once upon a time in hollywood
I bought my ticket, walked up to concessions, and asked for a small Diet Coke. The guy behind the counter - 17, maybe, with glasses and a skeletal structure that he hadn’t quite grown into - asked me what movie I was seeing.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” I said.
“Oh,” he sighed and practically swooned. “You’re gonna love it.”
“Good, huh?” I asked.
“I’ve seen it 8 times,” he said. “It’s…” he shook his head. Words failed him.
“Alright!” I said.
“It’s the best movie I’ve ever seen, I think.” He punched the Diet Coke button on the machine to top off my soda - which, by the way, was a medium, and I wasn’t sure if he gave me the wrong size because I’d catapulted him into ecstasy by seeing the best movie he’d ever seen, or if he’d intentionally blessed my endeavor with an extra 40 ounces of calorie-free caffeine.
‘Thanks,” I said, holding the soda bucket in both hands (dead serious, people. What is UP with movie theater concession sizing? You heard it here first, folks. Come to KatyKatiKate for cutting-edge commentary on buckets of soda. Wait, has anyone said that before? “Buckets of soda”? I think I just invented that. OMG #VANGUARD).
“Enjoy yourself,” he said, infusing each syllable with meaning and color the way you would if it were your last line of the last callback for your first-ever Broadway show. He said it the way Alan Rickman said everything. He wished he was me, about to see it for the first time.
Here’s my problem with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
So… okay. Have you ever been invited last-minute to someone’s party in a way that felt like maybe one of your mutual friends had mentioned the party to you and then asked the host if you were invited because you were weird and evasive about it, and then the host was like “Shit, well now she’s invited, thanks SERENA,” or like you were an afterthought, just a body to fill space when too many people were out of town that weekend?
If you haven’t, I guess GOOD FOR YOU and CONGRATULATIONS on being UNCONDITIONALLY WANTED ALL THE TIME. MUST BE NICE.
It’s hard for me to have a good time in that kind of situation. I’m always wondering if I was really invited or if I was just allowed. I know if I go to the party I’ll have fun, but I’ll also be aware that OTHER PEOPLE are aware that I’m not really supposed to be there. If I don’t go to the party, I’ll miss out on the good time that all my friends shared. They’ll have jokes about the party that I won’t get, and the space between us will get bigger, and why? Because I was too proud to accept that sometimes, this bitch is just a warm body?
Usually I go because even if I’m only allowed, and not really invited, I’d rather have the chance to be part of the conversation than be left out.
So that’s how I felt leaving Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Like I’d been allowed to the party, but not invited to it. I went because I wanted to be part of the conversation that everyone around me was having. As I left the movie, the kid behind the concessions counter flashed me a thumbs-up. I flashed one back. Sure. I’m not a monster. I’m not going to kill this kid’s Christmas by telling him that his perfect thing is… fine. My parents let me believe that Pretty Woman was the best movie ever made when I was 11, for which they were awarded the gold star of parenting.
This is not, by the way, a feeling unique to Once Upon a Time. I feel this way in most movies, allowed but not invited. Even movies that are ostensibly for me, like Bad Moms or I Feel Pretty, I feel permitted to give them my money so I can laugh at the women onscreen for being shrill or insecure, like the filmmakers imagine I am.
It’s actually easier for me to recount movies that DID invite me: Juno, Tully, Book Smart, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, Atomic Blonde, and yes, I admit it, Magic Mike 2, a movie that referred to God as a “she” (a little heavy-handed but FUCK IT I’M IN) and reminded us again and again that women deserve to be happy, respected, and have their fantasies satisfied, whatever they may be. This was a movie about male strippers on a road trip to a male stripper convention, and they mostly talked about how they could make the women around them the happiest. Say whaaaat.
That’s a movie that wanted me. That movie checked to see what my FOOD ALLERGIES and PREFERENCES were so it would make sure to have enough apps that I could enjoy at its party. This movie built itself to please me at every turn: with its casting, screenplay, music choices, jokes that are not at my expense, or at the expense of my proxy onscreen.
Holy cannoli, is this how straight white men feel all the time?!?
Anyway, Once Upon a Time was fun and charming and I couldn’t eat any of the apps.
Leo does “has-been with a heart of gold (… plated tin)” like he was born to it. There’s a scene with shirtless Brad on the roof wearing a tool belt and work gloves, where the female gaze sits at the head of the table. But WAIT FOR IT there’s also a VERY SERIOUS VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN DEAL BREAKER DEEPLY INSINUATED for Brad’s character that we hear about for 4 seconds and never get any follow-up on that shit. Once I heard about the deal-breaker, I found myself put off by every charming thing he did, like the movie expected me to find him more appealing after I heard those rumors. The reality was I trusted him WAY LESS with women characters and I was perturbed by the dissonance between the violent history of his character and the quirky, warm treatment of his character.
Meanwhile, Margot Robbie’s character, Sharon Tate, rarely speaks and we’re more likely to see close-up shots of her various parts than of her self entire: belly, profile, feet (obviously).
There’s a sequence where Tate picks up a young hippie hitchhiker girl and the two of them engage in a long, animated conversation which we don’t hear because the radio is blasting over their dialogue.
There’s a long sequence where Tate dances at the Playboy mansion, ecstatic to be female and alive, while Steve McQueen explains her back story to a female character whose lines are “Why?” and “Okay.” Or something like that.
There’s a scene in which Tate is pregnant at dinner in the summertime, and a male voice over tells us she feels “pregnant in all the worst ways.” Thanks, Kurt Russell, male narrator. I’m sure you remember just what that feels like.
An Italian actress gets a luscious monologue… in Italian.
And there’s a scene in which a wall of hippie girls shrieks unintelligibly at Brad Pitt, which reminded me of my son’s Pokemon TV show in which there is a character named “Nurse Joy” in every Pokemon Center in every town in this world, and I had to explain to him that “Nurse Joy” is not a character because people aren’t interchangeable and a genuine character can’t be carbon-copied infinite times. A character is unique, and Nurse Joy is a droid bot disguised as a pretty nurse. (Oh yes, there’s also an “Officer Jenny” in every town. Are there any male carbon copy droid bot characters? OF COURSE NOT! The male characters are unique because they matter. Don’t get me started.)
Look, I am who I am and when I see one scene where a female character’s experience comes to us through the lens of a male character’s observation, I notice. When it happens again, I cross my arms. When a speaking character only speaks in a language that most of the audience can’t understand, I heave a sigh. And when the crackling late-60’s radio soundtrack takes priority over her voice, that’s when I put on my angry eyebrows.
Of course I ask myself some questions to make sure I’m not leaping to conclusions.
Is her silence a conscious choice to enhance this character’s role in the story? Perhaps she’s being marginalized in the narrative simply because her only role is to contextualize the main (fictional) story with Leo and Brad as occurring simultaneously with the peripheral (true) story of Sharon Tate?
Is her silence some kind of commentary on the sexism of Hollywood back in the olden times of (checks notes) 50 years ago?
Am I ignoring other rich female characters and looking for sexism in a screenplay by a man about men? If so, why am I doing that instead of just enjoying the movie?
Here are the answers I got.
This explanation makes the most sense - that Sharon Tate’s role in this story is just to be bait for the Manson killers and keep stakes high for our two oblivious protagonists. She strolls through the narrative to remind us that there’s a deadline looming. I accept this explanation, although I still think that a filmmaker as creative as Tarantino could have written more than 7 lines for her.
The problem with the commentary argument is that most of the time, people forget to comment. They portray the sexism and racism and they way they claim to comment on it is to make it as cruel and casual as possible so that it feels off-the-wall egregrious to contemporary audiences even as the characters onscreen are like, “Yeah, sure, a‘course Willard.” The tension between their non-reactions and our “holy shit” reaction is supposed to be the commentary and the hilarity, but frankly, I don’t dig that approach to commentary. It takes for granted that audiences WILL have a “holy shit” reaction. Most people don’t, and this attempt at commentary only serves to normalize or even glorify shitty behavior. I’m sorry to say that when it comes to directorial silencing of a beautiful woman, that’s less of a “holy shit” moment than it is a “I wonder if she does low-carb” moment. We are too accustomed to seeing women in the margins of stories about cool men to register this woman in the margins as anything but business as usual.
I’ve been a writer on the internet for long enough to know that not everything is for everyone, and sometimes you write something and people get mad about it for not being the thing they wanted it to be. That’s a hard situation for a writer if you care about what your readers think. The reason I write shit is because I think it matters. That’s the same reason Tarantino writes shit. He thinks it matters. He thinks this story is important, and I don’t disagree with him. I also think that the treatment of the women in this movie reveals a deep discomfort with women’s voices. It’s just fucking there, y’all. It’s clear as day.
When I write something that excludes people and they tell me about it, it’s not because they were LOOKING for my racism or ableism or cis-het normativity. It’s because that shit was just fucking there, and they’re used to being allowed but not invited, too, and it sucks every time.
There were a few female characters that I liked: the precocious child actress nails it. Janet, a crew member on set, tears Brad’s character a new asshole while wearing a magnificent hat. Sharon Tate watches (and acts out parts of) her own movie with the giddy joy of a young, thrilled, still-a-little-insecure artist who can’t believe this is her life. One of the girls on the ranch sure can ride a fucking horse, y’all.
But as I left the theater, I felt a little sad. I’m sad I wasn’t invited to this party, that’s all. I’m sad that the kid at the concession stand thinks this is the best movie he’s ever seen and there really aren’t any women in it, but he’d argue that there are because hello, Margot Robbie? It makes me sad that so much of the aesthetic of the film is about observing women, not about hearing or engaging with them.
It makes me sad that this movie is a piece of art that’s ostensibly for everybody, but Juno, Tully, Book Smart, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, and yes, Magic Mike 2, movies that listen to women, are “chick flicks.”
Anyway, all this to say that’s why I buy tickets on opening weekends for movies that are FOR ME. I’m so thankful for filmmakers who weren’t invited, but knocked down the door to make sure that everybody gets on the list sometimes. Otherwise, too many of us end up watching movies through a pane of glass. It feels like we flew over the party of the century and snapped a picture, or this movie’s case, the Hollywood sign.
Now I’m going to watch something that wants me - First Wives Club, maybe. Or perhaps a rewatch of Killing Eve. God that was good. Life’s too short to be last on the invite list all the time.