Once Upon a Time in Hollywood


The Manson Family murders in Los Angeles in August 1969 changed the face of Hollywood. The writer Joan Didion, later an enormous influence on LA enfant terrible Bret Easton Ellis, wrote that when she heard the news of the ghoulish killing of heavily pregnant actress Sharon Tate:

“I was sitting in the shallow end of my sister-in-law’s swimming pool in Beverley Hills when I heard about the murders… I also remember this and wish I did not: Nobody was surprised.”

Overnight gun sales soared, and after the Spahn Ranch arrest of Charles Manson and his cult of drugged out middle class teenagers dubbed ‘The Family”, movie stars shared paranoid announcements with a salivating tabloid press that they were on the family’s hit list. Charles Manson definitively ended the Summer of Love and cast a long shadow over the rest of the 20th century, locked in maximum security prisons, gaining cult support from Hollywood and the music industry.

Fifty years after the Tate/La Bianca murders, wunderkind director Quentin Tarantino chose to write and direct a movie tackling the now deceased Charlie Manson, his insidious followers, and the end of a Golden Age in American cinema. In the Netflix era of HBO boxsets and straight to pay per view movies, even though Brad Pitt won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar earlier in 2020, the film was widely passed by, and even though I pay attention to seismic events in the cultural calendar, I hadn’t read a single review or knew almost anything about it before I bought the film on pay per view. Concerned about how ultra-violent director Tarantino would handle the brutal killing of a heavily pregnant woman, I avoided it for as long as I could, before the curiosity got the better of me.

Beginning his film career with low budget gems Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), Tarantino was a luddite, avoiding CGI wherever possible. He wrote creatively and shot classically. By the time he made The Hateful Eight (2015), a dull, overlong Western in the vein of Agatha Christie, it seemed as if his reputation as a cinematic genius was undeserved. Luckily for Tarantino fans, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a blistering return to form. In a manner reminiscent of his 2009 Inglourious Basterds, in which the writer/director changed the history of WW2 to imply that cinema was capable of metamorphosing history into anything the filmmakers wanted, even the worst tragedies can have a happy ending.

A modern-day Conservative, Tarantino dominates every film he makes. A huge fan of John Ford and John Wayne, he believes men should be men and women should be women, and he has no time for the Manson Family, depicted here as selfish, lazy and vicious. Sharon Tate is played by the beautiful Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street) who bears a strong resemblance to the doomed actress.

Born and raised in Los Angeles, for Tarantino the film is a love letter to the City of Angels, a period piece that pays close attention to the late sixties buildings, cars, movie sets, fashion, even down to the hairy armpits of the feral Manson Family girls.

As I’ve written in previous film and book reviews, a review should not be a synopsis of the story. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is available on Pay Per View, and fans of Quentin Tarantino’s back catalogue, especially those who’ve been disappointed by his most recent efforts, could do a lot worse during the Covid lockdown than purchase the movie. For anybody who loves Hollywood, this ingenious return to form by one of America’s best directors, puts Charles Manson and his degenerate Family firmly in their place and gives the audience the happy ending they’ve deserved for fifty years.

Follow Andrew Moody on Twitter @VoguishFiction_