There have been some great movies this year but one of the most controversial ones is Quentin Tarantino’s 9th feature film “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.”
Most audiences and critics say it’s the quintessential “love letter” to Hollywood but it has a way deeper meaning in theme and structure.
So if you really want to know what “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” is all about then read further.
There are three types of antagonism in fiction: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Nature, and Man vs. Himself. Every story falls into at least one of those categories.
The only identifiable antagonist in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is Rick Dalton vs. himself. Some might argue that Charlie Manson’s posse is the main antagonistic force of the story but the posse’s actions don’t drive any conflict until the final moments. Cliff Booth visits Spahn Ranch but after discovering George Spahn is content with his life, he simply leaves. In the climax, the three members of Manson’s posse suddenly shift the focus from Sharon Tate to Rick Dalton only because he came out and screamed at them to move their busted piece of shit out of his cul-de-sac. If Rick doesn’t go out there in his bathrobe to scream at them with a pitcher full of frozen margaritas then, well, we all know what would’ve happened.
The inciting incident is when agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) illuminates for Rick that playing the “heavy” is “going to have a psychological effect on how the audience perceives you,” which ultimately causes his existential crisis. And the further he journeys down that path, the further he’s removed from being a leading man. The theme resonates right here because this once prosperous television star is now struggling with the public’s perception of his career as he bemoans “Nobody knows who the f—k I am anymore?” as he gets into his car. But nowhere is it clearer that he views himself as a fraud than when he comes face-to-face with an 8-year-old actress who takes her career more earnestly than Rick does.
Now, Cliff is the equal-opposite of Rick. The public perception is Cliff being a wife killer who got away with it – albeit an ambiguous incident – but it’s also said he gives off a bad “vibe” on set. Of course, this bad “vibe” is solidified when he gets under Bruce Lee’s skin and for all intents and purposes, demonstrates he’s so good at his job that he could kick the legendary martial artist’s ass. However, that sequence ends with him muttering “fair enough” up on the roof – indicating, unlike Rick, Cliff is not at all worried about his public perception. He’s oddly at peace with it. There is no Cliff vs. himself; it’s only Rick vs. himself.
When Cliff visits Spahn Ranch, his perception is concern for his old colleague, a now-blind George Spahn (which is funny because it’s a play on the old Greek Tragedy cliche where the blind man is the one who sees – Pussycat even says this as Cliff is leaving). Tarantino even toys with our perception as Cliff notices what’s happening and decides to find his friend; not only building suspense playing with our expectations that we know in real life what Manson’s posse was capable of, but also unexpectedly and ironic that George is at peace with his lifestyle just as much as Cliff is. Who is Cliff to judge? Just when you think this is when the true antagonism starts; Tarantino pulls the rug out from under us and Cliff… just… leaves.
The one purpose Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) has in the story is important perception exposition; explaining the inseparable odd trifecta of Jay Sebring and Roman Polanski’s race in order to be the one who ends up with Sharon Tate. It also doubles as Steve McQueen’s perception of himself concluding he “never stood a chance” with Sharon even though he never tried. But much like Tarantino was accurate with Bruce Lee’s arrogance based on multiple biographies, albeit slightly exaggerated; McQueen was really insecure, even as one of the biggest movie stars in the world. He was infamously jealous of James Garner on the set of “The Great Escape” during production. Also, it’s not a coincidence that Tarantino used that exact movie and McQueen’s role as the one that got away from Rick. Again, it’s ambiguous whether he really was actually offered the role. It could be embarrassment or it could be false as he says, but James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant) is the one who brings up this “legend” of Rick almost getting the part. We know at this point that Rick has a reputation in Hollywood as being a truly gifted actor who never got his comeuppance even as Rick is losing faith in himself.
This is what Tarantino reverse engineered with perception vs. reality; it’s the offensive notion that Sharon Tate was “Roman Polanski’s wife who was murdered,” and not a gifted actress who was about to take the next step towards superstardom. Tarantino’s main goal was to squash that perception and then reverse engineer the theme to reverberate through all the other characters. Also, as evidence from the last scene after Rick’s heroism, we find out although these neighbors never met they are well aware of living next door to each other. To Rick’s surprise, both Jay Sebring and Sharon Tate are huge fans of his work. This is the moment when Rick squashes the perception of himself.
But think about this: what if Tarantino does use Man vs. Nature? What if nature is us, the audience? What if he’s saying that public perception is a force of nature?
Perception is probably why Tarantino controversially cast Emile Hirsch as Jay Sebring. I worked in production as a director of development and was co-partners in a production company for three years. I’ve done everything as an executive from line producing, creating budgets and schedules, negotiating with bond and insurance companies, dealing with agents etc. I can tell you with confidence that given Hirsch’s recent criminal past when he was convicted of assault of a Paramount executive, Hirsch was probably uninsurable. Sony probably balked at that casting choice considering it was a $90 million production and the correct stance is to mitigate controversy in any way they can. Sony and the insurance (or bond) company had to come up with a certain amount of money in order for him to be cast. Why would Tarantino do that if there are hundreds of actors who could’ve played that role? Why not someone less controversial like Jake Gyllenhaal? I’d bet the farm that Tarantino forced Sony’s hands with that casting because Hirsch reinforces his theme of an audience’s public perception as a force of nature. I don’t think Tarantino is in any way flying to his defense but I do believe he wanted to intentionally create controversy with this narrative. Nor do I come to Hirsch’s defense.
There are a lot more perception vs. reality examples like Rick’s view of Italian films even though Cliff calls him out about how many he’s actually seen and we know the late 1960’s Spaghetti Westerns are considered some of the greatest Westerns of all time. Another is Sharon Tate claiming her character in The Wrecking Crew is “the klutz because she thinks that’s how she figures the clerk would know who she is. That’s magnified when the theater’s employees confuse the other top billed names in Valley of the Dolls with her.
Finally, every single piece I’ve read about the film frequently (if not all) uses buzzwords like “meandering,” and “love letter.” Of course it’s a “love letter” to the time period, but I also believe, to add to public perception as a force of nature, Tarantino sent a message to middle America that their perception of people who have worked in Hollywood and are somehow not famous, failed. That’s simply not true. There are thousands of people in Hollywood, now and over the years, who will never be A-list famous, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t irritatingly talented. Ya know, kind of like Cliff Booth, Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, and to some extent, Rick Dalton.