Hollywood mon amour
Gavin Smith on Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: A Novel
With justification, the cover copy of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood describes Quentin Tarantino’s 400-page opus as “a novel” rather than a mere movie novelization. But in actuality it’s both more than a novel and less—something of a hybrid in fact. It recycles Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood’s screenplay, alters the structure, expands on certain scenes, drops others, restores scenes that didn’t make the film’s final cut, and introduces a wealth of material that wouldn’t have belonged in the film. It’s as much a willfully digressive collection of opinions as it is a work of fiction, more than happy to introduce Roman Polanski in the narrative and then spin off into a superfluous exegesis of the brilliance of Rosemary’s Baby. And in its very cover design and packaging, the book itself is a nostalgic homage to the supermarket paperbacks of the Seventies, right down to the period ads in the back for upcoming publications of Oliver’s Story and Serpico.
Tarantino’s most radical departure from the film is that the climax—rewriting the history of the Manson family murders—is dispatched in three brief paragraphs a quarter of the way through the book. (You can practically hear Tarantino’s gleeful cackle at this subversion.) The emphasis is shifted to the incident’s career-boosting aftermath for actor Rick Dalton (played in the film by Leonardo DiCaprio), who is hailed as “a folkloric hero of Nixon’s’ ‘silent majority’” and goes on to a steady career with regular appearances on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. There are several other moments that similarly jump out of the narrative flow to deliver quick rundowns of this or that character’s future.
As Samuel Fuller understood in his 1980 novel based on The Big Red One, there are stark differences between making a film and writing a novel and the change in format underlines this. First of all, Tarantino’s novel makes you realize how vital a component the music is in his movie—you miss the film’s propulsive song-score here. Secondly, pace Rick’s status anxieties, the fleshed-out backstories (and a smattering of the characters’ italicized thoughts) are as far as Tarantino is willing to go in terms of character insight. If it occurred to him that one of the properties of novels unavailable to movies is the ability to explore the inner lives of their characters and give them more dimension, he isn’t interested in taking advantage of this. Tarantino likely has little use for psychology and fully imagined characters—what he relishes are their attitudes and in-the-moment behavioral motivations and imperatives. Nevertheless, in lived experience, even people who refuse introspection inescapably have interior lives. Tarantino does make a notable exception with the character of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie in the film), who is given some semblance of an inner life beyond the film’s scenario.
Even more than in the movie, Tarantino has much sport with inserting his characters into film history, linking their careers to genre directors ranging from “underrated action specialist” Paul Wendkos, to “get it done” B directors like R. G. Springsteen and Tarantino’s beloved William Witney. Never heard of them? Let me refer you to IMDb—for indeed this may be the first novel for which IMDb is a prerequisite for maximum film-geek reading satisfaction. Tarantino also playfully credits these directors with imaginary films (don’t bother looking up Comanche Uprising, Hellfire Texas, or Drag Strip, No Stop), and mischievously recasts real ones (Rick replaces James Franciscus in Hell Boats, Don Gordon in Cannon for Cordoba, and Joe Don Baker in the Lancer pilot). Rick is finally granted a cordial conversation with his old buddy Steve McQueen, who’s on his way to a pool party at the Polanski/Tate house (a scene dropped from the film). And to cap things, teetering on the brink of narcissism, Tarantino can’t resist inserting himself into his own fiction: in one of those future flash-forwards, child actor Trudi grows up to be a thrice Academy Award–nominated star, the third time in “Quentin Tarantino’s 1999 remake of the John Sayles script for the gangster epic The Lady in Red.” Moreover, in one of the final chapters Tarantino’s stepfather Curt Zastoupil asks Rick for an autograph because his son Quentin is a big fan of The Fourteen Fists of McCluskey, another of the made-up films in Rick’s filmography.
What the novel conveys more comprehensively than the film is that, as far as upcoming actors in particular and the industry in general are concerned, by the end of the Fifties Hollywood’s output had pivoted away from movies towards the vast market for episodic television. For all intents and purposes, by 1969, where the story takes place, television is the name of the game in Hollywood, with a top tier of movie production. There are plenty of references to cinema in Tarantino’s novel, but Rick’s is the story of a failing TV actor striving to salvage a career that is, as he puts it poignantly, “Five years of ascent. Ten years of treading water. And now a race to the bottom.” As in the film, Rick’s television stardom is behind him and, following the trajectory of many a mid-level actor on the downhill slide in the Sixties and Seventies, he’s persuaded that a stint in Italy starring in spaghetti westerns is preferable to a dwindling career playing guest-star heavies in episodic TV shows. The degree to which the novel is tele-centric is summed up in a few paragraphs devoted to the actor Pete Duel, the promising star of TV’s popular but short-lived Butch Cassidy knockoff Alias Smith and Jones who committed suicide after the first season: the reference is a collector’s item of TV trivia but has no bearing on film history. But perhaps Tarantino sees cinema and television as interchangeable, or as just one long pop-culture continuum?
While the film acknowledges the hard facts of life for the average journeyman TV actor, the novel takes a headlong dive into it. Chapters are devoted to the origin story of the character Rick is playing in the pilot episode of Lancer (a real TV show); to the plotline’s backstory; and a detailed description of the show’s opening scene. An entire chapter recounts the action of a pivotal extended sequence in the Lancer pilot (invented or actual?). Another details the plot of a (real-life) two-part episode of Gunsmoke in which the (real-life) star of Lancer, James Stacy (see IMDb) made his name. In other words, an inordinate amount of the novel is dedicated not just to the behind-the-scenes goings-on of a TV western production, but to the loving, if not especially inspired, recreation of dime-store western fiction. Despite their longueurs, these sections are fairly readable, with occasional nice turns of phrase (“Seven of Caleb’s land-pirates … raised their eyes to see the fella in the red-ruffled shirt who put Bob out of business”). But since there’s no sense of genre pastiche or stylistic reinvention, the word “overkill” comes to mind. It’s as if Tarantino is so attached to every word he puts down on the page that he dispensed altogether with the services of an editor.
Tarantino is a born storyteller and, as is well established, one of his signature devices is the use of extended, sometimes virtuoso passages of dialogue, that often do little to advance the narrative. To many these are delightful, to others self-indulgent. Regardless, here there’s surprisingly little sign of this kind of off-topic banter. He’s not so much retelling his story as renovating it, tinkering with the demotic pulp novel form, in which he’s more than well-versed, in a virtually experimental spirit.
To begin with, there’s the question of authorial voice. The novel begins with Rick taking a meeting with agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino in the film), with the location changed from Musso & Frank Grill to Schwarz’s office. The entire chapter is written in the present tense, like a screenplay. (There are literary precedents for this, like Updike’s Rabbit Run). These present-tense sections, which deal with the story at hand, are interwoven with more traditional past-tense chapters that focus on the backstories of the novel’s characters—Rick; his stuntman cum factotum, Cliff (Brad Pitt in the film); and to a lesser extent Sharon Tate—as well as descriptions of other events (including fictional ones—stay with me) and effectively nonfiction speculative passages. This digressive, freewheeling quality is surely predicated on familiarity with the film. (How would this read to someone who had never seen Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood? Would it be more interesting or less?)
Many of the past-tense digressions (flashbacks, if you like) crisscrossing the novel’s present-day storyline are often irrelevant, but they do add flavor à la Pulp Fiction’s gold watch story (the chapters on Aldo Ray, the origin story of Cliff’s dog). In both present and past tenses, Manson and his acolytes are now given much more space: a chapter in which Manson’s voice is projected into the mind of Debra Jo aka Pussycat (Margaret Qualley in the film), guiding her as she undertakes her first solo creepy crawl home invasion, is effective; a long chapter about Manson’s attempts to break into the music scene via his tenuous connection with music producer Terry Melcher begins as speculative nonfiction (“Did Manson turn his relationship with Melcher into more than it was? Absolutely. Was Melcher somewhat intrigued by Charlie? Maybe”). It then evolves into a present-tense fictional account of Manson paying a visit to the Polanski residence in search of Melcher. Here he glimpses Tate and Jay Sebring, two of the Family’s future real-life victims, implicitly attaching murderous intentionality to their deaths—erroneously, since in real life the killers’ target was almost certainly Melcher. A third chapter re-envisions the film’s sequence in which Cliff visits the Spahn Ranch entirely from the point of view of Squeaky Fromme (played in the film by Dakota Fanning).
For the record, Tarantino’s prose is serviceable, and there are flashes of flair in some of his lines: the opening sentence of Chapter 10, “The minute Cliff shot his wife with the shark gun he knew it was a bad idea” (although I think he means “spear gun,” but never mind); Rick is “an Eisenhower actor in a Dennis Hopper Hollywood”; Polanski is “a cinematic Mozart.” But there are also plenty of rookie gaffes, from repetitions (how many times are we told Manson hopes Melcher will listen to his songs and record them?) to slipshod wording (“He reaches down and plucks out one of her business cards, sitting in what looks like a clear-plastic stop for business cards”; “His panic accelerated as much as the flammable costume”; “‘Need a lift?’ he asked rhetorically”). Where was the publisher’s copy editor?
In the end it's really the backstories of his characters that hold the interest. The career travails of the not-so-bright Rick constitute one thread; the much more engaging biographical elaboration of Cliff, is another, one which certainly problematizes our moral assessment of him. His past exploits make for a colorful resumé: his WWII combat experiences, where he becomes a war hero credited with more confirmed kills than any other GI in the Pacific theater; his postwar interlude in Paris, where he’s given a master class on how to be a successful pimp by a Frenchman who incongruously speaks in the vernacular of a Blaxploitation mack daddy (Cliff learned his lesson well as he later observes that “the more [Pussycat] speaks of this Charlie character… the less he sounds like a peace-and-love guru and the more he sounds like a pimp”); a trip back home to Cleveland, which culminates in his killing two mafia hoodlums; his career as a stunt “ringer,” hired for a day’s work by crews expressly to punch out the obnoxious likes of Otto Preminger and Robert Conrad; his extensive carnal escapades, which are frequently alluded to and become jarringly explicit in the passage in which he gives Pussycat a ride (sex, the possibility of sex, even the discussion of it, is curiously absent from Tarantino’s films, aside from the buggery of Marsellus in Pulp Fiction); and of course, the murder of his wife. And the screen-to-page elaboration of his showdown with Bruce Lee is one of the novel’s highlights: it’s given more context, and Cliff’s opinion of Lee is neatly elucidated in his italicized thoughts. Cliff’s story almost merits its own movie or novel and it’s hard not to feel that Tarantino has fallen a little bit in love with him, describing him variously as “so damn handsome,” “way too handsome to be a stuntman,” and endowed with “the body of a middleweight boxer.” The novel’s Cliff is the quintessence of amoral Tarantino cool, and one of his great creations, above and beyond Pitt’s deserved Oscar-winning performance.
A few years ago, Tarantino, as a guest on Brett Easton Ellis’s podcast, once again trotted out stories from his days as a video-store clerk, when he became something of an oracle and tastemaker. In particular, he reminisced about how he could readily recommend Eric Rohmer films to customers and describe their virtues. When I first heard this story back in the Nineties, it suggested that the future writer-director’s cinephilia was omnivorous and boundless. What happened to that Quentin Tarantino? You might think, based on this novel, that his taste in movies is rather more circumscribed and even received than many initially believed when he burst onto the film scene. Or is it….?
Chapter two introduces Cliff awaiting Rick in Schwarz’s lobby, reading Richard Schickel’s Life magazine review of I Am Curious (Yellow), and then convincing Schwarz’s secretary to go on a date with him to see the film. (After the date, Cliff reports that the secretary gave him a blow job and, in an aside we are told that she went on to become one of the top agents at William Morris—a gratuitous and inexplicable half-disguised reference to Sue Mengers).
Evidently Tarantino wants more from this laidback killer stud who can take Bruce Lee in a fight. He’s also a bona fide foreign film aficionado, alright? (“‘I don’t go to movies to read,’ Rick would tease Cliff about his cinephilia.”) But Cliff’s taste in movies transparently dovetails with that of his creator. Preferring the more adult films coming from postwar Europe, he’s on the same page as the Tarantino who told Ellis of his scorched earth antipathy toward Hollywood’s Fifties output (he included Hitchcock in this dismissal, so can we presume he has no use for Sirk, Ray, Aldrich, Mann, Huston, or Fuller either?). The novel’s unreliable narrator lets his guard down, not for the last time, with the use of the vertical pronoun: “While in America—and when I say ‘America,’ I mean Hollywood…. their movies remained stubbornly immature and frustratingly committed to the concept of entertainment for the whole family.”
Cliff’s lengthy layman’s evaluation of I Am Curious (Yellow) and its meta-cinematic twists and turns is initially rendered in his own words. But as the analysis progresses, it abandons Cliff to deliver a dry recitation of the film’s history. Cliff loves Kurosawa, but with his innate bullshit detector he “knew enough to know Hiroshima Mon Amour [sic] was a piece of crap. He knew enough to know Antonioni was a fraud.” And a little later, “He tried Bergman but wasn’t interested (too boring). He tried Fellini and really responded at first. He could have done without all his wife’s Chaplin bullshit… He tried Truffaut twice but he didn’t respond… The 400 Blows left him cold.”
In the slippage and confusion between the strict point of view of the fictional character and the all-bets-are-off authorial voice, unmistakable rifts open up in which Quentin the polemicist takes over from Cliff: “American film critics embalmed Kurosawa in praise early, elevating his melodramas into high art, partly because they didn’t understand them…. [Cliff] understood Kurosawa’s films far better than any critic he ever read.” And in a section on Polanski, Repulsion is compared favorably to what are puzzlingly described as “the amateur-night-in-Paris fumblings of the so-called Truffaut-Hitchcock films.”
Unable to consistently sustain his employment of Cliff as a quasi-critical proxy, Tarantino allows things to drift lazily into a polemical register—one which practically channels the “trash vs. art” taste of Tarantino idol Pauline Kael, whom he also quotes later in the novel. For the record, she liked Rohmer and Kurosawa, hated Bergman, Antonioni, Resnais, and Fellini, but whoops, she loved Jules and Jim, which “Cliff” can’t abide. So, there we have it: one of our greatest contemporary filmmakers is just another Paulette. I wonder what she thought of William Witney?
If Tarantino is simply having fun, baiting cinephiles by taking aim at sacred cows, it seems like a puerile kind of fun. (He even takes a gratuitous swipe at the Beatles, dismissing “the pretentious sound design” of “A Day in the Life.”) We can only hope his forthcoming book of film criticism will clarify things, but in his official role as the ultimate pop culture superfan, champion of the disreputable and underappreciated, and tastemaker to be reckoned with, he would appear to be playing a zero sum game, hell-bent on rejecting anything that smacks of respectable “art.” A strange stance indeed to adopt for a filmmaker of such stature, but after all, Tarantino’s filmmaking is nothing if not postmodern, and the sweeping away of all categories of valuation goes with the territory. It’s fine with me if Sergio Corbucci and Ishiro Honda get the seal of approval, but Tarantino isn’t doing his fans any favors by encouraging them to pass up Fanny and Alexander, L’eclisse, Mon oncle d’Amérique, and The Story of Adèle H.