Fair warning: I’m giving away the ending. I am going there, because that’s what the movie’s all about, and you should’ve seen it by now anyway.
Like me, Tarantino grew up on B movies, drive-in movies, low-budget films with directors desperate enough to take creative chances to pull in an audience, often through shock and risky content, that mainstream movies wouldn’t dare try. Thelma and Louise, The Silence of the Lambs, and The Accused, all culturally significant 80’s and 90’s classics, sprang from B-movie themes. The plotlines themselves seemed lifted from such movies, with A-movie actors and scripts and production values.
So whatever you think of Tarantino, you have to be ready for his coming from this school. Which in his case and mine, especially as far as Sharon Tate and the Manson murders (and murderers) are concerned, can be the school of rage.
I admit I love Pulp Fiction. But of course there’s also Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill Volumes 1 and 2, Jackie Brown (pulling dynamic and classic B actors like Pam Grier and Robert Forster from obscurity). Even Grindhouse, which was an odd project, a long two-story tribute to the old grindhouse and drive-in movies. I can’t imagine he or co-director Richard Rodriguez seriously thought they’d make money from it. But like the Cohen Brothers, what makes Tarantino an auteur is he’s more concerned with pleasing himself (or being faithful to his vision) than you or me. Though this is generally good for his art, it can produce uneven results, and at a certain point cause even his biggest fans to decide he’s said all he’s got to say, and it’s all retreads and missteps from here.
For me this moment occurred when I saw Inglorious Basterds. I took a seat in a local theater expecting a primal dose of Tarantino, and the film was beautiful on many film-level ways, but I never experienced it as I needed. It seemed pretend, tongue-in-cheek (some characters played it that way; some didn’t). I was kept at a distance, not the least reason being the ending of the entire movie careens into a complete historical fantasy. Which can be a problem if you’re selling a historically-based movie, regardless of how you’re dressing it up.
Spoiler alert #2.
At the climax of Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino’s soldiers and femme fatales manage to kill Hitler and his henchman well before the end, as we know it, of WWII. But to what point, I could not fathom. How does such a story gesture make us believe the movie, keep our willing suspension of belief intact? If our “heroes” assassinate Hitler and pretty much all the leaders of the Third Reich before the historical facts as we know them (and upon which they otherwise depend)…erm, doesn’t that, like, save a whole bunch of lives (or something? And wouldn’t that have, pretty much, changed history? Or something?)? The harsh answer is: we who are watching the film don’t keep our willing suspension of belief intact at this fantastical reenvisioning of historical fact (and, to repeat, to what point?). We are blown right off it, are 110% aware we’re watching a film, instead of experiencing it. Regardless of how pretty it all might be.
Again, there are reasons to like this film, but for me it came off as a flat joke, a waste of three hours of my life. And I walked back to my car afterward thinking Tarantino had shot his wad. I was so disappointed I wouldn’t see either Django Unchained or The Hateful Eight. I appreciated his work, but didn’t need to witness him trailing off like this.
But time went by, as it does, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was released. I appreciated the old drive-in B-movie spaghetti western reference in the title, and heard it was actually a quieter film, a more human one, focused on relationships. Then one friend, then a second, then a third recommended it on Facebook (amazingly without giving away the ending; people were pretty damn protective of that, which I find interesting). I decided to give him another chance.
So. To the film itself.
I can’t help but think there is a pretty significant cultural gap as far as how one experiences this movie depending upon one’s age, or at least one’s knowledge of U.S. cultural history going back to the late 60s or 70s. Because the thing is this: The tension line of the whole movie, the conflict the storyline rides on, depends on the audience knowing what happened to the real Sharon Tate in 1969. Regardless of the rest, we’re sitting in our seats dreading the devastating historical event that was, once upon a time, etched across our psyches.
Because the actual, human, historical, stunningly beautiful Sharon Tate, 8-1/2 months pregnant, along with three friends (and one unlucky passerby), who even if “privileged” were pretty wonderful, lovely people, believing in possibility and giving back to the world in various ways, were in fact—brutally, savagely, as horrifically as you can imagine—murdered in her home by three women and one man who were members of the Manson clan.
When people speak of the moment the 60’s ended, they’re not talking about the decade, of course. They’re talking about that particular decade’s hopes and dreams and potential and yes, its naivete. They’re talking about its art and that generation’s belief they could change the world, end wars (which they did), protect the earth (they were more successful than we are), etc. They’re talking about the idea this generation held that people were basically good (if you gave them enough love) and a girl could and should be comfortable with her sexuality and body (for maybe the first time in our history), and sex was great (not that shameful, dark, nasty thing embedded in the previous culture’s upbringing), and if we all pulled together we could see problems, work together, and solve them. I mean, how hard does that sound? How could we not work things out that needed working out? Why would anyone want to not do that?
As for the moment all that changed and we took a turn to a darker decade, people sometimes mention The Rolling Stones performance at Altamont where Hells Angels’ bodyguards stabbed a concert goer to death, but more often they mention the Sharon Tate murders.
It’s still hard for me to think about those murders. The whole visceral idea of it. This beautiful woman who by all accounts everyone loved. And her pregnancy was so awfully far along. All that hope living inside her. My imagination rushes toward it and I have to pull away to not fill with rage and despair and shame and loathing at everything in the world, including myself. Because what good would that do?
That’s the thing. No one could process it. It shot through the nation’s psyches like a laser and wrote itself large on the walls of our minds. You can’t have nice things, like beauty and love and hope. Like solutions. Because of this dark thing we thought we could manage, this two percent, five percent, one percent of us, usually in male form, that’s going to stick a knife in everything, that’s going to set it all to fire only because it can.
All these years later, after seeing this sickness appear again and again in one form or another, I fear there may be no extricating it, this poison pill, this rogue element in our makeup that is going to fuck it all up. Whether it’s racist asshole psychos with assault rifles, or Donald Trump and his various wrecking balls, or businesspeople willing to sell off our future and everything in it so that they might have five more years of money, to the Mansons and their madness and knives and stupidity. Such carriers of this disease are—and I believe and continue to believe this—such a tiny part of humanity. Yet it creates cancerous damage. How can it not be built into who we are? This weak link. That craves the power. That needs the attention. That demands it all or else they’ll steal it or kill it or burn everything down, because they don’t know what to do with something good.
But that doesn’t mean we have to accept it, or them. And maybe our one act of power over them is to point a finger and say: I see you, sickness, which is all you’ll ever be, no matter how much you’d really rather be like the rest of us. And I hope you suffer for it, because you’ve made everything in the world suffer for your lack and your weakness. It didn’t have to be this way, but because of you, it is.
So. What does Tarantino do with this historical moment, the Sharon Tate murders that back in the day fried his circuits along with mine? Yes, there’s an engaging and super fun storyline in the film with Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio (and they’re great, and their friendship is lovely, and we want the best for them), but again, those of us born within twenty years of the murders are only enjoying their foibles as a distraction because we know Manson is nearby and his women are nearby and God knows where Tarantino will take that, especially with what he did with the basement scene in Pulp Fiction. That made the scene in the Spahn Ranch house absolutely fraught with dread and terror (Those are Manson women, Brad Pitt! Don’t go in there!). Because Tarantino don’t care! Tarantino goes where he goes! And that, Manson in the shadows haunting the storyline, is what makes the tension of the film almost unbearable, regardless of all the fun elsewhere.
Pushing us along that wire of tension is Margot Robbie playing Sharon Tate with innocence and joy, with naivete, with ridiculous beauty, which Tarantino makes forgivable in the almost painfully touching scene where she sees her movie playing across the street. Her movie, the comedy she’s in with Dean Martin. And she’s so excited she has to cross to get a closer look. And there, after a pause, she tells the ticket taker she’s in it. (Is she that egotistical, we wonder?) But she doesn’t get a free ride in. No she has to suffer some humiliation first. We all know she hasn’t moved up in Hollywood just on her talent—she knows that more than anybody—it’s for her looks, her “hotness factor,” and the ticket taker drills her trying to figure out which actress she was in Valley of the Dolls, and finally Tate acquiesces, nods and smiles, says, “The one who ends up doing dirty movies.”
She gets it. She knows who people think she is. And yet…does it really matter? She just wants to see the movie, her movie, and so they finally let her in without charging admission and even ask to take her photograph (though when they do they make her pose next to her poster so people will “know who you are”), and inside she takes a seat up front to watch herself in this Dean Martin comedy (not some sordid sex film). And she puts on these big dorky glasses because she’s nearsighted (read: imperfect), and puts her bare feet up on the seat in front of her, and they’re dirty (read: imperfect), and then she waits with excitement and a little trepidation for her first comic moment with Dean Martin, and then it happens. The audience laughs at it! At her! With her! She glances around at them like she almost can’t believe it, then slips lower in her seat as if hiding. When in the next scene her character uses her karate mastery to defeat an evil enemy karate woman, and the audience claps at one of her potent kicks, she can barely contain herself she’s so happy. So happy to be accepted, to be liked. This, for whatever reason (and we don’t know or need to know why, but it is embedded in this moment), is very important to her.
Who couldn’t relate to that?
Afterward in the film the tension ratchets up here and there, but just as often Tarantino releases it. Because the tension, especially now that we understand who this Sharon Tate is, becomes excruciating. I sat enjoying the movie, but absolutely dreading the moment when the murders happen, when this woman is butchered. I only hoped it happened off-screen, off-sequence. Surely Tarantino wouldn’t take us there… My 9-year-old, 4-year-old, 15-year-old self had already been overexposed to the horrific layers of this event. I don’t need to see it, Tarantino, please! I still haven’t gotten over it.
But he was taking us there, of course. Once the timeline appeared on the bottom of the screen on that historical day, the historical minutes ticking off till the historical hour she was murdered, there was nothing to do but either walk out of the theater or ride it out. I hated every minute. Still, something was…a little off.
Cliff (Brad Pitt) and Rick (Leonardo de Caprio), who owns the house next door to Sharon Tate’s, after decades have finally come to what they think is the end of the line as far as their working relationship, and we know, to some degree their friendship. Rick has just gotten married, and his money has basically dried up. He’s got to sell the house. They’re copacetic about it. It’s all good, bro. Of course, bro. End of an era, and I love you. And they’ve gotten quite drunk.
Cliff has kept his beloved female pit bull, Brandy, at Rick’s place that evening, and the guys go off to different wings of Rick’s house. In the front room, Cliff, who’s never tripped before, fires up a cigarette dipped in acid he’d bought off one of the Manson women earlier, and Rick makes a massive blender of margaritas for himself…but…there’s a racket on the street. Some smoking banging knocking shit-ass car has dragged its bulk up the incline to Rick’s home, and he’ll have none of it. He runs out in the road in his robe like a drunken maniac (he does have issues with the booze) waving around his pitcher of margaritas while he dresses the intruders down in no uncertain terms (calling their car a “mechanical asshole,” for starters). And so, they back slowly down the hill from whence they came spewing fumes.
But of course, what Rick doesn’t know is these are the Manson killers, and they park down the hillside, and on foot start making their way up the slope to—instead of killing Sharon Tate and her friends—to kill Rick Dalton and his, because he was such an asshole (though of course I didn’t exactly take in this shift at the moment, didn’t exactly know anything, the way my psyche and experience of history and what I was seeing on the screen were slamming into each other). I was still dreading the moment Sharon Tate was murdered. And yet there they are, Susan Atkins and Tex Watson and Squeaky Fromm (with whom Tarantino replaces participant Patricia Krenwinkel) kicking in the door to Rick Dalton’s house and seeing our guy Cliff standing there, a big can of dog food in one hand for his dog Brandy, as he trips out.
Tarantino has flipped the script.
I could not even fathom what was happening. Were the Manson murderers going to kill Sharon Tate after they killed Rick and Cliff?
The scene begins with an unnerving and deliriously comical moment with Tex pointing his gun at Cliff, and Cliff (who we already know is a full-on badass) pointing his finger like it’s a gun at Tex, and they’re laughing at each other. Like buds. Because it’s all so ridiculous. The carnage kicks in when Cliff signals Brandy the pit bull to attack, and in an instant she tears the gun from Tex’s hand, then clamps her jaws on his genitals. Meanwhile, Susan Atkins charges Cliff with a knife and he throws the can of dog food into her face, crushing it. Then he smashes Squeaky’s face into a number of very solid objects. Actually, there’s more, of course, and it is savagely violent (we’re watching Tarantino, remember?), and it finally ends when Atkins, who has managed to grab the gun, falls screaming into the pool outside where Rick is floating drunk with headphones on, oblivious to it all. As she fires her pistol in all directions Rick scrambles for the flamethrower he’s saved from an old WWII movie he’d starred in (comically set up earlier, when in the second most over-the-top moment of the film, his character burns up a bunch of Nazis [this is no coincidence]), and turns it on her, torching her in a rage of fire.
I would be ashamed of how much catharsis I felt at this onslaught of violence, except the Manson murderers deserved it, and that dollop of cancer they planted in my mind so long ago sought release. Some critics have complained about the excess of violence, particularly to the women, but I say: Susan Atkins (and/or Tex Watson) plunged a knife into Sharon Tate sixteen times. Susan Atkins wrote “PIG” in Tate’s blood on the front door. There’s not enough violence in the world to burn out of my mind what they did to her. But this was a good start.
As I was trying to recover my bearings in the theater, realizing in this movie at least, in this world that my willing suspension of disbelief most definitely had me living in, Sharon Tate and her baby were not going to die. And I wanted to thank Tarantino for sparing me. I wanted to call him my brother, because no doubt he needed the story to end this way too, in a way that made sense, as opposed to the way that it actually did.
In a nutshell, Tarantino ended his movie by shoving his middle finger in the Mansonite’s faces and saying, you don’t get the good stuff. You don’t understand the good stuff. You want to be remembered? This is how you’ll be remembered in my movie. As some jerk with your balls caught in a pit bull’s jaws. Or a woman roasted to death in a Hollywood Hills swimming pool. That’s what you get, and you deserve even less; you also deserve worse.
You’ll never be as good as the rest of us. You’ll never be anything close to what you could’ve been. You blew your one chance. Now crawl away and die.
I admit to having a little anger around this subject. These subjects. But for one last time, let’s return to the film, the one where Tarantino had to make the wrong ending for a different movie to find the right ending for this one. Because his bending the historical fact in this case made sense, cultural, artistic, psychological sense, on an almost mythic level.
After the Manson clan has been properly disposed of, Rick, at the bottom of his driveway, sees his buddy Cliff (who’s still tripping) off in an ambulance since he got a knife stuck in his thigh during the mayhem. There, next door inside Sharon Tate’s gates, is Jay Sebring, Tate’s good friend (who doesn’t get murdered in Tarantino’s movie), wondering WTF is going on. They talk a moment. Then Sharon herself begins talking through her speaker. Rick tells her basically what happened, and after a pause she asks if he’d like to come up for a drink. Sebring gives him a thumbs up, and he accepts. And there’s this lovely, magical, other worldly moment where her gates slowly open, and Rick steps through, as if into another dimension, the one that should’ve been, where Sharon Tate was never murdered. Where Al Gore was never cheated out of Florida. Where Hillary Clinton didn’t have her presidency stolen by a perfect storm. And we worked things out.
We would be living in a different country, a different world. And I admit I feel that world exists out there, only I’m not in it. But amazingly, in this movie, I’m getting to see it. The words “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” appear upon the screen, then vanish, giving us the ending to the movie we deserve.