Sharon, who is barefoot, pregnant or both in most of her scenes, is not so much a symbol of innocence or glamour as an emblem of normalcy. The best stretch of the movie follows her, Cliff and Rick through their separate routines on a single day. Rick is at work, fighting off a hangover and his own self-doubt. Cliff picks up a hitchhiker — a girl he’s noticed before, played by Margaret Qualley — and drives her to the Spahn Movie Ranch in Chatsworth, where she lives with a bunch of other young people (and an old guy played by Bruce Dern, one of many memorable cameos). Sharon also gives a stranger a ride, buys her husband a gift and stops in at a theater in Westwood to watch herself in “The Wrecking Crew,” a spoofy action caper starring Dean Martin.
That’s a real movie, as are most of the others whose titles appear on billboards and marquees. In the real world, six months after that magically ordinary imaginary day, Tate was murdered in her home on Cielo Drive, along with four of her friends. The killers lived at the Spahn Ranch, and were disciples of a failed musician named Charles Manson.
That’s the opposite of a spoiler, by the way. If you don’t know about the Manson family, or if you’re vague on the details of their crimes, you may not feel the tingle of foreboding that is crucial to Tarantino’s revisionism. Didion, in “The White Album,” wrote that “many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on Aug. 9, 1969, ended at exactly the moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brush fire through the community.” But what if the ’60s never ended? Or rather, what if the ’60s, as a half-century of pop-culture habit has taught us to remember them, never really happened.
The political struggles of the decade are deep in the background, occasionally crackling through car radio static along with traffic and weather reports. The music we hear isn’t a soundtrack of rebellion, but an anthology of pleasure. Tarantino’s anti-ironic celebration of the mainstream popular culture of the time amounts to a sustained argument against the idea of a counterculture. Those who would disrupt, challenge or destroy the last stable society on earth are in the grip of an ideological, aesthetic and moral error. Hippies aren’t cool. Old-time he-men like Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth are cool.
You don’t have to agree. I don’t think I do. But I also don’t mind. There will be viewers who object to the movie’s literal and metaphorical hippie-punching on political grounds. There will be others who embrace it as a thumb in the eye of current sensitivities, and others who insist the movie has no politics at all.
To which I can only say: it’s a western, for Pete’s sake. Politics are wound into its DNA, and Tarantino knows the genome better than anyone else. Which is just to say that like other classics of the genre, “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” is not going anywhere. It will stand as a source of debate — and delight — for as long as we care about movies. And it wants us to care.
Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood
Rated R. Not the bloodiest Tarantino, but still Tarantino. Running time: 2 hours 41 minutes.