As a lifelong film buff (OK, since I was about 4), I have great fondness for much that Hollywood (and foreign cinema) has produced. Each year I try to see a number of new films and re-watch some of the old ones.
During the past year, I never got around to seeing most of the blockbusters that dominated the box office. According to the online publication The Verge, Disney produced an unprecedented 80 percent of the top box-office hits in 2019.
Thanks to its purchase during the last decade of Marvel Entertainment (2009) and Lucasfilm (2012), Disney films have included franchises like Star Wars and the Marvel hits, in addition to popular animated films like Frozen and Frozen 2. The result: Disney films have surpassed many other films at the box office.
But I don’t pay a lot of attention to box-office success. I’m far more focused on seeing films that have something to say to me. This year my clear favorite was Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.
Once Upon a Time, a Quentin Tarantino film, is not only a fabulous depiction of Hollywood in 1969, but it also related to me and my life in a number of ways.
Spoiler alert: If you haven’t yet seen this film, DO NOT read the ending of this blog post, where I write about the Manson murders.
First, about the film itself: It’s been called a “buddy picture,” and in many ways it is. In two stellar performances, Leonardo DiCaprio (playing the fictional Rick Dalton) and Brad Pitt (playing fictional Cliff Booth), are indeed buddies. Rick is a fading former star of a Western TV series, trying to make a comeback in Hollywood, while Cliff is his longtime stunt double. By 1969, with Rick’s star on the wane, Cliff spends much of his time driving Rick from place to place. Both are struggling to survive in a Hollywood that has changed from the one they knew.
Weaving fiction and fact throughout the film, Tarantino uses both humor and violence to depict the end of an era. In this love letter to 1960s Hollywood (which has earned positive reviews by most top critics on Rotten Tomatoes and garnered numerous awards and nominations), he embeds specifics of popular culture and real places in 1969 LA into the film.
The story takes place during two days in February and one day in August of 1969. Notably, Rick Dalton’s home is right next door to the home of minor film star Sharon Tate (married to director Roman Polanski) in a posh section of western LA, Benedict Canyon.
In this film, Tarantino also skillfully blends in the ugly story of the Charles Manson “family.”
Re-creating in many ways the world that I lived in at about the same time, even if he himself did not, Tarantino provoked a cascade of intensely vivid memories for me. Here’s why:
|I left Chicago in August 1970 and moved to the Westwood neighborhood on the west side of LA, where I rented a cheerful furnished apartment within walking distance of UCLA.
I had moved my “Reggie Fellowship” from the Appellate and Test Case Division of the Chicago Legal Aid Bureau to a health-law related Legal Services office that was located at UCLA Law School. Reggies were predominantly young lawyers who opted to work on behalf of the poor rather than toil in a corporate law firm. (Please see my more detailed description of the Reggie program in an earlier post, “The Summer of ’69,” published on August 7. 2015.)
Westwood and Westwood Village (the commercial area in Westwood, adjacent to UCLA), loom large in my memory. I met my husband-to-be (I’ll call him Marv) on the UCLA campus in October 1970, six weeks after I arrived. Before we met, we had both rented separate apartments in the same apartment building located on the fringe of the campus. We soon began dating, and my memory bank is filled with countless memories related to our courtship and marriage that year.
My new location was very close to much of what happens in the Tarantino film only one year earlier. So when he replicates things from that time, I recall seeing and hearing a lot of what looked like them myself.
Examples: Street signs, ads painted on bus-stop benches, movie posters, commercials, and music. (Some of these are Tarantino’s own inventions.)
Probably the best example: Sharon Tate goes to see herself in a film at a movie theater in Westwood Village. During the year that I lived in Westwood, I saw many films at the movie theaters in Westwood Village. (Seeing “Love Story” with Marv in one of them in December 1970 was especially memorable, and I plan to write about it in a future blog post.)
Another example: A scene in the movie is set at the famous LA restaurant called Musso & Frank Grill. Marv and I were both aware of its fame, and during that year we sought it out and dined there one special night.
One more thing: The stunning area where Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski lived next door to the fictional Rick Dalton (Benedict Canyon) is in western LA, not far from Westwood and very close to BelAir. Marv and I not only lived in Westwood, but we also celebrated our wedding luncheon at the charming BelAir Hotel.
Then there’s the Manson family storyline in the movie. I learned about the Manson murders during a weekend in New York City. I was spending part of the summer of 1969 at the Reggie training program at Haverford College, near Philadelphia, and I traveled from Philly to NYC one weekend in August
During trips to NYC, I often stayed with a close friend and a law-school classmate (I’ll call her Arlene). Although Arlene was planning to be out of town that weekend, she invited me to stay in her 86th Street apartment on the East Side of Manhattan without her. It was a great opportunity to live by myself as a quasi-New Yorker, and I decided to do it.
Returning to her apartment on Saturday evening, I picked up the Sunday New York Times and was shocked by a headline spelling out the startling discovery of the Manson murders.
At that time, I was still living in Chicago, but I had briefly lived in LA when I was 12 and always liked to follow any news arising there. So I was riveted by the Manson story and read the paper from cover to cover.
When Tarantino decided to weave this story into the rest of his film, he did what he’d done in Inglourious Basterds and changed the real ending to a much different one.
Watching Once Upon a Time, I was terribly nervous as the film approached its ending. I knew how the real story turned out, and I didn’t know exactly how this film would portray it. But what a departure from reality Tarantino created! The shocking ending to the film includes imaginative violence that is so over-the-top that it’s almost humorous. Overall, the ending is a clever re-imagining of the fate of the Manson family and a much happier resolution of what happened to their victims.
Although the new ending was violent in its own way, creating an exciting piece of filmmaking, I left the theater in a much sunnier frame of mind than I would have if Tarantino had re-created the actual massacre that took place in 1969.
In sum, Once Upon a Time is, to my mind, an absorbing and a fascinating film. For me, it was one of the best films of 2019.
I plan to write again about Hollywood films that have been relevant to my own life. Part II will begin to explore classic films that have done just that.
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2020 is upon us. Let’s hope it’s a year of clear vision and insight.