Quentin Tarantino, in his brilliantly conceived and “executed” Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, has turned the tides on one of the most horrific events in Hollywood history. The Manson family murders of Sharon Tate, her unborn baby, and her friends, on a night that robbed them of their futures. Yet, what interests me most is the way the story of Rick Dalton and his stunt double/mirror image, Cliff Booth, functions to undo a different kind of fear: the terror of being a has-been. That fear is almost as deadly as actual murder. It can implant a demeaning voice in your head that threatens to kill all hope and confidence. We see two different faces of this kind of confidence-killing in Dalton and Booth. As the film challenges them to a fight for (and of) their lives, they have the chance to turn their own fears and self-assumptions upside down.
When You’re Good, But Fear You’re Not
Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) has made a name for himself – one he needs – playing the well-loved bounty hunter, Jake Cahill, in the 1950’s TV Western, Bounty Law. Everyone recognizes him – and that he also needs. But, when Bounty Law ends, Rick Dalton is faced with terrible fears. Will he get work again? Is he now a has-been?
Yes, he’s faced with fighting the Manson family murderers (and saving Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie)). But, his biggest fight throughout Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is overcoming the terrible voice in his head. The one that keeps telling him he’s a no-good has-been. And, looking for reassurances that he’s not. Everywhere.
His stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) carries most of that load. He’s (on the surface) an easy-going, push-over of a best friend and more than that. Chauffeur, fixer-upper, and on top of the list: confidence builder. Reminding Rick how great he is.
Rick needs all the reminders he can get. If he doesn’t have accolades, he doesn’t believe it himself. And, he drinks too much, trying to escape. Too many DUI”s as a result. That’s why Cliff drives. And, Rick kept his flame thrower to remind him of his greatness. What he did to kill those Nazis. But, not killing so well the ones in his head.
So, he looks and tries, and doesn’t want to do second-rate Italian Westerns, promoted by Marvin Schwartz (Al Pacino). Yet, he gives in and gets a starlet wife, Francesca Capucci (Lorenza Izzo) on top of it. But, that doesn’t stop him from needing a lot of reassurance. Because if you don’t really believe in yourself, nothing is ever enough.
How Rick Dalton Gathers Reassurances
Ah! Finally, he sees Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) who lives next door on Cielo Drive. Maybe he’s just (literally) one step away from starring in the next Polanski film. A Once Upon A Time in Hollywood fantasy.
Cliff drives him to the set of a new Western, with Rick having a big bout of self-doubt. “Hey, you’re fucking Rick Dalton and don’t you forget it!” It’s Sam Wanamaker’s (Nicolas Hammond) film. Yet, Sam’s enthusiasm for him isn’t enough. Rick doesn’t want a Hells-Angel-type-hair style: “How’re they going to know it’s me?”
That’s not the point of acting, Sam reminds him. But, it is for Rick. He has to be remembered for Jay Cahill, or he’s nobody at all. And, on the set, he’s smoking, coughing because of it, in a frenzy. Needing Cliff around (who isn’t being hired) to conjure up what he can’t hold onto: “Hey, you’re fucking Rick Dalton.”
So, he not only smokes; he drinks from a flask – collapsing in on himself more and more. On the verge of shooting himself in the foot. And, then, he meets Trudi (Julia Butters), quintessential actor, an 8-year-old child, who has more confidence than he can ever muster up. When she later admires him, that’s, well, WOW!
Because it bolsters him up. After, crying, because he can’t stop thinking about Easy Breezy who is not the best anymore. And, then, completely freezes. In his most important scene. That sets him into a rage of aggressiveness; mostly at himself. Because he’s failed to do the great job he should be (and is) capable of.
So, he flounders, badly, (drunk and sabotaging himself out of fear), forgets his lines; needs prompting. He is surely (again, to himself), such a failure that he can’t imagine he’ll ever recover. And, he beats himself up for it.
Best Film Example of A Killer Voice Ever
There he is in the mirror, having retreated in shame to his trailer. Yelling at that “other self,” the one who’s a failure in his mind. “God damn it, Rick. Embarrass yourself in front of all these goddamned people. Drinking all night. Goddamned whiskey sours.” He’s crying: “Fucking bullshit. You’re a goddamned miserable drunk.”
He can’t stop drinking. These are the exact feelings, awful self-condemnations, he’s trying to wash away. All the time. It doesn’t work of course, but he has no other way. In shame and self-attack, he screams at himself: “Now practice those lines.” Crying: “You look like a baboon.” Yelling. Kicking things in his trailer. Mocking himself.
“D-d-d-d-d-d,” stuttering like he did over his lines. “You drink too much every fucking night. That’s it.” Aggressively pointing at that hated self in the mirror: “That’s it, you stop drinking. You stop that fucking drinking and embarrassing yourself.” Can he? It’s the only way he knows to bury his self-hate. He is in a mighty struggle.
Gives up, drinks from his flask and, in total frustration, throws the flask out the window: “Show them who Rick Dalton is. I’ll tell you something. You don’t get those lines right, I’ll blow your fucking brains out. Your brains are going to be splattered all over your goddamned pool. Get your shit together!”
In the end, he does get it together for the moment. Does his scene brilliantly, redeems himself, with Trudi telling him it’s the best acting she’s ever seen.
But, that doesn’t do the trick. When you have this kind of voice in your head, ready to jump on you, you’re in a constant battle. You need some way to stop it. Cliff does as well. He tries “to win” with aggression.
Cliff Booth: Another Face Of Self-Reproach
Cliff Booth seems the opposite of Rick Dalton. He acts as though nothing bothers him, but that’s not true. Yet, on the surface, he’s laid back, cruises around town in Rick’s Cadillac Deville, doing Rick’s errands, music blaring, flirting with the girls.
He’s used to being secondary. An accessory to Rick’s career. Not letting himself be too disappointed when he doesn’t get what he asks for. And, I suspect, telling himself not to want much of anything at all.
Cliff lives with his own silent brand of shame. The kind that sets off those killer voices we’ve witnessed in Rick. Remember, the rumor is that Cliff killed his wife. But, (flashback) she was a ballbuster. Ruthlessly demeaning. Just as cruel as Rick’s self-accusations:
“My sister told me you were a loser, but I didn’t believe her. I’ve been by myself in the shittiest weather, with the shittiest person, on this fucking shit hole of a boat.” Did he want to kill her? Maybe. For the humiliation she inflicts. But, did he? Unlikely.
He’s another face of Rick’s trailer struggle – the same self-hating voice buried in his head. Ready to snap. Fights it off with his lackadaisical demeanor. Lives in dive, as if he deserves being a slob, protected by Brandy, his big loving Pit Bull.
Not caring is Cliff’s self-protection against shame. But, that’s not the whole story. He can be provocatively aggressive. Won’t let arrogant “I’m better than you” Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) win. After he provokes Cliff by saying: “Kind of pretty for a stunt man.”
But, punching Bruce doesn’t bode well when he sends him flying, denting his boss Randy’s (Kurt Russell) wife’s car. After Randy did Rick a favor and hired Cliff as his double. Maybe some triumph over shame was worth getting fired.
Big Fiery Redemption From Shame
Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth have reasons to prove themselves. Big time. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood gives them a chance to do so. And to overcome their shame by heroically murdering the Manson murderers before they can kill.
That’s one way to kill off the killer voices inside. Although, in reality, it only works temporarily. Yet, it is an inventive vehicle for Rick and Cliff to redeem themselves.
Rick’s returned from Italy with Francesca. Cliff kept him company the entire 6 months. But, again, Rick’s worried he’s a has-been. Will there ever be a new pilot? He can’t afford Cliff anymore. How do they say farewell? Of course, by getting blind drunk.
Returning to Rick’s house, Rick blends up more Margaritas. Cliff smokes an acid-laced cigarette. Just as the Manson murderers decide to murder the people who taught them to murder on TV. Like Jake Cahill, Bounty Hunter. Cliff, tripping, doesn’t know if the guy with the gun, invading the house, is real. Making for more courage in a crisis.
Rick floats in the pool, earphones on, not realizing the performance of his life is about to happen. Cliff and Brandy, on the front line, kill 2 would-be killers. Cliff gets injured, but miraculously survives. The last of the three invaders falls into the pool screaming. Rick takes her out with his trusty old flame thrower.
Cliff is a hero, not a purported wife-murderer. Best of all, they’ve saved Sharon Tate and her friends from the murder of 1969. And, it turns out, Sharon just happens to be a big Jake Cahill/Rick Dalton fan. Exactly what he needs for a major ego boost! Maybe he’s not a has-been after all. With a Roman Polanski film in his future?
Well written post.
Dr. Sandra E. Cohen
Thank you. I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment. Take care and stay safe.