Once Upon A Time In Hollywood Is A Fun Movie About Making Shit Up

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In 1992, when I would have been 11 years old or so, I went with my family to the theater to see the movie Radio Flyer, starring Elijah Wood and the annoying dinosaur enthusiast kid from Jurassic Park (Joseph Mazzello) as brothers in an abusive household in... probably the late 1950s or early 1960s? This was a late and particularly bad entry in the bad post-Stand By Me/Wonder Years genre of shows and movies in which aging white baby-boomer dudes narrate bittersweet and needle-drop-festooned memories of their childhood adventures in retro-America. In this case, Tom Hanks, playing a grownup version of Wood’s character, tells the movie’s story as a lesson to his own squabbling sons.

The way it goes is: Wood and Mazzello’s well-meaning but broke and desperate single mom has shacked up with a guy who, when she’s out working, habitually gets drunk and viciously beats Mazzello’s character. Over the course of the movie the beatings get worse and worse. It becomes clear that before long he’s going to kill the little kid or cripple him for life. So the brothers, inspired by a local folktale, begin constructing a functioning airplane out of their Radio Flyer toy wagon and erector sets and shit, with the idea that Mazzello will fly away in the airplane and be safe from the stepdad. (This is already awful, just awful, but as an 11-year-old I just wanted to believe that you could make an airplane out of toys and fly it.)

So the moment of truth arrives, and the absurd little plane, with Mazzello aboard, is rocketing down the bumpy slope of the local mountain, trying to pick up enough speed to take off before it rattles apart. And then it does! And it flies away! And you can see its twinkling lights up there in the night sky! And Frodo stands there with his big tearful eyes and radios a goodbye to his little brother, who’s safe from the abuser now but who will never come back! And everybody in the theater is all choked up because love and loyalty and the pure little-kid impulse to protect each other enabled these brothers to do this amazing thing, and loving something and letting it go or whatever!


I was pumped, man. I think my brother and I talked about Radio Flyer for like a week straight. Then there came a point when I was talking about the ending, and how cool it was that the brothers’ silly little plane actually flew, man, and the little brother went off and toured the world in his little toy airplane instead of suffering and being abused, and my mom waited until I paused for breath and said, with a kind of merciful gentleness you might use to remind a confused elderly relative that, don’t you remember, Aunt Mabel died in 1983, “Well, that isn’t what really happened.”

What do you mean, it didn’t really happen? Of course it happened! It happened right there on the screen! But, no. Abused children cannot escape their abusers by building functioning airplanes out of toys and flying away to have adventures; telling a story that ended that way would be utterly reprehensible. What happened was, the little brother crashed and died on his way down that slope, because that’s the only thing that could happen if a little kid tried to make an airplane out of toys and then sat in it and launched it down a bumpy mountain slope. But to his big brother, this had been a kind of escape, because the little brother’s suffering had ended and the evil stepdad couldn’t get to him anymore. The big brother had turned his little brother’s memory into a fable he could use to help his own kids have insights into things like love and promise-keeping and getting along or whatever.


This, also, is a completely reprehensible story to tell in a movie pitched at kids! It’s possibly even bleaker and more appalling than the literal interpretation! Radio Flyer is one of the worst movies I’ve seen in my life. But my mom was right about it. The little brother definitely is dead as hell at the end. More to the point, this has stuck with me as a time when my mom exploded my brain and permanently changed the way I read or watched fiction.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s new movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and Margot Robbie as various movie-industry people in Hollywood in 1969, is a movie fascinated with the liberty storytelling gives a person to imagine and create and tell whatever story they want, to banish the real world all the way outside of the universe of a story, even if it’s a story about the real people and events of the real world, and even if the only audience is the storyteller himself.


One of the first things that happens in the movie is DiCaprio’s character, a fading actor named Rick Dalton, explains his dependence on a personal driver by saying his car is in the shop for repairs, and a narrator’s voice breaks in to tell viewers this isn’t true, that Rick needs a driver because his license is suspended for drunk driving. Within the scene, the fib passes unchallenged. It’s never clear whether the talent agent to whom Rick told it (played by a cutely doddering Al Pacino) would have cared either way.

Later, alone up on Rick’s roof, doing the demeaning work of fixing Rick’s television antenna, unemployed stuntman Cliff (Pitt) reflects on the events that damaged his professional standing—namely, the time he smashed a parked car while kicking Bruce Lee’s ass in front of a bunch of people. Whether Cliff’s remembered version of events is accurate or not is never made clear. Later events affirm that he is indeed a formidable fighter, but his recollection of Lee as a loudmouthed, self-aggrandizing phony seems at odds with Lee’s two subsequent appearances in the movie, outside of Cliff’s memory, as an encouraging and accommodating instructor helping Sharon Tate (Robbie) and then Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) practice martial arts. What’s clear is that remembering it this way helps Cliff feel better about things. “Fair enough,” he shrugs with a little smile, and returns to fixing the antenna.


Rick and Cliff aren’t the only ones doing this; it’s a fictional movie, after all, written by somebody and directed by somebody. At the nadir of his career and with his confidence totally shot, Rick somehow summons the wherewithal to nail, on the first take, a big scene in a guest appearance he’s filming for a younger star’s western TV show. Notably, the cameras and crew and all signs that it’s taking place on a filming set disappear until the scene-within-the-scene cuts. The director reacts ecstatically to Rick’s performance; the preternaturally wise and self-possessed eight-year-old girl co-starring in the scene leans in to tell Rick it was the best acting she’s ever seen.

Within the film, there’s no particular reason to say this didn’t actually happen; it did. But there’s no particular reason it had to happen that way. There never was a Rick Dalton who starred in western TV shows in the 1960s, so this one just as easily could have flubbed that scene, melted down, been attacked by bees, and been struck by a meteor. Instead, Rick gets a break, and things get better for him, because that’s how the story’s author preferred it.


That’s always the case in fiction, but Once Upon a Time in Hollywood calls your attention to it, by placing its story in a real place in a time that already happened and peopling it at least in part with famous characters who actually existed, the events of whose lives are extensively documented, and then monkeying with them in conspicuous ways. No stuntman kicked Bruce Lee’s ass and smashed him into the side of a car. No show called Bounty Law ever aired on NBC. The show Rick guest-stars on, Lancer, was a real show, but no Rick Dalton ever guest-starred on it. And, most conspicuously, no fading western TV star and his stuntman buddy fought off and killed Manson Family hippies Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel next door to actress Sharon Tate’s house on the night of August 8, 1969.

That last bit is the movie’s climax, as well as its most drastic and irreconcilable departure from actual history. In reality, Watson, Atkins, and Krenwinkel infamously invaded Tate’s home that night, on Charles Manson’s orders, and brutally murdered her, as well as her unborn baby and four guests in her house. In Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the cultists are distracted when an irritable Rick (Tate’s next-door neighbor) yells at them, decide to murder him instead, and get just the absolute shit killed out of them by Rick, Cliff, Rick’s new Italian wife Francesca, and Cliff’s dog Brandy, in a cartoonishly violent sequence that had my theater audience laughing hysterically. At least partly in relief, I think. Tate, who moves through the movie outside of Rick’s storyline as a sweetly happy counterpoint to his angst and despair, doesn’t even witness the horror. Offscreen, she hears the events described to her after the fact, over an intercom, in a sentence or two. She invites Rick in to have a drink with her and her friends, and that’s the end of the movie. It feels merciful, and deeply weird, and extremely sad; it makes the actual events of the actual night of August 8, 1969 feel painfully nearby.


In broad terms this is similar to how Tarantino ended Inglourious Basterds, his 2009 movie about a squad of Nazi-hunting Jewish soldiers behind the fighting lines during World War II. That movie famously climaxed with a pair of the soldiers machine-gunning Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels to pulp in a burning movie theater, which, while deliriously enjoyable to watch on screen, is of course not at all how Hitler and Goebbels met their ends in the real world. I suppose a thing to do with this is to try to divine some insight into Quentin Tarantino: Auteur Filmmaker, since after all he’s the guy making the choices. The problem with that is that Tarantino is not a very interesting person, just a big tall coked-up weirdo who has internalized a bazillion movies, and I don’t actually care all that much what these storytelling choices can tell me about him. If these movies are about Quentin Tarantino, that sucks.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is fun, though, and I liked it. It’s pretty to look at, its vision of 1969 Los Angeles drawn in bright sunlit colors during the day and neon at night and filled with bitchin’ classic cars. The soundtrack is good and largely though not entirely avoids the obvious needle-drops associated with the time period. Pitt’s as wryly detached as in virtually every other movie he’s ever made, but mostly to good use. DiCaprio does his volume-scoring thing, frothing and raging and weeping, and for once seems in on the joke; he’s funny as hell. Robbie’s relative lack of spoken lines has been the subject of some controversy; as an artistic choice it’d be a lot easier to accept if the camera didn’t make quite so many trips down her bare legs—if the story had as much use for her voice as it does for her figure—but she makes her scenes sweet and sad anyway. The movie’s high point is just Robbie’s Tate, sitting in a dark movie theater watching the real Tate’s performance in The Wrecking Crew and taking in the reactions of her fellow moviegoers. The movie’s peppered with weirdo details (Wolf’s Tooth Dog Food, “Good Food for Mean Dogs”), welcome cameos, and celebrity impersonations. It’s never slow or boring.


I liked the movie best as a sort of shaggy-dog riff on storytelling and escapism and the thrill of being able to make a story go wherever you want. The title of the movie itself owns up to its fairy tale nature. Some critics have read it as nostalgic for what Hollywood was like in 1969; from there you can interrogate which exact differences between 1969 and now might make Quentin Tarantino, man of many extremely shitty takes and troubling behaviors, nostalgic for the former. But there again, I don’t care about Quentin Tarantino, and 15 bucks is too much many times over to pay to be made to think about him. I like better the idea that what happens in the movie is what the movie is about, only and entirely, without any attempt at climbing inside Tarantino’s mind to discern his authorial intent. It’s great when Brad Pitt takes his shirt off. It’s funny when Leonardo DiCaprio walks out into the cul-de-sac in a kimono with a pitcher of frozen margaritas in his hand. It’s a relief when the murderous cultists die instead of the kind and pregnant young woman.

I don’t know what any of this has to do with Radio Flyer. I just couldn’t figure out where to start the blog. I can’t really figure out how to end it, either, but that bit’s easier.