Naturally, there are spoilers ahead.
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is the ninth (or tenth?) film from Quentin Tarantino. It stars Leonardo DiCaprio as a has-been Western actor named Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt as his stunt-double and driver, Cliff Booth. Together, they traverse the world of Hollywood in 1969 and its changing landscape. Many look to 1969 as a turning point in the old Hollywood system for a lot of reasons. It straddled the line between the old way and the new way, often drastically. 1969 saw the release of both Hello, Dolly! made by the establishment and Easy Rider, a film made by the next generation trying to find their way in a world gone mad. Then, of course, was the murder of Sharon Tate and co., a gruesome punctuation mark at the end of the era.
But Tarantino doesn’t follow this text to the letter. In fact, he makes some big changes to the narrative. He pulls a Walt Disney.
The Brothers Grimm
It’s as if the Brothers Grimm had written their own chapter of bloody Hollywood history. And it’s fitting that Tarantino approaches the material as though it is a fairy tale. Though the title evokes the films of Sergio Leone, it just as easily hearkens back to a the beginning of a classic fable.
And that’s how this film opens, a throwback to the newsreel style opening of the great American fairy tale, Citizen Kane, but this time set for 1960s Hollywood.
From the moment Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) appears on screen, we are expecting the hyper-violent and bloody Tarantino of the past. We are prepared for an ending befitting the darkest of the Grimm’s fairy tales. She’s a beacon of positive feelings, practically a live-action Disney princess.
The film builds to the expectation of her murder and offers us moments of how weird this world gone mad is going to be. Chief among these moments is a sequence where Cliff Booth explores the Spahn Movie Ranch and comes face to face with the bizarre Manson cult. There’s blood there, and violence, and more than a few wolves in sheep’s clothing.
The film preys on our knowledge of reality. It churns in our stomach our hope that Sharon Tate could be spared her horrible fate. But we know that we can’t rewrite history, right?
As the film enters its final stages and the pregnant Sharon Tate, more radiant than ever, heads closer and closer to her final fate, we as an audience are thrust into absolute suspense.
Like any good fairy tale, we’re clutching our hands, waiting expectantly for the surprise to unfold and the moral of the story to be apparent. We’re unsure just how much blood will come, but we know it’s coming.
The Disney Treatment
Near the middle of the film, Rick Dalton is trying to relax on set and takes a seat next to a precocious 8-year old method actor (Julia Buttars) as she reads a biography on Walt Disney, who had just died three years prior. The specter of his recent death is just another reminder of that uneasy transition of this version of Hollywood, one that Tarantino so clearly loves.
During the scene, DiCaprio breaks down into tears thanks to the in-the-text subtext of the film. He’s reading a western potboiler about a bronco buster in the middle of his own mid-life transition, trying to make his way in a scary new world, but everything seems so dark. The story he’s reading is a metaphor for his own life, but too on-the-nose to be the actual point of the scene. The real subtext of the scene comes in the effusive praise the young ingenue has for Walt Disney. “He was a visionary” she explains to Dalton. She tells him that Disney’s like would come only once a generation.
This is cluing us in on Tarantino’s own insecurity and reason for telling this particular fairy tale the way he does. As we finally get to the brutal climax of the film, the horrifying nature of the original story is given the Disney treatment. Little Red Riding Hood is saved from being eaten by the wolf. Walt Disney did this with many of the gruesome fairy tales he adapted. He softened the edges and gave each princess their own happily ever after.
Instead of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Tarantino reaches to one of the darkest chapters of cinema’s history and gives it a classic Hollywood ending, a Disney ending, sparing us from the brutality of reality. The princess gets her happily ever after.
A New Tarantino and the Film Itself
Working to decode what Tarantino might have meant in the text is different than reviewing the film on its own. As a piece of cinema, it definitely has its problems. The male gaze and machismo through which Tarantino views the world feels out of place in the contemporary world. It also meanders through sequences that, while good, feel like they could have easily been cut.
It’s as if Tarantino was himself experiencing that aimlessness of his own Rick Dalton transition. The film displays the excess that Tarantino is known for, but we’ve seen all these moves before. The most novel narrative techniques Tarantino employs feel as though they were ripped straight out of Woody Allen films. The jump cuts that mark some scenes feel right out of Deconstructing Harry. Kurt Russell’s narration would find an easy home in Vicky Cristina Barcelona or To Rome With Love. Al Pacino could have been Danny DeVito’s character from Anything Else. Even the glimpses into the past through the eyes of the characters feel like they would have fit into Annie Hall with no problems. For 90% of the film, it felt like Woody Allen could have directed it, and perhaps that’s the surprising and bold new move that Tarantino was going for with his newest film. Somehow, though, I doubt it.
This film will be hotly debated by cinephiles and Tarantino super-fans for years. It may get better with age (like Jackie Brown and Reservoir Dogs have) or it might start to sour just a bit (like Pulp Fiction.) Does this film mark Tarantino as the Walt Disney level visionary he strives to be? Or the second rate Rick Dalton, doing his best to just find his way to the party and live happily ever after?
Only time will tell.
The post ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ Isn’t Just a Fairy Tale – It’s Quentin Tarantino Doing Walt Disney appeared first on /Film.