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Quentin Tarantino sure is his own worst enemy these days. A number of unappealing interviews he’s given have threatened to overshadow the launch of his “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” novel adaptation. His beef seems to be with how there was pushback to his depiction of Bruce Lee as a preening loudmouth in the film. It’s an odd complaint, considering how successful the film was: $374.6 million in worldwide box office, critical adoration, 10 Oscar nominations and two wins, including a Best Supporting Actor trophy for Brad Pitt. Does he think the film deserved to be above any criticism at all?
It’s an especially strange grievance coming from Tarantino, who on multiple occasions over the last decade has argued for the dismissal of John Ford from the canon, via the most ungenerous reading imaginable of the “Stagecoach” filmmaker’s body of work. Frankly, there’s more humanity in almost any one of Ford’s movies than in the entirety of Tarantino’s nine-picture filmography. At the very least, if Tarantino can launch such broadsides against Ford, he can withstand criticism about his depiction of Bruce Lee. If you can dish it out, you should be able to take it.
So cracking open the “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” novel comes with a lot of trepidation: The movie was my favorite film of 2019 — is the book finally going to unravel my appreciation of it the way that its author’s interviews have threatened to do?
The first 60 pages or so seem to confirm those fears. It’s a rough start, oscillating between an overly faithful translation of the film’s opening (when faded star Rick Dalton meets with Al Pacino’s William Morris agent, Marvin Schwarz, who wants to cast him in Spaghetti Westerns) and endless, discursive rants from Tarantino on the era’s actors and auteurs. His deal with HarperCollins allows for two books, and it’s widely expected that his second volume will be a work of film criticism.
Tarantino’s already scratching that film criticism itch in the “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” novel, however, via the character of stuntman Cliff Booth. He had previously said he was working on a novel about an ex-GI who returns from the horrors of World War II to discover Hollywood’s factory fantasies no longer appeal to him and finds refuge instead in world cinema. Turns out, that’s the story of Cliff in this novel! And he’s an adventurous moviegoer indeed, devoting every Sunday to a foreign-language movie and forming his own very strong opinions about arthouse cinema. Cliff is bored by Bergman, doesn’t respond to Truffaut, thinks Fellini should stop casting his own wife, declares “Hiroshima Mon Amour” a “piece of crap,” and labels Antonioni “a fraud.” He even presents a ranked list of his favorite Kurosawa movies, after shitting on “Red Beard” as a reactionary movie to Kurosawa reading too many of his own reviews. These feel suspiciously like Tarantino’s assessments rather than Cliff’s; if he wanted at all to delineate Cliff as having cinephile proclivities different from his own, he should have made him a John Ford fan.
Photos from the back cover of the novel show scenes that were cut from the movie and are explored in the novel instead.
The biggest issue with Tarantino’s body of work is that his characters can feel like they’re projections of different facets of his own personality rather than as complete personalities unto themselves. The director he’s praised for years as being worthier of regard than Ford? An action filmmaker named William Witney. Rick declares his love of Witney’s work himself on page 12. That all of this is written in the third-person present, like screenplay directions, doesn’t help. Pauline Kael may be Tarantino’s favorite film critic, but a prose stylist like Kael he is not.
But, in an extremely happy turn of events, Tarantino does leave the extended film criticism rants aside and decides to really develop Rick, Cliff, and, of course, Hollywood, as characters. Just like how Warner Bros. indulged Bruce Lee by letting him put his extended philosophical musings up front in “Enter the Dragon” — before, you know, the story could actually begin — Tarantino gets the manifesto out of his system first before he can be a storyteller.
From then on, the novel is what you would hope for: playful, perceptive, and attuned to these characters beyond just their relationship to movies. Tarantino promised a wholesale reimagining of his film and it’s exactly that. In a bit of an acknowledgment that the heart of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” has little to do with the rock-‘em, sock-‘em ultra-violent flamethrower finale, he places a throwaway nod to Rick and Cliff dispatching Manson’s goons on page 110 (out of 400) via a flash-forward that shows the incident indeed raises Rick’s profile, making him a regular on Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.” The vanquishing of those hippies also led to Rick becoming a symbol of Nixon’s “silent majority,” Tarantino writes. And that’s the last it’s ever mentioned.
A number of major sequences in the movie are similarly sidelined. The big Playboy Mansion pool party set piece is gone, along with any glimpses of “Bounty Law” episodes, and, well, the entirety of the day leading up to the flamethrower showdown is 86’d. Even the terrifying Spahn Ranch scene is shortened. Tarantino’s committed to showing moments that you didn’t see in the movie and that add to a deeper appreciation of the characters. Margaret Qualley’s “Pussycat” gets one of the novel’s most suspenseful scenes; a sort-of initiation into the Manson Family called a “kreepy krawl,” in which she has to break into an elderly couple’s home. Director Sam Wanamaker’s pretension in directing the pilot episode of “Lancer” results in some hilarious tangents about how much of a dumb sap Rick Dalton really is. “Lancer” star Jim Stacy gets the spotlight as a real-life version of Rick, with a deep dive into his body of work, followed by Rick and Jim hitting up a bar together and shooting the shit about their careers. Rick shares a moment with Steve McQueen. An entire chapter is devoted to boozy big-guy Aldo Ray, the kind of human debris who shows how unforgiving Hollywood can be.
A number of scenes in the novel play slightly differently than in the movie — Rick’s meeting with Marvin Schwarz takes place at the agent’s office rather than at Musso & Frank Grill.
Cliff’s murderous history is explored, and not just how he killed his wife — he killed two mafia lieutenants in Cleveland just to see if, with his status as a war hero, he could get away with it. He also briefly considered a career as a pimp, and one of the true highlights of the book is the bloody story of how he got his beloved dog, Brandy. If all this makes you uncomfortable liking the Cliff character, it should. Or have you forgotten an essential Tarantino-ism from Winston Wolf: “Just because you are a character, doesn’t mean you have character.” Brad Pitt’s supernova charisma helps you overlook a lot, but Tarantino is firmly establishing Cliff as a character who should be viewed like Butch in “Pulp Fiction” or any of the killers in “Kill Bill” or “Reservoir Dogs.”
Tarantino also changes the point of view of a few scenes: He tells the Spahn Ranch scene entirely through Dakota Fanning’s Squeaky, and he digs deep into her drug and cult-addled brain in a way indicative of real empathetic imagination. A subtle, recurring gag is how, just because Cliff is wearing a Hawaiian shirt, Squeaky, whose cognitive faculties are not at their highest potential, keeps referring to him in her mind as “the Hawaiian guy.” He writes, “With the two headlamps she has for eyeballs, she turns the full effect of her big, bulging, unblinking stare on this Hawaiian interloper” and “The Hawaiian fucker meets her unblinking glare.” It’s hilarious — in her broken brain, he’s literally become Hawaiian just because of his shirt — but also a demonstration that Tarantino has indeed gotten out of his own head and into someone else’s.
The heart of the novel, without question, belongs to two people: Sharon Tate and young Trudi Frazer, played so memorably by then-nine-year-old Julia Butters. Sharon gets the inner life here some felt she was denied in the movie itself, and building on what he did in the film, Tarantino goes a long, long way to reclaiming her from so much more than just the victimhood pop culture has relegated her to for the past five decades. We see her hitchhiking to Hollywood, get inside her head as she watches herself in “The Wrecking Crew,” explore her musical interests — including her valiant defense of The Monkees and Paul Revere & The Raiders — and ride along with her as she plots revenge against husband Roman Polanski after he drags her to a TV appearance on Hugh Hefner’s “Playboy After Dark” against her will.
Several chapters are devoted simply to recounting the story within the story of the TV show “Lancer.”
Trudi’s commitment to acting craft, meanwhile, ends up having the effect of re-energizing Rick’s own attitude toward his job. His love-hate relationship with this pint-size performer, who’s so much better at what he does than he is, forms the actual finale of the novel. We even get a glimpse of Frazer’s future life as an actor, going on to earn three Oscar nominations, the first of which for playing Timothy Hutton’s quasi-girlfriend in “Ordinary People” and the last of which for Tarantino’s 1999 remake of “The Lady in Red” from John Sayles’ original script. (Yes, Tarantino has even invented a fictional movie he himself directed in the universe of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”) That shows how generous and open-hearted Tarantino can be as a writer when he’s not pursuing his petty grievances. Who else would lavish this much love on the production of the pilot episode of “Lancer” for God’s sake?
For all his cinephilia, it’s his love of old TV that shines the brightest in the “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” movie, and even more so in the novel. Few are looking to canonize certain small-screen efforts of the period the way film snobs do with movies or music aficionados do with their favorite artists and albums. Not only have TV Land and Nick at Night never been on the same level as Turner Classic Movies or the Criterion Collection, there’s a feeling a TV version of those just simply never could be… and why is that?
It’s a mark of his generosity that Tarantino’s making a pretty bold statement — with the care Trudi gives to her performance and Wanamaker to his role behind the camera — that TV didn’t just emerge as a prestige art form with the advent of “Twin Peaks,” as way too many pop culture writers seem to think today. If anyone could pull that off, it’s the person naïve enough to suggest cinema itself could literally burn down the Third Reich. That naivety, shaken together with malice, is the key to the Tarantino aesthetic. And it’s why all the Bruce Lee stuff is such a letdown. Instead of taking Bruce down a notch, this could have been an incredible opportunity to put a spotlight, for once, not just on Lee’s Hong Kong movies or “Enter the Dragon,” but on his TV work. How cool would that have been if people suddenly had a new interest in “The Green Hornet”? On a recent “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” appearance, Tarantino said he hoped, because of his recommendation, that people would seek out the novelization of “Orca,” which he adores. He could have done that for “The Green Hornet” too!
With all of this interview nonsense, and the way that Tarantino keeps the Bruce Lee hate going in the book by likening him to Charles Manson, he’s really betraying his own purpose, which is to make people fall in love with swaths of pop culture that are continually undersung. Because when he does express that love in this book, it’s contagious. His prose shimmers. We all know that not everything that glitters in Hollywood is gold. But like the soft, comforting light that emanates from your TV, Hollywood and its stories, even when they’re upsetting, sure can glow.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: A Novel” is now available on Amazon here or in local bookstores.
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