I. Prolegomenon: “Once upon a time,” Conservatism, and the Appeal of Nostalgia
This isn’t a review. (Here’s Sean Gilman’s review on this site.) It isn’t a judgment about whether a film is good or bad at a filmmaking level. Rather, it’s an attempt at a primarily thematic analysis. It’s an effort to answer some questions I have.
I want to consider Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood on two levels: 1) a thematic one, specifically focusing on its construction of, assumptions about, and implications about gender and race — though, as a white person, I am more uneasy about tackling this one, aware that my own complicity in whiteness will always cloud how I observe and understand race on screen — and 2) an emotional one, arguably difficult, subjective territory, but one I think I have to address, given my own overwhelming fury upon exiting the cinema after my first viewing of the film.
First, then: what is the film saying or implying about gender? About men and about women? I believe Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood is, in essence, a conservative film. (And I credit my friend Ben Hynes for using this adjective in reference to the film in a conversation with me and thus, as aptly chosen words often do, doing much to illuminate and organize the clutter of details in the film I’d observed.) And by “conservative” I mean two things: first, a conservative stance is one that is, inevitably, backward looking. It looks to the past as a guide for the future and understands or uses the past to measure the present, which generally fails to measure up. A conservative viewpoint on some level idolizes the past — better days, better times, the good old days. It is inherently nostalgic. Second, the film is conservative in the sense that it not only looks to the past with longing, but it is itself rooted in what I would generally consider (particularly as relative to a “liberal” or “progressive” viewpoint) outdated, regressive understandings of the world and, more fundamentally, of the way the world should be.
The first kind of conservatism, the nostalgia, can seem harmless, particularly when a film, like this one, wears its nostalgia on its sleeve, particularly its nostalgia for the texture of a particular era–the music, TV shows, food labels, clothing, neon signs, cars, shoes, jackets, streets, houses, furniture, and so much of the pop culture and movie world accouterments of a Hollywood in a late 1960’s. The title itself implies a specifically self-conscious nostalgia — “once upon a time.” It indicates it a certain awareness of the fairy-tale quality memories of a past time can have: memories not quite rooted in reality, selective memories, memories that make the past look a bit shinier or happier than it actually was. But there’s an interesting tension between that self-conscious fairy-tale element and the meticulous level of production design. It isn’t the past — it’s a “once upon a time” — and it is the past — “that’s exactly what that street would have looked like!” And Tarantino here, while building a sense of what things were “really truly like,” with all that incredibly meticulous detail, also winks at us in the plot, not just in the title, and gives us a self-consciously fairy tale ending. It’s not the grim kind of fairy tale, where the orphaned children die in the forest or the little mermaid dissolves into sea foam, but the happy kind, where instead of being murdered, like she was in real life, the princess is saved by logistical error and by a prince–or, rather, a couple of princes and one dog.
Something that is so self-consciously nostalgic seems like it can hardly be dangerous. It knows it’s nostalgia, it tells us it’s nostalgia, so we must be in some sense insulated from its seductive powers. But I think that idea of insulation gives us as viewers too much credit. Nostalgia can function in the same way advertising does: we know it’s an ad, we may even mock its obviousness, we think we won’t be fooled by its promises of being the “best butter” or “best headache reliever” or “best spaghetti sauce,” but I know I’m prone to reach for whatever butter, pain pill, or sauce that sounds most familiar to me. The “I’ve heard that somewhere before” is a powerful thing, and familiarity, rather than breeding contempt, often results in me pulling out my credit card. What is familiar seems safest.
Nostalgia taps into those same emotional responses and pleasures; even when I know the summers of my childhood can’t have been as long and lovely and languidly hot as my nostalgia tells me, I still believe in them, on some level, mourn their loss, and wish I could get back there.
So the nostalgia of Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood works in the way nostalgia always works, tempting a viewer with the textures and sounds of the “old days” and into a kind of true belief that “that’s what it was really like” and a desire to “get back there.” The praise I’ve seen of the film by so many critics often does seem to hinge on luxuriating in the film’s nostalgia — it’s Tarantino’s “love letter to Hollywood” or “love letter to the movies” I’ve been told. Catnip for critics, of course — what could be better than a film which taps into our own love for movies? One that does it with such a tantalizing texture and feel?
One of the most significant problems with the nostalgia of Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood, however, is its rootedness in cis-gender maleness and in whiteness. Nostalgia for “the old days” indicates that there is only one old days, and as such, it implies a kind of neutrality, a kind of universality of experience, a “this is what things were like . . . for everyone.” The film shows multiple scenes where “everyone” is watching or talking about the same TV shows, listening to the same music, going to the same (or parallel) restaurants. The very meticulousness of the production design, as noted above, implies the world and what the world held, at that time and place, has been covered.
The film, of course, is arguably from Rick (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff’s (Brad Pitt) perspective, but unlike some films, where that perspective shows us a clearly subjective point of view of the world (e.g. any of Lynne Ramsay’s films, including her most recent, You Were Never Really Here), this film doesn’t indicate to us that what Rick and Cliff perceive as the world around them is faulty. What they see is, in fact, the world. It’s, then, an uncomplicated vision, one of essentially unified experience of existence for everyone, where “we all liked this” or “we all watched that” or “we all drove here” or “we all ate this.”
But this nostalgia is both white and male because it centers on Rick and Cliff (we’ll get to Tate later) and posits their experience — or implies their experience — as essentially universal. This kind of assumption of whiteness and maleness as the neutral, universal experience has a long history, of course, in Hollywood, and women film critics, Black critics, and critics of color have for a long time been pushing scholarship in the direction of imagining a Hollywood where white men did not always drive the narrative and the perspective and in the direction of reclaiming discarded or neglected films of the past, directed or written by those who were not white cis-gender men and bringing those narratives and perspectives out in the open where they deserve a place.
If, in the literary world (where my own scholarly roots reside), Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own imagined a “Shakespeare’s sister,” wondering what she would have written had she been given the space and if Alice Walker was instrumental in unearthing and celebrating Zora Neale Hurston, bringing her into the light where her work belonged, film critics and scholars have been doing the same for women filmmakers, Black filmmakers, Black women filmmakers, filmmakers of color, queer filmmakers — imagining what film history would look like if, for example, we made Alice Guy-Blache, Dorothy Arzner, and Oscar Micheaux central to the narrative instead of D. W. Griffith.
But these filmmakers like Guy, Arzner, and Micheaux are still, essentially, considered “Other,” and the white male cis-gender filmmaking and storytelling still rules the day. We might protest that Tarantino should not have to bear the weight of responsibility in this particular film for centering two white, cis-gender men, and that there is nothing inherently wrong in an individual film for centering two white, cis-gender men. However, the film’s positioning as a tale of “Hollywood” (not white, male Hollywood, but “Hollywood”), its use of the Sharon Tate character (Margot Robbie), its racial slurs (however mild, relative to Tarantino’s other work), its use of characters of color (from nameless Mexican valets to Bruce Lee), its construction of other women characters, indicates that this isn’t really a film that can claim to be free of whiteness and the patriarchy (and the implications and assumptions of supremacy surrounding both) — and it is those things that makes the nostalgia of the film a toxic, rather than an innocent, longing for the past (if any nostalgia can ever be innocent). The film is both a nostalgic vision of the past and a film that is itself a relic of the past, deeply conservative in its views of women and of the supposed innocence of white men.
II. Madonnas and Whores: Women in the Male Story
One face looks out from all his canvasses,
One selfsame figure sits or walks or leans;
We found her hidden just behind those screens,
That mirror gave back all her loveliness.
A queen in opal or in ruby dress,
A nameless girl in freshest summer greens,
A saint, an angel;— every canvass means
The same one meaning, neither more nor less.
He feeds upon her face by day and night,
And she with true kind eyes looks back on him
Fair as the moon and joyfull as the light;
Not wan with waiting, not with sorrow dim;
Not as she is, but was when hope shone bright;
Not as she is, but as she fills his dream.
~”In an Artist’s Studio,” Christina Rossetti,
Let’s look at the film’s view of women first. One of the oldest tropes of patriarchal myth-making is the Madonna/whore complex. In a typical construction of this trope, women, as a mysterious “Other,” cannot be complex human beings: they are either “good” or “bad,” and their goodness or badness hinges upon their relationship to men as well as, in a more complex analysis, to whiteness.
The good women are virginal or sexually pure, chaste before marriage and chaste in marriage, giving themselves only to their husbands. They are kind, gentle, child-like in innocence, sweetly honest, and sympathetic, physically weak, and thus in need of a man’s strength; they are compliant and white–Black women, indigenous women, and women of color can never be the “good woman.” These “good” white women are beautiful, but they never flaunt or acknowledge their beauty; modesty is a virtue. They are the better angels of a man’s more naturally wayward nature; he might wander — go off to war or perhaps find himself seduced by one of the bad women — but he can find absolution and forgiveness in returning home to the gentle arms of his wife, who will never scold or reprimand (the good woman is never a shrew), but simply by her silent purity and beauty (she doesn’t need to talk much) inspire the man to be a better person. Her object in life, fulfilled almost exclusively in child-bearing and domesticity, is to please a man – first her father, then her husband; their praise is her highest goal. The good woman who fails to meet these standards, perhaps, even tragically being seduced by a rascally man and losing her chastity, needs to die. In death, she can find redemption for her sins, and her family can thus remember her fondly. She finds embodiment in such women as those from Dante’s Beatrice, Coventry Patmore’s Victorian “Angel in the House,” Lucy Manette in Tale of Two Cities, D. W. Griffith’s Elsie Stoneman (Lillian Gish) and Flora Cameron (Mae Marsh) in Birth of a Nation, Maria in Lang’s Metropolis.
The “bad” women are, of course, the opposite of all of these qualities that good women possess. A bad woman is sexually impure, sexually voracious, dangerously seductive, using her beauty and perhaps even witchcraft to lead men astray. She is shrewish, sly, gratingly loquacious, unforgiving. She’ll speak to men before being spoken to and scold her hard-working man if he comes home late. She rejects domesticity and children; she is often ugly, as white patriarchal conventions of beauty go, or, if beautiful, dangerously beautiful, the kind of beauty that might tempt an otherwise faithful husband to leave his good wife. She is a woman who wants power; she doesn’t accept her rightful lower place in the order of things but always strives against it. She may even “act like a man,” wanting more control or power, especially over men. She finds embodiment in such women as the bible’s Jezebel and Delilah, Jane Eyre’s crazed first Mrs. Rochester (a woman, notably, of mixed race), Madame Defarge in Tale of Two Cities, the mixed race temptress housekeeper in D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation, the robot doppelgänger in Metropolis.
Both kinds of women in the reductionistic, objectification of each are misogynistic constructions. The center of their supposed goodness or badness revolves around their relationship to white men and their support of or rejection of the (white) patriarchy. They may have some semblance of emotion, they may even be sympathetic, but they are not complex; they are not really human. They exist not for themselves but for the men around them.
It is important to note though, that these narratives about gender have not only seduced men, they have seduced women, particularly white woman. If, as a white woman, I can attain this ideal womanhood, I will be worshiped, the narrative goes. The ideal is dangled as a tantalizing possibility, and in a patriarchal world that does not often offer real power or agency, being worshiped as an idol and finding some affirmation in white male patriarchy — from those who have power — is the next best thing, even if it means agreeing to be an object and even if it means joining in the oppression of others, e.g. Black people, indigenous people, people of color. The history of feminism in this country cannot be understood if it is not acknowledged as a white feminism, where Black women and indigenous women have been historically cut off from the ideal as well as from the conversation. I want to keep this complicity of white women in mind, as I examine this film and, particularly, the figure of Sharon Tate.
And so we come to Quentin Tarantino’s Sharon Tate, an idealized vision of typically constructed Hollywood beauty and, going back to our Madonna/whore trope, a typically constructed, deeply regressive Madonna figure. In a more complicated film, less tied to its conservative worldview, the vision of Tate would be nuanced; Tate would have an inner life that would reveal a complex humanity, but Tarantino’s primary idea of complex humanity for Tate seems to be the fact that she snores. (We’ll get to the Tate-watches-herself scene in a bit.) See?, the snores seem to say, she’s not perfect. But we are visually reminded of her perfect loveliness in the midst of those complex-coded snores, as the camera moves from her perfect feet, up her perfectly shaved, long legs, to her shoulders and face — a vision of loveliness, bathed in warm morning light. And the snores, well, they’re damn adorable. The one little flaw that says she’s human — but not truly human, an idealized vision of flesh and blood – something within the realm of possibility, perhaps for white women to emulate and men to search for in the real world. See? She snores. She must really exist. Somewhere.
Much has been made of the fact that Tate has relatively few lines in the film. A hyper focus on the number of lines, though, rather misses the point. It is, certainly, a detail about her character that we should consider — talking does often indicate a character’s complexity and certainly centrality, but Cliff has relatively few lines, too, and he is a more centralized figure in the story, a figure, hearkening back to the centrality and importance of a Clint Eastwood Man with No Name, the strong, silent type of protagonist, whose few words bear weight.
And it’s really Rick’s and Cliff’s journey, in any case, that is central to the film, not Tate’s. It’s entirely possible a silent Sharon Tate could be central to the story, but she’s a plot device, not a central character, and more lines would not necessarily make her more central. The knowledge of what happens, in reality, to the real Sharon Tate — namely, she is brutally murdered by members of the Manson family — hangs over the film from the beginning and adds an inherent tension to her presence on screen — every bit of loveliness we see is about to be snuffed out. We feel death, fear it, and are asked to mourn her loveliness even as we gaze on it. But she, as a character, doesn’t feel that tension herself. There’s no real journey for her in the film like there is for Rick and Cliff, no emotional stakes; she floats along, perpetually moving and literally dancing to some kind of music, diegetic or non-diegetic, and the only bit of real emotional arc we might see in her is momentary and confined to one sequence, where she wonders how the audience in the movie theater will respond to her performance in The Wrecking Crew — and she’s delighted when they do.
It is a little narrative arc that I’ve seen any number of critics respond warmly to, perhaps in relief that we get to see at least one instance of a semblance of an inner emotional life. But that scene does not define who she is in the film as a whole: Tate doesn’t have an emotional texture or arc that we otherwise have access to. We don’t know how she feels about Polanski or her marriage. We don’t know how she feels about Jay. We don’t know which friend she feels particularly attached to. We don’t know if she’s lonely when Polanski is gone. We don’t know how she really feels about her movie career, if she’s worried about getting more parts, or if she’s worried about being typecast or how she feels about having been in Valley of the Dolls. She just smiles and smiles and sweetly smiles, even when the voice over narration tells us her pregnancy is making her a tad uncomfortable. But pregnancy isn’t really a problem or anything like a consuming or emotional journey for this version of Sharon Tate. We might add a halo around her image as she smiles through that slight discomfort of that mysterious magical thing called pregnancy a good woman enjoys.
No, the journey and the stakes of the film, from a character arc perspective, rest with Rick and, by extension, Cliff: aging male performers, whose lives are closely bound in friendship for and loyalty to one another, and who both, with more (Rick) or less (Cliff) anxiety wonder if their careers and talents are about to become obsolete in the new Hollywood of younger stars and new sensibilities. The inciting incident of the narrative is specifically tied to Rick (and tangentially to Cliff): the news for Rick from producer Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino), that he’s been problematically typecast as a villain, a typecasting that will shove him into extinction, and the resolution comes in his triumph over this threat of obsolescence (more on that later).
The centrality of white male characters and their emotional journey is, of course, not inherently problematic even if it is problematic as a part of the long Hollywood tradition that perpetually and continuously puts white men at the center of the vast majority of its stories. But paired as it is with the women of the film, who are deprived of humanity and who, notably, fall into either the Madonna or the whore good/bad binary, it celebrates a conservative, regressive, and even vicious construction of gender.
Tate, as we’ve noted, is rendered impossibly angelic. She is the chaste, faithful, eventually beautifully pregnant, wife (who, while pregnant, can still comfortably sport super short, sexy, but not too sexy, dresses and shirts): allowing an adoring Jay to tag along, giving Steve McQueen a rapturous and innocent hug, but never flirting, never showing any awareness of her own sexuality or of the way Jay and McQueen might want something more than friendship. She dances serenely along, always seemingly unaware of the adoring male gaze. The Madonna figure doesn’t use her beauty or her sexuality to tempt men. She is, in some sense, unaware of her beauty, because if she was aware, she’d be in danger of using it to gain power over men.
The scene where she watches herself in the theater as a character in The Wrecking Crew is telling in this regard: she enjoys the idea of being watched and likes watching herself, but it’s a rapturous quite innocent delight. Her character on screen, played by the real-life Sharon Tate, is the “klutz,” a role that renders her adorable, child-like, and non-threatening. And whoops, there’s her panties as she falls, but it’s all very sexy-innocent — the real Sharon Tate on screen doesn’t indicate she knows she’s flashed the world — and the scene is supposed to be funny, so it’s not really dangerously sexy, not in that way that bad women might know how to use and wield. The Margot Robbie version of Sharon Tate, quite notably, too, watches herself along with other watchers, rather than looking back, seductively, into the eyes of watching men, like other, more openly seductive, bad women might do. (More on those bad women who look back at men in a moment.) It’s a very chaste kind of watching that she does.
The Tate character in The Wrecking Crew is also, interestingly, a character with some fighting skills, skills that, unlike Cliff, are careful constructions. We see a flashback of Tate (the Robbie version of Tate) being trained by Bruce Lee, and we see her delightedly remembering it and then delightedly watching herself executing it on screen. It could be, on the one hand, a really nice moment, where an actor can truly delight in the magic of cinema, the illusion of being able to fight for real, but, because of what we’ve seen of Tate already — sweet, innocent, harmless — the scene where Tate watches herself fight serves to underscore her relative powerlessness in the world of men and, as we’ll see, as opposed to the Manson girls. She’s certainly no Cliff, with actual fighting skills and strength, but she’s also no Rick, who has some actual menace, the ability to physically hurt people, whether it’s the young girl Trudi, whom he throws to the floor for the sake of his art, or it’s the screaming Manson woman, whom he dispatches by bringing his movie role where he torched Nazis into real life. Real Rick can actually torch the bad guys, not just movie Rick.
No, Tate is no Cliff and she’s no Rick. She is intensely vulnerable, in the most Madonna-like way, according to the Madonna/whore construct. She’s naively headed for death for the entire film, and nothing she can do, in herself, can stop it. And that’s the way, it’s implied, it should be. The Madonna, passive, except in bearing children, doesn’t sully herself by dirtying herself in the worldly affairs of men. In conservative’s ideal world, women don’t get dirty in any way, and in this world of Tarantino’s fairy tale, where the unlikely but heroic prince rescues the princess, Tate never sees the bloodshed either. She just gets to bless Rick (and tangentially, Cliff) after he saves her from it.
And this leads us to the Manson family, specifically, the Manson women or girls, as foils for the Madonna-like Tate. It’s obvious, of course, that they are not the “good women.” In the world of heroes and villains on screen and in a real world where the Manson family really did brutally murder Sharon Tate, who pleaded for the life of her unborn baby, the Manson women are definitely the baddies.
But a few things make such a good/bad binary troubling. The first is that Charles Manson himself is almost wholly removed from the film. We see him once, moving as a reminder of the looming threat through the Polanski property, and we learn that the Manson family members who eventually invade Rick’s house are there under orders from Manson, but the film itself does not really give a context for Manson, for teenage runaways, and the cultish thrall he held over those at Spahn Ranch. We cannot, certainly, in any way excuse the real-life murderers for what they did to Sharon Tate and her friends, but the film is distinctly pointed in the way it focuses on the Manson women, not Manson himself.
They are set up very early on as the specific image of the threat we’ll have to worry about for our main characters — and their entrance, in its position in the narrative, is telling. They are a threat, of course, to the Madonna-princess (because even before the film starts, we know what happens, in real life, to Tate), but, more tellingly, they are narratively conceived, in this story, as a threat to men in the film — a threat to Rick first, and eventually more directly to Cliff and also to George Spahn, who, of all the characters in the film, is most obviously under the thrall of someone, not Charles Manson, but a Manson woman, namely, Squeaky.
We first see the Manson women directly after the menace to Rick’s career has been established. He has his meeting with Schwarz, discovers he’s under threat of being typecast, leaves the restaurant, and immediately breaks down in an unmanly display of emotion: “I’m a has-been,” he weeps to Cliff, leaning into him, while Cliff looks around, slightly embarrassed, gives Rick his sunglasses, and chastises, “Don’t cry in front of the Mexicans.” (More on that later.) The main threat to Rick (and Cliff, as his stunt-man) established, the very next images we get are of the Manson women. Cliff pulls out of the restaurant lot and at a stoplight the men spot some hippies at the intersection: “Fuckin’ hippie motherfuckers,” says Rick, his anger and distress at his looming career demise directly and specifically linked to this new generation.
And it’s not just a new generation — it’s a new generation of women who threaten these men, for the next cut is directly to the Manson women, singing and walking along the road, coming over the horizon in the same way you might see a posse of villains in a Western riding towards our hero over the ridge, blurred figures in the heat, which rises visibly in the air, distorting what we see. In the next cut, we see the women more clearly, walking against the background of a wall with a mural, a man in Western garb; they cut directly across his image, an image that looks much like the one we see early in the film, an out sized image of Rick Dalton himself. We cut back to Rick and Cliff in their car, and as “Mrs. Robinson” plays on the radio, the car stops again, and Cliff and Pussycat make eye contact.
It’s a series of images and edits that specifically sets up the Manson women as a part of this new threat to Rick Dalton and to Cliff. It’s not just “fucking hippies” that are a threat, it’s not even Charles Manson; it’s these hippie women and teens: free-wheeling, free-loving, dumpster-diving, scantily clad, shoeless, confident beings, disrupting the order of things, and looking back into the eyes of the men who look at them, utterly confident in the seductive power they hold. They are the inversion of an aging Mrs. Robinson, who tried to recapture her youth and who was a threat to the young graduate Ben Braddock in 1967; these young women, in Ben’s cohort, are, instead, a threat to the men of an older generation. These are not the girls like Elaine, who run off with Ben at the end of the film, and who are unsure of their future. No, these girls know exactly who they are and who they want to seduce and consume, Mrs. Robinsons before their time. These are the whores to Sharon Tate’s Madonna.
These threatening women find their focus in the character of Pussycat, and later in feral groupings on Spahn Ranch, and in Squeaky. Pussycat, a recurring figure in Cliff’s line of vision, is the free-ranging streetwalker, hitching rides, and presumably offering sex when she can, giving the “tourists” something to talk about. She’s a teenager, under 18, but her confidence and sexuality, the way the camera lingers on her body and the way she looks back into it and into Cliff’s eyes, give us permission to keep on looking. She likes to be looked at after all; the camera and the interactions with Cliff tell us she does. And anyway, we don’t have to worry because Cliff, too smart to give in to such feminine wiles, won’t take her up on her outrageous, voracious offer: “I’m too old to go to prison for poontang,” he says.
It’s notable, here, that Pussycat and Sharon Tate are visually linked counterpoints by way of their feet. While Pussycat works to seduce Cliff, her feet sit for a time at the very center of the screen, high up on the car’s dashboard, and invading Cliff’s space and our vision. At the very same time in the narrative, the crosscutting reveals Sharon Tate at the theater, watching herself. Her bared feet, too, now free from her white go-go boots, sit high up on the seat in front of her, centered, blurred, in the foreground. Both images of the women’s feet highlight the women as objects themselves, reduced to the sum of one part, Tarantino’s self-conscious pet fetish. A pair of feet as a synecdoche for each woman. It’s the visual link between the women, of course, that highlights the divide between them, the Madonna and the whore. Both reduced to the sum of one part, but one, a tidy, tame, passive innocent, who isn’t a threat to the men who want to look at her, and the other, a messy, undomesticated threat, who could put a man who wants to look at her in prison and who could murder the tame innocent woman, the one who fits so nicely into the white male dream.
We need to examine the women we meet at Spahn Ranch as well, more whores in the Madonna/whore construct, but it is also worth noting that while Pussycat tries to seduce Cliff and while Tate delightedly watches herself on screen, the crosscutting gives us yet another male-female pairing: Rick and young Trudi (Julia Butters). (My thanks to Brandon Wilson for reminding me of this bit of cross-cutting.) The narrative structure and the images linking Pussycat and Tate invite us to ask where Trudi falls in the film’s view of women: Madonna or whore? A little girl hardly seems like she could be a threat in the way that Pussycat is — and perhaps it seems outrageous to even posit the question. Of course, she’s one of the “good ones”! But therein lies the rub: the women of the film must fall in one or the other of the binary, so Trudi, too, as precocious and well-read as she is, is going to be reduced to a type. And what type?
It’s difficult to know, of course, if Butters was cast with Quailey (Pussycat) in mind, or vice versa, but the superficial physical resemblance between them is certainly striking–dark hair, dark eyebrows, extremely red lips, high cheekbones, delicate faces, arresting eyes. They both represent, too, a specific threat to the men around them, a younger generation (younger than Tate’s character, who would have been 26), who is intruding, confidently, arrogantly, into male spaces. Trudi is a particular threat to Rick as a young up and coming Method-influenced and Method-literate actor against an insecure aging actor, who struggles to remember his lines and who is reminded that he might not even have the right words to navigate his business anymore. God help him, the suggestion goes, if in this new world, he calls a woman an “actress,” instead of the more politically correct “actor.” It’s yet one more thing for this poor man to fear as he struggles to survive.
Trudi, ultimately though, whatever initial threat she seems to pose and whatever patronizing attitude she initially has, becomes a figure that a woman should be, from the conservative, Madonna-inspired viewpoint: her being, her words, her acting are ultimately in service to and subservient to Rick’s. We discover, for example, that she’s a very good listener, as all good women should be. Rick doesn’t have to be interested in her book or her narrative, but she’s riveted by his (both his literal book and, by extension, his personal narrative). She’s deeply compassionate and solicitous when he shows emotion; a good woman never makes a man feel embarrassed. He calls her “pumpkin puss” (another contrasting parallel to Pussycat), which annoys her a bit, but her nicely feminine sympathy wins the day; she won’t scold him. (The other “nice” women in Rick’s life, the hair and make-up woman, for example, don’t mind being called “honey” either. It’s a world where the good women aren’t bothered by patronizing monikers like those too sensitive feminists might be today.) He hurls her to the ground as he is immersed in his acting, an action he added to the scene himself and for which the director rapturously commends him, and she doesn’t mind one bit: she tells Rick, who anxiously inquires whether she was hurt, “No, no, I got pads on!” An appropriate response from a good woman, whose art is in service to and preparation for whatever path the male art might take. (Sidenote: It’s impossible here for me not to think of Tarantino’s own reckless risk, “for his art,” putting Uma Thurman in an unsafe car for Kill Bill, and for which she told the world she forgave him. Perhaps he wanted to hear another version of that reassurance on screen.)
And finally, in the perfect resolution to the scene in service of Rick’s dignity and manhood and career, Trudi, the little girl actor Rick had been worried about, whispers to him, “That was the best acting I’ve ever seen in my whole life.” Trudi, the film ultimately posits, is one of the good ones, a Madonna. Her career, even outside of the historical ideal of female domesticity, will still be in service of the men around her.
“Rick fuckin’ Dalton,” as he exclaims as he leaves the scene, has won the day.
With the end of that scene, we cut to Spahn Movie Ranch. While Rick has triumphed on the set of Lancer, Cliff arrives on the movie set of a time past, a set now overrun with new, dangerous blood: hippies, mostly hippie women, and a handful of men, who are apparently subservient to them. Squeaky and Gypsy give the orders; Charlie Manson himself is, again, absent. Like Rick’s challenge with Trudi, Cliff faces a challenge to the Hollywood he knew, too, a threat primarily embodied in whore-women, some of them even pregnant with bastard children. The owner of the ranch, an emblem of the old days of Hollywood, as we discover, has been totally emasculated, seduced and wholly cowed by these women — he’s blind, confined to his room, stripped of his memories (he doesn’t even know who Cliff is). He’s ordered to sleep his days away at the pleasure of Squeaky, who “fucks his brains out” in the mornings and audaciously rules the TV programming for the household. She sits in a sort of armchair of power, man-spreading her legs and giving orders to the others, who lie draped around her.
Cliff’s arrival to this woman-dominated ranch (again, Manson himself and his power are felt nowhere in this scenario, even if he is referenced), once a man’s world of Western movies, comes, in the narrative like the arrival of our strong, silent beautiful hero. We worry about his safety — who knows what these feral cats will do — but we’ve already seen the way he gracefully leaps to the roof of a house and the way he beat the arrogant, supposedly unbeatable Bruce Lee (more on that later) — and his unflappable stance continues unabated as he progressively mows down any resistance they offer him in the scene, finally leaving the ranch in a cool cloud of dust: the women flummoxed and the one pathetically skinny, squeaky-voiced feminized man who dared defy him beaten to a bloody pulp.
And so that’s the essential Madonna-whore set-up that leads us to the climax: a set up that tells us what kind of women inhabit the world and what kind of men are those we should admire and sympathize with. The women are made up of the good ones who aren’t a threat to the men and who serve their interests — Sharon Tate, Trudi — and the bad ones who are a threat to the men and who threaten their power — Pussycat, Squeaky, and all the other “hippie” women on Spahn Ranch, and, we should mention, Cliff’s nagging wife (who, it is implied, deserves to have been killed since she wouldn’t shut up — she was annoying, you know). The men are a little bit harder to categorize on such a binary (in the patriarchy there’s more room for nuance in male characters, especially white male characters), but they are primarily made up of those who are powerful and important and white — Rick, Cliff, James Stacey, Marvin Schwarz — and those who are less important, less powerful, impotent, not white, and/or, on some level, subservient to women — Jay (who is Tate’s puppy dog), George Spahn, Bruce Lee, the Mexican valets, the hippie men on Spahn Ranch, Randy (who is bossed around by his shrieking wife, who stubbornly believes Cliff murdered his wife).
In this narrative construction, the showdown, the final test of Rick and Cliff’s characters will be whether they can reclaim the power that is their due, defeat the bad women who want to steal it, rescue the good woman in peril, and take back their manhood and their place in the world and in the world of Hollywood–that world of stories that purport to tell us who we are (and who “they” are) and who we want to be. For Cliff, the stakes are perhaps lower; he doesn’t really need to prove his manliness anymore, having already defeated the hippies once–defied Squeaky, rejected Pussycat, and beat the pathetic hippie man — but for Rick, even with his triumph on the set of Lancer, a stint in Italy, and a new hot Italian wife (the “fine creature” in [his] bed as Cliff calls her), he still needs to take back the narrative to demonstrate that he can bring the cinematic glory of the old Nazi-torching days into the new days of Roman Polanski cinema.
III. “Don’t cry in front of the Mexicans”: White Nostalgia and Racial Innocence
Before we get to that showdown though, I want to return to assertion I began with that the conservatism and nostalgia of the film is not only very male, conceiving of women only relative to a good/bad binary whose goodness or badness is assessed in their relationship to men, but also that the nostalgia is very white. It is white in its centering on white men and an idealized white woman. It is white in the way it implies the universality or supposed non-racialized neutrality of their experience and in the way it frames, decentralizes, and/or demeans Black characters, Asian characters, and/or Latinx characters.
The implication that whiteness is universal and neutral is not a new problem in Hollywood. A film that stars white people is not described, typically, as a “film about white people”; it is just a film about people. A film, however, that stars Black characters, Latinx characters, Asian characters, or indigenous characters is almost always described in terms of race. The implication is that white people do not live a racialized existence, but anyone who is not white does. Scholars, historians, and other cultural critics have done much more justice to this than I can do or will even try to do here, but in the context of a film that purports to be about and to long for the “old days of Hollywood,” it is worth noting that this is not a film that is explicitly, at the textual, descriptive level, about white Hollywood, just about “Hollywood,” thereby, by erasure, making “Other” the experience or struggles any stars, writers, directors who are not white might have had in that Hollywood or in the world of the late 1960’s in L.A. Sharon Lee, Bruce Lee’s daughter, has described just how much harder than white men Lee would have had to work to gain roles and status in Hollywood, for example, but by centering Rick’s fall from stardom as the primary struggle we should care about, the essential implication is that the struggle for a white man in Hollywood is The Story of Hollywood.
And of course, yes, one particular film that focuses on a white man is not necessarily itself problematic; we can tell and enjoy stories about white men. But the centering of the white men is especially troubling in this film in part because, as film critic and artistic director of the Indie Memphis Film Festival, Miriam Bale has pointed out, Tarantino excises from his script Charles Manson’s overt anti-Black racism and his goal, with the attack on Tate, to start a race war, and “to get racist cops to blame the Black Panthers” for the murders. We’ve already noted that the removal of Manson from the film’s world has deeply troubling implications for how we view the Manson women–the women, not a man, are the villains–but the removal of Manson’s racist motive suggests film’s nostalgia is rooted in a specifically white nostalgia and a notion of “racial innocence,” as Robin DiAngelo, for example, has described as being essential to the very construct of whiteness. A nostalgia that chooses to specifically remove the explicitly racist real-life villain from the world of the longed-for past suggests that anti-Black racism or other kinds of racism are not a significant part of that past. And certainly, racism would not have been something Rick and Cliff would have experienced as white men. Is there any way, then, we can justify the removal of the racist villain, because the story is about white men who didn’t need to face that racism as a part of the villainy they needed to take down? Is it fair to ask the film to give us an ending like Inglorious Basterds, when “it’s not about that,” that is, it’s not “about racism” for Rick and Cliff?
I think it is absolutely fair — and absolutely necessary — for at least one key reason: it is fundamentally dishonest and even dangerously toxic to pretend the Manson murders had nothing to do with race in this fairy tale in the context of centering two white men who will not ever experience racism — and who are, themselves, racist.
It is a mild form of racism, some might argue, that Rick and Cliff demonstrate, especially relative to other figures that populate Tarantino films — they don’t use the n-word once! — but that very perception of mildness, perhaps, is what makes it all the more toxic since it suggests, then, their racism that isn’t “that bad.” It suggests that their racism is unconnected to the larger structures of racism that would have ruled Hollywood in the 60’s (and continues to rule it), and it suggests that since their racism isn’t mean-spirited or intentional, it’s ok. If Rick is fundamentally a nice guy, a racist slur, his niceness implies, isn’t “that bad.” If Cliff is, if not necessarily a nice guy, but at least heart-stoppingly beautiful and charismatic one, an idealized form of a man, then a racist comment from him isn’t “that bad” either. Beautiful white men are not generally conceived of as bad (unlike women, whose beauty, we’ve seen, is dangerous).
We’ll leave the Cliff vs. Bruce Lee scene for the moment, but let’s look at two instances where Rick and Cliff say something racist. In Rick’s Lancer scene, the scene where he finally triumphs and gains the applause of director and scene partner, he improvises and uses a racist slur, “beaner.” It is a scene that has one of the most significant emotional impacts of the film: we’re really rooting for Rick to succeed, and he does. He weeps after the director calls cut, a release of the tension and of the intensity of his craft, and the very last thing we are set up to want as an audience is some kind of nit-picking politically correct pedant to tell him he shouldn’t say “beaner.” He’s had a rough time, he’s triumphed, he’s a nice guy — and the director’s and Trudi’s rapturous commendations, both of his acting and his improvisation, are exactly the emotional satisfaction we are set up to want.
The nostalgia of this scene is wrapped up not only in the longing for a time when men could act their hearts out and women wouldn’t scold them for being too rough but also in the longing for a time when it just wasn’t a big deal to use a racist slur. Those were the days. It is, of course, the dangerous nostalgia of a white imagination and a white world because, in reality, it does not allow for the experiences and stories of Latinx actors who might have been in Hollywood at the time and could never be the protagonists. From their perspective — a perspective the film removes — it was never ok to use the word “beaner”; the sin of it was merely suppressed by white people in power, by Rick and those who applaud him. The nostalgia and emotion of the scene is directly tied to the presumption of white racial innocence, that Rick has no race, that race doesn’t really come into it.
We’ve already mentioned the scene where Rick learns he’s been typecast, and Cliff helps him hide his emotion with sunglasses. Cliff’s comment there, “Don’t cry in front of the Mexicans,” is very similar to the seemingly innocuous slur by Rick. It was a line, incidentally, that got a big laugh, both times I saw the film, from my mostly white audience, and it’s important to tease out the implications of what Cliff is saying. Is it really that racist? Why would he tell Cliff not to cry in front of “the Mexicans”? Why does their audience, as Mexicans, matter, particularly, to Cliff?
In typically constructed toxic masculinity rooted in the concept of a hierarchical order that must be maintained, men are not supposed to show emotion because emotion is considered weak; emotion is considered feminine, and femininity is weakness. Strength, in very specific forms, is the ultimate virtue. These kind of men have to be the most powerful people in the room, and it is especially important not to show emotion and thus cede power to those whom they should, as true men, dominate in the proper order of things. Crying in front a woman, then, is especially bad. In classic Hollywood, tough guy men might cry, in special cases, in front of other tough guy men who are their trusted friends, but it’s ok because the perception is that they are all tough-guy equals. Women are not equal to them, and crying in front of them is to give them power they shouldn’t have. Likewise, the implication is that Rick should not cry “in front of the Mexicans” because they are not equal to Rick. Crying in front of them, like crying in front of women, would give them power they shouldn’t have in the white patriarchal hierarchical order. The comment has an inherently racist assumption at its heart and is rooted in white supremacy and patriarchy.
But ok, really, what’s the big deal? These two little comments? Should we really judge Rick and Cliff as racists because they said those two small things? Rick, at least, surely, means well. The improved slur just slipped out.
Their words matter exactly because they are framed in the film as innocent, harmless comments. We perceive them as innocent, as we’ve noted, because we want Rick to succeed and not have to bother, in his great moment, with political correctness; we perceive them as innocent because they are our central characters, and we are primed to forgive whatever flaws they might have. But maybe most importantly for this story, we perceive them as innocent because Tarantino does not include Charles Manson and his racism in the film.
If he had included it, it would have had to be a part of the essential villainy and evil that the central characters are up against. It’s a big deal. Charles Manson’s anti-Black racism is a very big deal. It would have needed serious treatment in the story. But if Manson’s racism had been in the film, that causes problems for Rick and Cliff’s characters. We would have had, almost certainly, to make uncomfortable parallels with the supposedly casual racism Rick and Cliff display and the murderous kind Manson intended. We would have had to see Rick and Cliff, I think, in the context of a Hollywood that was systemically and structurally racist, not as individual free agents, who might have a slip of the tongue here or there. And the film doesn’t want to do that. It wants to allow Rick and Cliff to live in an illusion of innocence, where racist slurs are not really a big deal, where no one will bother you if you say something wrong, and where white men can just practice their art without having to worry about all that. Without having to worry about race.
It’s a tantalizing dream for white people, the good old days where we weren’t made to feel guilty about whiteness, where we could hang on to that idea racial innocence.
We also need, in this context, to touch on the scene where Cliff and Bruce Lee fight, but I do not think I will really dig into it here; a number of other writers have analyzed it and come to different conclusions about it. It deserves more attention and analysis than just a paragraph or two in this essay. So I will just make a few observations and comments about it, ultimately linked it to the analysis I’ve done so far. First, I take Sharon Lee’s response to it quite seriously; she clearly understood that Tarantino did not intend harm, but, for her, there was, in fact, a harmful impact. I think considering intent and impact, particularly in terms of structures of power, is immensely important. Second, it struck me, in the moment of seeing it, both times, as incredibly demeaning of Lee. My audiences certainly took it as such both times: they were most definitely laughing at Lee. I cannot read the scene in any other way than that they were intended to laugh at him, and I don’t find one rationale I’ve heard that Tarantino is trying to “catch the audience in racism” compelling. If true, it’s deeply sadistic and careless. But I don’t think the scene is that sophisticated in its intentions. It’s not Funny Games. Third, I understand that Tarantino reveres Lee, loves his work, loves his films; I would accept, with Sharon Lee, that he did not intend harm. But I’m not really sure his intentions matter, even if they might soften our judgment of him, personally. Fourth, I find Tarantino’s defense of the scene incredibly shallow and thoroughly unconvincing, and I am indebted to Michael Polly for his analysis of the defense here.
And fifth, in the context of my analysis of Rick and Cliff and the absence of Manson’s racism above, I have to read the Cliff vs. Lee scene as a part of the same deeply troubling dream of racial innocence the film is positing, where we (coded as a white “we”) don’t have to be bothered by things like racism. In that context of supposed innocence, the film can fantasize about a white stunt man beating one of the most famous fighters in cinema history (if not in history) — and suffer no consequences. It’s just fun. It should suffer no charges of racism. Race has nothing to do with it. Not in that imagined world.
But I cannot accept its nostalgic imaginings of innocence. The removal of Manson is not innocent, racial slurs are never innocent, and I cannot read the Lee scene as innocent.
IV: White Male Redemption: Torching the Nazi Whores and Saving the Madonna Princess
We’ve examined so far, then, what kinds of constructions the film offers about gender, specifically, about women, and what some of its assumptions are about race, as well as the effect of the removal of Charles Manson as a villain, both on how we see the women and how we understand race (or racism) in the film.
And I want to turn now to the penultimate sequence of the film, with the bloodiest, most brutal scenes, where the film most explicitly, rather than implicitly, turns into fantasy: thumbing its nose at reality by sparing Sharon Tate and exacting a cinematic revenge on the Manson killers. The context we’ve established, of gender and race, is, I think, essential in how we read that sequence.
If we remove the sequence from the film’s specific context and characters and read it only in the light of real history, it holds a delicious, satisfying catharsis: what could be better than imagining that instead of brutally murdering Sharon Tate and her friends, the would-be murderers screwed it up? That instead of going to the vulnerable Tate’s house, they decided, on a whim, to go to a house where a fantastically strong and skilled stuntman and his killer dog were visiting and where a Hollywood star still kept his lethal, perfectly functioning, primed and ready, lethal movie prop? That on entering the house, the would-be murderers, instead of causing terror and committing vile murder, were humiliated, and were killed themselves, by people acting essentially in self-defense?
It’s not hard to imagine that Tarantino, after getting his movie revenge on Hitler and the Nazis (Inglorious Basterds) and on slaveholders (Django Unchained), casting around in history for other vile people we can feel really good about killing, landed on Charles Manson and the Manson family. (We can leave aside for now why he is so obsessed with the idea of revenge in the first place.) Like Nazis and slaveholders, would anybody do anything other than rejoice to watch these foul excuses for human beings, the Mansons, shriek and shriek in a lingering death? Surely not.
The sequence, however, doesn’t just reside as flight of fancy we might pair with actual history. The sequence is obviously a part of this particular film, and as such, I cannot rejoice in it. (I have problems with the idea of vigilantism, period, so I’m not sure I could rejoice in any case, but we’ll also leave that aside in this conversation.) It renders me utterly and thoroughly nauseated. In the moment of watching the film for the first time, I was, in fact, quite literally overwhelmed with nausea in a way I never am with screen violence. And here, I’m going to dip into my own personal emotions about and response to the film in a way I have not yet done. I hope you’ll indulge me. I think they are relevant, if less easy to objectively analyze.
I’m not particularly squeamish, and this sequence had enough of that cartoony violence, humorous editing, and surreality that made it easy enough to remove myself from the film’s reality, and say, “it’s only a movie.” So it wasn’t the violence in itself that bothered me (though I’ve considered whether movie violence should bother me more often than it does). It was something else that I couldn’t quite put my finger on, even though I left the theater that first time, shaking with fury and, still, overwhelmed with nausea.
I thought initially the anger and nausea had specifically to do with the violence inflicted on women in the film, the two Manson girls. I do think that might be part of it. Even with the intellectual, history-linked knowledge that “these would have been the horrible women that murdered Sharon Tate,” the film itself hadn’t really established these particular girls as especially vile. They looked like teenagers to me, and I wasn’t satisfied with having to fill in the blanks from history and read villainy into them, as it were. For all we know, at that point in this story, they hadn’t murdered anyone yet; they were, initially, only holding knives, and the brutal battering Cliff gives seemed grotesquely out-sized and sadistic, relative to Cliff’s stuntman abilities and their small teenage bodies. He could have disarmed them, surely, after getting the gun from Tex, without bashing their faces in.
So their characters, in the film’s world, were not established as irredeemably evil, and in terms of narrative coherence, Cliff could have disarmed them or even killed them more quickly. In that context, then, and in terms of what we know about them, these Manson girls are fairly blank slates, not particular vessels we want gory revenge exacted upon. And because they are such blank slates, it was difficult for me not to see them, quite simply, as women. As girls, in fact. And I think I felt the brutality inflicted upon them, as women, inflicted upon me. Joelle Monique, in her piece in the Hollywood Reporter, “’Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,’ Tarantino and When Violence Against Women Is a Punchline,” brilliantly examining the distinct ways that women and men experience violence in Tarantino’s films, also touches on the point that women and men experience violence differently in real life — and that matters. She writes, “While . . . there can often be an understanding that the women in Tarantino films have earned the violence done to them, it can be unsettling to consider that art consumed in mass could help normalize violence many real women are faced with daily. One in four women in the U.S. will suffer a violent act at the hands of an intimate partner. Twenty thousand phone calls are placed to domestic violence hotlines nationwide daily. A series of scenes where women are violently injured can be triggering or induce painful memories of loved ones who have survived similar ordeals.” I have not personally experienced male-inflicted violence, but I have experienced sexual assault, and I do personally know women who have experienced male violence, and I feel the fear of that in my gut. It is personal. There’s a sense of, “there but for the grace of God, go I.” Quentin Tarantino will never feel that fear. Men, do, of course, experience violence, but Tarantino will not ever know what it feels like to look at women being beaten beyond recognition by a man on screen, hear an audience laughing at it– like my audiences did both times–and say to himself, “That could very well be me.”
I think then, that part of my nausea and my anger was about that–feeling that I or women I know were being repeatedly hit in the face and feeling utterly furious with Tarantino for presuming to show something to an adoring audience that he’d never feel, not feel for himself, in his gut, in his being, as a cis-gender white man.
But that really doesn’t explain all of why I felt so nauseated and angry. All of that I could trace pretty immediately after the first viewing.
It was only after more cool reflection, after discussions with and observations from film friends on Twitter, like Miriam Bale, Brandon Wilson, and Carlos Valladares (you three are brilliant), that the larger context of the film, its constructions of gender and race, show me what to feel and understand about that penultimate, nauseating sequence, as well as, in the end, about the entire narrative.
The gory, brutal revenge must be understood in terms of what the film has posited about good women and bad women, what it’s told us about who is important and who’s not, what it includes and what it excludes, and what it tells us about the central characters, Rick and Cliff, their whiteness and their maleness.
In that larger context, the revenge isn’t really about Sharon Tate at all, as I’ve seen a number of reviews suggest. It isn’t about recovering her memory and her story. It’s about white men in Hollywood and the sense of a loss of power, their fear of obsolescence and mortality in a quickly changing world they fear they don’t understand, can’t understand, and don’t want to understand. The movie isn’t a fantasy of revenge for Sharon Tate: it’s a fantasy about the restoration of the dignity and power of white men, especially white men in Hollywood, who’ve had their power wrested from them by women and, less explicitly, by Black people, Asian people, Latinx people. Tate is just the beneficent princess in their Very Important Story.
By the time Tex, Sadie, and “Red” reach Cielo Drive, the story could never have been about Manson’s desire to start a race war. By centering whiteness and supposing Rick and Cliff as harmless or innocent in a racial context, it cannot be about that. And the story could only have taken them to Rick’s house, never to Sharon Tate’s. As the ethereal fairytale princess, the white Madonna, she, herself, was never going exact a bloody revenge. Madonnas don’t do that. And narratively, while, as we’ve noted, the most obvious threat we feel from the beginning is relative to Tate, the actual story we follow is Rick and Cliff’s, and the threat to them, our protagonists, is constructed as a loss of power in the world of Hollywood. It’s a world where on the streets and on the set, women start taking some control. In history, the pill, FDA-approved in 1960, and which, as part of a larger feminist movement, led to a sexual freedom and career freedom for women, akin to, but still not equal to, the freedom of the kind men had enjoyed, but in this film, women’s new freedom isn’t really about their freedom, but about a threat to men. The male threat, like that of Charles Manson (and described by Karina Longworth in her excellent podcast series on Manson, “Charles Manson’s Hollywood” in You Must Remember This ), who took advantage of the new culture of sexual freedom for women in the 60’s and of teenage girls, doesn’t come into it at all either. These women — in the form of the “fucking hippies,” the seductive Manson girls, and in the form of up and coming confident young stars like Trudi — pose a threat to that power. They are the bad women or the potentially bad women, and if they cannot be controlled and ultimately made into accessories in the male story, like Trudi, they have to be killed.
In this scenario of men vs. bad women, Rick forms the emotional human heart of the battle; he’s vulnerable and shows he’s vulnerable. He feels fear. He cries. He stutters. He forgets his lines. He’s the kind of man most human men might relate to themselves. We really want him to be ok.
Cliff forms the fantasy double of Rick — unflappable, beautiful, cool, strong, skilled, controlled — he’s the kind of man men might most want to be. Even if we’re not sure he’s a nice guy we should root for, ethically, we will really enjoy watching him take out the baddies.
Together, they form to perfect duo to face the new threat–a threat that surely no one, on the surface of things, could possibly argue as being sympathetic in any way. They are the Manson family members who brutally killed pregnant Sharon Tate. They don’t deserve any mercy. We cannot want them to win and not be monsters ourselves. We have to root for Cliff and Rick.
But in so doing, we are also rooting for what they represent. We are rooting for the assumptions they embody as poor, embattled white men who should not have to bother about things like race, as heroic men who must save the “good woman” and defeat the “bad women” who threaten them. In rooting for them, we accept those assumptions, and all those assumptions about race and gender and power.
And I think it is that– the being forced to accept those assumptions while watching women being battered on screen, while seeing that Charles Manson himself and his anti-Black racism and misogyny are nowhere to be found in the narrative — that is what I now understand made me so utterly furious and so nauseated when I left the theater.
I do not think I will analyze and dig into all the specific beats of the showdown between Cliff and Rick and the Mansons, but several things are worth noting about that climactic showdown and then also about the short third act, relative to this discussion.
First, the sequence hinges not just upon the physical demise of the Mansons but their humiliation. That’s important. If the film is fundamentally about a threat to white male dignity and power, the humiliation of the Mansons is essential. I cannot help but be reminded of Margaret Atwood’s famous axiom, “Men are afraid women will laugh at them. Women are afraid men will kill them.” The sort of twisted joke for me in this film, given Atwood’s truth, is that Cliff gets to laugh, and he gets to kill everybody, too. And, again, it’s supposed to be justified since, on the explicit level of a “fantasy revenge” tale, it’s in service of Sharon Tate’s life. But that’s a red-herring of a justification; the laughter and the killing is for Rick and Cliff and a restoration of their power.
Second, Tex is fairly quickly dispatched — notably, the dog attacks his crotch, a symbol of his manhood and a representation of his ultimate emasculation — and I think his death, coming first, is also important, linking to what we’ve seen as the most explicit threat to male power in this story — not other men, but women. In a classic Hollywood tale, the hero faces the most dangerous villain last. Remember, we saw those villains coming singing over the horizon in the hazy heat in beginning of the film, when Rick realized his career was in jeopardy. That’s the aspect of a showdown — the biggest baddie vs. our hero — we’re all waiting for here, and we get it. Tex is the first to die, and the women are left. Sadie screams wildly on the ground, Cliff having bashed her face in with a can of dog food. Red and Cliff fight — Red even successfully stabs Cliff, a reminder of her as a real threat — and Cliff then repeatedly bashes Red’s face in, bashes it on the phone, on the mantle, on the coffee table until she dies. Sadie, shrieking all the while, grabs Tex’s gun and runs outside and jumps in the pool, where the poor innocent Rick, just trying to enjoy his cocktail, has been floating. While Sadie, still shrieking in animalistic dehumanizing howls, wildly waves the gun around, Rick scrambles to find his movie prop, his flamethrower from The 14 Fists of McCluskey, and, in a direct parallel to his Nazi-torching scene from that most famous of his films, he brings his movie persona to life, and kills his personal “Nazi”: a “fucking hippie” Manson girl. Rick has attained ultimate restoration, defeating the Nazi-parallel whore, and using the emblem of the highest pinnacle of his movie career to do so.
Third, it is also important for Cliff and Rick’s restoration that they are ushered into the new era of movie-making, represented by Roman Polanski and his wife, the beautiful, chaste, angelic, white Madonna princess, Sharon Tate. As Rick tells a riveted Jay about the invasion of the “hippie weirdos” (and Jay explicitly makes the connection to The 14 Fists of McCluskey in case we missed it), Tate’s sweet voice floats over the scene, specifically naming and recognizing “Rick Dalton?” She invites him to her home; “Oh, hooray!” — she’s so happy he accepts — and she runs out to greet him and tells everyone, “He’s a wonderful actor.”
Rick, our hero, if he has not won the hand of the princess as in the classic fairy tale, has won her approbation, and it’s his career we are left thinking about, his restoration, not her life.
This is what I think the film is essentially about: a racially innocent white man, Rick Dalton, his faithful stuntman, Cliff, and destruction of the very specific female threat posed to their power.
V. Final Thoughts: If I wasn’t crazy, now what?
This analysis, as I think most of my film essays are (I have a genuinely hard time writing what one might call a “review”), was a project I personally needed to work through in order to understand what this film is. I don’t generally write about films I don’t like, and I don’t like writing about films I don’t like. But I needed to process my own intensely visceral and raging reaction to it — and I needed to understand whether that reaction was justified, particularly in light of critical praise the film has received. I didn’t really understand how or why I could feel so angry and others I deeply respect did not. Was I crazy?
And while I think I have answered that question to my own satisfaction, my analysis, for those who find it compelling, should not be a judgment upon anyone else who might find things to appreciate about the film, which I can see contains many elements of the cinematic genius his fans love him for. This essay is not saying a person who likes the film is either a misogynist or a racist.
I would like to think, however, that there is space in our collective love for cinema to interrogate even the specific films we love, filmmakers we idolize, to see what might be hiding underneath the surface and to face the messy complexities of the cinematic world, which is historically and currently rooted in patriarchal and white supremacist structures. I fully admit that it is much easier for me to see the darkness of a Quentin Tarantino film since, while I admire many things about his craft, I do not like his films. They have never been as important to me as I know they are to many others.
And as I move into this new fall quarter, teaching Introduction to Film and, especially, teaching History of Film to college students, I know I need to interrogate my own assumptions about films and filmmaking and the narrative of cinema. I need to interrogate why it often feels so difficult for me to make films by women, Black filmmakers, indigenous filmmakers, Asian filmmakers, Latinx filmmakers, queer filmmakers, a fundamental and essential part of the classes I teach. I do it, but it takes more effort, thought, and time than it might if I just looked at classic “best of” lists and used those films in my classes. If Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood, a sly wink of a fairy tale, is rooted in certain toxic assumptions, assumptions I believe Tarantino himself is not necessarily aware of endorsing, then I absolutely have assumptions, too, that need to be brought out into the light. It may be relatively easy for me to see the toxic assumptions about women in his film, but as a white person, I know I do not easily see the toxic assumptions about race, both those that thread through the films I see and those that thread through my own psyche and affect how I teach and what I teach in my film classes.
My own instincts, my nostalgia, the things I love most, must be analyzed and even viewed with suspicion.
The conservative nostalgia of Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood is dangerous because, without overtly seeming to do so, it taps into specifically white and specifically male fantasies, to the exclusion and damage of those who do not fit, centrally, in that fantasy. Nostalgia is not necessarily bad, but it can only be safely entered if it is accompanied by a robust critique of the past. One might safely acknowledge the feeling that things were better “back then,” if it goes along with a cool-eyed critique — the understanding that memory is flawed, that the world is almost never as good as one remembers it, and most importantly, that one’s own positioning in the world affects our perceptions of it in the first place, both past and present.
This positioning has a great deal to do with one’s access to power; those in power will remember or conceive of the world in significantly different ways than those who did not have or never have had power, past or present. Those with most power and most access to power will inevitably feel very little need to understand or interact with the stories and feelings of those with less power. To the powerful, the world can look like it contains only one story: their story. They are not driven by a need to understand other stories or other ways of being.
We do not often choose to understand what we do not feel a need to understand.
It is certainly possible for those in power to become aware of other stories, other ways of being, other perspectives, other feelings. This comes, perhaps, through a close relationship with lots of different kinds of people; perhaps through education; perhaps through stories of the less powerful that make their way out into the open.
But I am skeptical, more and more, particularly as I am made more aware of my own relatively privileged positioning as a white person, that I am often unwilling to give up the story that I’ve always known and always told, that even when I see the flaws and limitations and toxic untruths in it and try to reject them, I veer back into the same story again. Part of the reason for this is social conditioning; it’s hard to exorcise the things I’ve been implicitly or explicitly told over and over are true. Part of the reason is the seduction of power itself; once gained, one does not want to give it up, not really. And part of the reason is that even when I know or intellectually understand other stories and assent to their truths, I do not feel them — and I will never feel them for myself, not really. I cannot get outside my own skin and my own experience and feel what it feels like to be someone else. The best I can do is acknowledge all of these things and strive to reject that desire for power, strive to listen and to assent even when I do not feel, strive to put other stories ahead of my own.
I am not convinced that Quentin Tarantino understands his own positioning: his position as a man, his position as a white man, his position as a white man who holds storytelling power in Hollywood, one of the most powerful storytelling machines in the world, even while he tells and encourages us to sympathize with a story about a threat to power that a white man in Hollywood feels.
I think he believes he understands his positioning. I think he tries to center the stories of women. I think he tries to center the stories of Black people, of Jewish people. I think he believes his love for certain ethnic minority characters that populate cinema means that he cannot go wrong in his storytelling, that he can even transgress the normal bounds of propriety, use the n-word and no one will mind because, don’t worry, he gets it.
But I’ve been thinking a lot about how well-intentioned white people, self-described liberals, including myself, can often be the biggest threat to true equality for everyone.
It’s perhaps slightly cliched to reference it at this point, but in spite of the ubiquity, I don’t think we white liberals really get what Jordan Peele was doing and saying in Get Out. Particularly in the era we are in when a white supremacist lives in the White House and the FBI warns us that white supremacy is the biggest domestic terrorist threat and the “Nazis” seem to be so obviously identified, we don’t really think of ourselves as a threat to equality. Not really. We might accept it intellectually as a possibility, but we don’t really believe we are the white liberals who tried to steal Chris Washington’s body in Get Out. We’re not “those” ones.We still think racism is easy to identify; we still think it cannot reside in ourselves — or in the movies we love.
It’s a very comforting lie.
But there is much comfort and freedom, too — more — in being willing to shine a light into the darkest corners of my most toxic assumptions. As Oluo Ijeoma notes, “The beauty of anti-racism is that you don’t have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it’s the only way forward.”
If, as I believe it is, Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood is bound up in patriarchal and white supremacist assumptions, and if I am full of truly justified rage about that, this doesn’t mean I get to sit smugly in a high tower, safe myself, from such things.
It only means I have a lot of listening and a lot of work to do.
Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood is currently in wide release.