a Simple tWist of tAte: Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood
Picture yourself transported back to 1969, maybe you weren't even a thought or maybe your were a just a tot. The Summer of '69 and its verge into a new, unforeseen decade, seems as delicately infamous as any other season or year in the history books, knowing the fragility America was in at that moment, what it had been through (assassinations, moon landings, wars and uproars) and a nation teetering on the edge, cultures clashing, ideologies at odds. A young Quentin Tarantino was merely 6, watching Batman *boom bang pow!* on the tube.
Now, fifty years later, a true Hollywood player, a grown ass man, takes our eyeballs and glues them onto the rear-view mirror of his celluloid DeLorean for a trip down memory lane where objects play out differently on screen. Tarantino gives us a buddy-pairing for the ages, a Clint Eastwood/Burt Reynolds dynamite duo of the modern cinematic gods in Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. The storefronts and streets of Los Angeles are rewound back to the sixties, the car stereos blaring Deep Purple, Neil Diamond and Bob Seger. Twist the cap off a cold brew and lay back with actor Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) and his side-kick, stunt-double buddy Cliff Booth (Pitt) as they watch Dalton on TV in 'FBI', a throwback procedural. Dalton is a fading TV and movie star, relegated to playing the "heavy" and his agent (Pacino) has advised him to high-tail it to Italy to star in Spaghetti Westerns. Cliff is hanging out during the day, on sets sparring with Bruce Lee and bumming around Dalton's pad, climbing up on the roof to fix the antennae.
I sat down on Sunday to watch a matinee of OUATIH in Chicago with extreme glee and anticipation of catching a 35mm screening in a Chicago theater that often doubles as a revival house. The lights dimmed and the film popped and crackled, the Sony pictures logo appearing on screen. The film began and something was off.. it was distorted, blurry and jittery. These young kids didn't actually know how to properly project in 35mm...
Audience members got up and protested. The screening was unwatchable. We were invited to wait around for the 1pm digital projection...
The technical glitch and unpredictability seemed almost fated for a movie beckoning to a more simpler time. It made me anticipate the showtime and film even more. And once the film began again I was immersed into Tarantino's fantasy world of an idealized 1969, the fading glitter of Golden Hollywood. Even though I wasn't getting the "vinyl" experience of the 35mm format, as Clint and Rick drove around in that slick vanilla Cadillac Eldorado, smoking cigarettes, hand massaging the wind out the driver's seat, I felt like I was there...
Margot Robbie plays Sharon Tate, who in reality was murdered, along with 5 others including her unborn baby at the hands of the Manson Family, under the direction of Charles Manson. "Helter Skelter" is not played in OUATIH and Manson barely gets any screen time. The majority of the Manson scenes involve one of the girls, who Cliff picks-up and accompanies back to Spahn ranch where the Manson Family is hiding out. There is some tension but Cliff makes it out unscathed, while also encountering the old man George Spahn (the ever cantankerous Bruce Dern), whom Cliff knew when he and Rick once filmed on the former studio lot that is now a desolate ranch.
We got to know Sharon Tate in a way as a hologram, Robbie embodying her spirit and moving through the frame as a carefree, angelic starlit. She is as engulfed by the magic of Hollywood as the audience, going to watch herself on the screen alongside Dean Martin in The Wrecking Crew. She sits near the front row, eyes a gaze in a daze, marveling at the wonders of movies. When she and her husband Roman Polanski move next door to Rick Dalton, Dalton is excited by the luck of the draw that the town's hottest director, coming off of Rosemary's Baby for fuck's sake(!), is his neighbor when Dalton is in desperate need of a hit role.
On the set of a western, Dalton is asked if it was true that he was once up for Steven McQueen's role in The Great Escape. As Dalton explains it, had McQueen turned it down and couple of things twisted and turned in a certain way, that yes, maybe he would've landed the gig. It's a story often told in Hollywood, the chance casting, the what-ifs that extend not just to movies but to sports and politics. As a star who recognizes, with desperation, that his time is fading, Rick Dalton is not quite ready to hand the reigns over to the shaggy haired "hippies" he detests with such scorn. This inertia plays out in history and is seen in multiple arenas in the modern era of today. What if just one or two things went differently? Or if the collective conscious paid more attention to one detail rather than another?
The rousing finale of OUATIH is a slow burn. The film wanders towards this final battle, some labeling it a "hang-out" movie, or that the extended driving numbers equate it to Grant Theft Auto: 1969 - an aimless day in the life of: choose your avatar (Rick or Cliff or Tate). But then, in the end, the game genie QT inserts a cheat code and we are treated to this cathartic climax. The Manson Family wanders up to the wrong house. They fuck with the wrong neighbors. They get mulled by Cliff's dog, face pile-drived into the fireplace and torched by Rick Dalton's flamethrower... he saved it from his role in 'The 14 Fists of McCluskey', of course.
So Sharon Tate lives, along with her unborn baby, Jay Sebring and the rest of the people in that house on Cielo Drive that late night. There are no victims in Tarantino's fairy tale. Just a couple of old cowboys not quite ready to ride off into the sunset.
Did they save the day? What if..