History and Agency in Once Upon A Time in Hollywood

A space where history and fiction collides.

Cultured Vultures spoilers

Quentin Tarantino has developed a discernible pattern in his films OF LATE. In Inglourious Basterds, Hitler is annihilated and the war is won, while in Django Unchained, Django burns down a slave plantation and kills its white owner. Tarantino deals with the injustice and anti-semitism by allowing Shosanna her revenge and having American Jewish soldiers hunt and scalp Nazis. It is the same with Django, where Django reclaims his autonomy and freedom through the destruction of a white man’s property.

This isn’t tampering with history per se, because Germany does lose the war, and slavery is eventually abolished. What Tarantino creates is a tiny fictional fissure, which exists in tandem with actual history, just delivering a more satisfying outcome, where the bad guy gets decimated in a way we don’t see in real life.

Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is different, because it uses that fissure to completely rewrite history, saving a woman from her tragic fate. That woman is actress Sharon Tate, who was heavily pregnant when she was brutally murdered by the Manson family. Truth be told, I didn’t know Sharon Tate or any of the other victims. I knew of the incident because I watched Mindhunter, and managed to make the connection between the Manson family and Sharon because during Tex’s recount of the murders, he mentioned a pregnant woman.

It was at the conclusion of the movie that I understood what Tarantino had done. I did wonder why a narrator was introduced in the third act, and it was only at the end that I realised that its introduction is a postmodern way to rewrite history. A postmodern historian’s stance is that it is impossible to know exactly what happened in the past, in any sort of objective sense. Hence, the version of history that we get depends on who is telling the story – the victors always get to determine the narrative. It is clear then that Tarantino wanted to narrate her into a winning fate.

For some moviegoers, this connection might not have even come to be, since one would need to have knowledge of the Manson family to understand that Sharon has been saved. On the other side of the coin, there is also the lament; Sharon has been saved in the narrative of the film, her aggressors brought to brutal justice (in an oh-so-satisfying sequence), but this isn’t the case in real life. In real life, Sharon Tate is gone, a beautiful, vibrant woman robbed of the life she could have led. The title of the film also alludes to the fictional aspect of the narrative, that it is just a story and not real life.

So then, what is the point of this inclusion of Sharon’s narrative? After all, the film doesn’t really focus on her, with the bulk of the movie spent on Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). If one doesn’t know the history of the Manson family, then this rewrite would simply fly over their heads; she would just be a woman whose life exists tangentially to the pair. The thing is, that is essentially the point the film is trying to make. Tarantino shows us a very normal life that the starlet leads, going to parties with her husband and friend Jay, heading to the movies like a regular person (she isn’t even recognised as an actress), where she takes such delight in hearing other people react to the scenes she is in.

Margot Robbie does a fabulous job here, where she radiates so much spark and joy, without having to say anything. You see, this is why she doesn’t have much dialogue or says much (though many viewed this as proof that Tarantino doesn’t know how to write for women); he wants her to be as real as possible, distinct from the fiction he is building around her. She is also not the one who gets her hands dirty, with fictional characters Rick and Cliff smearing blood and burning to a crisp the perpetrators on her behalf.

Once again, this is to keep her separate from the fictional path of the narrative. If she, a pregnant lady, went all Rambo and killed the whole bunch of them, the fictional quality of it would stand out, and the realism Tarantino is so desperately trying to breathe back into her would be for naught, because once again she would be linked with this gory event. He wants her completely outside of it, untouched by tragedy, simply a neighbour showing kindness to another neighbour from the periphery.

Whenever a person becomes entrenched in the blood of tragedy, that is all we remember about them – the gruesome, sensationalist aspects become the big picture, and the victim is drowned within this larger narrative. With Tarantino’s film, we are able to see through all that blood and tragedy, to glimpse with clarity a normal woman leading a normal life. With this, she reclaims some form of agency, no longer a mere footnote in the horrific crimes of the Manson family. And that, my dear friends, is the power of storytelling.

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