Screen Education

A Revisionist History of Violence THE NOSTALGIA AND FANTASY OF ONCE UPON A TIME … IN HOLLYWOOD

It’s just after midnight on 9 August 1969. Actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) – who once starred as bounty hunter Jake Cahill in a now-cancelled cowboy TV series called ‘Bounty Law’ – is in his Los Angeles home, drunkenly making frozen margaritas, when he hears a noisy car idling outside. He stomps out in his bathrobe, blender in hand, to confront a ‘bunch of goddamn fucking hippies’, and berates the shocked young driver, Charles ‘Tex’ Watson Jr (Austin Butler), into reversing back down Cielo Drive.

Tex and his three passengers are not lost. They’ve come, dressed in black and carrying knives and guns, to kill Rick’s next-door neighbours – a crime that in real life would become known, infamously, as the ‘Manson Family murders’.1 Now, at the climax of Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 film Once upon a Time … in Hollywood, they sit in the car, deciding what to do next.

‘I can’t believe that asshole in the robe was Jake Cahill!’ Tex marvels. ‘When I was a kid I had a “Bounty Law” lunchbox. That was my favourite.’ His uncharacteristic burst of nostalgia gives Susan ‘Sadie’ Atkins (Mikey Madison) a brainwave. ‘Dig this,’ she gleefully tells Tex, Patricia ‘Katie’ Krenwinkel (Madisen Beaty) and Linda ‘Flowerchild’ Kasabian (Maya Hawke) – her fellow members of Charles Manson’s ‘Family’ cult. ‘If you grew up watching TV, you grew up watching murder … So my idea is: we kill the people who taught us to kill.’

As the group pivots to murder the fictional Rick Dalton instead of the real Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) and three others, Tarantino’s elegy to Hollywood’s studio-led ‘golden age’ peels away from the fabric of history. Tarantino stages a set piece of almost satirical brutality as Rick and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) kill the hippie intruders, with help from Cliff’s pit bull terrier Brandy, Rick’s Italian actress bride Francesca Capucci (Lorenza Izzo) and a flamethrower Rick first wielded in a World War II action movie called ‘The 14 Fists of McCluskey’.

Tarantino films have previously resolved knotty historical injustices through outré fantasy. (2009) – to which the fictional ‘McCluskey’ pays homage – ends World War II in 1944 by having the entire Nazi leadership gunned down and incinerated in a Paris cinema. And (2012) allows a formerly enslavedmay be Tarantino’s most personal film. Lacking the brio of his previous work, the film has a rather more wistful tone, as middle-aged Hollywood habitués Rick and Cliff are sidelined by the ascendance of a ‘New Hollywood’ generation of American, European and Asian creatives.

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