Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Tarantino’s Bedtime Story: Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood

When I think of the Tate-La Bianca murders, which made headlines fifty years ago this month, I remember first of all how scary L.A. suddenly seemed after news broke of the brutal murders on Cielo Drive. That feeling was reinforced when a student told me he’d grown up in the Los Feliz neighborhood where supermarket executive Leno La Bianca lived with his wife Rosemary. Not movie stars or socialites, they were the kind of homey middle-class people who gave special holiday treats to all the neighborhood kids. That didn’t stop them, alas, from being butchered by Charles Manson’s young thugs.  No Angeleno, I quickly decided, was safe from a home invasion by a crazed hippie with something to prove.

Leave it to Quentin Tarantino to take us back to that terrible time and put his own spin on what happened. Tarantino has a genius for making L.A. look both beautiful and deadly. His camera sweeps down Hollywood Boulevard and the Sunset Strip, capturing the sizzling nightspots I recall from the past, like the young-oriented discotheque known as Pandora’s Box. He films his cast in restaurants I’ve known forever, including the clubby Musso and Frank and the kitschy Mexican eatery called El Coyote, in which the real Sharon Tate and her friends apparently had their last margaritas. Everywhere, in Tarantino’s L.A., there are movie houses, like the classic Village and Bruin, where the movie’s Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) drops in to watch herself on screen in a Dean Martin spy flick, The Wrecking Crew. We also zip past lesser theatres, as well as movie billboards and posters advertising such dreck of the era as Three in the Attic and Joanna. (I suffered through both while serving as a film critic for the UCLA Daily Bruin.) The airwaves are flooded with music I remember well—“Mrs. Robinson” and Joni Mitchell’s “The Circle Game”—along with promos for the teen-oriented KHJ.

Tarantino’s film is well named, and not just because it seems to be an homage to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a  Time in America. His central subject in his best films is perhaps the making of stories. So it’s appropriate that his take on the Manson murders is far less interested in the killers and in victim Sharon Tate (who appears mostly as a beautiful icon) than in her fictional next-door neighbor, an aging actor struggling to move beyond his TV role in something called Bounty Hunter in order to make use of his genuine but sometimes tortured talent. As played by Leonardo Di Caprio, Rick Dalton is stuck in hackneyed bad-guy roles, a fact he deals with by drinking much too much. Still, he’s a celebrity, one whom everyone else (including the Manson gang) regards with awe for the simple reason that they’ve seen him on their TV screens.

Movie and TV stars, of course, do a lot of shedding of pretend blood. They also do a lot of fighting: even Tate is shown, at that Bruin Theatre screening, in a martial-arts cat-fight scene battling co-star Nancy Kwan in The Wrecking Crew. So it makes sense that playing opposite Di Caprio in Tarantino’s film is Brad Pitt as his stunt double, a guy quite used to getting physical, when he’s not cooking up his pathetic Kraft Mac-and-Cheese dinners in his sad little flat. Movie violence is faked, but Pitt’s character is quite good (possibly too good) at the real thing, which is how the Di Caprio/Pitt story and that of Sharon Tate happen to overlap. In ways, I can’t help saying, that might surprise you before the lights come up.    

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