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  • Looking Back at 1969: Quentin Tarantino’s Two Versions of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
  • Peter N. Chumo II

Joan Didion, in her landmark essay “The White Album,” opens with the now-iconic words “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” (11). Trying to make sense of the countercultural moment of the late 1960s, Didion explores a range of topics—from a Doors recording session to the trial of Black Panther Huey Newton to the Manson-Family murders of Sharon Tate and her friends. The vignettes themselves become a way to give shape to the history, to take an often-confusing time full of turmoil and revolution and give it meaning. And, in the end, she places the Manson murders at the center of the story, declaring “that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969, ended at the exact moment when word of the murders on Cielo Drive traveled like brushfire through the community” (47). The horrific crime thus became a symbolic moment when the utopian dreams of the decade came to a screeching halt.

In his cinematic elegy for the Hollywood of 1969, Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood (2019), Quentin Tarantino uses the lurking Manson threat as a springboard for a quintessential Hollywood story that surprisingly leads to an alternate history, in which Sharon and her friends are saved from their violent fate and 1960s idealism therefore does not crash so abruptly. But Tarantino took his unorthodox approach a step further by publishing a novel nearly two years after the film’s release—in 2021—defying audience expectations yet again. Just as the film reimagines history, the novel reimagines the film by essentially deleting the film’s third act, to home in on the personal stories of the principal characters. Tarantino’s goal, apparently, is not to novelize his screenplay but to examine his characters from a different angle, to clarify or even to alter their motivations on the page. The film offers a grand vision—presenting a fantastical ending in which cinema itself can redeem the tragedies of real life. The novel, on the other hand, explores character motivation and development in a tale of coming to terms with the Hollywood system—how an actor survives the insecurities and vagaries of show business—while largely eschewing the sweeping revision of history with which the movie climaxes.

Outlining Comparisons

Both versions of the story focus on the fictional actor Rick Dalton (played in the movie by Leonardo DiCaprio), a fading actor now relegated to guest-starring as the villain on Western TV shows. His friend and confidant is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt in the film), a once-successful stunt double for Rick who is now facing his own hard times because a lingering suspicion that he escaped conviction for killing his wife has choked his employment. So Cliff becomes Rick’s chauffeur and handyman after alcoholism has made it impossible for Rick to get around the city on his own or, at times, even in his own house. Both versions of the story revolve around Rick guesting as the villain on the TV show Lancer and struggling to achieve performative greatness.

The inclusion of the fictional character Rick Dalton in what was a real TV show applies to both versions of the story, but the novelistic form allows Tarantino to digress at length into Hollywood history, often based in reality but embellished. For example, Roman Polanski’s work on Rosemary’s [End Page 19] Baby, the director’s breakthrough film, is discussed extensively in the novel but just briefly mentioned in the film. Both versions make ample reference to The Fourteen Fists of McCluskey, Rick’s high point as a movie actor (in a made-up movie) as well as the movie role he supposedly almost nabbed but that got away—the lead played by Steve McQueen in The Great Escape (a genuine Hollywood classic).

The film’s three main sections are February 8, 1969; February 9, 1969; and August 8, 1969. February 8 essentially introduces the three main characters of Rick, Cliff, and Sharon; the central action takes place on February 9; and then the story skips ahead a few months to sketch...