‘Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’: Tinseltown Valentine and Big-Budget “Manson-sploitation”

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According to Bill Landis and Michelle Clifford’s essential exploitation movie history Sleazoid Express, the first fictional feature inspired by the Manson Family murders was Sweet Savior, which played (briefly) at a handful of grindhouses in the fall of 1971 – barely two years after the murders that brought Manson and his followers their notoriety. Starring fallen Warner Bros. contract player Troy Donahue and directed by occasional New York pornographer Robert L. Roberts, it had little do with the Tate/LaBianca killings; its shoestring budget prohibited shooting in Los Angeles, where this quintessentially California crime occurred, and though there are a few loose parallels to the real figures, Sweet Savior (later retitled and re-released as The Love Thrill Murders) mostly just borrowed the story’s exploitable elements: a Christ-like cult leader, his hippie chick followers, lots of drugs, lots of sex, and lots of blood.

And like that, the “Manson-sploitation” movie was born. It’s proven one of the most venerable subsets of exploitation moviemaking, riding out the initial ‘70s onslaught (The Helter Skelter Murders, The Cult, Last House on Dead End Street) into the ‘80s (Charles Manson Superstar, Manson Family Movies), the ‘90s (The Manson Family), and right up to this year’s The Haunting of Sharon Tate. Some have played with form; we’ve seen everything from embedded documentaries (the Oscar-nominated 1973 Manson) to puppet musicals (2006’s Live Freaky! Die Freaky!) to cringe comedies (2015’s Manson Family Vacation). But most have reused that same handful of basic, durable, low-budget-friendly ingredients.

Certainly, none of those films had the kind of money, star power, and studio backing enjoyed by Quentin Tarantino’s new film Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. And in many ways, it’s not a “Manson-spoloitation” movie at all. Manson himself is barely seen, a peripheral character at best, it goes for long stretches without mentioning the Family, and only one of its characters is related to that crime: Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), its most famous victim.

Tarantino’s story mostly concerns TV and occasional film actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), his best buddy and sometimes stunt double. It covers three key days in their lives: Saturday, February 8, 1969; Sunday, February 9, 1969; Friday, August 8, 1969. Those of us who know a thing or two about the Manson case will recognize the significance of the latter date; the former find Rick at a crossroads, a point in his punchy career where he can no longer pretend his star isn’t falling. His new agent (Al Pacino, terrific) can dress it up in theory and patterns, but Rick makes it plain for Cliff: “It’s official, buddy, I’m a goddamn has-been.”

Because Rick doesn’t work as much anymore, Cliff works even less; these days, he’s mostly a support system, dropping his pal off for his morning shoot like a mom taking her kid to school, and sending him in with words of encouragement: “Hey! You’re Rick fuckin’ Dalton! Don’t you forget it!” Cliff is an affable sort with some darkness in his past, getting by as best he can in his modest dwelling, a trailer home behind a Van Nuys drive-in movie theater. Rick was wise enough to buy his digs, back when the getting was good; he has a nice place on Cielo Drive, right next to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate.

And that is your intersection of stories, and the introduction of known quantities: we first see the Manson girls singing and dumpster-diving, and later, Cliff finds himself driving a one of them (a crackerjack Margaret Qualley) back to their encampment at Spahn Movie Ranch. “Man, Charlie’s gonna dig you,” she assures him. Maybe, maybe not.

But Once Upon a Time’s real subject, unsurprisingly, is actors; it’s more of a valentine to that profession than even Tarantino’s earlier movies-about-movies, which tend to focus on craft. Rick gets the lion’s share of screen time, awkwardly trying to puzzle out where exactly to take his career after blowing off his TV showcase for a failed stab at movie stardom. He finds himself doing a guest shot as a villain on a Western pilot, frustrated by the elaborate costuming and hair his director (Nicholas Hammond) suggests – “How’s the audience gonna know it’s me?” he half-asks, half-pleads.

“I hope they don’t,” he’s told. “I hired you to be an actor, Rick.”

That’s an idea that was still somewhat exotic, even in that post-Brando, post-Dean era, but in their exchange, and in an engaging subsequent interaction with a pint-sized Method actor (Julia Butters, transcendent), Tarantino keys in on something very specific about his 1969 setting: this pivot point in movie acting and movie stardom was an often unsung part of the shift that would happen in movies themselves in the years to come. Acting is Tarantino’s first love (as a series of often painful performances have reminded us), and his affection for the art usually manifests itself in juicy, theatrical monologues and rich, textured character creation. Here, he (and thus, his audience) takes pleasure in the act of just watching this actor at work – blowing lines, chewing himself out, riling himself up. When Rick finally delivers, and his co-star praises his performance, the payoff plays merely as a laugh button in film’s trailer. Yet it’s strangely, profoundly moving with the context of the scene, and the character; DiCaprio is doing a tricky kind of acting here, theatrical yet close to the bone, and nails it in scene after scene.

The connective tissue is strong between that moment and Robbie’s best scene, in which she interrupts an afternoon of errand running to slip in to a neighborhood theater running her latest picture, The Wrecking Crew, a second-rate Bond knockoff starring Dean Martin. Sliding on her Coke-bottle glasses, she glances around the auditorium anxiously when her onscreen avatar makes her first appearance, and all but glows with pleasure as she watches her carefully worked-out bits of slapstick and stunt work land gracefully in front of these paying patrons.

There’s something absolutely joyful and pure about the sequence, and Robbie’s work in it – and also the scene previous, in which she introduces herself to the box-office clerk, maybe because she doesn’t have enough cash on hand for a ticket, maybe because she wants to be fussed over, just a little bit. And that’s exactly how much they fuss over her; this is, after all, an industry town, and in many ways a small one. Part of what Tarantino captures so cleanly in the film is a sense of community, of Hollywood as a place where everyone’s keeping tabs, everyone’s watching the same TV show, everyone knows everyone else – where connections are a kind of currency, so it’s not that difficult for, say, a sociopath with industry ambitions to get too close.

Tarantino is, of course, an old hand at tying seemingly disconnected stories together, and this time around, he proves especially adroit at doing so in-camera – I keep thinking of the big boom down from Rick in his pool to Roman and Sharon roaring down the driveway between their homes, heading out to a party at the Playboy mansion. Cinematographer Robert Richardson brings his A-game once again, capturing dialogue scenes in long, loose, roving, roomy shots, and cooking up some of his sharpest, warmest compositions yet.

Like most of Tarantino’s films, Once Upon a Time is long – two hours, forty-one minutes – and you can certainly feel them in the picture’s opening passages, which are more about setting a mood than going anywhere in particular plot-wise. These scenes aren’t just about indulgent shagginess, though; they invite the viewer to settle in and hang out, meet the people, learn the geography. But even more than that, he’s waiting, patiently, for us to slow to the picture’s tempo, one that’s much closer to the time when it’s set than the time when it was shot. This is not to imply that material is dull (luxuriate, won’t you, in the kinetic energy of the back-of-the-sports-car stuff), and though it’s leisurely, nothing is wasted – even seemingly throwaway character bits pay off later, in unexpected ways, and Tarantino has become such a pro at telling these big-canvas stories, you barely notice he’s picked up the pace until it’s fully cranking.

That, for the record, is when Cliff hits Spahn Ranch, a tightly-wound scene invested with that gripping, accumulating dread of the Basterds opening, stretched until it snaps. (Pitt’s doing tip-top work here, stripped down yet pulsing with his offhand charisma.) We’re uneasy because of what we know about the Manson Family, and what Cliff doesn’t, though he gets an idea. And though Tarantino deftly deflates that tension with an elegant dialogue scene, he’s also enjoying a bit of catch-and-release fishing; all this tension has to go somewhere.

Where it goes I won’t divulge, in the interest of spoilers, except to note that the film’s ultimate outcome is absolutely in the spirit of all those old Manson-spoloitation movies; they often bear only a passing resemblance to the actual events, and instead use the shiny object of these murders to attract bloodthirsty and/or voyeuristic audiences to an exploration of the filmmaker’s own preoccupations. For Tarantino, that means Hollywood lore (he clearly revels in the parallel universe he’s created for Rick, and the trailers, posters, excerpts, and other related ephemera), celebrity and stardom, and a predilection for historical wish fulfillment.

Viewers who don’t share those interests, who don’t know from Charles Manson, who are only looking to stargaze on a July afternoon, may find themselves baffled or even bored by Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. And it’s hard to blame them. But I’ll only add this: amid my many, many pages of notes, I found these two questions: “Where are we going with this?” and “What is he doing?” Neither of these were scrawled in anger; I was frankly ecstatic that I didn’t know the answers. At a multiplex movie, in a summer of reanimations, remakes, sequels, and reboots, that’s a refreshing feeling indeed.

“Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood” is out now.