At a Cannes Film Festival press conference in May, the New York Times culture writer Farah Nayeri observed that Quentin Tarantino hadn’t given many lines to Margot Robbie, one of the stars of the movie he was promoting, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. “I guess that was a deliberate choice on your part, and I just wanted to know why that was that we don’t hear her actually speaking very much,” said Nayeri, who’d noted Robbie’s considerable talent in the preamble to her question. “Well, I just reject your hypotheses,” was Tarantino’s answer.
What an odd, petulant response. Unless Tarantino was referring to subjective things in Nayeri’s question (Robbie’s chops and/or the perceived choice he made to underuse them), which seems unlikely, there was no hypothesis in Nayeri’s quantitative and correct observation that Robbie (as Sharon Tate) doesn’t say very much in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Mild spoilers ahead
I didn’t take a tally of her lines when I screened the film earlier this week, but I would be surprised if they comprised more than 10 percent of the script. There are long stretches of time where she appears silently on screen, this glowing creature who the film seems to suggest is better seen than heard. On two occasions, she is seen from afar while men explain her life to us: Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) describes Tate’s close, complicated dynamic with her ex-boyfriend Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) and husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), while toward the end of the film a voice over from Kurt Russell mentions the “touch of pregnancy-induced melancholy” Tate was experiencing the night of August 8, 1969, the last full day of her life, which was “later reported that it was the hottest night of the year and made her feel especially pregnant in all the worst ways,” whatever that means.
The audience learns about as much about Tate from these male characters as we do from Tate herself. The deepest probing of her interior life occurs when she watches The Wrecking Crew amongst civilians at a Los Angeles movie theater. After not being recognized by the box-office attendant, Tate eventually convinces the manager that she appeared in the mega-hit Valley of the Dolls and poses for a picture next to the Wrecking Crew poster. Inside the theater, she watches herself eagerly, and then more eagerly as she experiences the audience’s warm reception of her somewhat slapstick performance. Sharon Tate lived for the applause, is about all Tarantino’s flat-as-a-studio-backdrop script can muster. During this scene, Robbie appears with her bare feet up on the back of the seat in front of her, an explicit reference to Tarantino’s foot fetish, lest you confuse his leer for mere gaze.
The Tate that Robbie’s Tate watches on screen is the actual Tate in the actual 1968 film, which I suppose should be moving or meta or movingly meta but it mostly just reminds you of the great contrast at hand. Neither Robbie nor Tarantino have come close to nailing Tate—Robbie opts not for Tate’s affected serenity nor idiosyncratic speech pattern with notes of aristocracy. When she peeks out from behind the blankness at all, it’s via mild ’80s-sitcom-grade blonde ditziness. Robbie has as much in common with Tate as the mechanical shark in Jaws does with an actual great white. It’s just a rough outline. She’s given not much to work with and somehow does less with it.
“He likes movies more than he likes people,” my colleague Chris Person said of Tarantino, when I summed up my negative feelings about this movie. I think this is correct. That predilection is less of a problem when his characters are composites or vessels for his own philosophies. He previously killed Hitler, a former actual person, on screen in Inglourious Basterds, which was fine because anyone worth listening to isn’t going to be mad about watching a caricature of Hitler die. Taking Tate’s story, telling a sliver of it, and bringing nothing fresh to the rendering of her, though, is such a bizarre choice, given how much cultural real estate Charles Manson, his followers, and their atrocities have been given over the past 50 years. It’s not enough to just give us a microwaved idea of Tate, and we should expect more from a filmmaker as bold and wild as Tarantino. In this, he has failed Tate, himself, and us.
Referencing her co-star Brad Pitt’s description of the movie as not depicting rage toward specific people but “against a loss of innocence,” Robbie answered Nayeri’s question at Cannes by saying in part that she didn’t think her role was intended to “delve deeper” and that, “I think the tragedy ultimately was the loss of innocence and to really show those wonderful sides of her I think could be adequately done without speaking. I did feel like I got a lot of time to explore the character even without dialogue specifically.”
So that’s what the movie is about? The “loss of innocence” at the end of the ’60s? A two-hour-and-forty-five minute rendering of what Joan Didion summed up in a few frequently quoted sentences in The White Album? (“Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community, and in a sense this is true. The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled.”) Really?
Earlier in the press conference, Robbie said that Tarantino told her that Tate was the “heartbeat” of Once Upon a Time. It’s telling that she’s so mechanical, so lifeless. The movie is D.O.A. Besides, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’s focus is not on Tate but on the fictional characters Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). The former is a washed-up star of TV Westerns who is stumbling through his transition to movies; the latter is his stunt double. Popularity made Rick happy, the absence of it makes him sad, and without very much insight beyond the propelling properties of mass adoration, ruminating on their existence preoccupies much of the film’s runtime. There’s some self-consciously filmmakery flare (jump cuts, Dutch angles), some artful lopsidedness (the aforementioned narration by Kurt Russell occurs sporadically, once toward the movie’s beginning and then during its final reel), a lot of film-nerd wankery that suggests you can take the man out of the video store but never the video store out of the man (yes, Tarantino, we know you know that sound was done in post for old Italian movies and that all actors spoke their respective languages creating a sort of mini “Tower of Babel” on each set).
And yet, it’s an oddly inert product. There isn’t much of the idiosyncratic philosophizing and observing of his earlier work—no examination of the intimacy of foot massages, no theories on how coughing while smoking weed gets you higher, no pulling back the curtain of how girls named Shana feel about girls named Shauna. With his supposedly penultimate film, Tarantino, however inadvertently, is telegraphing his fatigue via that of his has-been character. He is all but explicitly announcing that his best creative days are behind him.
Tarantino’s handling of Tate would be enough suggest that the writer-director has not atoned very much despite a spate of recent controversies regarding his treatment of women and their abusers. In 2017, he admitted that he was aware of longtime collaborator Harvey Weinstein’s alleged sexually predatory behavior but wrote it off. He was accused by collaborator Uma Thurman of creating an unsafe work environment on the set of Kill Bill, facilitating a car crash that resulted in several injuries, including a concussion. He defended Roman Polanski’s rape of a 13-year-old girl in a 2003 Howard Stern interview that was unearthed by Jezebel in 2018.
But there’s so much more shittiness toward woman in Once Upon a Time that is delivered without much of a moral judgement. Pitt’s character Cliff, it turns out, killed his wife and got away with it, which bothers stunt coordinator Randy (Kurt Russell), but it bothers his stunt coordinator wife (Zoe Bell) far more. As this is discussed, we see a flashback to Cliff on a boat, pointing a speargun at a ranting woman. He killed her, yes... but she was really fucking annoying! A brief confrontation between Bell’s character and Pitt’s yields more womanly nagging. (Nag nag nag.) Despite this (slash because of it?), Pitt is the film’s de facto hero. Margaret Qualley plays Pussycat, a Manson family member who seduces Cliff, despite being underage. She wants it! is the movie tells us. She hitches a ride and offers to suck his dick. He asks how old she is, and in one of the film’s rare examples of Tarantinoistic wisdom, she says that she’s old enough to fuck him, but he’s too old to fuck her. Watch out for those old-timey catch-22s! She’s the only woman in the Family to evince any charm.
When Cliff visits the Spahn Ranch, on which the Family lived, he’s met with dirty, snarling, feral hippieoids. (Tarantino seems to think that the most interesting thing about the Family is that they lived on a ranch that was used as the set of old Westerns, thus creating the perfect opportunity for a Western-style stand-off. Once Upon a Time is now Tarantino’s third straight movie heavily influenced by and rifling through tropes of Westerns, to which I say: enough.) During the climax of the film, in which Tarantino rewrites the Manson Family murders narrative by virtue of the fact that he can (and with little other compelling rationale that I could sniff out), the brutality exacted on the women is straight-up shocking, and I say this as someone with an iron stomach for cinematic carnage. I’m highly suspicious of Tarantino’s motivation here. Here is a director who has repeatedly referred to himself as God, and God doesn’t like being told what to do. For years, Spike Lee criticized his use of the n-word in his scripts, and what did Tarantino do in 2012? He released Django Unchained, a movie about slavery that provides the strongest narrative rationale to use that word. He sure showed us! Tarantino’s treatment of women was repeatedly criticized, and so here, he beats the life out of some Manson girls because, hey, they’re Manson girls so who cares? Another perfect excuse. The Tex Watson character suffers, but not nearly as viscerally.
That isn’t even all of it. DiCaprio’s Rick takes it upon himself to improvise while sharing a scene with a precocious 8-year-old girl by throwing her off his lap. She lands on the floor several feet in front of him, but after the director yells, “Cut!” she notes that she’s fine because she was wearing arm pads. Is that a crass reference to Thurman’s allegations? Should she have just worn arm pads? Is there any reason for Tarantino to have cast Emile Hirsch, who in 2015 plead guilty to assaulting Paramount executive Daniele Bernfeld, other than to say fuck you to anyone who might have a problem with Hollywood’s continued abetting of men who have not just hurt women, not just choked, dragged, and body-slammed them (per Bernfeld’s account to police), but admitted to doing so? Who the fuck is this movie for besides people who enter the theater enthralled (I cannot believe such a limp, plodding, and unfunny script has resulted in what’s currently an 89 percent on Rotten Tomatoes.) Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is one long ramble about the good old days that reveals its pointlessness and malice the longer it goes on. Times are changing and Tarantino seems awfully cranky about that.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood hits theaters July 26.