Summer 2019, Part 4

Still from Mark Robson, Valley of the Dolls, 1967, with Sharon Tate as Jennifer North

Natasha Stagg watches Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and reflects on the culture that engendered Sharon Tate and Marilyn Monroe's tragic stardom.

Because everyone else is doing it, and because I enjoyed the movie, and because I love movies – going to see them, talking about them, watching them alone in bed, reading about them – I’ll say something about Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019). I’ve read a few reviews that didn’t seem to get it and some rants about why we should all hate it, but I’ve only spoken with people who loved it, or at least had no problem with it. So far, my favourite take is Caitlin Flanagan’s, in The Atlantic:

“The justice critics aren’t interested in fictions that feel like memories. They want movies that adhere to their vision of the way the world should be. To them, the movie is too white, too violent toward women, and too uninterested in Margot Robbie, whose Sharon Tate has few lines. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody reviled the picture, calling it ‘ridiculously white’. But Charles Manson was a white supremacist … And the Hollywood of the time was a deeply insular place from which progressive values flowed easily, but that never stopped to examine itself as a racially exclusive enterprise. Depicting it as inclusive would give the lie to the decades of hard work that have gone into changing that fact, work that is finally beginning to pay off.”

The movie centres on two male characters, side-lining the action of the Manson murders in the same way the women in the real Manson plot must have felt side-lined. I’m struck by that particular sensitivity: women are not brought into a conversation easily. They are watched from afar or they are too close for comfort. The men, unsure of how to handle, say, an unhappy wife, a precocious child actress, or a conniving teen runaway, resort to brute force. They take easy ways out. They exercise the privileges with which they were born, and for which the world has cherished them.

A Western star and his stuntman, the protagonists deploy classic masculine tropes on TV. Tarantino loves these tropes, and he urges the audience to locate their love for them, too. The original action narratives were made for entertainment purposes, responding to a perceived status quo. It is only in our later readings of them that they appear problematic, unrealistic, and damaging to society. They are, but they couldn’t have entirely meant to be. Is it ever healthy to ignore one’s deepest desires completely? Why did we ever like this stuff? Why do we still like it, sometimes? Can the aesthetic dissociate from the bigotry it has engendered?

The idea that a film could romanticise the nostalgia we have for a past romanticisation (poking holes in it along the way) is too high a concept for some, perhaps. This is a movie about the way we see an era from outside of it, through many lenses and screens. It’s a movie about women – the sex symbol Sharon Tate, about whom the world knew very little until she was murdered while pregnant and married to Roman Polanski, and the brainwashed women in Charles Manson’s cult, about who the world knew even less, until they murdered a few people, including Sharon Tate. It’s also a movie, in some ways, about the oppressive machine that created these archetypes, and the oblivious men who were cogs in it, with the best and the worst intentions. It’s about Hollywood, once upon a time, if that wasn’t obvious.

When Laura Mulvey wrote about types of gazes in cinema (voyeuristic or fetishistic, usually from the perspective of a heterosexual male-oriented viewer) or when, later, Alison Bechdel wrote about the ongoing arbitrariness of fictional females (the Bechdel Test asks if a movie features a scene in which women are speaking to each other about something other than a man) it wasn’t to say that these male-gazing, women-cheapening movies are bad. Each writer clearly reveres the canon while she criticizes the culture that has created it: with men in control of our industries, our governments, and our fears, they are in control of our narratives, too.

Movies written and directed by women often don’t pass the Bechdel test, either. These feminist essays, and many others, were meant to measure our own everyday psychologies in new ways. They question the way we imagine gender in general and then apply that imagination to stories and then internalise those fictions.

In epics and fairy tales, the saviour is a man, but so is the villain. Women, in all of these examples, are sometimes central but always dependent, something to rescue, or something that changes one’s mind, a beacon, an idol, a voiceless beauty, an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. There is an argument that women are simply accessories to a plot if they do not drive it. But do we (women) feel truly in control of our own destinies, today? Perhaps women in stories, especially female characters in old films, are more prop than person, if you consider helplessness the same thing as lacking agency. Personally, I don’t.

I see the Sharon Tate character in OUaTiH, who has been criticized for her want of dialogue, a beautiful rendition of the quarantined position in which her circumstances left her. As lovely as Marilyn Monroe and on her way to proving a similar sense of comic timing, the real Tate was hardly appreciated for her intellect. Like Monroe, Tate was married to a serious director but not quite taken seriously. She was gazed upon more than she was listened to. She must have had a complicated relationship to that gaze. In Tarantino’s take, Sharon was often alone, maybe wandering into a movie theatre that was playing one of her features, maybe attempting to understand the gaze by gazing upon it, watching others watch her.

As Flanagan notes, “Sharon Tate doesn’t get many lines, a fact that may not make feminist sense, but which absolutely makes artistic sense. We didn’t know her. All we knew were the facts of her murder and of her impossible beauty. We created her from the endless publicity photographs that would appear and reappear in newspapers throughout our childhoods [following her death].”

Audrey Wollen (a relative by marriage to Mulvey and sort of film theory royalty, if that exists) has written extensively (and eloquently) on the misinterpretation of female misanthropy as seen in fictionalised narratives. Her famous “Sad Girl Theory” (which was, ironically, also largely misinterpreted) argues that a woman’s sadness can be read as a political act, protesting oppressive societies by not participating in them.

In Wollen’s “Looking at Photographs of Marilyn Monroe Reading”, she explains the dilemma of becoming an intelligent movie star while pretty: “By 1955, the corrosive spiral of [Monroe] playing with and against her own self-created stereotype reached critical mass and, in a radical and unprecedented move, she broke her contract with 20th Century Fox, relocated to New York City, and embedded herself within a thriving community of East Coast Jewish leftist intellectuals. In many ways, she was going back to the source. Monroe’s spacious capacity for escape and resurrection now seems fearless and alchemical: she made something out of nothing, and then turned around and nothing-ed all that something she made. She fled the castle, or she kept conquering territory, depending on who you ask. From the height of Hollywood, she went to the theatrical stage; from the beloved baseball star, she went to the acerbic playwright; from the front page tell-all interview, she went to the psychoanalytic couch. The press, the public, and the studios all thought she had gone crazy. In the United States, in 1955 and now, nothing screams insanity like shacking up with a Marxist, believing Freud, and reading Dostoevsky.”

Tate was a reader, too, and apparently gave Polanski the Thomas Hardy novel Tess of the d’Urbervilles: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented (1891). It inspired him to write and direct an adaptation, his award-winning Tess, dedicated to his late wife. Tate had hoped to star in Tess, the story goes, but just after giving him the book to read, she was murdered. This anecdote about a woman hoping to exist through her husband’s narrative – about an actress enjoying a book about a fictional woman’s incredibly tragic life and handing it to a director so he can recreate that life, just for her – and the other part of the anecdote, in which this exchange is one of the last moments Tate and Polanski have with one another, in which Tate is killed because of her connection to a powerful male director, are only matched in microcosmic value by the actual subtitle of the book Tate reads and identifies with: A Pure Woman Faithfully Presented.

In a scene that would feel completely tacked on if most scenes in OUaTiH didn’t feel tacked on, vignettes through which we view other vignettes like spools of film crossing over one another, Margot Robbie’s Sharon buys a first edition of Tess at a bookstore for her husband, who, she says, will love it. This isn’t a scene in which women talk to one another about something other than a man. In fact, the store clerk is a man. But at the movie theatre, Sharon talks to a ticket saleswoman about the movie – the one she’s in, The Wrecking Crew (1968), yes, that’s her, the actress from Valley of the Dolls (1967).

They talk for a while. The joke is that the saleswoman is incredulous because the picture on the marquis is of the real Tate, not Margot Robbie as Sharon. Here are two women talking about something other than a man, and what they are discussing is the person for which one of these women is a proxy. That is me, there, she insists, pointing to a photograph. In other words: That’s the real Tate, the actress playing Sharon says, about some character on a screen. Sharon asks the woman to look away from her in person and up at a version of her on a flat surface, an image over which she has little control, but perhaps more control than what she has over her life at the moment. In this scene, I think Sharon is hoping to live through a projected narrative, one that feels more dynamic than the one she inhabits.

In costume dramas, Disney princess cartoons, and adolescent chick flicks, women are unhappy, desperate, and dying to transcend. Their lives are impossible to rearrange, guided by men or other women who are jealous of the way they attract men. One could either give in by choosing another man to follow, or give up and be sad, forever. In her real life, Tate chose movie stardom, putting her life in the hands of producers, directors, Polanski, and eventually, accidentally, Manson. Monroe chose men, too, and then suicide. Each have become icons of an era, the perfect encapsulation of what was beautiful and wrong with a world that wanted them so much, it wouldn’t let them live.

Anyway, the movie is about men, too. It’s about white straight cis Los Angelenos who traffic in violence, and who are incredibly fun to watch. It’s about violence against women, violence against men, violence perpetuated by movies, and the violence we feel inside of us, perhaps due to the unfairness of representation, as one Manson girl suggests in much more hippie terms. It’s the movies that’s made us this way, but really it’s us that’s made the movies that way, in which women are quietly happy when they’re alone or uncomfortable and bitter when they’re forced to recognise their own circumstances, in which they speak about men or they don’t speak at all, knowing that they’re doomed from the start.

Even watching the credits of OUaTiH is fun, and full of women: Choreography Toni Basil, Stunts Zoe Bell, Costumes Arianne Philips. The Manson girls are partially Hollywood royalty, the daughters of Kevin Smith, Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke, and Andie MacDowell. Cameos by Lena Dunham, Robert DeNiro, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, and Luke Perry are maybe unnecessary but feel right given the subject matter. The casting feels, like so many other elements of the movie, anachronistic and meta, driving us to make connections between then and now, the hierarchy of Hollywood, and an age of ignorance.

The ending is unexpected. Remember in Django Unchained (2012), when there was an ahistorical slave uprising, and in Inglorious Basterds (2009), when Adolf Hitler is killed? (I should say here that I’m not a diehard Tarantino fan and in fact, I’ve never seen Inglorious Basterds. Is that what happens in it?) This type of anachronism reminds me of a line from The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), said by the macho author Eli Cash, played by Owen Wilson wearing a ten-gallon hat: “Well everyone knows Custer Died at Little Bighorn. What this book presupposes is, maybe he didn’t?”

The fantasy of a cowboy novelist with an inflated ego living in a fictionalised New York City is like the fantasy of a washed-up cowboy actor resorting to Spaghetti Westerns in the fictionalised world of OUaTiH, or like that of a director obsessed with an era of cinema that’s been deemed completely problematic. What Tarantino presupposes is, what if it wasn’t? What if movies could re-mythologise history, turning the tables to favour the oppressed, in a madcap adventure as fun as the movies that fucked us all up the first time around? Anyway, isn’t that what everyone said they wanted?