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How does Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood handle violence against women?

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Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate

The first reviews for director Quentin Tarantino’s new movie are here, and it doesn’t look like the filmmaker has handled the murder of Sharon Tate well. 

A new Quentin Tarantino movie is always an event, and none have been more eventful than Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood.

The director’s ninth movie – and, if you believe him, his penultimate – is also his first in the post-#MeToo era, an era in which his frequent star Uma Thurman talked of a harrowing experience during the filming of Kill Bill in which Tarantino bullied her into driving an unsafe car, an experience that she called “dehumanisation to the point of death”.

This isn’t the only controversy that has clouded the release of Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood. There’s the film’s subject matter, for one thing – making a movie that involves the Manson Murders but decentring the role of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Despite being the cult’s most high profile victim, after early screenings of the film some people suggested that Robbie appears in only a few brief scenes. (Tarantino has since added more footage of Robbie to the film after the backlash.) 

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Quentin Tarantino has added more Margot Robbie scenes to Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Then there’s the fact that main character Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCpario) idolises Tate’s husband, director Roman Polanski, in the movie. The same Roman Polanski convicted of statutory rape, and the same Roman Polanski that Tarantino has defended in the past. “He had sex with a minor,” Tarantino said in 2003. “That’s not rape… She wanted to have [sex]! Dated the guy!” 

Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood
Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood

Like we said – a new Tarantino movie is always going to be an event. And now, on the eve of the movie’s US release, the reviews are in. Can Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood move beyond the controversy around its subject matter? Should you see it?

The short answer is yes. With 89% on Rotten Tomatoes, the film has been positively reviewed by most publications. Some, like The Atlantic, have even called it Tarantino’s “best film in years”.

Here’s what you have to know about the movie: it contains stellar performances from DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, who plays Dalton’s stunt double Cliff Booth. “DiCaprio and Pitt are probably as good as they’ve ever been in anything: one superbly channeling the outsize ego and fragility of an actor in early-midlife spiral, the other a sort of beach-boy Lebowski with a singular gift for sudden violence,” said Entertainment Weekly.  

“All actors, in role large and small, bring their A game to the film,” Rolling Stone noted. “Two hours and 40 minutes can feel long for some. I wouldn’t change a frame.” 

There’s also a huge, shocking twist at the end of the movie, and you’re either going to love it or hate it. The New York Post hated it, equating it to having “sat there for nearly three hours putting together a detailed jigsaw puzzle, only to have a demon child stomp on it”. As did Variety, who called the ending “too easy”. “By the end,” Variety writes, “Tarantino has done something that’s quintessentially Tarantino, but that no longer feels even vaguely revolutionary. He has reduced the story he’s telling to pulp.” 

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate in Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood
Sharon Tate: Margot Robbie plays Sharon Tate in Tarantino's latest movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

But others, including Vox, were thrilled. “Tarantino’s latest movie is wish fulfilment on a much grander scale – but simultaneously a more intimate one,” Vox noted.

For the Guardian, the surprise ending was worthy of five stars. “It’s entirely outrageous, disorientating, irresponsible and also brilliant,” according to the Guardian. “Quite simply, I just defy anyone with red blood in their veins not to respond to the crazy bravura of Tarantino’s film-making, not to be bounced around the auditorium at the moment-by-moment enjoyment that this movie delivers”.

The biggest problem with the movie, according to critics, is the way that Tarantino approaches the character of Tate and the way he treats the violence of the Manson Murders. “When the movie’s truly gnarly spate of violence happens, it’s both grimly cathartic and revolting, a brief, horrific riot of crunch and gush that comes across a bit too gleeful,” Vanity Fair noted.  

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate in Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood
Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate in Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood

For The New Yorker, Robbie’s Tate is “given even less substance; she is depicted as an ingenuous Barbie doll who ditzily admires herself onscreen”. 

“Taking Tate’s story, telling a sliver of it, and bringing nothing fresh to the rendering of her, though, is such a bizarre choice, given how much cultural real estate Charles Manson, his followers, and their atrocities have been given over the past 50 years,” wrote Jezebel. “It’s not enough to just give us a microwaved idea of Tate, and we should expect more from a filmmaker as bold and wild as Tarantino. In this, he has failed Tate, himself, and us.” 

And, as Slate noted, it’s not just Tate that Tarantino has failed, it’s every female character in the film. “If Robbie’s Sharon gets little interiority,” Slate noted, “even less is accorded to the pack of mostly undifferentiated ‘Manson girls,’ who include Margaret Qualley, Dakota Fanning (as Manson protégée and future would-be presidential assassin Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme), and, in an unexpected but somehow just right cameo, a creepily smiling Lena Dunham.” 

Still, as Vanity Fair added, Robbie does as much as she can with her small role. “I kept wishing there were either more of her – actual scenes in which Tate is given that trademark Tarantino wit and crunchy mouthfuls of good writing – or less of her, so that we might all be on the same page about the role’s intentions,” Vanity Fair noted. “Robbie, to her credit, fleshes Tate out beautifully, poignantly, makes her the kind of person you miss without even knowing her.”

A scene from Once Upon A Time... In Hollywood
A scene from Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood 

As the AV Club noted, the decentring of the Manson Murders in the plot means that audiences get very little sense of who Tate was as a person. “Much was made of Robbie’s lack of dialogue after the film’s Cannes screening, and it’s true that although she has a good amount of screen time, she doesn’t say all that much,” the publication explained. 

“That doesn’t necessarily equate to a flimsy role, but there’s really only one scene where Sharon’s internal light truly shines: the sequence where she sneaks into a theatre to watch one of her films incognito, beaming with pride and satisfaction behind huge glasses as she soaks in the audience’s laughter and applause. The rest of the time, she’s as ephemeral of a character as the dead-eyed Manson followers who hang menacingly around the fringes of the film.” 

“[The movie] culminates with an extremely violent episode on Cielo Drive that is arguably more graphic and over-the-top than it needs to be,” noted Slate. “But Tarantino enjoys making viewers squirm with extreme mayhem and his dedicated fan base will appreciate what he does. That he tries to justify the act of violence by ascribing some meaning to it — a character talks about growing up and being influenced watching murder on TV — is more questionable than provocative. Especially given how sadistic the film becomes, this denouement may leave a bad taste in one’s mouth.”

Per the Observer: “Frankly, I find the entire experience baffling, and any attempt to laugh off the Manson murders as sitcom fodder embarrassing.”

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For UPROXX, Tate’s elusiveness in the film is an effective way of making her legacy known. “Her screen time is limited, but her presence is always felt,” note UPROXX. “The best way to present Tate as a human being was to keep her out of the plot and just, here and there, show her doing things any other human beings in her position might be doing at any given time. She is the ghost who haunts this movie.”

This is what the critics have to say about Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood. If you want to see the movie for yourself, it will be in cinemas in the US on 26 July and in the UK on 15 August. 

Images: Sony

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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.

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