Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood; A Novel by Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino’s love for the printed word has always been in bold. His films share the ambitions and anatomy of a novel, divided into clear-cut chapters. Such a structure helps tie together all the historical coincidences, self-contained scenes and hyperviolent climaxes into a coherent, if not seamless, narrative. So, it should come as no surprise that his debut outing as a novelist reads like a motion picture.
Tarantino’s alt-history diorama, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, was a sun-soaked elegy to the bygone Hollywood of his boyhood memories. In its novel treatment, he is playing in a sandbox already packed with his familiar toys and ephemera. Writing fan fiction for his own story, he employs a cinematic vernacular entirely his own. The storytelling is non-linear. The writing is punchy as ever. The god’s eye view offers a distanced perspective, so as to not be easily coloured by matters of morality. The occasional shift to a character POV provides access to their inner thoughts and consciousness. A retromania in bright colours make up the palette. There are plenty of namedrops and needledrops to boot.
Expanding on the movie’s mythology, the novel takes us on a behind-the-scenes tour of 1969 LA through every nook and cranny, building a lusher world around the reader. Thorough research and an insider perspective sure come in handy as he drafts a companion field guide to this Hollywood dream factory populated by schemers and dreamers. Hippies have taken over the streets. A new generation has taken over the studios, challenging the old guard. Tarantino’s characters are accordingly divided into camps of pro-establishment vs counter-culture. Rick Dalton, a TV star past his prime, most certainly and quite proudly belongs to the former. “Five years of ascent. 10 years of treading water. And now a race to the bottom” is how he describes his fading stardom.
Like the movie, the book opens to a meeting with agent Marvin Schwarz, who wants Rick to stop playing baddies in TV guest spots and star in spaghetti westerns to salvage his career. Rick’s best friend Cliff Booth is an out-of-work stunt double, out of work because of his homicidal disposition. So he spends his days playing handyman, driver and gofer. Turns out Cliff did in fact kill his wife, and also the previous owner of his pit bull Brandy among others. He got away with them simply because he was a war hero. Tarantino deliberately takes away that ambiguity to play with our sympathies.
Anchored with words, Sharon Tate is more than just an angelic symbol here. Being privy to her thoughts — as she puts her feet up and watches her own 1968 movie The Wrecking Crew in the theatre — gives us intimate insight into the kind of person she was in a way the film couldn’t. Manson family member Pussycat breaks into an elderly couple’s home (“kreepy krawl”) as part of her rite of passage. Tarantino seems to suggest: if fate had permitted, Cliff could have been Rick. Pussycat could have been Sharon. And if Charles Manson had any musical talent, he would not have become a cult leader bitter about not making it in show business.
It’s partly why Tarantino centres his tale on a man of middling talent like Rick. A chapter on Aldo Ray, a Golden Age hero whose career took a downturn due to alcoholism and the fading studio system, grounds Rick’s own trajectory in terms of “publicly played-out poignant pity.” Tarantino remains a sucker for alliterations. When they call attention to themselves, the hardness can be jarring and joyous in equal measure. That in itself best describes his love-it-or-hate-it body of work.
Fetishes too remains intact in translation. Legs are never not “long” and “bare.” An adolescent horniness is on full display in descriptions like “bushy pussies” and “bouncing boobs.” The violence is hastily rendered and not lingered upon. The movie’s bloody climax is brought forward, and cut down to a couple of paras and few sentences to spare. This allows Tarantino to go beyond that fated encounter with the Manson family. The renewed attention earns Rick a third TV Guide profile and a regular gig on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Trudi Frazer, the eight-year-old acting prodigy, goes on to become a three-time Oscar nominated actor. In a playful meshing of narrative and meta-narrative, he evens implants himself into his historical fiction. Trudi earns her third Oscar nod for a Tarantino flick in 1999.
The narrative in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is chiefly an apparatus for Tarantino to get his characters chattering about cinema. Large chunks of the chapters are made up of referential digressions and circumstantial felicities that make his fairy-tale world richer. When characters launch into freewheeling rhetoric about film history, the voice echoing is undoubtedly Tarantino’s. Their speech too mimics his own natural rhythm. Cliff especially proves to be the go-to spokesman for the director’s own hot takes.
Of which there are plenty, and sure to keep Film Twitter engaged in endless discourse one bait at a time. Hiroshima Mon Amour is “a piece of crap.” Antonioni is “a fraud.” Jules and Jim is “the kind of movie, if you don’t dig the chick, you ain’t gonna dig the flick.” While skewering universally adored auteurs, he simultaneously champions the under appreciated works of Sonny Chiba and Vilgot Sjöman. Cliff’s curious dissection of I Am Curious (Yellow) gives us a tease of what we can expect from his “deep dive” into 1970s cinema in his next book. Tarantino has always loved playing the role of patron saint to cinema’s middlebrow. In his undying love for grindhouse movies, pulp fiction and other things inglorious, he’s become their torch bearer. And Once Upon a Time in Hollywood not only functions as an appendix to his 2019 film, but also as an almanac of history’s forgotten films and actors.
Prahlad Srihari is a film and pop culture writer. He lives in Bangalore.