ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD: Translating Tarantino’s Tinseltown Tutorial

Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar®-winning Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood is now showing on Starz, which will certainly widen the audience of this popular—and controversial—movie about the heady days of a Hollywood in transition during the late sixties. This movie is probably best-appreciated by somewhat older viewers who have some memory of those days, but that’s not to say it can’t be enjoyed by younger audiences, who will almost certainly be asking what parts are true, and what parts are pure invention.

Anyone who’s seen Tarantino’s 2009 epic The Inglorious Basterds knows that presenting an authentic historical document is emphatically not Tarantino’s priority. Since that movie’s 11 years old, it’s probably okay to mention [spoiler alert] that he changed the end of World War II. And although there won’t be any spoilers here regarding Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, there are, shall we say, one or two historical details that are viewed Tarantino’s personal lens of artistic license.

Vivid Tapestry of Hollywood During the Vietnam War Era

That being said, Tarantino presents a tapestry of Tinseltown during the Vietnam War era which is powerfully evocative, and generally authentic as to tone. That are tons of details which are inaccurate, some of them deliberately, and then there are lots of things that are absolutely the way things were.

Courtesy Columbia Pictures 2019.

Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood chronicles Hollywood through the eyes of best friends fading TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his out-of-work stunt double Cliff Booth (Oscar®-winner Brad Pitt) in the period leading up to the infamous murder spree of the Charles Manson family. Rick is best-known for a black and white TV western, “Bounty Law.” The show is fictitious, but there were plenty of black and white westerns on the tube in the fifties, most of them half an hour long, some, like “Gunsmoke,” later to expand to an hour. “Bounty Law” bears an obvious resemblance to “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” which launched the career of Steve McQueen, arguably the biggest movie star of the sixties.

The promo we see for “Bounty Law” features the notorious “Wilhelm Scream,” a canned scream going back at least to the fifties, usually reserved for falls, and now often recognized by sharp-eared movie fans in the know. Directors who use the “Wilhelm Scream” in this day and age are usually doing it as in-joke, and you can assume that includes Tarantino.

Burt Reynolds Isn’t In It, But…

Rick and Cliff are fictitious, but they’re pretty clearly modeled on the relationship between close friends Burt Reynolds and stuntman, and later director, Hal Needham. Burt Reynolds, who never worked with Tarantino, casts a shadow over this movie almost like a perversely gleeful shroud. According to numerous published accounts, Tarantino had intended on casting the aging Reynolds in the role of George Spahn, the real-life owner of the Spahn Movie Ranch, a frequent location for TV and movie westerns in the fifties and sixties, and later to become notorious as the hideout of the Manson Family. The movie correctly depicts Spahn as a virtually blind, elderly man kept docile by Manson’s young female followers, who had regular sex with Spahn on Manson’s orders.

Reynolds died before production on Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood commenced, and the part, which isn’t much more than a cameo, went to veteran actor Bruce Dern, making his third appearance in a Tarantino movie. Reynolds, although cutting his teeth in a supporting role on “Gunsmoke” early in his career, is not closely identified with westerns. According to his own autobiography, he walked away from “Gunsmoke,” to the horror of friends and family who couldn’t believe he was giving up such a lucrative meal ticket, doing mainly miscellaneous TV work until his movie career really took off in the seventies, and he became one of the most bankable stars in the world. (Younger audiences that have only seen it on TV don’t tend to appreciate what a gigantic hit Smokey and the Bandit actually was.)

EVERYONE Did Westerns…

Reynolds was not alone in owing at least some of his career to westerns. Steve McQueen was one of the young stars of 1958’s The Blob (billed as “Steven McQueen”), playing a heroic high school student (he was 28). Shortly after, he was cast as the lead in “Wanted: Dead or Alive,” which he did for three seasons, and then got back into features, this time in a big way. (He co-starred in the feature western The Magnificent Seven while “Wanted: Dead or Alive” was still on, which was a major hit.)

Courtesy Columbia Pictures 2019.

Where’s Clint Eastwood?

Tarantino’s movie does not mention Clint Eastwood, who was exploding at the time. Eastwood’s first appearances in movies were less than forgettable. He was uncredited in his first role, The Revenge of the Creature. And Francis in the Navy. Francis was a talking mule who appeared in service comedies. Also uncredited in Lady Godiva of Coventry, but he played Alfred the Fletcher. No, I have no idea why you’d make that story in a time when you were prohibited from showing onscreen nudity. But in 1959 Eastwood got cast as Rowdy Yates in the TV western “Rawhide,” which ran six years. While on hiatus in ’64, Eastwood accepted a quick gig to star in, of all things, a western, in Spain, with an Italian director. That turned out to be A Fistful of Dollars. Unreleased in the U.S., it did great business in Italy, and in each of the next two years, Eastwood starred in a sequel (For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly), all of them directed by Sergio Leone. In 1967, United Artists bought the U.S. distribution rights and released them as a series in rapid succession. Eastwood had arrived. By 1968, he was co-starring in the big budget World War II adventure Where Eagles Dare opposite Richard Burton.

Westerns are exotic to younger audiences. It’s difficult for them to conceive of the fact that they’d been a mainstay in movies since the silent age, and even in the sixties, on any given night you’d find at least one western show on primetime. “Gunsmoke” ran for 20 years. “Bonanza” ran for 14. In Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, Rick Dalton is shown guest-starring on “Lancer,” which only ran for two seasons, but featured guest appearances by many, many up-and-comers, including Martin Sheen, Tom Selleck, Sam Elliott, Tom Skerritt, Ron Howard and future Brady Bunchers Barry Knight and Eve Plumb. Among the many familiar faces that popped up was Bruce Dern. The child actress character Trudi Fraser (brilliantly played by Julia Butters) is fictitious. Series lead James Stacy, played in the movie by the wonderful Timothy Olyphant, is a real person. Stacy is portrayed in the movie as a motorcycle enthusiast, which is accurate. A couple of years after the cancellation of “Lancer,” Stacy lost an arm and a leg in a catastrophic motorcycle accident. The resulting medical bills virtually bankrupted him. He did eventually manage at least a partial comeback, and was later nominated for two Emmys.

Although primetime TV dramas were generally shot on 35 millimeter movie film even in the fifties, a Panavision camera is shown on the “Lancer” set in Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood, and that’s questionable. TV shows were not shot widescreen at the time. The old Hollywood workhorse Mitchell BNC would have seemed more likely. The director of the episode is depicted as Sam Wannamaker, an actual director and actor later audiences would recognize from the miniseries “Holocaust” and the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie Raw Deal. Wannamaker is played by Nicholas Hammond, who was one of the Von Trapp children in the classic movie musical The Sound of Music, and who was also the first live-action Spider-Man in the short-lived TV series “The Amazing Spider-Man” which ran for 14 episodes in the seventies.

Nicholas Hammond (front, center) as Sam Wannamaker in ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD. Courtesy Columbia Pictures 2019.

Mention is made of two features that the Rick Dalton starred in, both fictitious. Fictitious but… There is no western called Tanner, although some critics (this one included) think it might be modeled on the fifties feature Gunman’s Walk, which starred Van Heflin and Tab Hunter, who like Rick Dalton, tried his hand at singing. Oddly, the bit of opening credits we see from Tanner prominently lists Henry Wilcoxon, an actor adamantly not best-known for westerns. Wilcoxon was a Cecil B. DeMille regular, appearing in epics like Samson and Delilah and The Ten Commandments.

What IS Behind the Green Door?

About the singing. We see Rick Dalton singing on the TV show, “Hullabaloo.” The song choice is distinctly Tarantonian. Dalton is singing “The Green Door,” an actual song recorded by Jim Lowe. Urban legend has it the song refers to the goings-on behind the green door of a private lesbian club in London. There is no evidence substantiating this, but it may have influenced the title of Behind the Green Door, an adult movie directed by the Mitchell Brothers, which helped usher in the “Golden Age of Porn” in the seventies and made an underground movie star of Marilyn Chambers.

The other Dalton feature we hear about early in the movie, The 14 Fists of McCloskey, bears a distinct resemblance to Tarantino’s own The Inglorious Basterds, and the flamethrower scene is anachronistic. They not only couldn’t have done the scene in the sixties, certainly not the way Tarantino depicts it (the asbestos suits required for fire gags were bulky and obvious and no one would have let an actor set stuntmen on fire with an actual flamethrower), they wouldn’t have done it. Flamethrower scenes were done only rarely, and generally only in black and white war movies—color would have been pretty much unthinkable. It is noteworthy that DiCaprio is shown in an eye patch and sergeants’ stripes in the clip. This is almost certainly a nod to the Marvel comic book character Nick Fury, who started out in the World War II comic Sgt. Nick Fury and His Howling Commandos (a copy of which is seen in Cliff’s trailer), which was popular throughout the early sixties. (War comics were in fact fairly popular until the Tet Offensive, when the Vietnam War became markedly less popular with the American people.) Yes, that’s the same Nick Fury that Samuel L. Jackson plays in the currently MCU movies. He’s the only character ever to be played both by David Hasselhoff and Samuel L. Jackson. (Hasselhoff played the part in the 1998 TV movie Nick Fury: Agent of Shield, which was written by David S. Goyer, now one of the hottest writers in Hollywood. You can look it up.)

Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Pacino in ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD. Courtesy Columbia Pictures 2019.

As to Rick Dalton’s Italian adventure, the movies referenced are again, fictitious, but… There is no actual spaghetti western called Nebraska Jim. There is one called Navajo Joe, which stars, wait for it, Burt Reynolds, before he got big, and which was directed by Sergio Corbucci, who also directed the original Django. Yup, the one Tarantino rebooted with Jamie Foxx, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christoph Waltz and which featured a cameo by Franco Nero, who starred in the original Django. And Once Upon aTime..in Hollywood says Nebraska Jim was directed by Corbucci.

A Nod to Billy Jack

As to Cliff Booth, the part that won Brad Pitt a well-deserved Oscar®, the character is fictitious, though probably to some degree modeled on real-life stuntman, stunt coordinator and director Hal Needham. He’s also, according to multiple published accounts, heavily informed by sixties/seventies movie icon Billy Jack, created by the late actor/writer/director/activist Tom Laughlin. Cliff’s laid-back, folksy demeanor is certainly reminiscent of Laughlin’s character, a half-American Indian, martial artist, Green Beret Vietnam veteran, who sticks up for the oppressed while trying to find his way in a hostile world through Native American mysticism. Bolstering that theory is the fact that Pitt wears a pretty good facsimile of Billy Jack’s trademark jeans, denim jacket and navy-blue tee-shirt in an early scene with DiCaprio and Al Pacino.

And What Did Bruce Lee Ever Do To Tarantino?

It’s interesting that in a flashback depicting Cliff working on an episode of “The Green Hornet,” Tarantino depicts martial arts icon Bruce Lee as sort of an asshole, particularly in light of the fact that in Kill Bill: Vol. 1, Tarantino laid no fewer than three Bruce Lee Easter eggs: Uma Thurman wears a yellow jumpsuit with black racing stripes evoking Lee’s in his last, uncompleted performance in Game of Death, The Crazy 88’s are all dressed like Kato in “The Green Hornet,” and he uses the iconic trumpet theme music from “The Green Hornet.” In the scene Zoë Bell refers to Lee as the series lead. That’s wrong. He wasn’t. The show was called “The Green Hornet,” not “Kato.” (Okay, when it played in syndication in Hong Kong, they did call it “Kato” there.) It should also be noted that Mike Moh, who plays Lee, is wearing his hair much longer than Lee did on “The Green Hornet,” more the style he wore in Enter the Dragon.

Mike Moh as Bruce Lee in ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD. Courtesy Columbia Pictures 2019.

TV was pretty much being produced and broadcast in color by 1969, but that didn’t mean everyone in America was watching on color TV’s, still pretty expensive (my own parents didn’t own one until 1971 or ‘2.) Tarantino very believably depicts Cliff Booth watching the private eye show “Mannix,” produced in color, on a black and white TV.

There are a couple of other small anachronisms, particularly in view of Tarantino’s virtually fetishistic obsession with movie trivia (maybe less so in view of his well-known love of toying with history): Pitt’s Cliff Booth at one point is seen in front of a billboard for Tora! Tora! Tora!, 20th Century Fox’s big-budget recreation of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The scene takes place in early 1969, and Tora! Tora! Tora! didn’t open until late September, 1970.

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate in ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD. Courtesy Columbia Pictures 2019.

Yes, Starring Joe Namath…

In another, completely charming scene, Margot Robbie, playing the late Sharon Tate, watches her own performance in the otherwise completely forgettable Matt Helm movie, The Wrecking Crew (which starred Dean Martin). But before the feature starts, the theater shows a trailer for C.C. and Company, a low-rent biker movie released by Avco Embassy, that starred (I’m serious, dammit) legendary New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath and Ann-Margaret. That movie didn’t open until October of 1970, and it’s entirely possible it hadn’t even been shot yet. Joe Namath was a major sports celebrity at the time, and perhaps he thought he might carve out the sort of small but respectable movie career that Hall of Fame running back for the Cleveland Browns Jim Brown had carved out. He didn’t. Seymour Robbie, who directed C.C. and Company survived, and had a busy career in episode TV, directing many episodes of Wonder Woman, Barnaby Jones, Trapper John, M.D., Remington Steele and 21 episode of Murder, She Wrote.

Other contemporary movie references are more accurate, including posters for The Night They Raided Minsky’s, Funny Girl and Ice Station Zebra, all released in 1968. When Cliff first encounters the Manson Family member Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), he is playing the Simon and Garfunkel song “Mrs. Robinson,” from the movie The Graduate, which was released in 1967. The song is both accurate for the period, as well as dramatically ironic, given the sexual overtures made by Pussycat and the large difference between the characters.

The Manson Family and “The Godfather of Gore”


The Manson Family, of course, was all too real, and terrifying. This writer still recalls being terrified by the Life Magazine cover featuring a now-notorious of the crazy-eyed Charles Manson. People who encountered them did not always report the Children of the Corn demeanor the movie demonstrates—some reported that they could be alternately frightening or simply quirky. An interesting omission, given Tarantino’s well-demonstrated love of the least respectable subgenres of exploitation film (one shared by this writer), is a little-known tidbit of historical trivia. While the Manson Family was staying at the Spahn Ranch, “Godfather of Gore” filmmaker Herschell Gordon Lewis was there as well, filming, of all things, a lesbian western, Linda and Abilene. Lewis did a number of types of movies in a career that was anything but prestigious, but he is best known for his “gore” movies, like Blood Feast, forerunners of the more modern splatter film. I interviewed Lewis, who proved to be a genial, intelligent and humorous gentleman, before his death in 2013. He was talked about shooting in the company of mass murderers:

Linda and Abilene was shot at the Spahn Ranch which became notorious because that’s where the Manson Family were carving up people. They were there while we were shooting. I didn’t know we were in such dangerous company. They had a big dog and they had put some kind of a bell around the dog’s neck, typical of these people. It drove that dog absolutely crazy. Every time the dog moved, the bell and rang and the dog was trying to dislodge the bell, and it couldn’t do it, and somebody who was working with us removed the thing from the dog’s neck, and somebody from that gang said, ‘You want to die?’ We didn’t take that seriously, but they were serious about it, because it wasn’t said with good nature. But at least for the time being we got the thing off the dog.”

Courtesy Columbia Pictures 2019.

As to whether Lewis actually met Charles Manson, the answer was a little chilling:

“I don’t know—They really weren’t in our way very much, but they were there. We would see them, we would cross paths with them, they weren’t that unpleasant. We would say, would you mind letting us have this area—? But they were certainly on the scene.”

How Tarantino missed that one is a mystery to me.


One thought on “ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD: Translating Tarantino’s Tinseltown Tutorial”

  1. Enjoyable dive into a very enjoyable movie! The era(s) referenced in the movie–filmic, stylistic, cultural–are the ones my parents grew up in so even though I didn’t directly consume that content I feel like it still influenced me. Like many of my earliest memories of movies and of old pictures around my house came out of the late 60’s/early 70’s. Reconnecting with that period always feels like going home.


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