‘Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood’: Name-Dropping Nostalgia for White Male Privilege

If you’re both a film buff and a fact-checker or just wish you could have been alive and young enough for the sexual revolution for the summer of love, you’ll want to see Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” more than once just to catch all the references and smell every whiff of nostalgia. Tarantino’s playing with our communal sense of  dread. Knowledge becomes the main ingredient for the movie’s suspense  because we know how this ends or at least, how it did end for peripheral figures: Sharon Tate and her tragic household in an August night in 1969.

Yet the aroma is distinctly Old Spice from.an era when non-white men were scarcely seen in its advertisements. This slickly cinematic remembrance is taken from the privileged position of white men. White women are present, especially in the alluring presence of Margot Robie as the ill-fated Sharon Tate, but also with some lithesome readily available hippy chicks who worshipped Charlie Manson.

The film centers on a TV actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), who’s experiencing a mid-career slump. His popular series, “Bounty Law,”  ended in 1963, mostly because he hoped for a movie career. That hasn’t panned out and in 1969, he’s been subsisting on guest starring roles on Ron Ely’s “Tarzan,” “Land of the Giants” and “The FBI” (1965-1974).  Dalton is the villain who gets killed. An agent, Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino), warns him that his constant dying is killing his career because of the “psychological effect on how the audience sees you.” Schwarzs asks Dalton to consider a spaghetti Western over a meal at Musso & Frank Grill.

While Dalton wallows in the depths of alcoholic stupor–one of the reasons Booth must drive him around is his collection of DUIs, the mansion next door has new residents: Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his wife Sharon Tate (Robie).

Dalton does hope to get to know his Cielo Drive, Benedict Canyon neighbors better because sometimes you’re just “one pool party away from strain in a Roman Polanski movie.” Tate attends a pool party of a different kind at the bright and trendy Playboy Mansion. Mama Cass (Rachel Redleaf) and Michelle Phillips (Rebecca Rittenhouse) of the Mamas and the Papas as well as Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis). Cass would be dead by 1974 and there’s no evidence that the atmosphere at the Playboy Mansion affected Mama Cass’ feeling of self-worth. Tarantino presents this party as innocent and groovy as the 1965 “Beach Blanket Bingo.”

Dalton confides in his driver/best friend/stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), “It’s official, old buddy. I’m a has-been.”  Booth has his own baggage. A war vet, he lives in a trailer behind a drive-in theater with his pitfall Brandy, and besides his own bad behavior, his career is stalled by rumors that he killed his wife–a scene we get an inconclusive glimpse of in flashback. Dalton and Booth are both entrenched in their Western roles–Dalton wearing cowboy boots; Booth in soft-soled suede moccasins. If Dalton had been in Texas, one would expect him to be wearing a ten-gallon hat as well.

Dalton is the heavy on the pilot of a new Western series, “Lancer” (1968-1970), but he can’t get a part for Booth due to an unfortunate incident years earlier on the set of “The Green Hornet” (1966-1967).  Stunt coordinator Randy (Kurt Russell who also narrates) has also explained this to Dalton, particularly because his wife, Janet (Zoe Bell) will be there. After dropping Dalton at the studio, Booth goes back to Benedict Canyon, passing by some highly attractive female followers of Charles Manson who were dumpster-diving and are now hitchhiking, and once back at Dalton’s pad, he parcours his way to the roof, takes off his shirt to fix Dalton’s TV antenna and remembers his faux pas behind the scenes of “The Green Hornet.”

This scene is the one featured in the trailers and portrays Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) as a cocky blusterer, saying that in a match between him and Cassius Clay, “I’d make him a cripple.”

Booth tells Lee, “You’re a little man with a big mouth and a big chip.”   Lee and Booth decide on a best two-out-of-three match that is left with both having one back-to-the-ground victory before Janet angrily sees Booth’s winning move left a dent the size of Lee in her car. We’ll see that Lee will continue to work. He trains Robie’s Tate to prepare her for her part on the secret agent Dean Martin comedy, “The Wrecking Crew” (seen in flashback). Lee wouldn’t break out as a leading man until “The Big Boss” in 1971.

Manson drops by Tate’s house, hoping to see the previous resident, record producer Terry Melcher, but Jay Sebring gives him the bad news and Manson is turned away.

Booth, on his way back to the studio with a lot of wait-time, decides to pick up one of the Manson girls, Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), who is still hitchhiking. She offers him oral sex; he asks for proof that she’s legal. The Manson Family is staying at Spahn Ranch, a place the Booth is familiar with from his days on the “Bounty Law” set. The ranch has fallen into disrepair, and Booth, worried about George Spahn, insists on seeing the old man (Bruce Dern), despite the objections of Lynnette Fromme (Dakota Fanning). The large number of women gathering might seem innocuous unless one knows what these women will be capable of in the near future.

Booth finds a blind and senile George, lost in a drugged stupor and would leave except once back at his car, he sees that Steve Grogan has slashed the front tire on the driver’s side and beats him before forcing him to change the tire. Fromme sends for Tex, but Tex Watson returns too late. Booth is already driving away.

It helps to know that the real Grogan was, in 1969, only 18. He was on 10 August 1969, sent to kill actor Saladin Nader (with Susan Atkins and Linda Kasabian), but the plan was aborted when they went to the wrong place. Grogan did help Manson, Watson and Bruce M. Davis kill Spahn Ranch hand Donald “Shorty” Shea. Grogan helped the police find Shea’s body. He was paroled in 1985.

Pussycat is based on Manson Family member Kathryn “Kitty” Lutesinger. Lutesinger would at times cooperate with the police authorities but was also one of the women arrested when the police raided Spahn Ranch and one of Manson Family to carve an “X” on her forehead in protest. She would eventually find her way toward a normal and respectable life, working in the LAUSD.

Fromme would be sentenced to life imprisonment for her attempt to assassinate US President Gerald Ford in 1975, but was released in 2009 after she had served 34 years. She was suspected in the 1972 murders of James and Lauren Willett, but released due to lack of evidence.

Charles “Tex” Watson was convicted of the 9 August 1969 murders of Sharon Tate, hairdresser Jay Sebring, writer Wojciech Frykowski, and Folger’s coffee heiress Abigail Folger at Cielo Drive, and the murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca in Los Feliz. At the time of the murders, Watson was a few months away from turning 24.

In Tarantino’s movie, knowing what these women and men will do on 9-10 August 1969 conjures an ominous cloud over Spahn Ranch and its denizens. The slashed tire clearly makes this commune anti-social as does the portrayal of the controlling Squeaky Fromme.

In the easy breezy world of the on-the-rise stars, Tate goes solo in Westwood to see “The Wrecking Crew” alone, using her face to get in for free in a moment of self-love. Doffing her flat-heeled white go-go boots, we see her dirty bare feet resting on the chairs in front of her as she watches herself on the screen in a comically compromising position with Martin and later getting to put her feet in the face of Nancy Kwan.

While Booth is fixing TV antennas and discovering the dilapidated state of Spahn Ranch, Dalton reading a depressing Western novel while a much younger actor, Trudi (Julia Butters), is seriously into her method acting. Flustered by forgetting his lines, Dalton has a tantrum/ego meltdown in the relative privacy of his trailer, but comes back with a good performance that impresses Trudi.

Schwarzs offers Dalton spaghetti Westerns in Rome and a reluctant Dalton agrees, spending six months in Italy with Booth. Booth comes back wearing hard fine leather shoes and a white jeans jacket and pants. Dalton comes back in fine shoes and married to an Italian woman with big hair, Francesca Cappucci (Lorenza Izzo).

With a wife to support, Dalton realizes he can’t continue life with his BFF. He and Booth go on a last night on the town–the very night that historically, the Manson Family will visit Sharon Tate.

Along the way to the final violent scenes, there’s some serious name-dropping. I picked up on the first view: Frank Sinatra-Raquel Welch vehicle “Lady in Cement” (1968), Robert Goulet (1933-2007) singing “MacArthur Park,” Mike Connors (1925-2017) in “Mannix” (CBS, 1967-1975), Audie Murphy (1925-1971), ABC’s “Land of the Giants” (1968-1970), NBC’s “Man from UNCLE” (1964-1968), “Girl from UNCLE” (1967-1968), and ABC’s “Combat!” (1962-1967).

I won’t spoil the ending for you. Dalton will likely die of lung cancer as this alternative reality’s Marlboro Man, but we don’t know how he will actually die or how his marriage will fare. If the shoes were a hint, then Booth might have grown up and might, like the man he was modeled after, Hal Needham, go on to direct Dalton in something like “Smokey and the Bandit.” Burt Reynolds, who had been friends with Needham, his stunt double, had been scheduled to play George Spahn, but died before filming began. Reynolds would have certainly added to the name-dropping nostalgia.

The leads of “Lancer” have both died. James Stacy in 2016. Wayne Maunder, just last year (11 November 2018). Their screen father, Andrew Duggan, died in 1988). Before “Lancer,” Maunder has starred in ABC’s “Custer,” but was defeated by NBC’s “The Virginian.”  In “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood,” the fringed buckskin jacket that Dalton wears in “Lancer,” was supposedly originally from “Custer” and is dyed dark. Likewise, the movie shows James Stacy leaving the studio lot on a motorcycle.

The hidden heartache is that James Stacy would be in an accident in 1973–hit by a drunk driver. He would lose his left arm and leg. The woman who was riding with him on the motorcycle died.  Stacy’s ex-wife, Connie Stevens, would host a fundraiser and Kirk Douglas would have a role specially written for Stacy. Stacy would also win a lawsuit against the bar that served the drunk driver.

Yet despite two Primetime Emmy nominations (1977 and 1986), Stacy ended up living in a bitter alcoholic haze. Esquire gives a rundown of the real people in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” but neglects the ugliness beyond the Manson Family. Stacy would end up serving six years in Chino for child molestation.

The juxtaposition of the party at the Playboy Mansion and the Manson Family communal living at Spahn Ranch, is remarkable in that Tarantino ignores the ugly underbelly of the so-called sexual revolution that Hugh Hefner was supposedly leading. Hefner was making the money. Women became willing objects and even #MeToo moment victims. Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” suggests a contrast of healthy sexy fun at the Playboy Mansion and unhealthy sexy decay at the Spahn Ranch.

Gloria Steinem’s exposé doesn’t make the Playboy bunny life seem glamorous. In this #MeToo era, some of the conditions may not seem acceptable. As Jill Filipovic wrote for Time.com, ” If anything, he took that existing sexual imbalance and magnified it, creating a brand that is synonymous with sexualized women being gazed at as things a man might want to acquire.”

Yet there are other things that have come out over the years.  In 1984, director Peter Bogdanovich’s book, “The Killing of a Unicorn,” claimed that the murdered Playboy Playmate, Dorothy Stratten, was coerced into sex with Hugh Hefner. Bogdanovich wanted to use the word “rape,” but his publisher changed the wording under pressure from Hefner’s legal team. Much later, tell-alls courtesy of Izabella St. James, Kendra Wilkinson and Holly Madison provided a less than glamorous portrayal of the Playboy Mansion. There seems to be a flagrant disregard for STDs noted in even a safer sex era. The year 1969 is when a Missouri teenager, Robert Rayford, dies as what might be the earliest case of HIV/AIDS in North America.

Attitudes toward assumed consent via alcohol or drugs and the admission that Hefner called Quaaludes “thigh-openers,” as well as claims by Zoe Paul that she groomed young women into the Playboy Mansion lifestyle indicate something more sinister than this movie represents.  The TV series, “I Spy” had already ended (1965-1968), but Bill Cosby had won three consecutive Emmy Awards (1966, 1967 and 1968) and Cosby was already set to debut his new series, “The Cosby Show,” in September 1969. Cosby would become a regular at the Playboy Mansion even though he married Camille (née Hanks) in 1964 if he wasn’t already by 1969.

This isn’t the one problem with how women are portrayed. Look at how Sharon Tate is characterized. There’s no hint of her troubled relationship with Roman Polanski over her “hangup” about his infidelities. The women at the Playboy mansion are young and happy and beautiful. We meet Mama Cass, but don’t see her discomfort at being treated as invisible because she isn’t a Playboy Playmate beautiful.

This is a white man’s fantasy and in it, the Asian American man, Bruce Lee, is a punchline. I suppose that shouldn’t be surprising. “Kung Fu” gets referenced in “Pulp Fiction” near the end when Jules talks about leaving the life of an enforcer and walking the earth like Caine in “Kung Fu.”

We know that the Booth character was based on “Billy Jack.” Billy Jack was supposedly part-Native American and played by a white man (just as David Carradine was a white man portraying a part-Asian protagonist), Tom Laughlin, beginning with the 1976 “The Born Losers.”  Laughlin was one of a number of white men who starred in films featuring Asian martial arts.

Despite the rise of East Asian stars like Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Donnie Yen, Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” resurrected “Kung Fu” star David Carradine and Japan and its Yakuza are only a side trip to the main event–a duel between two former lovers, Uma Thurman (who was born in 1970) as the “Bride” and David Carradine (who was born in 1936) as Bill. Between Thurman and Carradine there’s an ungainly 34-year age gap. In “Kill Bill,” Japan is an exotic background and a means of proving racial superiority.

“Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” has used the Bruce Lee is a joke and while we know Lee would go on to stardom, in this alternative timeline that might not be true. Moreover, in the film, women like Robie’s Sharon Tate are ornaments, as much eye candy as the women in the Playboy Mansion scene. This is a Hollywood fairytale, visually stunning, expertly edited and filled with movie and TV references, but does it say anything more than white men are the dominant heroes in the landscape of American movies? Does it even suggest that dominance may be coming to an end as we know that Lee’s star will rise and Dalton’s fate is uncertain? In this alternative reality, I think not.




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