Quentin Tarantino’s films have elicited many diverse, sometimes volatile, reactions: “outrageous,” “over the top,” “nihilistic,” “mayhem, violence and bloodshed,” “historically ridiculous,” “excessive number of references to other films,” and so on. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, his most recent film, has certainly received its share of colorful descriptions; however, few critics and viewers have discussed or even noticed the possibility of the film’s moral vision.
One viewer who has is Robert Barron, the auxiliary bishop for Santa Barbara, California. Bishop Barron is a well-known media personality and lecturer and has produced many inspirational videos. In a short commentary available on YouTube, Bishop Barron discusses the film and briefly analyzes the character of Cliff Booth (played by Brad Pitt, who won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor). Booth, Barron believes, has old-fashioned values—justice, temperance, courage, and prudence—often associated with Hollywood Westerns of the 1940s and ’50s, portrayed by actors like Gary Cooper, Alan Ladd, and John Wayne. In the 1960s, these values were increasingly satirized, in some cases ridiculed, by major directors, their films becoming known as “revisionist Westerns.” Some of the influences on Hollywood filmmaking that led to the demise of the traditional values of earlier, “classic” Westerns included our government’s pursuit of the disastrous Vietnam War; the anger, bitterness, and violence associated with the struggle for racial justice in this country (underscored by the deaths of Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, and other prominent civil rights leaders); and the growing influence of “Spaghetti Westerns,” a style of filmmaking pioneered by Italian director Sergio Leone in which anti-heroes are depicted as main characters.
Landmark films depicting these changes in the late ’60s, such as Arthur Penn’s Bonny and Clyde, George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, and Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, rocked the film world and caused much controversy among critics and viewers. Interestingly, Tarantino chose 1969 as the fulcrum point for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, for it was in late July and early August of that year that members of Charles Manson’s cult broke into the Los Angeles home of Roman Polanski (who was in Europe at the time) and killed his wife Sharon Tate (who was eight months pregnant) and other guests. To add to the horror, the next day, Manson and his followers entered the home of Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, and stabbed them to death. In all, nine people died in this two-day killing rampage. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood begins six months before these tragedies and concludes the night Manson’s followers approached the Polanski home.
Along with his loyal stunt man Cliff Booth, the film features Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a Western star whose acting career is declining. Dalton is an emotional mess and doesn’t know what to do. He consults with a big-time Hollywood producer (Al Pacino) who tries to persuade him to accept an offer from an Italian film producer to go to Italy and make Spaghetti Westerns. Uneasy about this, he reluctantly decides to go, with Booth accompanying him. This venture is moderately successful. Dalton returns to Hollywood six months later with an Italian wife, but he is still unsure of his future. However, he feels compelled to inform Cliff that since he is now married, he can no longer afford a stunt man—a bit of information Booth takes in stride. This brief plot summary provides the basis for old-fashioned values that, I believe, Tarantino dramatizes in his film.
As Bishop Barron affirms, Booth’s sense of justice is highlighted by his unquestioning loyalty to Dalton (even at the end when Dalton fires him, he shows no rancor). At some point in the past, he must have been saved or somehow rehabilitated as a working actor through Dalton’s help (there are hazy rumors—and a very brief scene—that suggest Booth may have killed his wife). Whatever happened, Booth’s commitment to Dalton is sincere and enduring. We also see Booth’s sense of justice and moral clarity displayed when he stops for a young female hitchhiker and gives her a ride to the Spahn Movie Ranch, a 55-acre spread where Westerns were filmed (while on the way, she offers herself to him, and he declines—taking advantage of her would not be right).
The ranch was owned by George Spahn, whom Booth knew when he worked there on films with Dalton, but is now inhabited by Charles Manson and his cult. There is a mysterious, creepy feeling when they arrive; Manson is absent, but his hippie followers are aimlessly hanging out and giving off “bad vibes” to someone they consider an intrusive stranger. Booth isn’t fazed and says he wants to see George (Bruce Dern), whom the hippies seem to be hiding. Clearly, Booth senses something amiss with this odd group. He finally does get to see George after waking him from a nap. They briefly talk, and Booth leaves, knowing George is not in danger. However, when Booth returns to his car, he finds one of its tires is flat, and demands that the hippie who flattened it change it. The hippie refuses. In the midst of this unruly gang, Booth shows courage and skill by physically forcing him to change it. He also shows restraint in the ensuing fight, for he knows he can seriously hurt the hippie, but doesn’t.
There are other times when Booth displays the classic virtues of earlier Western heroes, but I want to emphasize his actions in the last and most crucial part of the film—when members of the cult decide to “kill the pigs” and break into Rick Dalton’s house instead of the Polanski residence next door. Rick’s wife is tired and has gone to bed; Rick is outside on a mat in his pool, sipping a drink, listening to loud music, so he can’t hear what is about to take place. Cliff, after smoking a drug-laced cigarette, is in the kitchen having difficulty opening a can of dog food while his devoted pet hungrily watches from the couch. At this moment, the Manson members burst in the door, brandishing guns and knives. Without missing a beat, Cliff asks if he can help them. Unnerved by his quiet, almost casual, tone, the hippies hesitate in carrying out their murderous plans and instead threaten Cliff. One gun-wielding man shouts, “I’m the devil and I’m here to do the devil’s business!” In a laughing mood, Cliff enacts a comic charade by pointing his finger like a gun, then suddenly recognizes the intruders from his trip to the Spahn Ranch. Just in the nick of time (the instant Gary Cooper would have drawn his six-gun in High Noon or Alan Ladd in Shane), Cliff signals his dog, who, leaping from the couch, attacks the intruder with the gun—and mayhem begins. The hippies wind up dead, of course, with Tarantino mimicking the excessive violence inflicted on Sharon Tate and her guests. But it is carefully choreographed and interspersed with slapstick sequences.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a fairy tale—a violent one, but a fairy tale nonetheless. It is not the first one Tarantino has made: he took a similar approach with Inglourious Basterds (2009) and, in an over-the-top way, Django Unchained (2012). While reflecting the vicissitudes of life, fairy tales tell us what could have been, what might have happened, suggesting ideal possibilities under different circumstances or conditions. What if Hitler and his chief Nazis had been obliterated before they could have done the awful things they did (Inglourious Basterds), or a freed slave had brought an insidious plantation owner to justice (Django Unchained)? At the core of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which is to say in the heart of Cliff Booth, Tarantino has dramatized how the tragedy of the Tate murders might have turned out differently by the timely intervention of a character with old-fashioned virtues—one who knows exactly what to do and when to do it. These are the virtues that comprise the moral vision Bishop Barron suggests: justice, temperance, courage, prudence, and, of course, skill. Indeed, in these films Tarantino reminds us of the joy and happiness that might have been instead of the fallen world we have allowed.
Leonard Engel, Professor Emeritus of English at Quinnipiac University, lives in Hamden, Connecticut, with his wife Moira McCloskey. He can be reached at Len.Engel@quinnipiac.edu.