When I first read that director Quentin Tarantino was shooting a film centered around the 1969 Charles Manson murder rampage, I rolled my eyes. Why, Quentin, why?
Tarantino, the former video store clerk turned directing genius, is one of my favorite filmmakers. But not only has this particular story been done to death (no pun intended) in television and film over the past half-century, his films are uniquely famous for their over-the-top violence and gore.
Just the names "Tarantino" and "Manson" in the same sentence conjure images I don't necessarily want to see.
The prospect of one of our most graphically violent moviemakers taking on one of the most horrifically violent chapters in the annals of true American crime filled me with pessimism and dread. It seemed to signal lack of imagination, to be almost cliched. Is Tarantino that hard up for material? If he's going to venture into true crime I’d rather hear he’s making a movie about O.J., or Leopold and Loeb, or the Lincoln assassination.
What new perspective or treatment could he possibly bring to this story?
From the commentary in the entertainment press like Variety and Hollywood Reporter and elsewhere on the Internet, I’m not alone in my skepticism. Feeding a great deal of the negative reaction is the fact that the film, to be titled “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” is scheduled to be released August 9, 2019—the 50th anniversary of the slaughter of pregnant actress Sharon Tate and six others. It smacks of gimmickry. The Tate family reportedly has expressed its displeasure with exploiting the anniversary in such a manner, and with dramatic depictions of the tragedy in general.
The recent announcement that two Hollywood heavyweights, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, have signed on to star in the film has only spiked the feverish curiosity and speculation surrounding it.
What disturbs me and others is that unlike Tarantino’s previous eight films (each of which has grown increasingly cartoonish in its bloodletting and violence), this one deals with a shocking real-life event involving real people, not fictional characters. People that some in his own community knew personally.
Then there’s the added fact that Tarantino—along with Matt Damon and other male luminaries—is currently in the Hollywood doghouse for his silent complicity in Harvey Weinstein’s abuses, among several other things.
Tarantino might surprise us. He’s nothing if not creative. Details about the film are reportedly “shrouded in secrecy.” DiCaprio supposedly plays a has-been former TV star, with Pitt as his stunt double (in real life Pitt is about a decade older than DiCaprio, so I wonder how that’s going to work). The casting is intriguing, and one likes to think that A-listers like Pitt and DiCaprio would not associate themselves with the project unless the script was pretty good.
In a prepared statement to the press, Tarantino called the film “a story that takes place in Los Angeles in 1969, at the height of hippy Hollywood."
"The two lead characters are Rick Dalton, former star of a Western TV series, and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth. Both are struggling to make it in a Hollywood they don’t recognize anymore. But Rick has a very famous next-door neighbor … Sharon Tate.
“I’ve been working on this script for five years, as well as living in Los Angeles County most of my life, including in 1969, when I was seven years old. I’m very excited to tell this story of an LA and a Hollywood that don’t exist anymore.”
This would seem to indicate that "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" won't deal directly with the Tate murder, but instead use it as a backdrop to a fictional story centered around these two characters. I’m hoping this is the case. However it takes shape, Tarantino is going to have to come up with a very different twist on these historical events in order to pull this off. It’s not like he hasn’t done it before.
I just hope the result is mindful and respectful of the fact that this story involves real, flesh-and-blood victims who have real-life loved ones.
As a longtime Tarantino fan, I’d like to see him surprise us and do something completely different. He’s probably not going to put out a comedy anytime soon, but I’d love to see him make a sophisticated, dialogue-driven thriller with minimal or no violence, along the lines of Francis Ford Coppola’s “The Conversation.” Is it too much to hope for?
He risks becoming a parody of himself, as recent films such as “Django Unchained” and “The Hateful Eight” demonstrated. Will "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" be yet another take on the revenge-movie theme, with DiCaprio and Pitt gunning for Spahn’s Ranch to unleash vigilante justice on Charlie & company, in full Tarantino-style guns-a-blazing glory?