Once upon a time in the 1990s, Quentin Tarantino was a badboy troublemaker on the movie scene, heralding in a new era of post-modern indie filmmaking that could commercially compete with the major studios in a way that shook up the status quo. Then, over time, Tarantino became the status quo. The dream of the 90s indie scene faded away, but he remained largely unscathed as a Blank Check auteur who could make just about anything he wanted – no matter how self-indulgent, esoteric, or #problematic – merely because he was established at the right time and grandfathered in. That protected status cannot last forever. With Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood, the rebel-turned-Establishment director directly grapples with his inevitable obsolescence as an artist who’s no longer “needed” by the industry and whose time is approaching the rearview mirror. If Tarantino is still a movie industry troublemaker, it’s because his Gen-X sensibilities are now an outdated taboo among the youths, no longer a revolutionary paradigm shift. To pretend that he’s still cinema’s troublemaking badboy at this stage of his career would be embarrassing. Instead, he leans into his newfound status as cinema’s grumpy old man, and it’s oddly invigorating.
To address the approaching obsolescence of his Gen-X shock humor & political apathy, Tarantino dials the clock back to another inter-generational dust-up between institutional dinosaurs & idols-smashing youths: the fall of Old Hollywood. Leonardo DiCaprio & Brad Pitt star, respectively, as a has-been Old Hollywood television actor and his personal assistant/stunt double – a pair of aging knucklehead brutes who sense their days of usefulness in Los Angeles are nearly at an end. In real life, the death of the Flower Power hippie movement and the birth of the New Hollywood movie industry upheaval are often marked by the brutal murder of Sharon Tate & friends at the hands of the Charles Manson cult – the gruesome epilogue to the Summer of Love. In this film, Tarantino daydreams an alternate history where Manson’s brainwashed devotees were disastrously unsuccessful in their mission the night of Tate’s murder, and the New Hollywood takeover never took off as a result. Margot Robbie puts in a supportive, periphery performance as Sharon Tate, who thrives blissfully unaware of the dark forces surrounding her. Tate lives a carefree life as a rising star just next door to DiCaprio’s fictional Old Hollywood hangover, whose stubborn refusal to fade away gracefully and amorous exploitation of his personal assistant eat up most of the (sprawling, near three-hour) runtime. This is largely a plotless hangout picture between a childlike employer and his dangerously quick-tempered employee, two men who cover up the uncomfortable power imbalance of their relationship by disguising it as a friendship. The Manson Family murder of Sharon Tate is treated as an unfortunate distraction from enjoying the final days of these men’s relationship & industry as they near extinction; it’s an incident Tarantino would prefer to delay for all eternity so that Old Hollywood itself would never die.
I appreciate this movie most as a passionate argument for a sentiment I could not agree with less. I have no love for the traditional machismo & endless parade of cheap-o Westerns that clogged up Los Angeles in these twilight hours of the Studio Era. Still, it was entertaining to watch an idiosyncratic filmmaker with niche interests wax nostalgic about the slimy, uncool bullshit only he cares about. Even when Tarantino arrived on the scene as a prankish youngster in the 90s, his work was already mired in nostalgia for the dead genres & traditionalist sensibilities of the Studio System that died with the 1960s; he just updated them with cussing & gore. These early Gen-X remixes of old-fashioned crime pictures were at least stylized to be cool, though. Here, he extends that nostalgia for The Way Things Were to Old Hollywood relics that are hopelessly uncool, square even: radio ads, paint-by-numbers Westerns, network television, chain-smoking, toxically corny Dean Martin comedies, etc. The encroaching forces that threaten to break up this (largely alcoholic & abusive) boys’ club traditionalism are much easier to defend as hip & worthwhile (the looming presences of Roman Polanski & Charles Manson excluded): casual drug use, Anti-War counterculture youths, hardcore pornography’s intrusion on the mainstream, New Hollywood brats like Dennis Hopper (whose name is tossed off as an insult) & William Friedkin (whose early-career title The Night They Raided Minsky’s appears on one of many onscreen marquees), and so on. Positing that the stale machismo of Old Hollywood’s late-60s decline is preferable to the youthful auteurism that soon supplanted it is borderline delusional (and maybe even irresponsible), but it’s at least a distinct & interesting perspective, and it’s perversely fun to watch an increasingly bitter Tarantino defend it.
There isn’t much that’s new to the Tarantino formula here. The stylized dialogue, apathetic slacker humor, gruesomely over-the-top violence, post-modern restaging of ancient film genres, and pop culture name-dropping typical to his work all persist here in a stubborn, unapologetic continuation of what he’s always done. If anything, the director goes out of his way to accentuate his most commonly cited tropes, even rubbing our faces in his notorious foot fetish with a newly defiant fervor. Tarantino has not changed, and neither will your opinion on his merits as a filmmaker or a cultural commentator. What has changed is that he’s now fully transitioned from bratty upstart to outdated Establishment. Aware of his newfound status as an old fogie, he goes full ”Get off my lawn!” here by positing that it’s the children who are wrong, that Hollywood traditionalism deserves to live on infinitely unchallenged & unimpeded. He may not be able to prevent his own approaching obsolescence (nor the end of days for when the Star Power of household names like Pitt & DiCaprio actually translated to box office receipts), but he can at least express that frustration in his fiction by undoing a previous death of Traditionalism in Hollywood’s past. He doesn’t even pretty up the surface details of the era he’s defending to strengthen the argument. The actor & stuntman duo in the film are childlike, destructive bullies who treat life like a hedonistic playground. The films & TV shows they’re making are dreadfully boring. The brainwashed Mansonite children they stomp out to rewrite history are deserving of pity the film is stubbornly unwilling to afford them. It’s an embarrassingly uncool, conservative worldview to defend, but Tarantino is maybe the most amusing messenger to deliver it possible, considering his trajectory as a cinematic badboy turned (as the film’s hippie youngsters would label him) Fascist Pig.