Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, “Once Upon a Time in . . . Hollywood,” is a love letter to the film industry days of yore — the late ’60s, to be exact. Men were men, female actors were “starlets” and the words “Me too” had yet to be hashtagged.
It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that a guy who partnered with producer Harvey Weinstein up until the latter’s shattering downfall would feel a bit nostalgic about the good ol’ retro days in the film biz. But just like Harvey, Tarantino and his oeuvre are things that should now move quietly into the “boy, bye” column.
There was a time and place for Tarantino, who gave us his share of strong female characters — Uma Thurman’s Beatrix Kiddo in “Kill Bill,” Pam Grier’s fierce “Jackie Brown” — but never strayed far from his urge to exploit in his films, fetishizing the N-word and relishing the sadistic treatment of women. Look no further than Jennifer Jason Leigh’s Daisy Domergue taking a truly stupendous number of punches in the face, and then much worse, over the three-hour span of “The Hateful Eight.”
Tarantino’s early movies were taut and sharp and shocking: the “Stuck in the Middle With You” torture scene in “Reservoir Dogs,” the banter and brutal killings done by John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson’s hit men in “Pulp Fiction.” Those flicks were endlessly quotable and addictively over the top but, in the end, made you feel as if you’d just spent a couple hours with a film geek who rarely got out of the video store, which is where the director used to work.
Tarantino worshippers and cinephiles will gush over his new movie’s gorgeous depiction of old Hollywood, its twisty conclusion and Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s dedicated, leathery performances as, respectively, an actor and his faithful stuntman hanging out in the days leading up to the Manson Family murders. But anyone who dared to ask why Roman Polanski’s actress-wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), the ostensible heart of the film, is reduced to an almost wordless entity was summarily dismissed: “I just reject your hypothesis,” Tarantino growled at a reporter who asked as much at the Cannes Film Festival, where the movie premiered.
That’s interesting, because I reject some of Tarantino’s hypotheses, including the one about Polanski’s innocence regarding the sexual assault of a 13-year-old. (“Look. She was down with it … He didn’t rape a 13-year-old, it was statutory rape, all right? … She wanted to have it,” Tarantino said in a 2003 interview with Howard Stern, for which he was eventually shamed into apologizing.) I also question his having Thurman do her own stunt-driving in “Kill Bill,” during which she crashed and hurt herself, and his notion that dangerously strangling Diane Kruger on the set of “Inglourious Basterds” was the only way to get a genuine reaction shot from her. (Also, that using the N-word made him edgy.)
As a critic, I’m not immune to the charms of Tarantino’s cinematic grandiosity. I swooned over “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained” as near-masterpieces in spite of their faults. But “The Hateful Eight,” his last movie with Weinstein, was a comedown — a ridiculously long wallow in the spectacle of 70mm film with little regard for an audience’s patience or tolerance for grim violence. And “Once Upon a Time” marks a different low for the director: It’s kinda pointless.
In a world where we have an increasing number of heroic females — especially in films written and directed by actual women — it may be game over for male auteurs who create supposedly strong women on-camera and denigrate them from behind it. In 2019, we don’t need that type of guy anymore, especially one who thinks silencing Sharon Tate for most of his film is somehow a fitting homage.
Once upon a time in Hollywood, maybe, but not now.
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