“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” – The Accusations, Criticisms, and Controversies

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SPOILER WARNING: If you haven’t seen “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” be warned.

Quentin Tarantino movies are no strangers to controversy and you could say the notorious filmmaker has courted that kind of attention throughout his career. Sometimes his provocations are potent and edgy. Other times they are rooted in ridiculous amounts of excess and overindulgence. So the fact that people are talking about his new film is no surprise.

What does surprise me is the sheer volume of outrage sparked by “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”, a movie I stand by as Tarantino’s tamest, most mature, and (shockingly) most compassionate film to date. Yet the accusations are serious, troublesome, and (if true) cause for serious concern. Some have branded the film racist, misogynistic, even deeply conservative (gasp). Others have went as far as to say it condones/defends violence against women while pointing fingers at the ‘whiteness’ and ‘maleness’ not only the lead characters but also of those who defend the film (my wife loved it too, so there’s that).

These accusations are weighty enough to warrant respectful consideration especially considering Tarantino’s not-so-spotless track record. So I’m not into berating different opinions or other readings of his latest movie. But I do profoundly disagree with the majority of these particular criticisms, not because I’m a white male whose thought process is defined and controlled by those characteristics. But because I believe the movie itself offers some significantly different readings of its ‘controversies’. Here are some of them…

FINAL SPOILER WARNING: Plot details ahead……

Sharon Tate: Complaints about Sharon Tate’s inclusion in the film were almost immediate. Many felt it was insensitive but over time the issues have evolved. Now most of the criticism is in how little dialogue Margot Robbie is given and how “pointless” Tate is to the story, both things rooted in Tarantino’s chauvinism. Actually Tate’s role is far from pointless and her sparse dialogue makes sense considering (1) This isn’t a movie about Sharon Tate and (2) Her character has a very unique (and I would argue beguiling) role to play in the film.

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Not to rehash my review, but Sharon Tate is as much of a symbol as a character. In the film Tate represents innocence, goodness, and compassion. She is a constant ray of light and Tarantino shoots her with an ever-present glow. I found Robbie to be very effective in conveying these ideas. Interestingly, her vitality and optimism stands in sharp contrast to the darkening societal backdrop. And there is a looming sense of dread as history tells us where her story is heading. And about that…

The Ending: There are so many elements to Tarantino’s ending that I love. First, it’s essential to know that so many of his movies take place in alternate realities. These worlds he creates look like ours and often function like ours, but they are hardly beholden to our rules. And Tarantino has shown an affection for taking dark points in history and turning the tables. In “Django Unchained” the slave bests the slave owners. In “Inglourious Basterds” the Jewish-American militia bests Hitler and his generals.

He employs the same idea in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”. In this world the Manson family members (one male, two females) are brutally beaten and burned before ever reaching a pregnant Sharon Tate and her friends. It’s an intensely graphic sequence with a dash of absurdist comedy tossed in. Yes, it was at the hands of two men, but for me this wasn’t Tarantino flipping his nose at violence towards women. It’s an alternate take on what was in reality the savage and unrepentant slaughter of five innocent people. It’s the Tarantino twist of really bad people getting their comeuppance.

One of the sweetest things about this ending is how it attempts to distance Sharon Tate from what culture always associates her with – victimhood. In Tarantino’s timeline Tate isn’t forever connected with the Manson family. She still has a future, a career, a baby to give birth to and raise. Again, she is a symbol of hope and this film hope doesn’t die on the Manson family’s blade. And that final crane shot showing Sharon and her friends coming out to meet Rick really drives this home.

Cliff Booth: For me, Brad Pitt absolutely steals the show and I found his Cliff Booth character to be the most intriguing of all. But some see him as yet another example of  the film’s misogyny. Much of that comes from a single question the movie doesn’t clearly answers – did Cliff kill his wife?

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Tarantino sets his audience up to draw their own conclusions. If you buy that Cliff is a cold-blooded killer then naturally the character and how he is depicted will be problematic. But the movie doesn’t offer definitive proof. In fact, I would say it offers more reasons to believe that things aren’t so black-and-white. Does the movie exonerate him? No it doesn’t. But it doesn’t convict him either. His angle could just as easily be about Hollywood gossip, blacklisting, etc.

And think of his other actions throughout the film that would seem to clash with those of a cold, calloused murderer. He’s friendly, laid-back, and easy-going. He’s loyal to his friend, ever content, and a constant encourager. He turns down the sexual advances of an attractive minor. He cares enough to check on an elderly friend who may be in trouble at Spahn Movie Ranch. Once again, you could view it all through a misogynistic lens, but for me it’s tough to reconcile that reading with the character we get on screen.

Bruce Lee: I have to admit this one surprised me a bit. The movie has been called insensitive, disrespectful, and in some cases racist for a particularly funny scene between Cliff and Bruce Lee (remarkably played by Mike Moh). In the sequence we see a cocky Lee holding court on a studio backlot. Cliff calls him out and the two engage in a silly hand-to-hand challenge. It ends in a draw and the whole thing plays out as a big gag. But some have taken Lee’s depiction in the film seriously. Respectfully this includes his daughter Sharon.

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First, it’s key to recognize that the entire scene is framed as a recollection. Sure, it’s meant to show that Cliff could hold his own with one of the greatest, but it’s still his recollection of the encounter from his point of view. Second, this isn’t the only time we see Bruce Lee in the film. There is a brief but tender moment between him and Sharon Tate that shows a side of the martial arts star dramatically different from what we see in Cliff’s memory. So it makes sense that one scene is a guy’s silly memory to the time he duked it out with Bruce Lee while the other shows a truer and more compassionate representation of who he really was.

Once again Tarantino is a filmmaker who too often provokes these types of conversations. It’s a shame because I do believe “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is a truly great film. And I’m no Tarantino apologist (as followers of this site certainly know). But his latest movie has stoked a fascinating array of interpretations. For what they’re worth, these are mine. Nothing more, nothing less. So, what say you?

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17 thoughts on ““Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” – The Accusations, Criticisms, and Controversies

  1. Instead of having Robbie’s Sharon in close up in the end she speaks through intercom while a character played by someone who was strangling a woman in real life and there’s only one prominent director hiring him – Tarantino – is featured on screen.You wanna defend that that is your right but there is so much wrong with Tarantino, his work ethics and the actual content of this movie and it’s no coincidence it’s men who defend it and women who hate it. And if you are gonna defend that boat scene you should probably know that it clearly alludes to Natalie Wood, actual woman who was most likely killed – and it does so in humorous way. I don’t know if you are simply unaware of Hirsch’s off screen antics and the Wood murder, hopefully, because otherwise I don’t understand how anyone can defend this.

    • Actually that isn’t the final shot of the film. It didn’t end on that note. The final shot shows Tate walking out of the house embracing Rick. She is then followed by the others who in reality were slaughtered but who live in this film’s timeline.

      And I wouldn’t say it is “just men” defending the movie. As I mentioned my wife loved it and she is hardly a Tarantino fan.

      As for the boat scene, I didn’t take it as humorous at all. And I certainly know about Natalie Wood, Robert Wagner, Christopher Walken, etc. But I would say the movie alludes more to the mystery of that incident that making any kind of indictment.

      Again, I’m far from a Tarantino apologist and have pointed out my issues in the past, some of the same ones you have with this film (look no further than my review of The Hateful Eight). We just land in different spots on OUATIH.

      • But what does it matter if this isn’t the final shot? Final shot has her from far away. He decided to just go with that guy on the screen and then did that wide take. And again that is not the biggest problem, Tarantino hiring people who should be unhirable is.

        People are commenting everywhere how much they laughed when “Pitt killed his nagging wife”. It was played for laughs, Pitt’s acting was certainly amusing but then you have what it is based on and even the wife saying her name is Natalie. It makes an indictment by having her nag, then showing Cliff getting a job after Kurt Russell’s character just dodges his doubts about him for no other reason than DiCaprio vouching for him.

      • Because I think the final shot has purpose. I don’t think it was just tacked on the end of the film for no meaning whatsoever. As for Hirsh, I get what you’re saying. I know he’s been in something like eight movies in the last two years, but this is definitely the most high profile. You won’t see me supporting that guy.

        Those are interesting reads of the boat scene. I’ve seen it twice and I admit, some people laughed during some weird times. But neither time did anyone in our showings laugh at the boat scene. And yes, she is shown as a nag, even possibly abusive. But I don’t think the movie “indicts” her as worthy of being killed.

  2. Everything you just stated is… spot on. I am complete agreement with you on this. To me, that whole scene with Cliff and Bruce Lee was just 2 guys having a tussle that got a little out of hand and Lee was apologetic over what happened to the car. I don’t think he was being cocky but kind of playful. Plus, I think people are forgetting that there were a couple of shots in the film where he is teaching Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring how to fight as I saw him in a positive light as did the audience I saw it with.

    I think the whole story about Booth and his wife is meant to be ambiguous. Yes, he is a guy but at least he is a compassionate person as I loved that scene with him and Bruce Dern (in a role that was meant to be played by Burt Reynolds, R.I.P.) as it was just 2 guys having a simple conversation with Booth being concerned for his old friend.

    One thing I want to add about the scenes with Tate is the book store scene where she buys a first edition copy of Tess of the D’Ubervilles where for anyone that knows about Tate and Polanski. That book would have a great sense of importance for Polanski.

    Yes, the film have people I’m not fond of like Lena Dunham but I wasn’t bothered by her appearance. I don’t care for what Emile Hirsch does in his personal life and some of the things he did but he didn’t bother me with his performance in the film. Yes, people can have the right to shit on someone but not on their work. It’s just a waste of time to bitch about all of that shit. Besides, I have other things to worry about that are more important than some asshole’s personal life.

    • I think a lot of the scenes with Cliff completely clash with the very idea that he was a cold-blooded murderer. And I still believe that the boat scene is intended to be a serious scene that is intended (as you said) to be ambiguous.

      And great point about the bookstore. That is such a good scene. There are so many cool little nuggets like that scattered through the entire film. I respect other takes on the film, but I admit, I love it.

  3. I loved it and I don’t care for Tarantino films. I really enjoyed this one. I think Sharon Tate’s character was used to bring a ray of light into this world that Tarantino created. Her star was rising in contrast to Rick, who felt his flame was slowly going out. Tarantino showed us that with very little dialogue. I have heard she was always warm and inviting. I believe that is what he wanted to portray here. This is also in contrast to how cold and scary the Manson family was. I don’t think it was meant to be some deep study of who Sharon was. I think Tarantino loves living in a world of “what ifs” and he gave this beautiful woman the “happily ever after” the Manson’s took from her. This focus was meant to be on Rick and Cliff and how in a world of glamor it isn’t always glamorous. Hollywood is fickle with their stars. Cliff had been labeled. I believe Tarantino leaves a bit of speculation when it comes to what exactly happened to his wife. And nobody knows what happened, just like Natalie Wood. But there will always be some who will automatically pass judgment. In our country we are innocent until proven guilty. There are situations that are not always black and white and Tarantino loves exploring these areas.

    • It can be. On the other hand Tarantino doesn’t help his case. He’s said and done some really dopey stuff in the past. And some people who I have a lot of respect for really have issues with this film. I do appreciate their opinions even if I don’t agree with them in this case.

  4. Some interesting points here Keith. One thing that I never thought about until now was how Bruce is only shown through other peoples memory. We never get a view of him that has not already been filtered through a particular lense.

    I agree with you that Cliff is the most intriguing character in the film. Oddly enough, watching how Cliff’s murder rumour is handled, I could not help but think about O.J. Simpson. Specifically how would O.J. be treated in Tarantino’s revisionist historical universe. I think he would probably fall into the Manson family side of things, but with Tarantino you never know.

    • Yes. Every glimpse of Lee is seen through someone else’s filter. And in many cases it’s just like ‘a guy’ to have a more macho recollection.

      I never thought about OJ Simpson. That’s a really interesting comparison. Ultimately I think Tarantino left the question wide-open on purpose. Think about it, he’s hardly one to shy away from violence no matter how shocking. I think his approach allows us to bring our own interpretations and even persuasions to the character. And we have certainly seen some interesting and passionate interpretations.

  5. This is an interesting review. I wouldn’t mind the spoilers (the movie will be released in my country in the end of August). It really picks my interest when you mentioned that this is Tarantino’s tamest movie but sparked larger controversies (which I can imagine).

    I’ll surely be back when I’ve finally seen the movie.
    Thanks for the heads-up, Keith.

  6. It was a fairly simple, surrealist film for people who are nostalgic and love Los Angeles/popular culture. “Racist” and “sexist?” I’m a bit confused by that, and would like to think that would be the review of a P.C. totalitarian who has a case of white guilt.

    • Some have had much different readings of this film than I have. I do find many of the points interesting, but for me the movie doesn’t lay itself out that way at all.

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