Goodbye, Cool World: Unpacking The Double-Barreled Nostalgia of Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood”

What was originally crafted as a paean to late-1960s Hollywood now serves as an elegy for pre-2020 America.

Image for post
Image for post

A great work of art is not only assessed in the context of when it was created, but it’s also reassessed with regards to how it still speaks to subsequent generations and how it reflects upon the later eras which it endures in.

Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood has been the recipient of wide-ranging praise, both for its engaging storyline, as well as its vivid recreation of Southern California as it existed in the late 1960s.

The film concerns the story of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) an aging, self-doubting film star growing past his prime, and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who also moonlights as Dalton’s personal assistant while relying on him for work.

Its story takes place in 1969’s Los Angeles and cross-pollinates the fictional characters of Dalton and Booth with genuine, historical figures and events that took place in that setting — namely the Charles Manson Family and the Tate-LaBianca murders which shook the region and were later characterized as a symbolic end to 60’s idealism.

The conclusion of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood fantasizes a different outcome to the horrific Tate-LaBianca murders, and uses its new outcome to comment on the power and depth of friendship between the two protagonists. It also provides an avenue for Dalton to fully exorcize his self-doubts regarding his career by finally allowing him an entryway into the social circle of his neighbors, who just happen to be one of Hollywood’s biggest power couples (actress Sharon Tate and her husband-director Roman Polanski, portrayed by Margot Robbie and Rafal Zawierucha).

To the extent that there is a fondness for this film based on a nostalgia factor in bringing to life a time that no longer exists, its emotional power only grows with repeated viewings this past year — for the film now not only comments on the zeitgeist of Hollywood in the late 1960s, but now also serves an equally powerful artistic time capsule which reflects back on the now-lost era of the 2010s.

It seems insane to suggest that a film made less than two years ago in 2019 could possibly be imbued with an underlying sense of nostalgia for the year it was made in addition to, and apart from, the year that its narrative takes place in. Yet the tumultuous events of this past year has already made pre-2020 culture feel like a relic of the past.

A Film Which Feels That Of A Past Era, Not Just A Mere Reflection Of It

Image for post
Image for post
(Cliff Booth and Rick Dalton, portrayed by Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio, entertain themselves, and the audience, through common friendship rituals such as drinking & watching TV together in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.)

In discussing Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, essayist Alci Rengifo wrote about what he called “The Aesthetic Of Nostalgia”, and perspicaciously observed that:

“Nostalgia has replaced epochs in the modern culture. There is the increasing feeling that while technology certainly races ahead in its advancement, culturally we are obsessively looking to the past… With consumer culture now defining the times and creating stagnation in any new art forms or styles, the past takes on a new glow… A friend who lived through this time period mentioned to me that the film captures the general sense of optimism of the late 60s. This might help explain our obsession with recovering not so much the past but its popular surfaces, because they contrast so starkly with a new generation devoid of romanticism or idealism.”

Nostalgia doesn’t automatically flow from the passage of time alone, but rather from shifts in culture. The faster and more radical those shifts become, the shorter the window that nostalgic feelings need before it flourishes. It wasn’t coincidental that the first burst of 1960s nostalgia came in the late 1980s, when consumerist culture had finally overwhelmed its flower-power ethos.

Rengifo was spot-on with the observations he made back in 2019. But even that very recent year now feels like a different era. Since that short time, the nostalgic potency that Tarantino’s film now offers only seems to have increased exponentially.

Revisiting Once Upon A Time In Hollywood now makes it feel like a swan song for a time that seems already lost — the years of run-up before the pre-2020’s when narrative filmmaking had routinely flourished.

A time before #MeToo and attendant obsessions over race, intersectionality and LGBTQ matters seemed to overlay themselves into the subtext (and quite often, the overt subject matter) of every narrative, both past and present.

A time when a story of male bonding over simple acts like drinking and watching TV together both reflected on and spoke to an audience which never had to social distance with each other.

A time when technology was less ubiquitous, while contemporaneous stories could be told without reference to it.

A time when popular culture seemed more unified and less fractured.

A time when people could form a bond together by watching movies in the common setting of a movie theater without the fear of plague.

A time when filmmakers could feel free to use ethnic or sexually charged humor in a story.

A time when filmmakers could cast whichever performer was felt to be the best fit for a role without fear of being “cancelled” or suffering intense backlash from a rabid, social-media mob intent on coercing moral purity tests or intersectionality casting quotas.

A time when original stories with a sense of scope could be told without being tied to an already existing franchise or pre-existing work.

It’s not just Tarantino’s fidelity to celluloid film over digital video that imbues Once Upon A Time In Hollywood with a now-dual layering of nostalgic feeling, but it’s also his remarkable ability to tell a compelling story while completely ignoring, and sitting astride, all of the reactionary cultural trends which had been building up during the time of its shooting which have now spilled over in its wake like a dam finally bursting.

The nostalgia it conjures now no longer stems just from its 1969 narrative, but from its actual 2019 production — that of a heartwarming relic and the last truly compelling work of its era.

The Conflicting Emotions Of Nostalgia

Image for post
Image for post
(Theater Marquee in Blythe, AZ)

There is a curious duality to the nature of nostalgia. In some ways it’s a contradictory emotion. On the one hand, it evokes a sense of happiness by recalling pleasant memories. Yet on the other, it’s always laced with an underlying sense of sorrow since those engaged with nostalgic thought understand that things are no longer the same, and can never go back to being so.

Nostalgia is the act of coming to grips with a sense of loss. It only creates a hollow, facsimile of happiness by conjuring up old totems or rituals that no longer create the same effect when they are re-introduced in modern contexts.

Yet it’s still human nature to occasionally embrace the sorrow and find “happiness” in it, even in the simple act of looking at old, personal snapshots of loved ones no longer with us.

In today’s tech-led world, even the act of holding a physical photo in one’s hand as opposed to viewing it on a screen can trigger yet another layer of nostalgia. The digital revolution has somehow managed to fuse together with current social and political upheavals to exponentially increase a sense of unsettledness for those still old enough to remember what life was like before the Internet, and Tarantino’s insistence on strictly using physical film over video only helps to fuel the overall nostalgic feeling in his latest work.

Image for post
Image for post
Above: The New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles.
Below: Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate outside Westwood’s Fox Village Theatre in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood | Photo: Andrew Cooper, Columbia Pictures

When I now revisit Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, I become not only nostalgic for a past Los Angeles that I’ve always imagined but never personally experienced (I was born in the year its story takes place in), but I also now become nostalgic for the more concrete experience of sitting in a packed theater full of Tarantino fans, sharing popcorn with my date, and hearing the entire venue laugh and cheer together at scenes involving Brad Pitt besting Bruce Lee and joining Leonardo DiCaprio in dishing out punishment to Charles Manson’s malignant, clueless followers.

Among the last events I participated in the pre-COVID world before the shutdown was meeting a friend for dinner at El Coyote, a landmark Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles which is featured in Once Upon A Time, and watching a midnight showing of O Lucky Man! at the New Beverly Cinema— a theater now owned by Tarantino, and which is also subtly referenced in his film as the location for a pornographic awards show taking place down the street from the El Coyote, where Sharon Tate and her friends gather to dine.

But one need not have visited Los Angeles or any of the film’s real-life locations to feel nostalgic over what Once Upon A Time In Hollywood now reflects in our now socially tumultuous, COVID-laden world.

History As Wish Fulfillment

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood exists in the larger framework of Tarantino’s series of historical revisionist “revenge” films which he has gravitated towards in the latter half of his career.

The formula of this “genre” (if that is the correct term here?) involves presenting historical events as the backdrop for an alternative history-revenge fantasy where injustices of the past are either righted, or avoided altogether, and where historical bad guys all get their just desserts, thus giving the audience something to cheer for. Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012) provide prime examples.

But Once Upon A Time In Hollywood feels markedly different from those others. Whereas Basterds and Unchained come across as entertaining, humorously-tinged wish fulfillment, Once Upon A Time manages to actually feel cathartic.

The pleasures derived from the stories behind Basterds and Unchained feel somehow emotionally disposable, whereas Once Upon A Time manages to feel more weighty, substantive and lingering. It leaves you with a far stronger sense that this how history should have gone down, if there was any cosmic justice in the universe.

Image for post
Image for post
Tarantino’s revenge trifecta. Right to Left: A Nazi officer gets a head-bashing in Inglorious Basterds, A racist slave owner gets a taste of his own whip in Django Unchained, and a Manson Family hippy gets her own head-bashing in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.

The dichotomy seems somehow counter-intuitive or paradoxical. After all, World War II, the Holocaust, and the institution of American slavery all directly affected millions by radically changing course of entire continents. It’s hard to imagine weightier subjects for a narrative.

Once Upon A Time, in contrast, concerns itself with a local crime involving only a small handful of people. Most people were unaffected by it and never knew any of the participants. Its importance in history has largely been a social construct by those who like to argue that it serves as a symbolic demarcation point between the era of 60s flower-power idealism and an aftermath of ash-ridden disillusionment.

Despite the genuine fear that gripped certain Los Angeles neighborhood homeowners for a few months during the Tate-La Bianca murders, its lasting “effects” on history has been largely relegated to the cultural imagination, as opposed to the concrete convulsions brought upon millions of families from World War II and the pre-20th Century slave trades.

I have personally known people who lived through World War II and the Holocaust, and heard first-hand how their lives were altered by it. So you would think that my personal experience in encountering history’s actual participants would somehow trigger a stronger emotional reaction to a story featuring a subject matter they lived through.

Yet it is the far less-grandiose story of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood that ends up packing the biggest emotional punch. There is an inverse ratio between the intimacy of these stories and the emotive scales they manage to produce. My reaction walking out of both Basterds and Unchained was “that was a fun little diversion”. Whereas with Once Upon A Time I thought, “That’s the way things should have gone down. Why can’t there be justice in the universe?”

I can’t fully articulate or reconcile why this is exactly.

Perhaps it’s because Once Upon A Time’s narrative involves more people who have genuinely existed from recent history (some of whom are still alive), instead of offering fictional character composites and archetypes populating events from a far more distant past.

Perhaps it’s because its characters only aspire to pursue lives of leisure, rather than moral crusades that bend the arcs of history, thus making them more relatable.

Perhaps it’s because historical events that now exist largely in the cultural imagination (as opposed to those which offer daily, concrete reminders) are inherently more fertile realms for the medium of film to explore, since the medium itself aspires to shape the cultural imagination.

Perhaps it’s a psychological variant of the maxim that “one death is a tragedy while a million is a statistic”.

I don’t know. I only know that my honest, emotional reaction to seeing Once Upon A Time In Hollywood was far deeper and more powerful than the films where Tarantino explores the subjects of the Holocaust and human bondage. And in discussing Once Upon A Time with others who have seen most of Tarantino’s films, I got the sense that they too felt the same.

“That’s how it all should have gone down.”

That’s what I kept repeating to myself about the fate of Sharon Tate when I walked out of my first screening of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. But now, when I revisit the film, I repeat the mantra thinking not only of Tate, but of filmmaking in general, and the lost social interactions interrupted by the events of 2020.

Sitting Astride Cancel Culture

I enviously marvel at how Tarantino has always seemed immune from Cancel Culture in still being able to include racially-tinged, ethnic jokes such as those involving Mexican valets or the depictions of American Indians in classic Western films. He remains one of the very few figures left in Hollywood who still seem confident in the once-common assumption that all good-natured people can discern the lack of malice behind such jokes, and are still willing to laugh at the various ways different cultures depict different cultures.

Miraculously, Tarantino has had a seemingly Teflon-like resistance from Cancel Culture from the very start of his career in being able to freely depict whatever common street language is necessary in order to serve his artistic ends — even his use of the increasingly culturally-taboo “N word” in his films. (The issue has become so childish that some social circles even explicitly refer to the “Tarantino exception” in describing social rules regarding when whites are able to utter it.)

When it came to artistic expression (as opposed to actually degrading a real person with face-to-face insults), this was never an issue in the 1970s — the decade which most strongly influenced Tarantino’s artistic leanings.

Tarantino seems similarly immune from Cancel Culture with regards to his casting choices.

Whereas modes of Cancel Culture often take aim at directors who hire actors accused of crimes against women and children, Tarantino is seemingly able to shrug off such extraneous cultural noise and hire whomever he feels is best suited to help tell his story.

Take Emile Hirsch for instance, who brought in a solid performance in his portrayal of Jay Sebring, Sharon Tate’s celebrity hairstylist and confidant who was murdered by the Manson Family.

Image for post
Image for post
From Left to Right: Samantha Robinson as Abigail Folger, Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, Costa Ronin as Wojceich Frykowski and Emile Hirsch as Jay Sebring as they share drinks at the El Coyote Restaurant in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.

Hirsch was charged with felony aggravated assault on Paramount Pictures executive Daniele Bernfeld during a drunken party at the Sundance Film Festival. Bernfeld claimed Hirsch put her in a chokehold from behind, dragged her across a table, and body slammed her to the floor.

Hirsch admitted to having three or four drinks before the incident and admitted he couldn’t remember many of the details of that evening. He claimed that Bernfeld had been “mouthing off” to him.

“She started kind of causing a ruckus and I sort of started… intervening and this happened. I don’t think it was much more than that to be honest…I think she had a go at me and I probably defended myself,” Hirsch was quoted as saying.

He later cited his intoxication in expressing regret, and eventually pled guilty to a misdemeanor before serving 15 days in jail along with fines, community service and probation.

Many actors have been banished from work by the feminist-led “MeToo” movement for far less. For Tarantino however, this apparently never factored in to the equation in deciding on Hirsch for the role.

So too with his casting of Rebecca Gayheart as Cliff Booth’s wife. Gayheart is briefly seen in a flashback sequence where she is seen berating Pitt’s Booth while they vacation together on a boat. Her tirade attempts to emasculate his worth as a man and as a husband, while he is forced to listen helplessly as he cradles a beer and spear gun in his arms.

Gayheart’s scene underscores a plot point concerning Booth’s character, who is whispered about within Hollywood gossip circles as someone who “killed his wife and got away with it”. The viewer here is invited to speculate along with the rest of the characters if the rumors concerning Booth might be true (and if so, further engage in the thought-crime of if there may have even been an element of emotional-abuse provocations that helped to justify the incident).

The scene also broadly mirrors many real-life Hollywood rumors and scandals. Perhaps most pointedly, it evokes the whispers surrounding the death of actress Natalie Wood and the longtime suspicion it had subsequently cast on her husband, Robert Wagner.

The couple, along with their guest, actor Christopher Walken, had all been drunk on a yacht together one evening off of Catalina Island when Wagner and Wood reportedly became embroiled in a heated argument.

Wood’s body was found floating in the Pacific the following morning.

Though the cause of death was ruled an “accidental drowning”, Wagner has never been able to fully escape suspicion from the unresolved questions surrounding the incident.

Image for post
Image for post
Above & Center: Cliff & Billie Booth, portrayed by Brad Pitt and Rebecca Gayheart, as they engage in a drunken argument aboard their boat in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.
Below: Natalie Wood and Robert Wagner on board their yacht in 1958, the year following their marriage.

Gayheart’s casting adds meta-dimensional poignancy here, even with her scene being played for cynically-comic effect, since she too had once been involved in scandal.

Gayheart had previously pled no contest to a count of misdemeanor vehicular manslaughter for accidentally running over and killing 9-year-old Jorge Cruz Jr.

Police reports said that a number of cars had stopped to allow the boy to cross a street when Gayheart suddenly peeled out with her jeep at over 40 mph into a left-hand turn lane in order to pass the cars in front of her. She failed to see Cruz in time and ended up fatally striking him.

Gayheart was given three years’ probation, along with 750 hours of community service and a suspended drivers’ license. Cruz’s family also sued her, with their lawyer claiming that the actress had been talking on her cell phone when she ran him over.

It would not surprise me to learn that Tarantino deliberately made these casting decisions with such background knowledge in mind as a form of meta-subtext in his film in order to help underscore just how fragile, insecure and scandal-prone Hollywood performers often are. (DiCaprio actually provides one of the most memorable scenes of his career in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, during the segment which features him alone in his trailer, beating himself up in a pitying fit of self-loathing after failing to learn his lines properly. And I can’t quite shake the nagging suspicion that Lena Dunham’s casting as a Manson follower named “Gypsy” was more than just serendipitous. Everybody seemed to be in on that joke, except perhaps for the actress herself.)

It’s worth speculating that the flawed histories of some of his actors may have even been an unstated or subconscious attempt by Tarantino to reflect on the character of Cliff Booth himself — a man whose reputation is tinged with past criminality, but whom audiences still love due to his fierce displays of friendship and loyalty.

But even if these casting choices were pure coincidence with no mind given to such past scandals, it still serves as symbolic rebuke to the current Cancel Culture which holds that even contrite people who have gone through the system and served their time for one-time, tragic lapses of judgment should never be afforded second chances and must be shunned by everyone for all eternity.

Tarantino’s refusal to play in this ideological sandbox altogether by simply choosing the best performer for the role without consideration of such extraneous social pressures seems like a form of nostalgic throwback itself. When viewed through the lens of 2020, it even feels like a minor form of heroism (or at least rebellious “anti-heroism”).

No one should expect Bernfeld, the Cruz family, or anyone who knows them personally to view the film detached from the actors they see on the screen. They will naturally react differently to Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, just as those who actually knew the Manson victims are likely to. Even Bruce Lee’s family had their own set of objections which one can sympathize with when their perspective is considered. But an individual’s personalized experience, even when it amounts to trauma, should not always serve as a heckler’s veto over art or culture.

That is just one of many unspoken messages that Tarantino serves up with this work, though it isn’t just his casting choices that reflect a sense of unblinking bravado against the cultural mob. You also have to admire Tarantino’s timing with this film, which pivots away from the longtime Hollywood narrative that the counter-culture represents social progress, portraying them instead as a group of violent, petulant children who ought to be hogtied, forcibly bathed and ultimately torched with a flamethrower.

It seems unlikely that Tarantino would have had Antifa in mind when writing his script. But it’s hard to watch Once Upon A Time In Hollywood today and not draw obvious parallels between Manson’s murderous cult and the group of disaffected youth who try to burn down police and other government buildings while terrorizing those who simply wish to go about living their lives.

Image for post
Above: Margaret Qualley as “Pussycat” publicly condemns Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth, after he refuses to join in solidarity with the Manson Family.
Below: “Social Justice” demonstrators surround a casual diner in Washington D.C. after failing to raise her fist in solidarity.

Most of them are probably too young to understand the actual insult behind the taunt from DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton when he refers to Tex Watson as “Dennis Hopper” when yelling at him to get his rumbling car out of his cul-de-sac.

Hopper represented the essence of hippy culture and helped to usher in the “New Hollywood” with his success of Easy Rider, upending an industry culture previously dominated by figures such as John Wayne.

Tarantino’s own film education and artistic instincts were largely forged during the New Hollywood era, so his decision to craft a story which sets that era’s symbolic standard-bearers as antagonists in a revenge fantasy alongside that of the Nazis of Inglorious Basterds and the racist plantation owners of Django Unchained shows just how fearless and iconoclastic his artistry remains.

Even the growing chorus of social criticism against Tarantino for his previous project, The Hateful Eight, didn’t seem to cower him. Most of The Hateful Eight’s detractors focused on peripheral social messages they gleamed from it, rather than the artistic craftsmanship involved. That’s what made his choice for Once Upon A Time as a follow-up seem all the more brave, or at least admirably brazen. Tarantino couldn’t care less about the zeitgeist when it gets in the way of telling a good story.

In an age of stifling conformity and Cultural Revolution from America’s radical brigades, Tarantino proves his continued relevance by offering up simple, contrarian truths about the nature of friendship. He reminds us that the deepest bonds are forged by individuals socializing together, rather than by political litmus tests. The satisfaction he gives his audience stems from his acknowledgement that, deep down, many people feel that anyone who tampers with such bonds deserves to be torched — be they the hippies of Manson’s era, or any of today’s “hippies” like Antifa, neo-Marxist radicals, Q-Anon buffoons, or the scolding, “woke”, social justice warriors of the Internet.

That’s what helps fuel an additional, deeper level of nostalgia one now experiences when revisiting Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.

Cliff Booth’s character portrayed by Pitt is widely rumored to have killed his wife (though never proven), admitted that he spent time on a Texas chain-gang after breaking a cop’s jaw, and confessed that prison had been “trying to get me my whole life”, suggesting an existence commonly entwined with some form of low-level criminality. Booth is also rumored to have been a war hero. (Details of Booth’s heroics are never provided in the film itself, and the reference is only off-handedly made once by DiCaprio’s Dalton character when trying to defend his friend’s reputation to a co-worker. Given the story’s timeline and the ages of its characters, either World War II or Korea are equally imaginable scenarios. Though envisioning Booth as a WWII hero makes more thematic sense in that it makes his character an authentic counterpart to the make-believe WWII hero which Dalton portrays in the equally make-believe 14 Fists of McClusky “film” within the film.)

Ultimately though, all of these rumors and details are irrelevant to Tarantino’s moral judgements. Friendship and loyalty are the only currencies that matter in the world he imagines.

Should that always be the case, no matter which way the world turns? I don’t know. All I know is that these currencies have been seemingly devalued so much in the last few years that the need for forgiveness and sympathy seems more valuable than ever, and that they should be given considerably wider berths than our social culture currently allows for.

The pleasures of Once Upon A Time stem less from the kind of taut narrative that many great films rely on than the now sadly-rare experience of of witnessing flawed individuals enjoying life through simple acts of leisure, yet still being portrayed sympathetically despite those flaws.

Image for post
Image for post
Characters seeking out leisure and enjoying life’s simple pleasures mark an underlying thematic refrain in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.

In a healthy culture, such depictions would feel mundane and pedestrian, rather than heroic. But these are not healthy times.

Essayist Caitlin Flanagan understands this as well. She too recognized the bravery and balls that undergirds the heart of this film even before 2020 hit, and managed to pen stirring praise for it in The Atlantic by labeling it Tarantino’s most “transgressive” work while taking to task what she called the film’s “justice critics”:

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.

What’s really got the justice critics worked up, however, isn’t the violence or the nostalgia or the silencing of Sharon Tate. What’s rattling them more than they realize is that this movie is transgressive as hell. Only Tarantino would have the balls to make something like it, something that embraces values that have repeatedly been proved — proved! — to be dangerous, outdated, the thing that people don’t want anymore. Box-office poison. And only Tarantino could do it so skillfully that it’s not until you’re back in the car that you realize what he’s done: made a major motion picture in 2019 about a man with a code, a man who hews to the old values of the Western hero.

We can’t have a movie like this. It affirms things the culture wants killed. If men aren’t encouraged to cry in public, where will we end up? And the bottom line is the bottom line: Audiences don’t want to see this kind of thing anymore. The audience wants the kind of movies the justice critics want. But the audience gave Once Upon a Time in Hollywood the biggest opening of Tarantino’s career. The critics may not get it, but the public does. Is Tarantino making a reactionary statement at a dangerous time? Or does the title tell the truth, that the whole thing — including those old masculine values — was always just a fairy tale, a world “that never really existed, but feels like a memory”?

How many now feel it’s actually the memories of their previous lives from just four or five years back — or maybe even just a single year back — that now seem more like a fairy tale, rather than Tarantino’s film? Maybe it’s comforting for some to try imagining that it never really existed in order to soothe the sinking feeling that they’ll never get it back. That’s why Flanagan’s punches land so squarely here.

Film Production As Vehicle for Nostalgia

Other nostalgic aspects of Once Upon A Time In Hollywood are born out of coincidental tragedy, such as the untimely passing of actor Luke Perry. Perry died of a massive stroke at age 52, just a few short months after Tarantino wrapped filming on the project. It was to be his last film.

Tarantino had already been forced to recast Burt Reynolds as ranch owner George Spahn in the final months of the shooting schedule. Reynolds died of a heart attack at age 82 before any of his scenes could be shot, prompting the director to recast Bruce Dern in the role.

Just as with Polaroids, when the moving image manages to capture people no longer with us, it becomes inherently imbued with an additional form of nostalgia on top of that which it tries to consciously evoke through its narrative.

Though it still offers its fictional, satisfying ending, the very production history of Once Upon A Time Hollywood now offers an underlying sense of melancholy akin to John Huston’s The Misfits for those who are familiar enough with the background of both films. As with Tarantino’s work offering a final curtain call for Perry, The Misfits inspires additional forlorn emotions beyond its story if you also happen to know that it serves as the final film testament for two legends of the silver screen — Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe.

Misfit’s co-star Montgomery Clift was also something of a broken figure during that production, serving as an analogue to Once Upon A Time’s Rick Dalton, a former matinee idol whose self-knowledge of being past his prime only fuels his long-simmering insecurities and alcoholism. A near-fatal car accident in 1956 forced Clift to undergo extensive reconstructive facial surgery, which later prompted him to become an alcoholic and drug addict. He too would die after making The Misfits, just five years later.

Both films feature broken, tragic characters, and are populated by cast members who themselves have had a history of scandal and tragedy. Both films also end on notes of hope and redemption for their characters (even if the tone of Misfits’ final scenes are far more elegiac).

Image for post
Image for post
Left: Montgomery Clift, Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable in The Misfits.
Right: Luke Perry in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood.

Whether it’s a celebratory fairytale like Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, or a melancholic drama such as The Misfits, there now exists an extra dimension of wistful sadness when one encounters these works, all brought about by the recent upheavals in the world which everyone instinctively fears can never be fully reversed.

That is the essence of nostalgia.

It’s not just a yearning for 1969. It now also a yearning for 1989, or 1999, or 2009, or even 2015. Anytime other than the time we are in now.

That’s what Once Upon A Time In Hollywood now represents.

A time when people actually enjoyed experiencing movies together in theaters.

A time when movies were made on actual celluloid film which told stories that were unmoored from corporate franchises.

A time when people actually had a sense of humor.

A time when people instinctively understood that ethnic humor didn’t always convey malicious intent.

A time when adolescent, violent radicals didn’t rule our streets.

A time when the idea of a great evening was just taking part in life’s simple pleasures like casually hanging out with friends without having to social distance, enjoying a laugh while watching TV together, and bonding over a good ol’-fashioned drunk.

It’s not fair that we’ve had to lose any of these things.

We should have been able to hold on to them.

That’s how it all should have gone down.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store