ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD and the Art of Recreating an Era

29 Jul

Quentin Tarantino’s newest film offers a love-letter to the pop culture of the 1960s—films, television, music, celebrities, parties, etc. He takes the careers of three distinct individuals, two fictional, one real, employed in the film and TV industry in 1969 and uses incidents in their lives, including numerous flashbacks spanning the 1960s, to depict what it was like to live and work in the industry town of Los Angeles at the time. The key figure is Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a onetime star of a TV western now reduced to guest shots as “villain of the week” in assorted network TV dramas and faced with the dilemma of how to resuscitate his stardom or just settle for life as a working actor. The second figure is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), Dalton’s stuntman, who, when not doubling Dalton in a film or TV role, is acting as Dalton’s chauffeur, handyman and paid companion. (Dalton lives in a sprawling ranch house on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills, while Booth lives miles away in a trailer parked near an oil rig behind a drive-in theater in Van Nuys.)

The third figure is a portrayal of an actual person, actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a beautiful blonde who was a rising star in 1969, after having garnered attention with showy supporting roles in such films as DON’T MAKE WAVES, VALLEY OF THE DOLLS and THE WRECKING CREW. The film doesn’t get too close to Tate but offers glimpses of her everyday life, attending parties with her husband, film director Roman Polanski (played by Rafal Zawierucha), and hanging out with other glamorous friends, including another real-life actress, Joanna Pettet (played by Rumer Willis). Tate comes off as a wide-eyed free spirit, trusting, in love with life and totally unself-conscious. We never see her at work. Her house is just up the road from Dalton’s. Her only extended solo scene finds her visiting the Westwood area of Los Angeles and stopping in at a movie theater showing one of her films, THE WRECKING CREW, to revel in the spectacle of seeing herself on the big screen. She even gets the manager to let her in for free after convincing him that she’s one of the stars of the movie.

Lurking about ominously throughout the film are the real-life figures of Charles Manson and members of his “family.” Cliff Booth even makes an extended visit to the Spahn Movie Ranch, a rundown western set where the Manson family had made their home. (The location used in the film is another derelict western set, Corriganville.) In real life, Tate would be murdered in her home, with four of her friends, on the night of August 8, 1969 by members of the Manson family. Tarantino’s film begins on February 8, 1969 and ends on August 8, 1969. I will say no more about any of the plot elements in the film nor will I hint at what happens at the end.

As someone who was an active moviegoer in 1969, I’ve chosen to focus on the nature of the recreations Tarantino offers of the various films and TV shows that Dalton, Booth and Tate are involved with. As usual with Tarantino, he’s less interested in factual recreations than in the heightened imaginary versions he’s created in his mind, which can sometimes be more compelling than the originals. He takes considerable dramatic license, carefully sculpting the Hollywood universe of the time to resemble the real one he vividly recalls, but revising it in varying degrees to conform to the way he wished it was. I’d like to point out those moments of dramatic license.

We start with the black-and-white film clip that opens the film. It’s a promotional spot done by NBC to tout Dalton’s early ’60s TV western hit, “Bounty Law.” We see a typically unctuous TV host, “Allen Kincaid” (played by Spencer Garrett) sitting down for an on-set backlot interview with two men, Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth, who is quickly identified as Dalton’s stunt double. As I recall, this kind of thing was unheard of back then. No TV star would admit to having a stunt double, let alone bring him out to be interviewed on camera.

I can, of course, understand why Tarantino did this. We need to see how dependent Dalton is on Booth and why Booth feels so obligated to Dalton. Pointing out on national television how crucial one’s stuntman is to one’s career insures the stuntman’s continuing loyalty even as rough spots pop up in the star’s later career. It explains a lot about their relationship.

ADDENDUM: I stand corrected. I just found a photo of Guy Madison, star of “Wild Bill Hickok,” posing with his stuntman, Dick Farnsworth. (Thanks to Paula Vitaris of Silver Screen Oasis.)

Then we see clips from the TV series, which is evidently modeled on Steve McQueen’s western hit, “Wanted Dead or Alive.” Jake Cahill, Dalton’s bounty hunter character in “Bounty Law,” freely admits to never bringing them in alive. He says something like “Amateurs try to bring them in alive. And amateurs wind up dead.” Network censors would never have allowed a character to be so bloodthirsty. And, in McQueen’s case, his bounty hunter, Josh Randall, did indeed do his very best to bring them in alive.

We also see Cahill in quick clips of various shootouts with the outlaws he’s pursuing, including one where he quickly guns down four in a row, much like Clint Eastwood did when faced with four miscreants in an early scene of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, Eastwood’s first Italian western. (Eastwood, like Dalton, got his start as star of a TV western, “Rawhide,” in Eastwood’s case.)

That kind of body count began with Italian westerns and not with American TV westerns. But then, every recreated clip in Tarantino’s film amps up the level of violence beyond what it would have been.

We later see a clip from a war movie Dalton co-starred in sometime after his TV series ended and called 14 FISTS OF MCCLUSKEY, in which Dalton’s eye-patch-wearing Nazi-hunting character bursts in on a meeting of top Nazi officers planning some nefarious operation and burns them all alive with a flame thrower.

It’s quite a spectacular burst of violence that recalls the scene at the end of THE DIRTY DOZEN (1967) when members of the Dozen pour gasoline into the air vents leading to the chateau basement where the Nazi officers and their women companions are hiding from the Dozen’s attack and then drop hand grenades into the vents, followed by football star Jim Brown doing a spectacular run to drop live grenades down each vent and then try to get out of there before the whole place explodes.

As gruesome as the result must have been, it’s left to the imagination. I don’t think we would have seen anything quite like Dalton’s flame-throwing stunt, which is a lot closer in tone to the violence in Tarantino’s own INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) than to any actual WWII film of the 1960s that I recall. In the one counterpart I can think of, WHERE EAGLES DARE, a film I saw in the summer of 1969, Richard Burton and Clint Eastwood do shoot a few Nazi officers in a conference room with silenced pistols, before capturing three of them, Nazi spies who had been working in England.

While there were lots of DIRTY DOZEN rip-offs in the wake of that film’s huge success, with titles like THE DEVIL’S BRIGADE, DAYTON’S DEVILS, THE DEVIL’S 8, et al, I can’t think of anything from that time quite like 14 FISTS OF MCCLUSKEY. Still, I understand Tarantino’s impulse to make the recreations more sensational to keep in line with his audience’s expectations.

In an amusing aside, Dalton reveals that he got the part in MCCLUSKEY only because Fabian, a onetime pop star-turned-actor, originally cast in the part, broke his shoulder doing an episode of “The Virginian” and had to bow out. In real life, Fabian did indeed appear in three episodes of “The Virginian” and co-starred in the aforementioned DEVIL’S 8.

Fabian in “Two Men Named Laredo,” a 1965 episode of “The Virginian”

Later, we see recreations of two TV episodes that Rick Dalton guest-starred in. One of them is the first episode of “Lancer,” a western TV series that starred Andrew Duggan as a powerful rancher, and James Stacy and Wayne Maunder as his two wayward sons. Stacy and Maunder are seen in the recreation, played by Timothy Olyphant and Luke Perry. Dalton plays a villain named Caleb. The director of the episode is identified as Sam Wanamaker (played by Nicholas Hammond), an actor who turned to directing late in his career and did indeed direct the first episode of “Lancer,” entitled, “The High Riders.” I never saw the series, but the plot of the episode described on IMDB matches the broad outline of the plot as seen in the recreation, although there is no character named Caleb. Instead, there’s a character named Day Pardee, who provides the basis for Caleb and Dalton’s look in the scene does indeed match that of Pardee, who is played by Joe Don Baker. Here’s a scene from the original episode showing the first meeting of Pardee and Stacy’s character, Johnny Madrid, in the episode:

There is a little girl (Julia Butters) in the recreated episode who is held hostage by Caleb in one harrowing scene, but there’s no child actress listed in the credits of that episode. Also, the dramatics of the scenes we are shown being filmed in the recreation grind a little slower than network TV would have allowed at the time, with Dalton giving a more intense, cinematic performance than one designed for the small screen. As such, the scene is probably much more compelling than the actual TV episode. Also, I doubt the network censor would have allowed Caleb to terrorize a little girl that way.

Top, Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton and Timothy Olyphant as James Stacy on the set of “Lancer.”

“Sam Wanamaker,” seated, wearing white turtleneck, gleefully watches Dalton’s performance on the set of Tarantino’s recreation of “Lancer.”

The first episode of “Lancer” premiered on September 24, 1968, several months before the sequence takes place in Tarantino’s narrative. In addition, Olyphant and Perry are not only older than the actors they play, Stacy and Maunder, but older than Andrew Duggan was that year when he played the characters’ father in the show!

The real “Lancer,” L-R: James Stacy, Andrew Duggan, Wayne Maunder

“Lancer” is recalled by TV critic Robert Rorke in the New York Post as “The Forgotten TV Show Quentin Tarantino Resurrected for ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.'”

Later, we see scenes from an episode of “The FBI” (1965-1974) in which Dalton plays the guest villain. Dalton and Booth are seen watching the episode as it aired on TV on Sunday night, February 9, 1969.

We even see the opening credits, in which Dalton is announced as a guest star in between James Farentino and Norman Fell, as well as the title card for the episode, “All the Streets Are Silent.” There’s quite a bit of action shown, in which Dalton’s character leads a murderous robbery of an army truck carrying cases of weapons. Since they’re watching it on TV, I couldn’t tell how much of the footage was from the original episode and how much was a Tarantino recreation, but there are new shots featuring Dalton as the guest villain, Michael Murtaugh.

Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) as “Michael Murtaugh” in a recreated scene from “The FBI”

There is indeed an episode of “The FBI” called “All the Streets Are Silent,” but it’s from Season One and premiered on November 28, 1965, more than three years before it premieres in the recreation. Farentino and Fell are indeed guest stars and there is indeed a character named Michael Murtaugh, but he’s played by Burt Reynolds! Ironically, Reynolds was slated to play the character of George Spahn in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD but died before his scenes were shot, so Bruce Dern was called in as a replacement. Dern himself guest-starred on two episodes of “The FBI.” The actual “FBI” episode that ran on Sunday, February 9, 1969, was a Season Four episode called “The Maze,” which featured Steve Ihnat as the guest villain.

William Reynolds and Efrem Zimbalist Jr., the actual stars of “The FBI”

There’s a flashback midway through ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD that takes place on the set of “The Green Hornet,” a show that aired from 1966-67 and co-starred martial arts star Bruce Lee as Kato. In the scene, Rick Dalton is guest-starring and implores the stunt coordinator, Randy (played by Kurt Russell), to hire Cliff Booth to be his stunt double even though Randy’s wife, who’s working on the show, hates Booth, whom she believes killed his wife and got away with it. (An ambiguous flashback does indeed show Booth and his wife on a boat in the final moments of her life.) Randy agrees to hire Booth and we then see Bruce Lee, played by Michael Moh, bragging before a group of stunt men how his hands are lethal weapons and how he’d go to jail if he fought any of them and accidentally killed them. He also insists that in a fight with “Cassius Clay” (Muhammad Ali’s birth name), he (Lee) would “cripple” Clay. Booth, contemptuous of Lee’s conceit, challenges him and nearly beats him up before Randy’s wife, Janet (Zoe Bell), comes out and breaks it up and demands that Randy fire Booth, which he does.

The whole scene is totally fictional and seems designed to establish Booth as enough of a badass to have taken on Lee, seen here in shots from the actual “Green Hornet”:

Apparently, there was a stunt man who gave Lee a run for his money. Read about it here.

One touch I liked very much was found in the aforementioned scene where Sharon Tate enters the theater to see her then-latest film, THE WRECKING CREW (1968), the fourth and last in a series of Bond spoofs starring Dean Martin as womanizing, hard-drinking secret agent Matt Helm.

Tarantino directs Robbie (as Tate) in the lobby of the movie theater showing THE WRECKING CREW.

In the film, Tate plays Helm’s undercover assistant and her character is something of a klutz. We see scenes from THE WRECKING CREW with Tate and they’re the actual scenes from the movie and not recreations featuring Robbie. We even see the notorious scene where Tate fights Nancy Kwan in a most unconvincing martial arts bout. The fight scenes in THE WRECKING CREW were choreographed by Bruce Lee and while Tate is sitting in the theater watching the fight scene with Kwan, we see quick inserts of a flashback to Tate in costume (played by Robbie) training for the scene with Lee (played by Moh). I suspect most moviegoers won’t pick up on the connection, since it’s not spelled out anywhere in the film. Also, that flashback is the only time we see Tate at work on a film.

A poster on display as a “Coming Attraction” at the theater shows Sergio Corbucci’s Italian western, THE MERCENARY (1968), which was actually released in the U.S. in 1970, a full year later. But its presence foreshadows the next stage of Rick Dalton’s career, described below.

There’s an actual historical recreation early in the film of a party at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion which is attended by Sharon Tate and her husband, Roman Polanski. At the party, we see Steve McQueen and two members of the Mamas and the Papas, Michelle Phillips and Cass “Mama Cass” Elliott.

Sharon Tate (Robbie) flanked by “Michelle Phillips” and “Mama Cass”

Damian Lewis plays McQueen and looks eerily like him and has a significant dialogue sequence. He speaks in a low voice, so I can’t really tell if it sounds like McQueen at all, but the illusion worked for me. For a few minutes, I was watching Steve McQueen at a Hollywood party in February 1969. Here’s a shot of him from the scene, with Dreama Walker next to him playing Connie Stevens!

There’s one other major piece of film alteration in OUATIH, also involving McQueen. At one point, Rick Dalton flashes back to a conversation he had about how he was almost cast in the Steve McQueen role in one of my favorite movies, John Sturges’ THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963). We then see a key scene from THE GREAT ESCAPE in which McQueen’s character meets the prison camp commandant for the first time, only it’s Rick Dalton’s head and voice superimposed over McQueen’s, so we see the scene played as if Dalton had the part, exchanging dialogue with the actual Nazi officers from the scene.

Here are shots from the actual GREAT ESCAPE with Steve McQueen:

Dalton is also seen singing and dancing in a brief recreation of “Hullabaloo” (1965-66), a popular variety show featuring current musical acts of the time and one I remember watching.

I had not recalled ever seeing a cowboy star singing on the show, but it turns out that Michael Landon (Little Joe on “Bonanza”) had once appeared on “Hullabaloo” and danced the “Freddie.” I learned this from an article in The New York Times on Toni Basil, the choreographer for ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD. Here’s a shot of Basil’s credit in EASY RIDER (1969):

Late in the film, Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth return from a six-month trip to Italy (engineered by agent Marvin Schwarz, played by Al Pacino) where he’s apparently made three westerns and one spy film, all directed by real Italian or Spanish genre directors including the aforementioned Sergio Corbucci, who directs Dalton in the made-up film, NEBRASKA JIM, a nod to Corbucci’s NAVAJO JOE, which starred Burt Reynolds. We see a number of cleverly designed posters for made-up films with real stars who’d appeared in Italian genre films (e.g. Joseph Cotten, Carroll Baker, Telly Savalas), directed by real directors, but we only see one extended clip, from a spy film titled in the film, OPERAZIONE DY-NO-MITE! The footage we see is from an actual spy film called MOVING TARGET (aka DEATH ON THE RUN), directed by Corbucci and starring Hollywood stars Ty Hardin and Michael Rennie. As in the GREAT ESCAPE clip, DiCaprio’s face is superimposed digitally over Ty Hardin’s. Hardin’s name has been floated as one of the inspirations for Dalton’s character.  He, too, was a TV western star (“Bronco”) who struggled to retain his relevance in 1960s Hollywood and did indeed go to Europe to make films. Certainly, Hardin’s career arc in the 1960s more closely matches Dalton’s than other stars Dalton’s career has been compared to, including Burt Reynolds, who had network success in several different regular series over the time Dalton’s career is sagging.

Ty Hardin in “Bronco”

It was nice to share in the adventures of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth on various Hollywood sets and L.A. locations in the 1960s and cruise the streets of 1969 L.A. in Dalton’s Cadillac (driven by Booth). My first trip to L.A. came four years later. I feel I need to see the film a second time when I won’t feel compelled to take notes on all the movie/TV references and see if its narrative works as well as those in the Tarantino films I’m already a huge fan of, including KILL BILL VOL. 1, INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS, and DJANGO UNCHAINED.

In a future entry, I will be looking at the films of 1969 as I remember them, including this seminal film, which no doubt inspired the title of Tarantino’s film. It would have played theaters in L.A. in the summer of 1969, so I don’t understand why Tarantino didn’t give it some kind of shout-out in his film.


3 Responses to “ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD and the Art of Recreating an Era”

  1. Robert Regan July 29, 2019 at 5:43 PM #

    Well done, Brian! But I still don’t want to see another QT movie!

  2. Bill Baldwin July 29, 2019 at 6:41 PM #

    No shout out for “Once Upon a Time in the West”. Would have been too obvious. The shout out is in the title itself, “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood”.

  3. Ed Rampell September 15, 2019 at 2:00 AM #

    Hi Bill! I remember you fondly from Hunter College.

    Now that I’ve sen “Once Upon…”, I enjoyed reading Brian’s piece very much. Chock full of the totally useless information that is the stock in trade of film historians and pop culture-ologists, which we film/TV buffs live for. Very insightful and informative, as usual. I learned a lot from your astute in depth article and look forward to discussing “Once Upon” with you soon, Brian.

    Like you, I want to see this affectionate, if at times ultra-violent, epic again.

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