Warning! This post and episode contain huge spoilers.
Dr G and Dr Rad always enjoy a trip to the movies, as you tell from our past forays in classics like Spartacus, Gladiator, and the contemporary farce Hail, Caesar! We are planning to record more special episodes when we see a historical flick or television series that sparks our interest. This week we saw Tarantino’s latest offering, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019).
Did we mention the spoilers? They are coming…
The two main characters in this film (Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt) are fictional, but the backdrop to their story is historical. Whilst occasionally flashing back to earlier points, the majority of the film takes place in Hollywood, 1969. 2019 marks the fifty-year anniversary, so the release is timely. This was a pivotal year for America in many ways. The protest movement against the Vietnam War reached new heights in the wake of the Tet Offensive in 1968, not only in terms of the numbers who attended protests such as Vietnam Moratorium Day, but also with the trial of the Chicago Eight for demonstrations during the August 1968 Democratic National Convention. This was also the year that the assassin of Martin Luther King Jr was captured and tried, and the Black Panthers were named as enemies of the state by the FBI for being a communist organisation. These are not the events that Tarantino focuses on.
What is Hollywood Anyway?
Dalton is an actor trying to keep his career afloat and Booth is his stuntman, BFF and all-round handyman. The Hollywood that they used to know is disappearing. For decades, the film industry had been controlled by the major studios (such as MGM, Paramount, Warner Bros) and each movie was subject to strict censorship rules. By 1969, the studios were no longer as dominant and the Production Code had been abandoned, opening the door for a wider range of artists and film subjects. The Graduate (1967) would have been unthinkable at the beginning of the decade and in 1969 Dennis Hopper’s ground-breaking, counter-cultural classic, Easy Rider, would be released.
Even so, Hollywood was about to be rocked by something more earth-shattering than a progressive movie. In August 1969, Charles Manson decided that it was time for his followers to unleash the race war that he had dubbed ‘Helter Skelter’ after the Beatles song from the 1968 White Album. This would lead to the grisly Tate and La Bianca murders. The crimes committed by the Manson Family had many implications, but it is the build-up to these events that Tarantino traces as Dalton and Booth cruise through Hollywood.
Hollywood with a Twist
Just as the audience is preparing to see Sharon Tate and her house guests get brutally murdered by Manson’s drug-addled followers, Tarantino turns audience expectations on their head. Dalton and Booth, who live next door to Tate and Polanski, are attacked by the Family and it is the latter who suffer a gruesome end. This is not the first time that Tarantino has ventured down this road with historical fare. Django Unchained (2013) and Inglorious Basterds (2009) both play with historical reality. Is it in the interest of providing his audience with a sense of catharsis? What are the implications of counterfactual history – of exploring the ‘What ifs?’ of history? This may seem harmless and perhaps beneficial; can exploring what didn’t happen help to shed fresh light on what did happen?
Respected historians such as Niall Ferguson have trodden down this path, but others such as Richard J. Evans have emphatically refuted the value of “parlour games” that seem to lament ‘if only’, rather than ask ‘what-if?’ (Hatherley, 2014). Do these issues apply to historical films, which obviously aim to entertain? Is the silver screen a suitable place for such games, or does the wider audiences of a feature film make counterfactuals more dangerous? This is history at its most controversial.
Join the Doctors as they explore the ins and outs of the 60s, hippies and history.
- Batty, E. (2019, July 26). What the F*ck You Just Watched: The Ending of ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.’ Cosmopolitan.
- De La Garza, A. (2019, July 26). The True Story Behind Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Time Magazine.
- Evans, R. J. (2014, March 13). ‘What if’ is a waste of time. The Guardian.
- Hatherly, O. (2014, April 17). Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History by Richard J. Evans review – a ruthless, forensic demolition. The Guardian.
- For those interested in learning more about Hollywood in the Manson era, we cannot recommend ‘You Must Remember This’ enough. Host Karina Longworth has produced a 12-part series exploring Charles Manson, the Family and Hollywood in the late 1960s.
- If you are more of a true crime buff, you may be interested in checking out the Last Podcast on the Left (hosted by Ben Kissel, Marcus Parks and Henry Zebrowski) and their series on Charles Manson (Starting at Episode 147). These guys have a conversational, hilarious podcast that is also exceptionally well-researched.
- And finally, if you’re just loving all things 1969, check out Parcast Presents the ‘Summer of ‘69’ series, which features a number of episodes on Manson, the Manson Girls BUT also other fascinating tales from this pivotal year.