to showing the power of the scenes despite the hollowness. A director like Robert Altman would have mocked the fakery of Hollywood, but Tarantino is in full love with the smoke and mirrors magic. A sequence shown for the TV show “Lancer” is important as it subversively gives us an example of the myth-reality-myth motif; the plot of the episode concerns a bad desperado holed up at a nearby decrepit ranch with no one around to chase him off but an old man. This exact circumstance is happening not too far from Los Angeles at Spahn Ranch where Charles Manson and his followers have holed up. Enter the hippies and the movie hating “reality” they bring with them.
Tarantino introduces the counter culture vagabonds as people seeing themselves as a force of reality coming to battle with the lies of Hollywood. They talk about people dying in the Vietnam war while phony actors perform. They condemn movies and television for having conditioned them to violence. Tarantino sees them differently. He sees them as thankless frauds who shape their existence from the very movies and TV shows they claim to despise. He shoots them first walking in front of a mural of James Dean, the counter culture icon they certainly were inspired by and then quick cuts to Brad Pitt’s point-of-view of them as his car radio blasts Simon and Garfunkels “Mrs. Robinson,” a song known best from The Graduate which is about youthful disaffection and malaise; two things the hippies certainly represent.
Later DiCaprio will refer to one of the Spahn Ranch characters Tex (Austin Butler) as Dennis Hopper who of course directed Easy Rider which solidified hippie culture norms, beliefs, and fashion on screen. To Tarantino everything about these people comes from movies, they even live on an old movie set. Their greatest sin is to degrade and ultimately try and destroy their cinematic creators. In Tarantino’s world if you try to desecrate the holy altar of cinema then, by God, you pay–oh boy do they pay.
In the end Tarantino tells us that sometimes living the fantasy is for the best. Sharon Tate (Margo Robbie) only puts her glasses on when she is in a darkened theater to maintain her perfect Hollywood beauty even though no one knows who she is–a notable quirk of the real Sharon Tate. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a stuttering mess off camera where he has no pre-written lines to guide him. Charles Manson’s disciples butchered six people including Sharon Tate’s unborn child. All of this is terrible. Let us live in the fantasy for a while. Let us have a movie ending. As with most Hollywood movie endings it is the stuntman who does most of the dangerous work and gets injured only for the movie star to get the coolest moment in the least dangerous spot. The white hats win, the black hats get their comeuppance. Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood leaves us with Rick Dalton getting an invite to hang out with the still living Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring–a chance for Dalton to carry on with his own Hollywood fantasy. I don’t know if it will, but I sure hope it does.