Warning: Spoilers ahead
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood received several criticisms before its premiere last month. The concerns ranged from glorifying the Manson Family murders to not giving Margot Robbie more lines, and even director Quentin Tarantino’s problematic behavior in the past.
But what’s more interesting about this whole thing is how public opinion shifted from anger to awe at how Tarantino made “a love letter to old Hollywood.” Despite the praise, the film was still controversial. The most recent of which involves Bruce Lee’s daughter Shannon Lee who called out the film for its racist and ridiculous portrayal of her father.
Knowing Tarantino’s penchant for revising historical events—making them grittier and at times comedic—and pushing the envelope to get a certain message across, I had a hunch he made more questionable artistic decisions (see: Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained). And I was right: This time he showed how f*cked up Hollywood was (and probably still is) in the ’60s, which is a good and bad thing in itself.
Let’s start with the good points. The film mostly tells the story of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a Wild West actor who’s struggling to keep himself afloat after leaving the hit show Bounty Law to take on anti-hero roles. His “more than a buddy, less than a wife” stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is probably the only person he trusts to drive him around, be his house sitter, and also carry his emotional baggage
As Tarantino previously said, the film isn’t about the Manson Family murders, but how Rick tries to adapt to the changing landscape of Hollywood. And he’s not wrong. We’re thrown into Rick’s rollercoaster of a career—from his successful run in Bounty Law to becoming uncertain of his path as a movie star.
Meanwhile, Cliff, and other characters like Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) are merely living on the sidelines because it’s Rick’s world and no one else’s, strengthening the theory that everything happening in Once Upon a Time may well just be happening inside Rick and Cliff’s heads.
One example Vox pointed out was the flashback of Cliff sparring with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of Green Hornet. It’s possible he was reliving the moment through exaggerated lens—one that shows a racist depiction of Bruce complete with a stereotypical Asian-American accent that many would deem offensive. Cliff is, after all, a White man from Houston, Texas.
As for Rick, this might explain why he became a hero after squaring off against the Manson Family murderers who broke into his home and were supposed to kill Sharon, who lived next door. After the ordeal, he was invited to the Tate-Polanski household, fullfilling his dream of meeting his neighbors and potentially starring in a Roman Polanski film. (You know, back when Polanski wasn’t engaging in statutory rape.)
Now let’s talk about the the bad points, mostly the treatment of the women in the film.
Several have pointed out that Tarantino’s showcasing his hatred of women again in this film. While I believe he’s created strong female characters in the past, he did put Uma Thurman in danger while shooting Kill Bill. Buzzfeed News also pointed out how he depicts the violence against women, citing the Hateful Eight scene where Jennifer Jason Leigh gets belted in the face.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is no exception. The Muse pointed out that Tarantino has a tendency to release films patterned after criticisms against him. When Spike Lee called him out on his use of the N-word, he came out with Django Unchained, a movie about the slave trade in America. When he was widely criticized for his poor treatment of Uma Thurman and his support of Harvey Weinstein, he makes Once Upon a Time as a commentary on Hollywood’s past and current state while also brutalizing female characters in the film.
You see this with how Cliff (allegedly) killed his wife and got away with it, and the deaths of the two Manson women who attacked Rick’s house. While the assumed leader of the murder, Tex Watson, was mauled by a pitbull, the two women with him were either slammed on the concrete or toasted to a crisp via flamethrower.
Rick and Cliff are seen as heroes, and Sharon survives in this movie. It technically didn’t disrespect Sharon’s image or glorify the Manson Family murders. But, at what cost?
Don’t get us wrong, we think Hollywood still has a problem with how it treats women, POCs, and LGBTQ+ talents, and I understand where Tarantino was going with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. However, it defeats the purpose when you have a director who openly defended both Polanski and Weinstein, and also hired Wild star Emile Hirsch, who pleaded guilty to assaulting Daniele Bernfeld in 2015.
If Tarantino wanted to comment on Hollywood’s toxicity, he should’ve started with himself and the once-powerful men he’s sticking up for.
Photos courtesy of Columbia Pictures
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