Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

by Alvin G. Burstein

“Once upon a time” is a phrase signaling the beginning of a fairy tale. Fairy tales are folk tales that persist in a culture because they embody and illustrate that culture’s values. They function as parables. So the title of this film invites us to look for its moral center.

There is another interesting aspect of director Tarantino’s choice of the title. On one hand, the film is deeply rooted in a particular historical moment, the fifties and sixties. On the other hand, the tale is an odd amalgam of fact and fable. Movie actress Sharon Tate, whose tragic 1969 murder by Manson acolytes riveted the public, is a central figure in the film. But the tale the movie unfolds is an alternate history saga: what if the murderers had gone to a neighboring Beverly Hills mansion instead of that occupied by Tate and her famous husband, Roman Polanski?

That second house is owned by the fictional character Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Dalton was the star of a western bounty hunter TV series. He is struggling to upgrade his stereotyped small screen television career into a more rewarding one in big screen movies. An integral part of Dalton’s career is his relationship to his stunt double, Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt.

Booth is more than a stunt double. He is Dalton’s factotum, and the film makes much of their relationship, intentionally troubling us with the disparity between their rewards and social status, and the nature of their tie to each other. They need each other, but in ways that transcend convenience and utility. Part of the fairy tale element of this film is its providing an opportunity to make a moral judgment about this pair of characters. The fictional movie star owner of the opulent Beverly Hills mansion next door to Tate and Polanski is less admirable than is his stunt double and body man, an ex-Green Beret who lives in a trailer on a lot behind a drive-in movie screen.

Booth’s “roommate” in his trailer abode is Brandy, a pit bull. In a highly comedic element, Booth feeds his dog Wolf’s Tooth dog food, “Good Food For Mean Dogs.” It comes in two flavors, Rat and Raccoon. Brandy, eager and quivering with hunger, is trained to wait while Booth prepares the dog’s dinner. Not until her owner, at his leisure, gives her the signal, does she lunge slavering to her repast. Brandy later plays a key role in dealing with the misdirected home invasion by Mansonites. She is one of the most admirable characters in the film. The moral point: a creature of simple if urgent impulses, she controls herself out of attachment to Booth. In addition to the contrast between Dalton and Booth, we have a contrast between Dalton and Brandy. Dalton uses Booth and others, Brandy’s devotion is unconditional.

The film is very popular—high ratings from Rotten Tomatoes, grossing over a hundred million dollars at this point. Part of its popularity is its focus on an interesting time and place. Another element of its fascination is its look behind tinsel town glitter. It has the allure of a gossip column, a peek at what goes on behind the doors of the rich and famous. In Freudian terms, a peek into the parents’ bedroom.

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