To Quentin Tarantino, the year 1969 represented a moment of magic and turmoil in Hollywood and, being Tarantino, he determined to make a movie exploring it. He was, in fact, only 6 years old in 1969; as a result, his “take” on that year inevitably poses a challenge to those of us who’d actually lived through it. This is particularly true since Tarantino has a colorful propensity to rewrite history, his movies re-arraying events about slavery or Hitler — or hippies.
The upshot: Tarantino’s new movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, offers filmgoers classic star turns from Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. Both seem exhilarated, cast as polar opposites of their true selves: DiCaprio plays a terminally insecure actor, obsessed that he will never achieve stardom, Pitt plays an unemployed stunt man eager to bury his loser past. Both have an eerie premonition of a generational change in the public taste for TV and movies, and Hollywood’s taste in actors.
But if the stars are superbly persuasive in their role-playing, other elements of the movie pose ambiguities. Tarantino’s rewrite of events remains a challenge, especially for those of us who had personal connections with the real-life principals and whose life experience was affected by the chaotic swirl of events. In my case, I was friendly with Roman Polanski and his bride, Sharon Tate, and was devastated by their loss. Together with Bob Evans, I was mainly responsible for Polanski’s directing debut in Rosemary’s Baby, both of us suffering through Polanski’s uneasy adjustment to the tenets of studio filmmaking circa 1969.
So, did Tarantino capture the 1969 zeitgeist? He is meticulous about the details: The cars are vintage, so is the wardrobe, and the strains of KHJ, the fabled rock ‘n’ roll radio station, pervade the soundtrack. The legendary Hollywood hangout, Musso & Frank, serves as a background for two scenes, though Tarantino shows it to be brighter and cleaner than it was at the time (I was in it with Polanski one late night when Mick Jagger and friends were doing shots and staging a food fight). Tarantino also has his stars visit the sexy and (even then) sleazy Playboy mansion. But the movie oddly ignores the temples of musical pop culture like the Whiskey or the Troubadour. Nor is there any allusion to the political angst of the moment – the Vietnam War, the political assassinations, the rise of black power.
If Tarantino’s players dwelled in their own world (Pitt, as Cliff Booth, lived behind a drive-in theater), Hollywood, at that moment, was hardly a cocoon: I spent much of 1969 working on Paramount movies like Medium Cool, set against the background of the chaotic Chicago Democratic convention, and The Italian Job, a counter-culture heist movie starring Michael Caine, not to mention a sprawling epic titled Once Upon the Time in the West directed by Sergio Leone.
Again, Tarantino deals with this film elliptically: his DiCaprio character, Rick Dalton, flees his fading TV career for a stint in spaghetti Westerns, as did Clint Eastwood before him. Eastwood, too, feared a decline in his TV life span, and hence spent his time in Italy tracking Leone and learning how to direct. Dalton seems too self-doubting to take that route. In 1969, Eastwood surprised friends by taking a singing role in Paint Your Wagon, noting over a beer one night that a good paycheck was the best device in bridging his transition to his new identity as a filmmaker, not an aging TV actor.
The Manson murders of 1969 comprise the eerie subtext of Tarantino’s movie, as indeed they do of the times. Movies like Easy Rider had helped create a mood of awareness, if not an embrace, of the hippie scene. It was cool in Hollywood to smoke dope, invite guests into your hot tub and pick up hitchhikers on the Sunset Strip or the Pacific Coast Highway. The murders left everyone locking their doors and frowning on strangers. Movies with hippie heroes were replaced by more romantic films and stars like Dennis Hopper surrendered to the “clean cut” look of Ryan O’Neal in Love Story.
Few filmmakers match Tarantino’s talent for casting bit players or giving them great moments: Tarantino delivers two great scenes featuring an 8-year-old “actress” who lectures DiCaprio on his bad habits and lack of preparation. When she praises his performance in one intense scene, the actor instantly sheds his insecurity.
In the film, DiCaprio is thrilled to discover that he lives next door to Polanski and his pregnant wife, Tate, who are depicted as the epitome of success and glamour, rushing between premieres and parties. The reality: Though Polanski was thrilled that he was about to become a father, he remained, in fact, a haunted figure. His close friend Christopher Komeda, whom he had brought to Hollywood to do the score for Rosemary’s Baby, had just been killed in a mysterious accident. Polanski, having survived a troubled childhood, fleeing Nazis and then Russians, feared that danger always loomed over him and those close to him.
Tarantino’s movie, too, though spirited and often hilarious, reflects that sense of imminent doom. His settings are real, but his events surreal. On that, Tarantino delivers, but in his own typically off-center way. Critics like to look “intellectual” by quoting Joan Didion’s ruminations about the end of an era and a loss of innocence In 1969. There was no innocence to begin with. The Manson murders left people scared, except for those inhabiting Tarantino’s movie. By his rewrite, even the Manson incident on Cielo Drive was perversely exhilarating.