Life is bringing you so down
You don’t think you can make it
Every night is a showdown
Every day you just fake it.
-Paul Revere & the Raiders, “Mr. Sun, Mr. Moon”
It’s where aging TV-turned-movie-turned-back-to-TV-again actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) says he’s at in the scarlet-paged, pocket-creased pulp Western paperback he’s reading, Ride a Wild Bronco.
About midway is also where he finds himself at this, the high noon of his day during the filming of TV Western Lancer’s pilot episode in February of 1969, letting the glue dry on the drooping mustache that hides his Hollywood handsome—but increasingly seamed and saddleworn—good looks behind a whiskered mask of villainy…because Rick is playing Lancer’s Heavy instead of Hero. He always plays the Heavy these days, and hasn’t been the Hero of any story for what feels like a long, long time.
And about midway is where Rick Dalton is in his life, just like the main character of Ride a Wild Bronco, whose story Rick shares with his eight-year-old co-star, Trudi (Julia Butters). Between Rick’s lung-rupturing smoker’s coughs, Trudi listens with her preternatural precociousness as the two sit outside an empty saloon set, surrounded by the skeletal hulks of a fictional frontier town’s Main Street—looming facades latticed with camera cranes and gaffer tape and power cables, a convergence of Hollywood reality and fantasy, of present and past, that serves as a cradle for what will be one of the most important conversations of Rick’s semi-wasted life:
Well, it’s about this guy who’s a bronco buster; it’s the story of his life. The guy’s name is Tom Breezy, but everyone always calls him “Easy” Breezy. Now, when Easy Breezy was in his 20s, and young, and good-lookin’, he could break any horse you could throw at ‘im. Back then, he just had a way. Now he’s into his…late 30s and takes a bad fall and messes up his hip. He’s not crippled or anything like that, but he’s got spine problems like he never had before. And he spends more of his days in pain than…than he ever did before…
He’s not the best anymore…In fact, far from it. And…he’s comin’ to terms with what it’s like to be slightly more use—slightly more useless each day…
Hearing the story of Easy Breezy aloud—and how it mirrors the melancholy trajectory of his own curdling potential—in the hangover-hoarse singsong of his Ozarks twang, Rick’s face contorts against the tears he knows are beyond hiding, and his staccato gasps signal the long-overdue emotional avalanche to come, the one that’s been building within him for years, the one he barely managed to stave off after drinks at Musso & Frank’s just yesterday when the middling state of his mediocre career was made clear to him. Shamed and self-loathing, he collapses inward, quietly shudder-sobbing and sadly shaking his head with a heartbroken and heartbreaking helplessness.
And that’s when it happened:
Rick’s outline began to blur, then double, a kind of prismic dissolve as he warped like a sun-caught vinyl record and became unrecognizable through thick, welling tears…but not his own.Mine.
~ ~ ~
Watching Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood for the first time, inked and hidden by the darkness of the Cinerama Dome—the same iconic movie house featured late in the film—I trembled as I heard the too-familiar story of Easy Breezy. My breath hitched as Rick’s bottomless sorrow thickened his nicotine-scuffed voice. Finally, when Rick said the word, the fucking word, the one that had been ricocheting within my skull for months like the bullet that in my darkest moments I fantasized about replacing it with, the word and all the terror and waste and pain associated with it—“useless”—I finally cried.
For the first time in over a year, I cried. Unable to stop and lucky the 8:45 AM Saturday showing was sparsely populated as I buried my face in my hands within the lightless murk of the back row, I loosed a series of mute and jagged sobs that had been building behind a wall of functional numbness, a pitiful and pitying mourning for time wasted, a skill squandered, a life lived without use or meaning. Shoulder-quaking tremors shook me. Everything I’d tried to keep hidden finally frayed and snapped the roughhewn mental ropes that once held them. Like Rick, I was lost in a hell of my own making, one that I—also like Rick—recognized in the story unfolding before me. And like Rick, this moment would prove to be one of the most important of my wasted life.
~ ~ ~
While Rick may be at his midway-point, it’s a mood of endings that suffuses Tarantino’s ninth film, his richest, most rewarding and wonderfully human work. And for most of the film’s languorous 161-minutes, that mood is far more exultantly elegiac than apocalyptic, a threnodial wolf-whistle of contemplative nostalgia tinged with funereality. Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood is a wistful remembrance, a languid and golden-hued “memory piece” in which the 56-year-old Tarantino reconstructs the sunslicked days and neon nights of the Old Hollywood of 1969, the year in which the ‘60s and the Golden Age of Hollywood both came to a haunted and haunting end.
In it, Tarantino crafts an industry love letter in which Los Angeles mythos and reality fuse in a mélange equal parts Didion and Peckinpah, all bound together by an aesthetic that’s as much pure cinemaniacal curation as it is auteurist storytelling: Backboning the film and braided throughout are a poignant cavalcade of trailers, 16mm TV Western clips, radio adverts, kinescopes, 35mm film prints, supernova-bright marquees and luxurious larger-than-life poster art for ‘60s films and TV shows both real and never-were, all shot through by the riproaring rock ‘n roll soundtrack of L.A.’s then-premiere AM radio station 93 KHJ blasting from the multitude of cars that crisscross the screen, cars everywhere, cars hurtling Heroes and Heavies alike to their movies and their TV shows and their parties and their fates, all of which whirlpools together to form an idealized celluloid vision of 1969 Hollywood as cinématique concrete, a sculptural, pop-textured dreamworld of an era’s final fade to black that is somehow so realer than real that it’s genuinely painful to leave behind after the film’s final, shocking moments. After it ends.
And it’s this crossweave of melancholic longing for the past coupled with the gnawing knowledge that an end is coming that existentially plagues Rick Dalton, a (mostly) functionally alcoholic, possibly bipolar, potentially suicidal actor1. After five years starring as bounty hunter Jake Cahill on NBC’s Western series Bounty Law, Rick bailed on TV at the height of his success in an attempt to follow Steve McQueen’s 1961 leap from TV and into blockbuster films like The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape. Only Rick never got a blockbuster; instead, he appeared in more traditional Western fare like Comanche Uprising, Hellfire, Texas, and Tanner, as well as the WWII men-on-a-mission movie The 14 Fists of McCluskey, films that failed to capture the mutating zeitgeist as McQueen’s did.
Like so many of the problems in Rick’s privileged life, his growing obsolescence stems from his own demons. Rick is paralyzed by his inability to see beyond the past, or his successes and mistakes therein. As such, he’s unwilling to evolve as an actor—his early success as a cowboy star was fueled by a taciturn brand of lantern-jawed and pocket-combed-pompadour TV acting, and so Rick clings to that method despite its increasing irrelevance as younger audiences reject the studio Westerns and war films into which that style has typecast him, and instead flock to counterculture visions like Bonnie & Clyde, In the Heat of the Night, and The Graduate. Further, Rick’s abandonment of Bounty Law years ago now looms as his ultimate regret, and his inability to let it go has afflicted him with a stuttering, near-crippling insecurity. It’s this obsession with the past as the location of both all his happiness as well as all of his irreparable mistakes that traps Rick rutstuck in an emotionally annihilative feedback loop of Yesterday, in which he cannot exist in the present (let alone have a place in the future) of his industry. While stars like McQueen are staying afloat in the cultural sea change of ‘69, others like Rick are being washed away by “fuckin’ hippy” stars of the future like Peter Fonda, Michael Douglas, and Arlo Guthrie, and he’s forced to cling to episodic TV guest spots in order to stay afloat and perform his stale craft.
In short, Hollywood—like life—is passing Rick by on its way to a future in which he doesn’t belong.
REEL 2 THE BALLAD OF EASY BREEZY—PART II
I’m gonna tell you a story. -‘Steve McQueen’
When I first saw Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood on Saturday, July 27, 2019, I’d spent a little over a year blanketed beneath a black and soulsick depression, an emotional infestation that consumed me like hungry ants on a carcass. I’d been losing out to an overwhelming despair at my feelings of uselessness, at how much time and talent I’d squandered doing nothing with my life. There’s one thing I do moderately well—writing—and in the 10 years since I’d come to Los Angeles from Missouri, it was essentially the one thing I didn’t pursue, wasting it beneath the boots of empty day jobs as well as, I suspect, an intense cowardice of failure, of finding out that the only thing that might make me special wouldn’t be enough, and I’d fail. It was easier just to assume I was good enough, that the writing and life would happen when they needed to. But I never pushed myself, never sought my potential. Meanwhile, life steadily went by, and the years with it. Nothing happened, and it happened so fast.
And when the inevitable and clichéd crisis midway through life came with my 36th birthday, it came hard and swift with the realization that I’d let so much time waste away, and something in me died. I stopped laughing, crying, eating, sleeping…I just stopped. I was like a ghost, haunting my own life, going through the motions, but living even less than I had before. I became hyper-obsessed with the past—back when I was still happy and unperturbed by these thoughts and still had time left; the past also became a concept I loathed because it housed all of the mistakes that led me here, to this misery in which the second half of your 30s can somehow feel like The End, like it’s already too late to start over. I no longer felt like the central character in my life story, like the Hero; instead, I felt like the Heavy who’d destroyed any chance of true usefulness in my life.
From this pit sprang an overwhelming desire to feel useful, to prove that my being here wasn’t just an accretion of days that blur together. A hope that with the limited skill I have, I could do something meaningful. Instead, I continued to drive every morning the long commute from Hollywood to my stultifying office job in Chatsworth, where the most exciting part of my daily life was passing by the Santa Susana Park trail that led winding into the rocky, cragged-jagged hills that once housed Spahn Ranch, the old movie set where the Manson Family lived in the late ‘60s. I would stare down that path every morning while sitting at the never-ending red light on Topanga Canyon, and wonder how much longer my heart could take living this unrealized life before…before it couldn’t. Before I came to a point in which it would feel easier to simply exit early rather than keep watching my life’s movie any longer.
It was with this hanging heavy in mind that I entered the theater that Saturday morning in July. Beneath a lightshot and flickering 70mm projection of Rick Dalton, a once-promising star turned C-level journeyman midway through an unremarkable career, I recognized my own insecurities and terrors amidst an embarrassing amount of privilege. I saw the humor in how well he lived despite his navel gazing; but I also couldn’t help but identify with and understand his almost suicidal pain. Just as the self-pitying Rick could only see in Easy Breezy a reflection of his own intense sorrow, when looking at Rick I could only see my own mistakes and false-starts, my own late-30s pileup of pitiful fears and unrealized dreams and burning self-hate. I saw our mutual uselessness, blown larger than life and mirrored back to me at 24 frames per second. I looked at Rick Dalton and I saw myself.
~ ~ ~
Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood takes place over the course of three days in 1969, and it follows the course of three lives within that expanse: Rick Dalton, Rick’s best friend of nine years and stuntman since the Bounty Law days, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), and Rick’s new next-door neighbor on Cielo Drive, actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). The dates that make up this three-days-in-the-lives story are February 8th and 9th, followed by August 8, 1969—the night that Sharon became the most famous victim of the murders that signaled the cultural curtain call for the 1960s. Through this trio Tarantino presents a vantage of three levels in showbiz hierarchy that exist, quite literally, side-by-side—the Star (Sharon, along with her famous husband, director Roman Polanski), the Has-Been (Rick, who, despite being “flat on my ass” is still a working actor living in the Hollywood Hills), and the Below-The-Line Burnout (Cliff, who hasn’t worked as a stuntman for a while now, and instead serves as Rick’s driver, handyman, and psychiatrist). And through that lattice of stardom and substardom and starlessness, we see so many others haunted by the same hopes and regrets that hound Rick:
There’s superstar Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) at a Playboy Mansion party, sidelined and yearning—“I’m gonna tell you a story,” he mutters to Connie Stevens (Dreama Walker), dejectedly explaining how the nearby Sharon Tate’s attraction to “cute, short, talented men who look like 12-year-old-boys” has left him without a chance for her love. There’s Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of The Green Hornet, portrayed here not as the flawlessly god-gifted martial arts legend, but rather as a pre-superstardom TV actor deeply insecure and shoulder-chipped by his typecasting and lack of recognition as lesser stars eclipse him. And then there’s Charlie Manson (Damon Herriman), pimp, half-assed musician, and cult leader, hysterically searching the entirety of The Industry looking for a way in, to be a Star, to matter, to be seen. All of them and so many others merge into a mosaic of the inherent need for meaning that drives and destroys so many in this town, this industry, this life.
So much of OUATIH is focused upon what we see when we look at art or those who make it, and how that makes us feel, and what we do with those feelings. Some see what they want to be, others see who they are—from Tarantino seeing his memories of the Hollywood that cradled his youth in his cinematic recreation of it, to Rick seeing his midlife torture of meaninglessness within the sad ballad of poor Easy Breezy. It’s a film about what we see in art, and what that art makes us see within ourselves. And it’s about what we do with what we see there.
Because it’s the most thematically- and character-driven of Tarantino’s work, it’s also the film with the least amount of use for plot (given the dramatic motor provided by our nervous knowledge of how August 8, 1969 ends, a complicated narrative is ultimately unnecessary). The film is instead organized around the three most important conversations of Rick Dalton’s life, and the three days that house them.
The first of these conversations occurs on February 8, 1969, exactly six months before the Manson murders, a day that is given the shortest amount of screen-time of the three, yet is perhaps the most thematically dense of the trio, establishing everything that is to come—the love letter to Old Hollywood, the terror of obsolescence, the desperation for redemption, the joy of bringing stories into the world, what we see in those stories and ourselves…and the transitional nature of endings, how perhaps an ending of one thing can signal the beginning of something new. And it’s in this first of three days, this first of three conversations that will change Rick’s life—or, rather, leave Rick’s life open to the possibility of change—in which all of those themes cohere atom-tight before exploding outward like a Big Bang and providing the film’s narrative momentum.
Producer Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) meets Rick for a sit-down, one that will leave the actor nearly as devastated as his conversation will the next day with Trudi. Having recently enjoyed a Dalton double feature of Tanner and The 14 Fists of McCluskey, in which he was impressed not only with Rick’s dedication to learning how to handle a flamethrower for a Nazi-crisping action sequence, but his rough ‘n rowdy screen presence as well, Schwarz sees something in Rick. Something special. It’s why he looks at Rick with such a knowing sympathy.
After failing to make it in the pictures post-Bounty Law, Rick’s been downgraded to the cathode-tube hellscape of the Heavy circuit—a name just big enough to play one-off villains on a series of shows, but no longer big enough to headline one of his own as the Hero. A name just once-popular enough to make it a big deal when Tarzan or the Green Hornet defeats him in front of millions. Rick has become, in both his life and his career, the villain of the story (“Doing a pilot f-for NBC right now. It’s called Lancer. I play the Heavy, heh…” he says with a small, sad bravado). It’s something Schwarz underlines, to Rick’s horror:
That’s an old trick pulled by the networks…You got a new guy…you wanna build up his bona fides, so you hire a guy from a cancelled show to play the Heavy. Then at the end of the show, when they fight, it’s Hero besting Heavy…Now in another couple of years of playing punching bags to every swinging dick new to the network, it’s gonna have a psychological effect on how the audience perceives you. So, Rick, who’s gonna kick the shit out of next week?…Down goes you. Down goes your career as a leading man.
Schwarz offers a solution—fly to Rome to star in Italy’s burgeoning Spaghetti Western market as a Hero, a genre offer that Rick considers a death-blow to his career. What Rick trusts are the Westerns of his early days. What Rick knows is the past—sitting ramrod straight on a horse and playing the clean-shaven, straight-shooting hero. Spaghetti Westerns are new and terrifying and would force him to stretch beyond his comfort zone, to test parts of himself that may fail, enough so that he views Schwarz’s offer as the devastating confirmation that his career is over, leaving him crying into Cliff’s chest in Musso’s parking lot (“Well, it’s official, old buddy—I’m a has-been”). Having never put in the effort required to be a McQueen-level performer, having never truly pushed himself, Schwarz’s meeting forces Rick to confront midlife knowing that he is running out of time and facing the wrong direction.
REEL 3 COMBAT CLIFF AND THE SHOWDOWN AT SPAHN RANCH!
Those two hombres are in trouble…bad trouble!
-Denny O’Neil, Kid Colt Outlaw #134, “Shoot-Out At Hooker Flat!”
Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood begins by introducing us to the actor-stuntman duo of Rick and Cliff via a piece of early 1960s 16mm promotional footage: “Now, if you think you’re seeing double, don’t adjust your television sets because, well, in a way, you are,” the promo’s host cheekily oozes as the two men sit side by side, youthful and glowing and both dressed as Jake Cahill on the set of Bounty Law at the then-bustling Spahn Ranch.
Together, Rick and Cliff chummily breeze over how a stunt double works, and a fantasy is made real: the actor performs a scene all the way up to a threat of violence. There’s a cut, and the stunt double enters the scene, stands in for the actor, and cheats death. Another cut, and the actor returns for the Hero shot. The scene cannot be performed with either person alone, no matter how talented, as both are equally important to the narrative equation—to bridge illusion to reality, the actor is required for the emotional arc the stuntman cannot provide, and the stuntman is needed to defy death in a way the actor cannot. Only when operating together, at their peak, can the actor and stuntman make fantasy become real.
Nearly a decade later, as Rick struggles to keep his footing on the shifting cultural ground to maintain what’s left of his past career, Cliff stands easy with no career at all in the present, his persona a mix of serene affability (after numerous run-ins with the law, the former Green Beret is just happy to be a member of the free world) and a brooding darkness kept on constant lockdown (those legal run-ins stem from breaking a cop’s jaw in Houston, which he admits to, and the murder of his wife, on which he ambiguously remains silent and the film refuses to clarify). As such, Cliff survives by living solely for the day (or as he puts it, when asked if he’s still working with Rick after all this time: “Still here”).
It’s in the way these characters relate to time that gives the film its emotional and thematic richness, as well as its central metaphor—inasmuch as the trio of Sharon, Rick, and Cliff represent three levels of the Hollywood hierarchy, they are also avatars of time. Rick is the Past, melancholic for its disappearance and unable to face the current day. Cliff is the Present—living for the moment, happy his past hasn’t damned his present to prison, “clamping down on the monster that’s inside of him,” as Tarantino calls it, by ignoring his violently self-destructive yesterdays. And out beyond that duo, Sharon with her rising star status in Hollywood is the Future, that which neither of these men appear to have.
Especially Cliff, whose life is lived in the literal shadow of movies, in a trailer behind the old Van Nuys Drive-In. Despite working in the business his whole life, he has nothing to show for it—his past has made sure of that. And so his world outside of Rick is that of a funky ascetic living in a tin shell that reflects his complicated psyche, focused on controlling the chaos of his past and that which lurks within him. Seemingly unable to tolerate a wife who once nagged him, the only women Cliff allows in his life now are an Anne Francis cheesecake poster and his beloved, hyper-obedient pit bull Brandy, both silent partners Cliff can trust not to inadvertently pique his dangerous rage. His nights without Rick involve watching Robert Goulet sing “MacArthur Park” on TV (a long, lonely song about a doomed love fated to end), playing with Brandy, and eating out-of-the-box mac ‘n cheese while surrounded by the art in which he sees himself—the TV is later tuned to Mannix (a series about a former war hero possessed with near superhuman athleticism), and piles of WWII and cowboy comics like Sgt. Fury & His Howling Commandos and Kid Colt Outlaw are scattered about.
Like Rick, Cliff Booth is a man locked in time, without a future.
~ ~ ~
The months before the release of OUATIH were the most blindly, blackly chaotic of my life. A long train of doctors and psychiatrists and pills barreled through my days, with all the attendant physiological chaos that being heavily medicated, then un-medicated, then re-medicated, can invite as I tried to assuage my emotional crisis. Terrified my wayward past had damned my present, I jitterly began writing long, winding essays of film criticism on a panicked whim (I like movies! I can write! I thought during a manic high) and sent them into Bright Wall/Dark Room, a site of film writing I deeply respected. To my shock, they published my work, and I became addicted to seeing my essays there, using the high of reading my words published in a home I felt they didn’t deserve as a bulwark against my self-torture and regret. I began churning out endless pieces for them, month after month, marrying what little self-worth I had left to these essays about films in which foolish, broken men desperately sought redemption after wasting so much of their lives, all as a way to assuage my ever-swelling anxiety over the past.
~ ~ ~
The second—and longest—day of Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood falls on Sunday, February 9, 1969.
In it, both Rick and Cliff are pulled into parallel phantasmal Western showdowns in which they each begin as the Heavies of their own stories, and the stories they wander into. The showdowns end, though, with both men coming precipitously close to being Heroes, as both—for the briefest of moments—show the potential to reconcile their messy relationships with the past and the present, and look to the future.
Rick arrives for his first day of the Lancer pilot shoot monolithically hungover, and the shoot that follows becomes an epic crucible in which he is forced to confront his every insecurity and truly act. Director Sam Wannamaker (Nicholas Hammond) insists that Rick’s Heavy, Caleb DeCoteau, be given “a zeitgeist flair” with a “Zapata-like” mustache, fringed jacket, and “hippie-ish” shoulder-length hair, all to Rick’s existential horror. He’s used to the Jake Cahill mode of simply pointing his face and decade-old pompadour at the camera and letting his squint do the work—donning the duds of the present (something he doesn’t even do in his private life) and playing an entirely new kind of character is something he’s never been brave enough to try. But Wanamaker presses: “I hired you to be an actor, Rick. Not a TV cowboy. You’re better than that.”
Later, when done up as what he fears the most—a hippie, a person of the present—Rick has the second of three life-changing conversations, the one on set with Trudi, waiting for the glue holding his Cowardly Lion mustache to dry. It ends with his emotional collapse at the recognition of himself within Easy Breezy’s heart-crushing story, but it begins with the intensely professional Trudi decimating Rick’s lackadaisical approach to acting in comparison to her own rigor, in which she refuses to even allow herself a lunch (it makes her sluggish) while Rick is content to work in a boozebruised stupor:
It’s the actor’s job to avoid impediments to their performance. It’s the actor’s job to strive for 100% effectiveness. Naturally, we never succeed, but it’s the pursuit that’s meaningful.
It’s a conversation that haunts Rick for the rest of the day. Following an abysmal performance in his first scene, in which he continually flubs his lines (there is no more heartbreaking moment for this character than his childlike pleas to Wanamaker, as if he is begging Time itself: “I fucked this up! Can we just go back?”), Rick destroys his trailer in a bawling, brutal tornado of rage, whirling from feeling sorry for himself to insisting that he show Trudi that he’s—as Cliff lovingly told him earlier—“Rick fuckin’ Dalton, and don’t you forget it,” to outright threatening to kill himself if he doesn’t complete the next scene.
And it’s in that next scene that he shows everyone—especially himself—what he’s capable of. Nervously walking down an illusory Western main street set like a gunslinger marching to a showdown whose end is uncertain, he confronts his greatest fear: his obsolescence. Culling everything he can from Trudi’s insistence that he must find his meaning in a pursuit of greatness, as well from what he saw in the story of Easy Breezy and what it made him see in himself (even ad libbing the phrase “bronco-buster” from Ride a Wild Bronco), Rick delivers a triumphant, exalted performance as Caleb DeCoteau, one that thrills the cast and crew and leaves Rick in tears of relief and pride, two things he clearly has not felt in years. And when young Trudi—a voice of Hollywood’s future—sweetly whispers “that was the best acting I’ve seen in my whole life,” Rick for the first time considers a place for himself in that future. He began the day a Heavy, both to himself and of the shoot, and he ends it as the possible Hero of both.
He ends it, as Cliff would say, as Rick fuckin’ Dalton.
Everything ended for me on the morning of Saturday, July 27, 2019.
I couldn’t write anymore. The same paralysis that kept my emotional chaos in check, that kept me semi-functional, had finally extended to the one thing I was now using just to stay afloat and focused on the present.
I let my exhausted head drop low—I’d been awake all night, trying and failing to write anything of substance in the purple predawn murk. I couldn’t string together the sentences for a simple essay for BW/DR. A single fucking essay. My overheated, exhausted, emotionally-depleted brain simply had nothing left. This is it, I thought. Just give up. Go back to Missouri. You’ll never be useful. Don’t belong here. You know what? Don’t even go home…Just end it. End it all.
I closed my laptop, leaned back in my chair. I was done, tired of being the Heavy of my life. And there was a strange comfort in that resignation—I wasn’t going to try anymore, or suffer, or feel guilty. It was selfish and stupid, but in my frenzied tunnel vision I could only see this morning as evidence of my total failure, my complete inability to jumpstart the life I should have started years ago.
I staggered out of my apartment with no real sense of what I was doing or thinking. I pointed my car to the one haven left in the world, to the movies, the Cinerama Dome. I just wanted to be with a story one more time before I walked away from my own. So I bought a ticket for Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood and I stepped into the dark.
~ ~ ~
Rick and Cliff spend this day on separate Western film sets, both confronting their internal demons in a struggle with external challenges. Rick’s showdown pulls him into the place he’s been avoiding, the Present. Cliff, though, pulls himself out of the Present and into his Past—onto the Western set of Spahn Ranch, the last place he mattered as a working stunt double for Rick. Where he was last useful.
Cliff comes to Spahn Ranch in Chatsworth as the Heavy of his story: While he remains mostly rooted in the moment, his mind briefly wanders to the day he allowed his monstrous rage to flare on the set of The Green Hornet and he fought Bruce Lee to a brutal draw, effectively destroying his career. And he comes as the guest of hippie hitchhiker Pussycat (Margaret Qualley, in a ferociously wildeyed and lanklimbed performance), whom the incredulous Cliff gives a ride after learning she and her friends now live with Cliff’s old colleague/the ranch’s owner, George Spahn (a reliably cranky Bruce Dern). And it’s there he becomes the Heavy of a story to the others in it, as he has invaded the decrepit desert lair of the Manson Family. The Family, a harbinger of a dangerous and unknown future, has infested Spahn (both Ranch and man), just as the changing culture has taken over Hollywood2.
In a terrifyingly tense sequence of extended tension (we know what this Family is capable of, while Cliff does not), the former stuntman forces his way into George’s home, only to find the old man a literally blind and willing servant of the Family—Old Hollywood willingly submitting to the counterculture. And when he exits George’s home in disgust, the Family is waiting, and Family idiot Clem Grogan (James Landry Hébert) has slashed a tire in Rick’s car.
It’s here that the first Tarantino-esque historical distortion takes place, and Cliff begins a pivot from the Heavy to potential Hero. In reality, in the late summer of 1969, Family members Grogan and Charles “Tex” Watson lured Hollywood stuntman Donald “Shorty” Shea to a remote car parts yard on the Ranch and murdered him. In Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood stuntman Cliff Booth is lured to Spahn Ranch, to his past, where he proceeds to beat Grogan bloody, forces him to change his tire, and then escapes before Tex (Austin Butler) can catch him. Perhaps for the first time since the war, Cliff is able to sublimate the monster within him and redirect its violence towards a powerful, positive purpose, by returning to his past and redressing history so that a stuntman lured to Spahn Ranch in 1969 finally makes it out alive.
Both Rick and Cliff, in confronting the existential dangers of Lancer and the physical dangers of Spahn Ranch, in facing the past and present respectively, each spend this day employing that which makes them meaningful, that which gives them potential. Rick brought Shakespearean pulp acting to a story, and Cliff used his incredible physicality to escape one. And yet, each did so alone, and thus neither man was able to reach the full extent of their potential, the 100% effectiveness that Trudi demands the pursuit of. Rick and Cliff are an actor-stuntman duo. To be 100% effective, they need one another, just as the Past and the Present must come together for the Future to exist. Remember the nature of a stunt: The scene cannot be performed with either person alone, no matter how talented, as both are equally important to the narrative equation—to bridge illusion to reality, the actor is required for the emotional arc the stuntman cannot provide, and the stuntman is needed to defy death in a way the actor cannot. Only when operating together, at their peak, can the actor and stuntman make the fantasy become real.
REEL 4 THE LIFE AND TIMES OF MISS SHARON TATE
I would dream about being a movie star, too. But those dreams are the impossible kind, the kind you don’t really set your heart on. -Sharon Tate
In February 1969, Sharon Tate—kind, beautiful, and armed with a sharp comic timing—was Hollywood’s future.
That all changed, though, on the night of August 8, 1969, in which she became a victim of the Manson Family murders, and was consigned to an afterlife of Victimhood in the pages of history. No longer a person, but rather a footnote in the atrocity exhibition of late-‘60s horrors that defined the end of the era, she was robbed of her voice, to be defined instead by history.
And it’s this dehumanizing relegation to cultural footnote of Sharon Tate that so much of her personification in Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood rages against. Much was made in the entertainment media of Robbie’s lack of dialogue in comparison to co-stars DiCaprio and Pitt, but missed in that discourse was how Tarantino was layering his film first with the Sharon we know from history—a mute victim without a say in her legacy. Note how often Sharon’s voice is drowned out in the film by the soundtrack, by cars, by Roman. Throughout so much of first and final third of the film, Sharon remains a mysterious figure, as voiceless as history rendered her in reality. Indeed, she is almost invisible to some—when she and Roman drive past Rick’s home, waiting for the security gate to open to their driveway, Rick can only selfishly see Roman as a possible career opportunity, while Sharon is totally unnoticed. Elsewhere, the architect of her real-life doom, Charlie Manson, will only spare her a disinterested passing glance and wave as he cuts across her front yard looking for Terry Melcher, the rock producer who used to live there and Manson thinks will catapult him to fame.
It’s in the second day of the film in which Sharon is seen as the face of Hollywood’s future, in which so much of the film’s runtime is given over to the Sharon we don’t know, the Sharon who was taken. Throughout that second day, as Rick and Cliff fight through their dual showdowns, Sharon is seen simply enjoying that which was stolen from her: an average day in the life, running errands, picking up a hitchhiker, buying Roman a book (Tess of the d’Urbervilles, which he would adapt as Tess in her honor a decade later) and catching on a whim an afternoon movie in which she stars, on that quiet kind of sunny Sunday in L.A. when the air lays still and a golden bath of sunlight glows on all it touches.
And it’s during the viewing of that film that Sharon—much like Rick and Cliff that same afternoon—displays the skill that makes her so very special. Her gift. As she sits in the dark of the Bruin Theatre in Westwood, haloed by the light of a 35mm projector, we watch as she watches her film The Wrecking Crew. The film itself is not great, a hammy/boozy James Bond spoof starring Dean Martin, yet the crowd laughs at Sharon’s every joke, explodes at her every precisely-timed pratfall, and cheers during her Bruce Lee-choreographed martial arts sequence, all as Sharon beams quietly in the dark with an endearing pride. It’s a sweetly stunning moment in which time stops, in which the Rick/Cliff psychodrama and the ticking clock of August 8, 1969 all wash away, and the sheer gorgeous redemptive romanticism of The Movies takes over, if only for a moment.
But it’s also a sequence that thematically binds Sharon to our actor-stuntman duo on this day of personal and professional crucibles, both in the way it highlights that which makes Sharon so effective, so useful—she’s a born entertainer, blessing the Bruin’s audience with an idyllic afternoon of laughs—but also in how firmly it establishes Sharon as their industry’s future. For so much of the film, Rick is the Hollywood of the past, while Cliff exists solely in its present; Sharon, however, points to a future that Hollywood could be…if only the past and present had been a little different3.
~ ~ ~
I sat back in my chair, eyes red and burning, my body still shaking, watching as the light above me carried the images to the screen, watching as Rick and Cliff and Sharon ended their second of three days in the movie. I understood, on some level, that I’d experienced some kind of final emotional breakdown that morning before the film, just as I understood that my reaction to the film itself was not normal—when the crowd giggled at Rick’s tears, I felt like I was dying; when they laughed at the trailer-line of “Rick fuckin’ Dalton,” I was ecstatic with pride that this sad loser had finally done something of worth; when Cliff dispatched Clem Grogan and Sharon made a moviehouse cheer I felt like my atoms would ignite in a kind of cinematic joy I’d never experienced before. It was as if everything I was, everything thing I’d felt or been afraid to feel or had longed to feel over the last year was being disassembled and then put back together. I felt the hope that it wasn’t too late for me just as perhaps it wasn’t for these characters, and I felt the dread that perhaps it still was for us all. Maybe all my fears really are true and I’m simply not a good writer, because I have no access to the words necessary to convey what happened to me this day, in this theater, with this film. All I know is that it felt as if my past, present, and future—and my myriad of agonies concerning each—were being dredged to the surface in a way I had resisted with every part of my being for months.
I had no idea what was happening to me beneath the Cinerama’s geodesic Dome, but I didn’t fight it. As José Feliciano’s mournful cover of “California Dreamin’” soundtracked the end to this second day, as Rick and Cliff and Sharon and Marvin Schwarz and Squeaky Fromme and George Spahn all retired with the sunset to their televisions to watch a new episode of TheF.B.I. (starring Rick as the Heavy, of course), I braced myself with a queasy dread for what I feared was coming, that at least some of these people I’d come to love in the past two hours would die deaths as meaningless as the world I would be forced to stumble back into when the film was over.
REEL 5 FAREWELL TO THE FIRST GOLDEN ERA (THE WRECKING CREW)
I will take my life into my hands
And I will use it.
-Jimmy Webb, “MacArthur Park”
Connections abound in this city. You can be an ex-stuntman fixing your actor buddy’s antennae on his roof and spy a strange little hippie man approach a neighbor’s house, and later you wind up at the movie ranch where you used to work, where that very same little man’s death-cult now resides. You can be an actress, a young star, and see that little man in your lawn, the man whose growing megalomaniacal selfishness and insecurity will cause your death six months later. You can be a fading actor whose lone, rusting skill will suddenly become necessary again, useful again, a skill that could change all those lives.
It could all change…like that.
Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood follows such disparate strands and connections, how they can hang low and lax over a city like ignored power cables…until the day some force yanks them taut, the connections become explicit, and suddenly a strange and somehow inevitable narrative emerges from the smogfog with a shocking clarity.4
And when the third and final day of the film is revealed to be August 8, 1969, the day Sharon Tate and her friends and her unborn son died…the day that Rick and Cliff and Rick’s new wife Francesca (Lorenza Izzo) return to Los Angeles (Rick, following his transformative performance in Lancer, took Schwarz’s Italian gig after all, and has even let his hair grow out, allowing himself to pull his gaze from the past and into the present) only to reveal that this is Rick and Cliff’s final night together (the new wife and Roman apartment have put a dent in Rick’s finances, and he can no longer afford Cliff’s salary, and may even have to move back to his homeland of Missouri)…and the Rolling Stones’ impossibly sorrowful pop elegy “Out of Time” booms from the film’s soundtrack…it becomes clear what OUATIH has been building towards all along. We are going to watch this era end through the death of the woman, and the friendship, we have come to love.
As all the neon lights buzz to life in the Hollywood twilight, we watch as the final night of Old Hollywood, of Rick and Cliff, and of Sharon Tate, descends cataract-black onto the world.
We watch as Sharon and her friends—Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch), Abigail Folger (Samantha Robinson), and Wojchiech Frykowski (Costa Ronin)—unknowingly share a final dinner of Mexican food at El Coyote in West Hollywood, while Rick and Cliff purposely do the same at Casa Vega in the Valley. We watch as both parties return home to their little corners of Cielo Drive, and we watch as joints are smoked in the Tate residence while Cliff settles in for he and Rick’s final late-night drunk together by smoking an acid-laced spliff and taking Brandy for a walk while Rick makes margaritas. We watch in Sharon’s bedroom as Jay puts on the Farewell to the First Golden Era LP by the Mamas and the Papas and Sharon descends out of frame, out of view, out of this world, forever descending into cruel history, and we watch as that rickety, rust-jagged Ford Galaxie trailed by ominous plumes of hellsmoke ascends out of the darkness and up the hill to the top of Cielo Drive, idling outside of 10050 Cielo Dr., idling just outside of an era’s end.
~ ~ ~
I couldn’t breathe.
I couldn’t look.
I couldn’t look away.
Not this. I can’t watch this. Not this.
There was no neuroses, no suicidal self-pity, no obsessing over the minutiae of my mistakes.
There was only the lives of the characters who had become my friends.
For the first time in so long, I felt something new and terrifyingly pure and real and clean:
I didn’t want the story to end.
~ ~ ~
How a stunt works, and a fantasy is made real: the actor performs a scene all the way up to a threat of violence. There’s a cut, and the stunt double enters the scene, stands in for the actor, and cheats death. Another cut, and the actor returns for the Hero shot. The scene cannot be performed with either person alone, no matter how talented, as both are equally important to the narrative equation—to bridge illusion to reality, the actor is required for the emotional arc the stuntman cannot provide, and the stuntman is needed to defy death in a way the actor cannot. Only when operating together, at their peak, can the actor and stuntman achieve 100% efficiency and make the fantasy become real.
It begins with the actor, Rick Dalton, marching fearlessly from his front door all the way up to the threat of violence, demanding that someone move “this mechanical asshole” of a Ford Galaxie off his street. From within the car: the Manson Family members we know for a historical fact are capable of grisly bloodletting—Tex Watson, Susan Atkins (Mikey Madison), and Patricia Krenwinkel (Madisen Beaty). Rick stares down the carload of what he suspects are dope-smoking hippies until they back down the hill…where they cannot believe that Bounty Law’s Jake Cahill just swore at them (Bounty Law was Tex’s favorite lunchbox, after all), and suddenly their plan for who dies at Cielo Drive all changes…like that.
There’s a cut, and then Cliff Booth enters the scene, returning inside the Dalton residence from his walk with Brandy. When the trio of Family members break into the house looking for Rick, they find Cliff Booth, the stuntman, standing in for his best friend. And the stuntman does what he does best, and cheats death itself. These hippies are not the future, they are not change. These black-clad evil cultists come as Death, and for one moment, one perfect, wildly cathartic moment, Cliff Booth functions at his absolute peak, channeling everything he is—the stuntman, the athlete, the soldier, the cowboy, the monster, the best friend—into a pure, righteous force that blights these sick fucks from their undeserved pages of history as he and Brandy (brave and loyal Brandy, as loyal to her beloved Cliff as he is to his beloved Rick) beat them to goddamned death. They succeed in killing Tex and Krenwinkel, and severely wound Atkins. Injured and bleeding out from his stunt, Cliff falls out of frame.
There’s a cut, and the actor Rick Dalton returns, drunk and floating in his pool. And when a bloodied, pistol-firing Susan Atkins runs screaming into the water with him, Rick flees to his shed…and returns for the Hero shot, armed with his flamethrower from The 14 Fists of McCluskey, the one he practiced weeks with for his craft, for the one thing he does well, and with it he burns Death itself from the earth.
This miracle could not have been performed by either Rick or Cliff alone, no matter how talented, as they were both equally important. Only when operating together, using the skills that make them special, could the actor and stuntman, this two-man wrecking crew, make a fantasy become real.
Only then could they achieve 100% efficiency.
Only then could they, at long last, be useful.
The past and the present, uniting to allow for a better future. For Sharon. For the way it should have been.
So now, when August 8, 1969 ends…it leads only to August 9, 1969—another day. A new beginning. As Cliff is wheeled by paramedics to an ambulance, Rick insists upon seeing him in the morning, and for the first time, Cliff Booth makes a plan for the future, however modest: “Come visit me tomorrow. Bring bagels.” Tonight was an ending for these two men, but only the end of a chapter, not their story. And that’s something Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood discovers about endings—they leave space for something new to begin. The past leads to the present, and the present leads to the future, and all three are required for the narrative to continue.
And when the ambulance takes Cliff into tomorrow, Rick Dalton stands atop Cielo Drive. He’ll never know what he did on this night, how truly impactful he and Cliff’s actions were—that they saved Sharon Tate, that Cliff’s recognition of Tex from Spahn Ranch will send police to raid Manson and his Family, that the entire 20th century is a little brighter because he and Cliff were in it. And maybe that’s OK. Because for the first time, Rick is not only able to look from the past to the present, but to the future as well: When the voice of Sharon Tate, no longer silenced by history or the Family or Charlie Manson, booms loud with benevolent power from the security speaker next to her gate, acknowledging Rick, acknowledging that she saw her neighbor all along, even when he couldn’t see her, they have the third conversation that will forever change Rick’s life:
“Is everybody OK?”
“Yes, Sharon, everybody’s fine.”
“Are you OK?”
“Yes, I am…Thank you for asking that.”
“Rick, would you like to come up to the house for a drink, and meet my other friends?”
Not the way he expected, not the way he ever planned, but Rick walks past that opening gate to the place he never thought he’d belong: the future. As he does so, something miraculous happens: A title card appears. Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood. In every Quentin Tarantino film, the title card always appears at the beginning of the story. And it does so here, too, in a way: A new chapter has begun, and a new story can be told, and it begins with what is the film’s final line as well as a new chapter’s first—spoken, of course, by Sharon:
This is Rick Dalton. He’s a wonderful actor.
~ ~ ~
After the film, I sat outside the Dome for a long time, watching the sun lower beyond the palm trees of Hollywood as they swayed in the wind. I cried as I thought of Rick, and Cliff, and Sharon. Of how they all had something that made them meaningful. Of how useful to one another they became. Of what they saw in each other, of what I saw in them, and what they made me see in myself.
When I entered the theater that day, I did so with the belief that it would be one of the last things I ever did in my story. When I exited it…I ached with the hope that it would be one of the first things to happen in my new chapter.
I watched a loser, like me, unable to let go of the past. I watched another afraid to face it. And then I watched them embrace the other, watched past and present and actor and stuntman join together to perform their magic act, to move into a possible future and make a fantasy real. To do One Good Thing. To matter, and rediscover a usefulness, if just for one moment. And Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood captures that wishful feeling in all its insecurity and hypocritical privilege and deathwish self-loathing, but also its innate humanity and sadness and beauty. It’s such a beautiful metaphor for how we all feel, what we all so desperately want—to take from our souls what we know is special or unique and finally use it for something. To accept our past, embrace our present, and find a better future. To be useful. Even if it only leads to a neighborly conversation. That’s something special. And so is Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood.
The next months were still painful for me, but I faced them, my difficult present, with sense of purpose I thought had been lost. I embraced the mistakes of my past, and understood that without them, I wouldn’t have the drive to find a meaning to my future.
Rick and Cliff saved Sharon Tate in their story, but the film couldn’t do the same for her in ours. No film could. But Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood did save me.
I began to write again. I quit my terrible job. I laughed again. And I watched a certain film a lot.
One of the things that I wrote—this essay—took a long time. Months, in fact. Months to get it right, of agonizing over every word, every admission, to say what I held in my heart for so long, and say it just the right way. I began writing it the night after I saw the film, and I finished it tonight. It’s ending right now. And I think I’m finally ready to let it go.
I’m gonna tell you a story:
It starts with me beginning an essay with two words.
It ends with me writing those two words again.
Because an ending is just a new beginning. They can be one and the same.
I wrote two words that, not long ago, signaled nothing but the end of an era for me. A place too late to start over. The end of a life.
Now, they’re just my place in a story that’s beginning tonight:
Of the constellation of sub-stars who make up Dalton’s astrological inspiration, from the TV-star-turned-Spaghetti-Western-actor Ty Hardin to the unable-to-permanently-escape-TV George Maharis, none is more sadly ominous than TV Western star Pete Duel, whose dissatisfaction with his career, escalating alcohol/DUI problems, and now-suspected bipolar disorder culminated with his suicide by gunshot in 1971.
Earlier in the film, Manson Family members are shown scavenging in the dumpsters outside a Super A Foods in Glassell Park, where they walk past a mural of Giant-era James Dean painted on the side of the building. Shot low from the ground, the Family crawls over Dean like ants on a corpse—Old Hollywood’s time is over, overrun by this strange new future.
It’s no surprise that Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood ends with a music cue from The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, a film that—as has been pointed out elsewhere—begins with the following title card: “Maybe this isn’t the way it was…it’s the way it should have been.”
Connections abound:“The Wrecking Crew” isn’t just a Sharon Tate movie. It was also the name of a collective of gifted session musicians in the 1960s. Well known within the industry but unseen/unacknowledged by the music-listening public, they were essentially musician stunt doubles. Frequently produced by Terry Melcher (who once invited Charlie Manson to his home on Cielo Drive, a home Polanski and Tate moved into shortly thereafter), The Wrecking Crew played on such songs as the Mama and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” and “Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon),” songs that haunt Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood to its celluloid bones. And like Rick and Cliff, The Wrecking Crew’s career nosedived in the late ‘60s by their own collective hand—their seven-minute version of the song “MacArthur Park” (the very first thing we see actually playing on a TV in OUATIH, in Cliff’s trailer) was so popular that more and more similarly longform songs began dominating the AM radio format, which led to fewer recording opportunities for them as fewer songs were making it on-air. Soon they slipped into the pop unknown, taking stations like 93 KHJ with them—unsung heroes of the entertainment industry, the kind so much of this film is a loving tribute to.