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Wednesday’s news that Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio have been cast in Quentin Tarantino’s upcoming film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, should be cause for celebration for fans of the actors and director. Both Pitt and DiCaprio have worked with Tarantino before, the latter especially working well beyond his typically honorable characters as the depraved and cruel Calvin Candie in Django Unchained. These two A-listers have plenty of range to play unexpected twists on more heroic types; Tarantino has played with plenty of movie stars’ personas with varying degrees of success throughout his career. Bringing Pitt and DiCaprio together for a period piece set in Hollywood circa 1969 could lead to something exciting. But recent events also suggest that Tarantino’s own past might color perception of this project in negative ways.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, per the Sony log line, focuses on a washed-up actor (Pitt) from a Western TV series and his stunt double (DiCaprio) struggling to survive at the end of the 1960s. Coincidentally, Pitt’s character, Rick Dalton, lives right next door to Sharon Tate, the starlet who was one of the victims in the Charles Manson murders. While the description suggests that Pitt and DiCaprio might be the leads, it’s impossible to imagine that the Manson murders won’t take center stage: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is slated to be released on August 9, 2019, the 50th anniversary of Sharon Tate’s death. While Tarantino is no stranger to working within specific historical periods and events, his recent presence in the fallout of the Harvey Weinstein scandal should raise concerns among even his biggest fans.
Last month, the New York Times published a lengthy profile of one of Tarantino’s early muses, Uma Thurman. Leaving aside her detailed and disturbing description of harassment and abuse at the hands of Weinstein, the article had another major surprise: Thurman’s depiction of the fraught work environment on the set of the Kill Bill films — she mentions that Tarantino spit on her and strangled her as part of the filming process for the intense genre duo. Thurman also described the trauma of getting into a car crash on set because Tarantino allegedly didn’t want to use a stunt driver. A couple days later, Tarantino spoke at length in an interview with Deadline about the New York Times profile. While he’s mostly forthright and contrite when asked about his spitting on Thurman for a scene, his response is, “I can explain why I did exactly what I did, but my question is, what’s the fucking problem?”
This controversy, no matter how disquieting it is, took place over a decade ago. What makes it concerning in light of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is twofold. In the aftermath of the Thurman essay, 2013 audio was unearthed of Tarantino criticizing Samantha Geimer, who at age 13 was drugged and raped by Roman Polanski (previously the husband of Sharon Tate). The director apologized for those remarks. Second, there is the bracing reality that how Tarantino treats historical fact can be deliberately a lot wilder and looser than the real thing. It is cathartic to watch the fiery climax of Inglourious Basterds in which a group of Jewish and other American soldiers lay waste to a host of Nazis, including Hitler himself, almost precisely because it’s nowhere close to being accurate. It can be similarly visceral to watch the finale of Django Unchained in which a slave emancipates himself by bringing death to the owners of a Southern plantation.
But the climate is much different regarding sexism, misogyny and gender representation in modern movies. So while it may be harrowing but potentially intriguing to watch a film set at the height of the Manson murders, one that may end up featuring Sharon Tate as a supporting character (early rumors pinpointed Margot Robbie as Tarantino’s choice to play the actress), it’s also very concerning to imagine Tarantino behind the camera to tell that story. With the project more than a year away, we can only speculate on what that final film will look like. But being more aware of how Tarantino has interacted with actresses and his earlier stance on a director like Polanski (who might well appear in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood as a character), suggests something fairly discouraging.
Some aspects of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood feel tailor-made for Tarantino. Moving back to the film industry for his latest project feels apt, and working with Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio again might lead to more fine work from the two stars. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, like Tarantino’s other recent projects, may not end up fully lining up with how the real thing happened too. However, it’s important to take into consideration the way that the iconic filmmaker approaches a topic that was always sensitive and delicate, but feels much more so in the midst of the #MeToo movement. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not beholden to line up with historical record, nor to current concerns of men harassing and abusing women, but audiences and critics need to be more skeptical in such a fraught time.
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