I need to talk about the greatest moviegoing catharsis of my life. I’ve been thinking about this for a long while and now that I’m between books, I need to capture it even though I figure it’ll bore some.
Oh, shameless plug: Warrior: Audrey Hepburn, published by GoodKnight Books, drops Tuesday, September 28. Lots more coming about this soon but for now, back to our story.
When I was growing up, Charles Manson managed to claim a place in the environment, like those steel plants in the Mon Valley that belched smoke into the air I breathed every day. Just like that, Manson polluted the earth by corrupting souls on the one hand and snuffing out lives on the other. We lived with Manson and his followers for decades and decades as they rotted in jail. Every so often one of them would come up for parole and state the case why they should be set free, and all of us on the outside went, No.
And all the while, in that expanse of time, ever widening, Sharon Tate remained dead, and the child she was carrying, and those who died with her—Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger, Wojciech Frykowski, and Steven Parent, along with Rosemary and Leno LaBianca, murdered the next night. And there were other murders before and after. All these people should have been living all those years and none of them were because of Charles Manson.
When Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood came along in 2019, I was skeptical and didn’t know what to expect. How would the Manson experience be presented? Would he be glorified? Even if he wasn’t, how could any of us live through the nightmare all over again? Then upon release I started hearing raves from my friends. “A crackerjack show!” wrote one. “A triumph! You’ll love it!” said another. Wait, what? A movie about Charles Manson and Sharon Tate??
But I just sat through that ending and experienced the pure magic all over again for maybe the, I don’t know, seventh time?
SPOILERS BEGIN HERE
If you haven’t seen the picture and intend to, stop reading. I’ll place a photo below—Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton, Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth, and director Quentin Tarantino—to create some space so you can avert your gaze and click away from my page.
In the movie, self-doubting TV star Rick Dalton lives just down the hill from Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski on Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon. On the horrible night, when Manson disciples Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, and Patricia Krenwinkel drive up Cielo toward the Tate house, Dalton belligerently orders them off his private street. He has no idea who they are or their intentions; he just wants them gone. As a result of the confrontation, they decide they must kill Dalton before proceeding on to kill everyone in the house at the end of Cielo Drive.
What follows inside Dalton’s house after the killers break in should be horrifying, and it is. This is one of the most violent, cringeworthy five minutes in the history of a major motion picture. But I for one and I suspect many or most of my generation find it to be beautiful and poetic.
As Rick Dalton floats in his backyard pool wearing headphones and listening to music, best friend and stunt man Cliff Booth and sidekick Brandy, a pit bull, take on Watson, Atkins, and Krenwinkel in the living room. Each of the murderers dies a more horrible death than the last at the hands of our heroes—Rick is jolted from his in-pool reverie in time to deliver the coup de grâce to Susan Atkins, who was arguably the worst of the lot.
A friend of mine born after the 1969 Manson murders watched Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood and said she wasn’t impressed; she didn’t get it. And of course you’d be lost throughout because this is an ode to that era with dozen upon dozen pop culture references designed to make baby boomers smile. But you really wouldn’t get the ending unless you lived through the butchering of innocent people and then Manson’s self-aggrandizing attempts to make a mockery of the justice system.
Finally, on the 50th anniversary of those summer 1969 murders, justice was served if only in Tarantino’s alternate reality. From the turnabout killings of the would-be killers to the fade out where Sharon, Jay and the others live happily ever after to Maurice Jarre’s haunting main credits soundtrack theme lifted from the 1972 western, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, I take temporary satisfaction that every so often, for a little while, something wrong has been put to right.
I remember seeing Judge Roy Bean on first run in 1972 and not liking it very much; it was written by John Milius, who has been a big influence on Tarantino’s writing style. This fictionalized western about a real-life good-bad guy in West Texas began with a title screen that read, “… Maybe this isn’t the way it was … it’s the way it should have been.” And that is the brilliance of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. It’s the way it should have been in the summer of 1969, and my friends and I appreciate the intention and the feelings it leaves behind.