Scorpio Falling: Masculinity, Media & Murder in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (part 1)

Part I: history, his story, and her story

Quentin Tarantino’s work maintains a complex relationship with the past, both in terms of pop culture and actual historical events. At times, he waxes nostalgic. On other occasions, the nostalgia is accompanied by a dose of intentionally absurd sarcasm, or even insightful satire. And in a few instances he rewrites history completely.

His latest film, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, manages the feat of balancing all three, swapping one out for another at crucial moments to keep the audience on their toes. Most explicitly, the movie presents a surprisingly nuanced view of the American masculine ideal idolized throughout the 50's and 60's, starting from a semi-realistic portrayal and ending in pure fantasy. Throughout, Tarantino incorporates elements from his earlier work, creating a refracted cinematic mirror with multiple levels of reality and meaning.

Set in 1969, the movie tells the story of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a former TV star known for playing bounty hunter Jake Cahill on the Western series Bounty Law. Now older and finding himself relegated to one-off guest spots as villains, Rick faces a midlife crisis of relevance.

His best friend is Cliff Booth, played with an understated coolness by Brad Pitt. Formerly Rick’s stunt double, Cliff makes a living as his assistant, handyman, and handler. An affable but stoic war veteran living an easygoing life in a trailer with his pit bull Brandy, Cliff provides an equilibrium to Rick’s neurotic insecurity, doing the best he can to keep his friend grounded and functional.

Early in the film, Rick — hoping to make a big enough impression that he might save his job from ruin — accepts the bad guy role in the pilot for Lancer, another cowboy show. (In this case, “ruin” for Rick Dalton means going overseas to act in “eye-talian” Westerns).

Meanwhile, a growing dread creeps in the background of Hollywood, as the town’s hippies start giving way to a darker countercultural breed: the Manson Family. In a parallel subplot, we meet Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), who lives next door to Rick on Cielo Drive with her husband Roman Polanski. We watch Sharon drifting through life . . . not aimlessly, but with a quiet joy in everyday minutiae, be it music, the sun, or the company of those she loves.

Hanging over the proceedings is the gruesome fate of the real-life Sharon Tate, brutally murdered with several friends by members of the Manson Family who staged a home invasion, an event which continues to live in cultural infamy. The film builds suspense by slowly inching toward the inevitable, a moment so tragic and vicious it becomes a wonder how the movie can possibly address it.

And then it doesn’t.

Instead of a recreation of the notorious multiple murder, a turn of events has the Mansonites attack Rick and Cliff at Rick’s swanky house. The gang — fictionalized versions of Tex Watson, Susan “Sadie” Atkins, and Patricia “Katie” Krenwinkel — meet a violent, over-the-top end at the hands of their would-be victims. In the aftermath, Rick is finally introduced to his neighbor Sharon, opening the door to his dream of potentially acting in a Polanski film.

This is not the first time Tarantino has altered history, of course. Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained revisited two historical atrocities — the Holocaust and American slavery, respectively — and flipped the script so that the oppressed took revenge on their oppressors: Hitler and the other key members of the Nazi Party are eliminated by a handful of Jewish characters, and freed slave Django destroys one of the South’s cruelest plantations. In both instances, an unforgivable wrong is set somewhat right in a manner denied by historical fact, offering a catharsis for both the characters and the audience.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood repeats this approach, saving Sharon Tate, Jay Sebring, and their friends from the senseless brutality visited upon them in the real world. But while the Holocaust and slavery claimed and damaged countless millions of lives, the Tate murders operated in a different fashion, six deaths whose impact resonated across an already turbulent America. (Two more victims joined them the following day, with the killings of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca).

Sharon Tate’s life has become, in the cultural pantheon, defined by her demise. Few remember her work as an actor, or know anything about Tate as a person. Her existence is inextricably linked to being murdered by Charles Manson’s followers, and to marrying a man who would one day be found guilty of child rape and controversially elude justice.

Tarantino attempts to rectify this by defining Sharon Tate not by death, but by her life. Her presence is one of innocence and grace, unencumbered by the trappings of fame and of the Hollywood machine. While the film has faced criticism regarding the character’s lack of dialogue, words prove unnecessary in terms of conveying Sharon as someone enjoying her existence and going about her time on this Earth, Robbie delivering a performance laced with quiet, casual bliss.

In one of the most memorable sequences, Sharon visits a movie theater showing The Wrecking Crew, a Dean Martin film in which she plays a supporting role. Without any fanfare, she sits amidst the unknowing audience and nervously watches herself onscreen, an effective touch considering the footage is unaltered and therefore depicts the real Sharon Tate. But Sharon isn’t necessarily only there for her, but also to see how people respond to the movie.

Her relieved and delighted reactions demonstrate the basic concerns of any creative person. The audience laughs when they’re supposed to laugh, and applauds when they’re meant to applaud. Sharon experiences the ecstatic revelation that she was part of something that engaged others and made them feel something. The most any artist can hope for.

This moment goes beyond her fate in either real life or Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It offers a basic dignity repeatedly denied to Sharon Tate by the sordid details surrounding the deaths of both her and her unborn child. (Despite the established popular narrative, baby Paul was not ripped from her stomach and displayed while she bled out, but died in the womb as Sharon succumbed to numerous stab wounds after begging for her child’s life). For once, Tate is more than how she died or who killed her, even if in a fictional setting.

Running counter to Sharon is Rick, whose rampant selfishness and insecurities highlight Tate’s distinct lack thereof. Rick never fails to make any given situation about Rick Dalton, as he desperately clings to a fading idea of who he once was, like a junkie addicted to an egoic fantasy.

He might famously portray quick-fisted heroes and glowering baddies, but Rick himself does not embody any of these masculine archetypes in his everyday life. He spends much of the film on the verge of tears, overwhelmed with anxiety and terror and self-hatred, ashamed to be seen crying. Despite being a solipsistic jackass, Rick is sympathetic in that he’s genuinely suffering, a broken person failed by the ideas of what he’s supposed to be, both as a man and as a celebrity.

In many ways, Rick Dalton represents the sad reality of many of the hypermasculine stars of the day as they entered middle age: lonely, withering, barely functional alcoholics afraid of looking weak.

Cliff stands as Rick’s male opposite in nearly every way. Living in his camper next to a drive-in movie theater, Cliff’s life is simple and straightforward. He tolerates Rick’s bullshit because he genuinely cares about the well-being of his friend, who struggles to perform even basic tasks. Unlike Rick, Cliff is patient, loyal, and humble. He’s also not afraid to get rough, such as in a much-debated scene where he takes a mega-cocky Bruce Lee down a few notches by throwing Lee into the side of a car.

Cliff Booth effortlessly personifies the ideals and attributes for which Rick is famous but which Rick does not actually possess. With that in mind, it’s fitting that Cliff is played by Brad Pitt, whose character of Tyler Durden in Fight Club performed a similar function. Tyler is revealed to be an imaginary friend, a delusion created by Ed Norton’s nameless main character to account for what he feels is missing in himself . . . in particular, aggressive masculinity.

It would make sense, then, that Cliff is Rick’s stunt double. A stuntman does what the main actor cannot. This is quite literally how their friendship operates, Cliff doubling for Rick way beyond the confines of a movie set. He drives Rick around because Rick’s license is suspended. He fixes things in Rick’s house because Rick doesn’t know how. He ensures that Rick makes it to auditions and to film shoots on time. And Cliff is willing to confront danger and deflect it from Rick, who can’t handle risk or uncertainty. Though Cliff has largely been phased out as an industry stuntman, Rick depends on him now more than ever.

Most of the violence in the film is shown through the lens of fictional Westerns, but those Westerns suddenly become very real with the arrival of Manson’s three followers. (Linda Kasabian — the fourth person present during the Tate killings, who witnessed part of the murders but did not participate — flees in Tarantino’s version after getting cold feet). It’s here where the tone of the narrative takes a sharp left, veering into borderline ridiculousness.

Cliff beats Patricia Krenwinkel to death with near superhuman strength while Tex Watson’s testicles are mauled by Cliff’s pit bull. And Susan Atkins, after getting her face chewed off by the dog, flails spastically until she runs through a sliding glass door and into Rick’s pool, where Rick subsequently burns her alive with a prop flamethrower nabbed from a film shoot years before.

Tarantino loves to subvert the very type of story he’s telling, whether it’s undermining the tropes of a particular genre or throwing narrative curveballs which risk completely derailing the movie you thought you were watching. Basterds and Django, his two other works of revisionist history, utilized the same playbook, with final acts that feel almost like whimsical daydreams compared to what came before. In all three films, a stylized but internally grounded narrative gives way to a comic bookish ending where the impossible happens.

These are fairy tales in disguise. Or, more appropriately, they’re fairy tales which don’t tip their hands until the very end. But their true identities are plain to see. Basterds opens with a chapter called “Once Upon a Time … in Nazi-Occupied France.” Django repeatedly creates a parallel between the main character and his wife Broomhilda, and the German myth from which she gets her name. And the very title Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood should make it clear that we are watching a fantasy, no matter how much the year 1969 has been meticulously recreated in almost every detail.

Rick obtains the happy ending he almost certainly wouldn’t have experienced in reality, finding his courage to take out an actual bad guy (or girl, in this instance) and then seeing the door of respected moviemaking open to him through Polanski’s gates on Cielo Drive. He’s newly married, with a career gaining momentum overseas (after appearing in the eye-talien films he proclaimed to hate), and now his future holds nothing but promise. Likewise, Sharon Tate and her child are alive and well, as are their friends, and all is right in the world.

And yet, it’s not.

Tarantino’s most impactful moments tend to operate within numerous dimensions of interpretation, and the final minutes of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood rank as some of the most potent. While the ending provides jubilant catharsis, there remains a dark underbelly to the proceedings and a troubling implication in what transpires.

One factor in particular could completely alter how one views this scene: Cliff very possibly murdered his wife.

Though Rick dismisses the accusation as others trying to smear his friend’s reputation, many believe the charges. Part of the reason Cliff is dependent on income from Rick is that he’s steadily lost work due to the perception of him as a killer who got away with it.

Tarantino refuses to answer the question of whether Cliff is guilty, instead only showing us a scene of his wife drunkenly nagging and berating him while they’re out to sea, presumably moments before she dies either accidentally or by foul play. The tendency of the audience is to assume Cliff is innocent, as he’s a remarkably likable character, selfless in his platonic partnership with Rick and playing a heroic role in the ending.

But the fact that he may be capable of homicide throws a wrench in the triumph of the finale. Of note, Cliff takes extra effort to kill Krenwinkel, smashing her face repeatedly into various objects until her head is just a bloody stump. It goes on way longer than necessary in terms of self-defense, showcasing Cliff being brutal just because he can.

While it’s true that the climax is intentionally excessive and hyperbolic, the subtext of the scene nevertheless becomes disconcerting in this light. If Cliff murdered his wife, the fact that he takes such enjoyment in the killing of another woman — even if she’s an attempted murderer — casts a problematic pall over the events.

And though Cliff doesn’t deliver the death blow to Atkins, Tarantino’s camera lingers on her face being torn and clawed, whereas Watson’s death receives no such extra attention. Apart from Brandy the pit bull clamping onto his genitals — unpleasant, but not nearly as graphic — Tex receives one quick foot to the face, then lights out.

Conversely, Atkins’ destruction by flamethrower is pure overkill. She’s in her death throes in the pool; there’s no actual reason to set her on fire. (And why torch someone when they’re literally submerged in goddamn water?). Rick does so because he wants to feel tough and like a hero. He finally has the chance to be the person he’s always pretended to be.

Again, all of this exaggerated action plays into the fantasy aspect of the story, but the undertones in terms of violence against women strike an unsettling note, as the catharsis of the moment rests on the fact that it’s preventing Sharon Tate’s death, one of the most heinous examples of violence against women.

What does it mean that, though Tate and her child and friends are spared, their intended assassins are dispatched by men who take extra effort to brutalize the female attackers? What does it mean if one of those men murdered his wife and might enjoy killing people if provoked, especially women? What does it mean that Sharon Tate’s survival is framed as a career opportunity for Rick?

Tarantino is playing with the fact that we, the audience, know what would have happened had Manson’s followers not changed course. Cliff and Rick don’t know that. It’s easy to see them as the heroes who bravely protected six people that night, but nowhere is that present in their intentions.

In truth, Tate’s grim destiny is changed not by the deaths of Watson and company, but when the gang decides to kill Rick. In other words, Sharon and her friends are saved not by Cliff and Rick playing cowboy, but by a drunk Rick Dalton yelling at hippies late at night in his robe. His “get off my lawn” moment prevents a massacre.

The climax is purposefully played as absurd and broad. Tarantino could have created a less batshit confrontation for the ending, one more realistic and melancholy, in keeping with the tone established for most of the film’s running time. He chooses otherwise, just as he makes the conscious decision not to address if Cliff is a murderer.

Until this point, the threat of the Manson Family is handled with utmost seriousness. One extremely unnerving sequence has Cliff visit Spahn Ranch, immediately sensing that something very foul is brewing there. Pitched equally between Western and horror, the scene contains unbearable tension, Cliff having walked into obvious danger. Violence could erupt at any moment.

When taken in comparison with the rest of the movie, the ending unfurls almost as if a very drunk Rick and Cliff met up one night in old age, penning their own version of how their stories should have concluded.

The afterglow of the Golden Age lasted through the 40’s and 50’s, but during the 60’s the American movie industry grappled with the changing sensibilities of the country’s youth. Its failure to understand the counterculture caused the remnants of the Golden Age to die off.

Indeed, the reason much of the film feels so melancholic is that both men are part of a fading era, the Hollywood they know — including its staunch reliance on macho posturing — increasingly relegated to the past. The gradual slide into irrelevance is an inevitable consequence of age, and Rick is desperate to elude this fact, wanting the world to stay the same as it was.

Rick hates hippies and Cliff maintains a flirty but cautious approach. And in the movie’s fairy tale ending, who do they get to kill? Hippies. Granted, these hippies are objectively dangerous people who pose a legitimate threat, but it’s no coincidence that our main characters’ oft-mentioned dislike of the counterculture culminates in them brutalizing the worst which that culture has to offer.

Charles Manson is frequently viewed as a symbol for the end of the 60's, the Tate and LaBianca killings a violent punctuation mark for both hippiedom and the decade’s larger pop cultural and social landscape. The world and ideals which Rick and Cliff know — and which have come to define them — exist as part of that landscape. A fantasy ending is the one ending where they don’t have to let go. Instead, they can save the 60's by living out a wild action movie scenario.

That this ending may suit Cliff and, especially, Rick more than anyone else dovetails with the intimations of darkness we glimpse in Cliff’s character. After all, we’ve seen Cliff get brutal before, first in his drubbing of Bruce Lee, and later when he beats up a Manson follower at Spahn Ranch. He’s posited in those scenes as someone to root for, the punishment he metes out arguably justified.

Nonetheless, it’s hinted that his placid exterior conceals a potential for primal brutality, what we see during the course of the movie largely the tip of the iceberg. Throughout the film, numerous references are made to Cliff’s criminal record, underlining his troubled past. During his confrontation with Lee, Cliff intentionally provokes him into fighting, not just to humiliate an egotistic celebrity but also because Cliff is bored, a situation which reaffirms why studios don’t want to hire him in the first place. He’s also the person who shames Rick for crying, a moment rectified later in the film during a scene which, it should be noted, does not feature Cliff.

None of this is to suggest that the ending of Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is intended to be sinister, nor is it to take away from the genuine sweetness to be found in the film’s final moments. But Tarantino — though typically credited as a maestro of cinematic violence — is also quite adept with subtext and implication. He delivers moments of dramatic catharsis, but those moments are often laced with more complex connotations which can subtly scramble or confuse the payoff.

Look no further than Inglourious Basterds. Though a satisfying WWII story about the Nazis getting their just desserts, the subtext is loaded with various touches that subvert the assumed lines between hero, anti-hero, and villain.

This has nothing to do with whether or not it’s appropriate to fight fascists; there’s no debate there. But in strictly cinematic terms, strip away the WWII aspect and the subtext of Basterds presents a Western populated with bloodthirsty sadists and brutes. Every moment of triumph is tinged with the discomfiting sensation that a different film — one about people who like to kill, and who’ve found their playground to do so — is happening underneath the surface.

(To see what a deliberate choice this is, contrast that approach to Django Unchained. None of the acts of revenge suggest unhinged sadism, and there are no indications any of the heroes harbor an inner psychopath redolent of past Tarantino characters such as Mr. Blonde or Mickey Knox).

Within the subtext of Hollywood, Tarantino raises the idea that the only way to save what remained of the Golden Age involves clinging to the masculine fantasy defined by that era, in the process exposing the more troublesome aspects of that very idea of manliness.

(click below for Part 2)