Scorpio Falling: Masculinity, Media & Murder in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” (part 3)
Part III: fairy tales and fare-thee-wells
Film is an illusion, as is nostalgia itself. The Hollywood recreated in Tarantino’s film is at once an accurate simulation and a product of fantasy, a depiction of a world which may or may not have existed but which we feel was real.
David Lynch has touched upon this as well, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire exploring Hollywood as a place of dreams, not only in terms of hopes of fame and fortune, but also as a place where dreams are manufactured through the art of making movies. He portrays the inner lives of his characters as the fount of the illusory worlds which they create for themselves.
A frequent touchstone for Lynch is Sunset Boulevard, also a work of nostalgia in its depiction of the wreckage of immediate post-Golden Age 50’s Hollywood. The world of that film might never have actually existed, just as the Golden Age for which it longs might also not have been as we remember, but again it feels authentic, a dream more real than reality.
Twin Peaks and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood almost serve as a goodbye note from each filmmaker, looking back at all that’s come before. Twin Peaks contains an endless string of repeated ideas from Lynch’s entire body of work. Hollywood — while most thematically connected to Natural Born Killers and Inglourious Basterds* — offers callbacks to all of Tarantino’s previous films, from the tiled walls of LAX in the beginning of Jackie Brown, to the direct continuation of the Western plot points and motifs established in Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, to Cliff’s trailer life mimicking that of Budd in Kill Bill.
*Tarantino drops two additional links to those films: the title The 14 Fists of McClusky references Dwight McClusky, the warden from Killers; and one of Rick’s movies was directed by Antonio Margheriti, an alias used by a character in Basterds.
Quentin Tarantino has repeatedly discussed retiring after ten films, and with his ninth, he appears to be establishing that exit, positioning Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as the functional climax of his career. Just as Twin Peaks looks back at the nostalgia for the old Twin Peaks and how it’s ultimately impossible to recapture the past — but also demonstrating how the past is always alive, as it’s what brought us to the present — Tarantino uses his latest movie to review and summarize his entire filmography, not specifically in terms of himself as a person but in what those works explored and achieved.
The subtle sadness present throughout Hollywood applies as much to Tarantino preparing to bid farewell as it does to the passing of an age. It also nods to the fact that modern mainstream filmmaking is in a state of flux, having become so overburdened with the safe financial investment of established properties, reboots, and superhero movies that original voices now flock to the artistic opportunities offered by cable and streaming television.
Tarantino has consistently been a holdout from the old guard in terms of this transition, but with the very public downfall of his (former) patron Harvey Weinstein, he’s been forced to reconsider that previously comfortable stance. While the big screen experience remains far from dead, Tarantino knows the culture of film in which he thrived has come to the end of the line, just as Rick and Cliff are forced to process the sunset of the world they knew. (Rick’s struggle demonstrates an intentional inverse of this current dilemma: he’s a television actor trying and failing to make his way into big movies, while moviemakers and actors now gravitate towards TV).
A frequent criticism of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is that Tarantino has created a monument to regression, glorifying a period when men were men, and Hollywood bright and shiny and promising. Given the ending, it’s easy to interpret as saying that all Sharon Tate needed was a couple of guys willing to do the necessary dirty work, in the process saving what the 60's represented and preventing the ensuing cultural sea change.
But this reading stands at odds with Tarantino’s larger sensibility. The 70's are by no means anathema to his influences. That decade’s influx of exploitation and grindhouse aesthetics, international cinema ranging from low to high art, and the impact of New Hollywood — Scorsese, Coppola, Polanski, Spielberg — greatly informs his overall approach. It’s frankly ludicrous to assert that he rejects post-60's culture as an aberration.
One way to consider the ending of Hollywood is that Rick will not, in fact, continue his friendship with Cliff. Though he promises to visit the injured Cliff in the hospital, his subsequent acceptance into Sharon Tate’s circle might indicate him moving beyond his previous life. Their final moment together — touching and poignant, to be sure — can be interpreted as Rick saying goodbye to the concept of who he was always trying to be. Cliff played his part, and now, that role is no longer necessary.
As much as this might be a fairy tale ending where neither Rick nor Cliff have to grow up, it’s not entirely backsliding, either. Rick’s willingness to appear in a Polanski film shows he doesn’t completely reject the progressiveness of the film industry, or what that future might mean.
At its core, the final act of the film is not about Sharon Tate at all. If anything, it’s about how it’s not about Sharon Tate. Her evening proceeds as normal, life untouched by the chaos just downhill at Rick Dalton’s place, apart from overhearing some commotion. The climax is about Rick and Cliff, as opposed to Sharon Tate not dying. The ending focusing elsewhere allows Sharon to just be, defined neither by her death nor her avoidance of it.
Throughout Quentin Tarantino’s time in the spotlight, he has frequently faced accusations of insensitivity regarding violence towards women. Without a doubt, most of his films detail sadistic bloodshed, and it carries an especially concerning connotation when directed at female characters. Since Kill Bill, every one of his films has featured men who take particular pleasure in hurting or killing women.
And yet the two most hopeful moments in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood revolve around women. The first is the sheer exuberance which Sharon Tate feels during the screening of The Wrecking Crew. The second involves Trudi Fraser (Julia Butters), the actor playing Maribella Lancer opposite Rick during his guest appearance.
Only eight years old and no-nonsense in her approach to method acting, she quickly detects that Rick is a deeply troubled person, and — despite insisting that they refer to each other by their character names — displays an acceptance and honesty towards him unlike anyone else he encounters, including Cliff.
Trudi offers no judgment about Rick crying or openly struggling with his existential crisis, and after they wrap filming, she tells Rick his is the best performance she’s ever witnessed. Not because she feels it’s her responsibility to prop up her male costar, but because she means it.
This one moment is the most validating experience of Rick Dalton’s life.
Trudi’s character — not Sharon’s salvation or Rick’s career prospects — is the real hope for the future. Absent the self-absorption and neuroses of the previous generation, she represents the potential for what’s next.
Earlier in his career, Tarantino made a very specific effort to be seen as tough and uncompromising, a desire reflected in his work at the time. But that need camouflaged a sensitive side, one also revealed in that very work: an awareness of the humanity of his characters, to the repercussions and context of their actions, and to Tarantino’s own vulnerability.
This can be seen plain as day in his first film, Reservoir Dogs, a story about men trying to live up to the expectations of the criminal personas they’ve been assigned. The heart of the movie is the genuine friendship that develops between Larry/“Mr. White” and Freddy/“Mr. Orange,” a bond thwarted in the end by the fact that one is a mobster and the other an undercover cop. Though a brutish thug, Larry is not just another version of their cohort Vic/“Mr. Blonde,” whose tough guy affectations mask his true nature: that of a remorseless, sadistic psychopath.
Larry instead wrestles with how to handle the revelation that his friend is a police officer, and his struggle boils down to a choice, between the identity he’s cultivated for himself and the complicated person underneath the façade. By the time the credits roll, his execution of Freddy does not read as heroic devotion to any masculine ideal or criminal code, but a tragic resolution which results in his own death as well. The entire film centers around poisonous ideas of manliness, and how they destroy men.
Like Reservoir Dogs, Scorpio Rising ends with its hypermasculinity self-immolating into oblivion. Twin Peaks concludes with its hero lost in an unfamiliar and dark place, his chosen damsel in distress again reduced to a prop in someone else’s story. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, meanwhile, takes a gentler approach, framing a masculine triumph in a moment that never could and never will be. An ending that would only happen in a fairy tale.
Cliff Booth has another analogue in Quentin Tarantino’s collective work: Stuntman Mike, the antagonist of Death Proof portrayed by Kurt Russell. A dissection of the inherent misogyny of 80's slasher films, wherein men with superpowers mainly stalk nubile young women, the movie paints Stuntman Mike as a threatening killer until the finale, which reveals him to be an impotent, cowardly creep frustrated by his own obsolescence.
Stuntman Mike has been imbued with the masculine fantasy of the tough loner, just like Cliff, a fellow stand-in. And as suggested with Cliff but shown here irrefutably, Mike possesses a homicidal streak directed towards women to account for his own insecurities.
In the climax of Death Proof, the remaining female characters corner Stuntman Mike, dispatching him in such an arch manner that it would feel appropriate in an episode of The Powerpuff Girls. This type of outlandish and purposefully silly ending foretells the preposterous conclusions of Tarantino’s trilogy of revisionist history films.
It also demonstrates an insightful assessment of the masculine tropes which populate his fictional universes. Cliff might not embody an exact parallel to Stuntman Mike, but they’ve been cut from the same cloth, just dyed differently. (And in a sly answer to Death Proof, Russell portrays a stunt coordinator in Once Upon a Time who dislikes Cliff as he’s convinced Booth is a murderer).
Mike would be at home amidst the motorcyclists of Scorpio Rising, his chosen weapon a muscle car which he uses to mow down his female victims. Twin Peaks offers another variation of this theme, though its resident bikers are not the town bullies but instead sensitive beatniks fighting crime. But even that world has its logging truckers, shown to be drugged-out sleazebags preying on young women. The newer Twin Peaks also introduces the character of Wally (Michael Cera), a parody of the original show’s parody of the tough biker trope, so lost in his own fantasies of incarnating a modern day Brando that he possesses zero self-awareness.
In all cases, these men with their revving, roaring engines represent a satire of masculine archetypes and how those representations are echoed within the larger culture.
Kill Bill taps into this idea well. Main character Beatrix exists enthralled to Bill, a combination father figure, lover, boss, and co-parent. Bill encompasses every cell of toxic badassery to be found in genre storytelling, from his daddy issues, to his unrepentant violence and hatred of weakness, to his need to exert control at any cost. Tarantino writes the character as charming but demonic, a snake who can seduce and manipulate to bring out the worst impulses in others.
Beatrix kills people, and she does it very well, and enjoys having done so. Bill — the serpent in the garden — means to keep her in that mindset. But their young daughter represents for Beatrix the need to move beyond that life, from destroyer to nurturer. He’s the very thing she has to reject in order to evolve.
This also plays out in her encounters with Bill’s surrogate fathers: Hattori Hanzo, Pai Mei, and Estaban Vihaio, each character crueler than the last. Hanzo is a torn man responsible for the deaths of many, many people. Pai Mei is flat-out abusive, notably in his attitudes towards women, though he and Beatrix find a level of mutual respect. And Vihaio shows himself to be a sadistic pimp mistreating the girls who work for him; it’s clear from her face that Beatrix has no intention of befriending this man, their conversation superficially polite but transactional.
These characters are all emblematic of the dark side inherent to the cool-guy masculinity of action films.
And yet, the payoff proves complicated. Beatrix truly loves Bill, as he does her, so her killing him feels at once victorious, sad, redemptive, and tender. Before Bill dies, Beatrix touches his hand in a gesture of compassion, but her empathy is in no way her excusing his behavior. She knows Bill has to die, and Bill knows he’ll never stop unless she kills him.
At the same time, Beatrix takes no hateful pleasure in his demise. Her sendoff to Bill is necessary, but not cruel. It’s both an acceptance of Bill’s important role in her life as well as a rejection of his insistence that her life’s purpose is cold-hearted murder. In this one moment, they meet halfway at a point of understanding, Bill handing off his legacy to someone who will do better than he ever could.
While Tarantino’s films can sometimes read as juvenile, flippant, and mean-spirited, he has consistently tempered those instincts with a soulfulness that prevents his movies from simply being facile jaunts through cinematic history. His last three films have been more direct in baring that sentimental streak, and unapologetically so.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not, in the end, Tarantino’s love letter to a time when things were simpler and more masculine. As he enters the twilight of his career, it’s his smiling and friendly farewell to those illusions.
And instead of a firm handshake, he’s not afraid to offer them a kiss goodbye.