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.