THE DIZZYING “META” OF ONCE UPON A TIME … IN HOLLYWOOD by David Morrell
Consider this TV Guide cover. There’s no date, but it would have been around 1963. It features a cartoon of Jake Cahill, the main character of a half-hour TV Western called Bounty Law. Actor Rick Dalton portrayed Jack Cahill in that series. Leonardo DiCaprio portrays Rick Dalton in Once upon a Time … in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s new film, which is about Hollywood in 1969. That year, four members of the Charles Manson cult murdered actress Sharon Tate (who was eight-and-a-half months pregnant), hairstylist Jay Sebring, and three other victims at a Cielo Drive The house was once rented by record-producer Terry Melcher, to whom Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys had introduced Manson.
|Artist: Tom Richmond imitating Jack Davis|
Maybe Rick Dalton did exist. I showed these three covers to an acquaintance. I explained that Quentin Tarantino invented all this, including Hound’s Tooth dog food and Red Apple Cigarettes (which have been in almost every Tarantino film, even though they don’t exist). I explained all of this (clearly, I thought). The acquaintance pointed at the cover of the (fake) fan magazine and said he could understand why Tarantino cast DiCaprio in the role, because DiCaprio looks amazingly like Rick Dalton.
|Artist: Renato Casaro|
In Once upon a Time … in Hollywood (the ellipsis is a deliberate part of the title), Rick Dalton’s cratering career is saved when he becomes a star of Italian Westerns. One of them, Nebraska Jim, is helmed by (we are told) “the second-greatest director of spaghetti Westerns,” Sergio Corbucci, a real person who directed Django (1966), which influenced Tarantino to direct Django Unchained (2012), which features non-existent Red Apple Cigarettes, which Rick Dalton advertises in an episode of Bounty Law in Once upon a Time … in Hollywood.
Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth (a billboard on Hollywood Boulevard advertised the film merely by showing a huge photo of Brad Pitt and two words CLIFF BOOTH, as if Cliff Booth were real, which I’m beginning to think he is) are supposedly based on the friendship between Burt Reynolds (who was scheduled to appear in this film but died before the production started) and famed stuntman, Hal Needham. But Rick could also be a version of Clint Eastwood who co-starred in a TV Western, Rawhide, before establishing a film career in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Western, A Fistful of Dollars (1964).
Rick Dalton could also be a version of Steve McQueen, whose half-hour TV Western, Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958-61), is the inspiration for Bounty Law (complete with imitations of the cigarette commercials McQueen delivered while dressed as his character). McQueen (portrayed by Damian Lewis) has a role in the film. Rick Dalton fantasizes about having been cast in McQueen’s role in The Great Escape. Thanks to the technical wizardry of John Dykstra, we watch a scene from The Great Escape in which Rick replaces McQueen. At the same time, Margot Robbie (portraying an idealized version of Sharon Tate) goes to a theater to see the spy movie, The Wrecking Crew ((1968), in which she watches the real Sharon Tate do pratfalls with Dean Martin and then win a karate fight against Nancy Kwan. Yes, the real Sharon Tate is in Once upon a Time … in Hollywood, which turns out not to be a Manson movie but instead gives us a fairy-tale alternate view of 1969 in which events might have been drastically different and our culture might have veered from the trajectory that gave us the mess of today.
|Artist: Renato Casaro|
This world-within-an-imaginary-world, self-referential approach is called post-modernism, aka metafiction or meta for short. Tarantino specializes in it. As someone who wrote a book about the metafiction of John Barth, I admire Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood to the point of obsession. My wife and I saw it three times (we know people who’ve seen it eight times.) We collected the posters for Rick Dalton Westerns, such as Comanche Uprising (with Robert Taylor), Hell-Fire Texas (with Glenn Ford), Tanner (a TV movie), and (translated from the Italian) Kill Me Quick Ringo, Said the Gringo (a spaghetti Western).
These films don’t exist. But I can always hope. Indeed Tarantino wrote five episodes for the imaginary series, Bounty Law, so that he could shoot scenes from them. In an interview he indicated he’d be willing to write another three episodes and direct them as an actual series.
In a year when most films have been squeezed through an algorithm sausage grinder, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is a non-sequel, non-superhero movie that passed the $100 million domestic box-office threshold and is now past $300 million worldwide. I’m thrilled that Tarantino’s meta approach proves there’s still an audience for distinctive storytelling.
David Morrell created Rambo in his debut novel, First Blood. His espionage novel, The Brotherhood of the Rose, became the only TV miniseries to be broadcast after a Super Bowl. His Victorian thrillers, Murder as a Fine Art, Inspector of the Dead, and Ruler of the Night, are meta versions of sensation novels that could have been published during the 1850s.
Despite the fact that my head is now swimming to stay afloat in this reality-fiction-reality discussion, I am also happy that there is still room for non-franchise screenplays in Hollywood! And not just because I hope to write a few someday.
It's an incredible alternate reality that Tarantino has created here. My only complaint – and honestly, for me it is significant – is his portrayal of Bruce Lee. I found it problematic to say the least. It would have been better if it was a fantasy sequence like the McQueen one. I think it does a disservice to Lee's memory and his family's critiques are justified.
Got a bit dizzy trying to keep up with what's real and what's a figment of a producer's imagination. Great piece here from David Morrell who certainly knows Hollywood inside and out. Thanks for a terrific blog!…..Karna Small Bodman
Well, now I need to see the film. I've heard it's fantastic, but typically wait for things to come out on streaming or HBO, etc. Sadly, I can't sit in our theater seats without having my back go out, and I just don't ant to drive that far. And yet, you've just made me want to drive that far!
A lot of people have said the same thing, but the deal is this: Lee was that cocky and arrogant in real life.
Bruce Lee's portrayal in the movie is only a disservice to his memory if you think he was perfect, never lost a fight, never had anything to learn from anyone, and never had any flaws. Obviously, this wasn't the case in real life.
When Bruce Lee was cast in THE GREEN HORNET he'd never worked in the film/tv industry before. He was determined to bring a new level of action to tv screens that had never been seen before and make his reputation in the process.
These ambitions were good, but caused problems initially–because Lee didn't recognize he had to learn the business before he could change it. He thought the guidance of the experienced stunt men was them trying to hold him back.
They told him to pull his punches more. He didn't listen (thinking it would look unrealistic, when in fact you couldn't tell), and ended up connecting with a few hits. They told him to slow down. He didn't listen, until he was shown the rushes and saw that the camera couldn't pick up his movements.
He could also be haughty at times. He was proud of what he could do, understandably so. The stunt men brought in Gene LeBell to take Lee down a notch. LeBell was able to subdue Lee, pick him up over his shoulders against his will, and parade him around the set. This so impressed Lee, that he began taking lessons from LeBell.
Bruce Lee was impressive not because he showed up that way, but because he worked his ass off to be the best he could be. Even so, he was prone to the same kinds of flaws all humans are though. He had a short temper, he was impatient, he was enormously attractive to a number of women and cheated on his wife with them.
The scene in the movie is great because it starts out with Lee describing the hypothetical fighters who are better than he is, that he admires. Fighters who battle for life and death, not points in a sporting match. If memory serves, this is paraphrased from things Lee actually wrote and said.
What the Bruce Lee (the character) and the audience don't know, is that the hypothetical individual he has just described is Cliff Booth: Current stunt man, decorated WWII vet, former U.S. Army Special Forces Green Beret. Cliff's killed a lot of men with his bare hands.
Tarantino's genius lies in the simplicity of what he's done. He made a movie ostensibly about the Manson murders that instead focuses more on Sharon Tate while relegating Charles Manson to a two minute walk on part. To create a tough guy protagonist dangerous enough to get the better of Bruce Lee, he takes the words right out of Bruce Lee's mouth and creates from there.
Great critique from David Morrell. For me there's just one error–really a sin of omission–I'd like to see him address. The real inspiration for Pitt's performance is said to have been Tom Laughlin's Billy Jack. Reportedly, Tarantino invited Pitt over for a private screening of a top quality Billy Jack print. How much of their mutual enthusiasm made it into OUAT…IH is something DM might have fun exploring.