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Column: ‘Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood’ is Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Make America Great Again’

Brad Pitt, left, and Leonardo DiCaprio in “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood.”
Brad Pitt, left, and Leonardo DiCaprio in “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood.”
(Andrew Cooper / Columbia Pictures)

Warning: Spoilers for “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood” follow

I have seen a lot of “Who would win in a fight?” lists, from the classic — Batman versus Superman — to the current — Nancy Pelosi versus Kellyanne Conway — but I can safely say none included Butch and Sundance versus Tex Watson and the Manson girls.

Until now, of course.

In “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) are not real cowboys, but they play them in the movies. Like the titular leads of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” Rick and Cliff find themselves facing obsolescence in a culture with dwindling interest in their particular skill sets or brand of “High Noon” masculinity. Like Butch and Sundance, they are granted one last stand.

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Only this time, the cowboys win.

In a plot twist that required the use of an acid-laced cigarette to smooth over the gaping holes in narrative and historical credulity, Rick and Cliff (and Cliff’s dog!) kill the murderous hippie freaks in a literal blaze of glory and ride off into the sunset (albeit one of them in an ambulance).

“Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood” has been hailed by many as a fairy tale, an homage to that place of dreams formerly known as Tinseltown. And at more than two and half hours, much of it spent finding just the right camera angle for Brad Pitt’s jaw, Quentin Tarantino’s thrift-store-scavenged, photo-archive-and-classic-car-show-looted journey is certainly an homage to something.

Watching two middle-aged white guys grapple with a world that does not value them as much as they believe it should, it was tough not to wonder if that something was the same narrow, reductive and mythologized view of history that has made red MAGA hats the couture of conservative fashion.

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Oh, for the good old days.

It could have been Cliff’s easy trouncing of Asian upstart Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), or Rick’s constant NIMBY complaints about all these longhairs, or maybe it was just the overkill of seeing a Good Humor truck pull up next to a milk truck while hippies openly smoked weed on Hollywood Boulevard. (Wait, does Tarantino have a problem with weed?) Whatever the reason, as I shifted in my seat waiting for the film’s climax, Tarantino’s elegy for a time when men were men and women were madonnas, whores or nags and the only people who spoke Spanish were waiters — “Don’t cry in front of the Mexicans” is an actual line played for laughs — began to feel ominously familiar.

If nothing else, “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood” laid to rest the notion of Hollywood liberalism — any industry still so invested in sentimentalizing a time of studio fiefdoms, agents played by Al Pacino in a wig-hat and white-guy buddy movies can hardly be considered progressive.

Not that I don’t enjoy buddy movies or the occasional trip down local selective-memory lane — I too have fond memories of westerns, Good Humor trucks and ice-cube trays with handles. I too admire the strong competence of a man who can leap from ground to wall to rooftop to display perfect abs before deftly fixing a television antenna. And as a journalist of a certain age, I understand the frustration of having to adjust to the changing demands of a profession you thought you’d mastered while younger folks wonder what it is you don’t get.

Nostalgia is fun, and fine when used recreationally; but it’s time to face the dangers of our national addiction to reveling in visions of the past that are, at best, emotionally curated by a select few and, at worst, complete nonsense.

Much has been said about film and television makers rummaging through the cultural recycling bin for proven hits — the other big summer movie is a remake of “The Lion King” and HBO even has a new “Perry Mason” in the works. But even original, and often very fine, works are fueled by our wistful obsession with “vintage.” Whether it’s the resurrection of leg warmers or fedoras, the British class system, Winona Ryder or, heaven help us, Charles Manson, nostalgia is the new sex and the exquisite museum-like quality of the detail found in period films and television series is its porn.

The costumes, the cutlery, the signage, the slang and, always, the music; increasingly, viewers live for the money shot of whatever bit of cultural detritus will send them reeling back to their youth when go-go boots/day drinking/pixie cuts were cool the first time around.

When times, it is implied if not directly stated, were simpler.

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Even though they weren’t. Ever.

Unless you were a member of the white, male, Christian, heterosexual, able-bodied, culturally conforming, non-addicted, mentally well, moneyed elite, there was literally no time in history that was simpler, better, easier, or greater. For most people, history is the story of original oppression gradually lessened through a series of struggles and setbacks.

Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” is a masterpiece of nostalgia porn — the still recent assassination of Robert Kennedy, reduced to a few snippets of radio reporting about the sentencing of Sirhan Sirhan, is nothing compared to the wonders of the parking lot of Musso and Frank. And Tarantino wields nostalgia on two levels, adoring 1969 even as he looks wistfully back to earlier days when Spahn Ranch was a television set.

And he has chosen as his driving force an actor upset because he is no longer seen as hero material and his loyal stuntman companion, who may or may not have murdered his wife. That this death is treated as a joke, and the wife visible only once, in flashback, as a braying nag in a bikini, could be viewed as an indictment of the Playboy-cartoon misogyny of the time. Could be, if Cliff were not portrayed with such charming tough-guy chivalry. If this guy murdered his wife, she probably deserved it.

So for Cliff’s wife anyway, not such a golden era.

Nor for Sharon Tate, portrayed by Margot Robbie as the ultimate golden-haired girl next door.

By giving the ballad of Rick and Cliff adjacency to the Manson “family” — Rick lives on Cielo Drive, Cliff gives a comely Manson girl a lift to the ranch — Tarantino allows himself to bask in the wonders of the Playboy grotto as the audience provides the dread: We know what’s going to happen, an event so horrifying and resonant that it will make the problems of two little people amount to less than a hill of beans in this crazy world.

Except, of course, it doesn’t. Not content with romanticizing history, Tarantino, as he has before, rewrites it.

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Because that’s exactly what we need at this moment in time: a little fake history.

Rick and Cliff do not become simply two of millions in a city terrorized by the Manson murders. They become good old-fashioned heroes; Cliff grins in the face of the real-life bogeyman (and women) before siccing his dog on them. Then Rick manages, with a movie prop, to burn a woman to death while she is in a pool. Talk about the magic of Hollywood!

Do we wish someone had somehow prevented the murders of Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, Voytek Frykowski, Steven Parent, Abigail Folger and Rosemary and Leno LaBianca? Of course we do. Just as we wish someone had prevented the rise of Adolf Hitler or outlawed at least some of the types of guns used in mass shootings, including the one that occurred in Gilroy the same weekend “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood” opened.

But as powerful as film is, it cannot rewrite the actual events of history.

It can reveal the untold stories, uncover hidden truths, and clarify the context of history by looking at it in different ways, including from previously marginalized, non-Classic-Hollywood-hero viewpoints.

Or it can wallow in nostalgia so completely that the significance of actual events becomes less important than the brief flicker of memory sparked by the sight of a few Hopalong Cassidy coffee mugs or Damian Lewis pretending to be Steve McQueen (why?) or the pleasure of watching two handsome guys banter their way through yet another buddy movie.

Sure it’s a fairy tale. And fairy tales are built to convey moral messages in packages easily digested by children. The moral of “Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood” seems to be “who doesn’t miss the good old days when cars had fins and white men were the heroes of everything?”

Can I see a show of hands?


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