A few pages into Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s novel based on his own splendid, Oscar-winning film, Tarantino informs the reader that Cliff Booth, the stuntman played by Brad Pitt in the movie, once killed his wife. This is mentioned — offhandedly — in a chapter about Booth’s beloved dog, Brandy. Given how the film shrouds this event in rumour and ambiguity, it is clear the book has been sharpened to scratch a different itch altogether. This novel may be a paperback, but, as its heroine might say, it is an “artful” one.
Tarantino seats readers alongside ageing television stars who want to be movie stars, sitting around drinking their insecurities, talking about actresses they bedded because they couldn’t bed Elizabeth Taylor. This is a racy and ruminative novel, with cocksure opinions guiding straightforward prose. The language is unpretentious, coarse as the spoken word, yet occasionally gleaming with cinematic specificity. A furious character’s face exploded “like a bad actor in a silent movie,” and another, entranced by a film, “wanted to lick the screen.” The late David Carradine, who played Bill in Tarantino’s Kill Bill films, should have been around to read this book out loud.
In the time-capsule of the film, two fictional characters — Booth and Rick Dalton, a washed-up TV actor played by Leonardo DiCaprio — cross paths with a real one: actress Sharon Tate, murdered by followers of Charles Manson in a horrific event that culturally signalled the end of the 1960s. Tarantino’s revisionist climax, a critique of the escapism of the Hollywood ending, had Booth and Dalton killing the cultists to save Tate, played by Margot Robbie. For the book, this incendiary climax is a throwaway page. It is a brief flash-forward into Dalton’s future, the hippie-killing turning “the former TV cowboy into a folkloric hero of Nixon’s silent majority.” He will become a regular on the talk show circuit.
Tarantino, an admirer of the novelisations that once accompanied popular movies, has borrowed the pulp form yet stayed clear of his trademark explosive sequences. Instead, he indulges what would be considered cinematic digressions: the long-drawn backstory of the pilot episode of a TV series, for instance, or the reasons why Cliff Booth outgrew Akira Kurosawa. Having created arresting characters who work in the movies, Tarantino uses plot almost as an aside while drifting in and out of Hollywood lore, both real and imagined.
Reading Tarantino characters talk about movies is like having a drink with Sriram Raghavan. You don’t know half the references, and you can’t possibly keep up with the torrent of detail, but the facts are less the point than the infectious passion. And the reverence for stories behind the stories. In Salman Rushdie’s The Ground Beneath Her Feet, a book about larger than life rockstars that spins its own alternate music history, Bridge Over Troubled Waters was a song by Carly Simon and Guinevere Garfunkel. What is real and what is not — albeit interesting to scholars and fans — is less crucial than the blurring of the line.
We have long admired Tarantino characters for their deep-seeded opinions about pop culture: robbers bicker about Madonna songs, villains hold forth on Superman and Clark Kent, the world is divided into Elvis people and Beatles people. Opinions are spelt out to fascinating excess in the novel, as we get to know Dalton, Booth and Tate via their tastes. Tate, for instance, likes The Monkees more than The Beatles, something she would never admit to husband Roman Polanski, and while this may echo Tarantino’s own unashamedly pop leanings, she — surely unlike the auteur — doesn’t care that The Beatles wrote their own music. It’s the little differences.
The central conflict may, in fact, be the contrast between the films Rick likes, as an action hero liking American filmmakers making action films, and the subtitled ones preferred by Cliff, a former World War II hero who finds Hollywood cinema childish. Pivoting between their points of view, the novel explores each protagonist’s trajectory in keeping with their preferred styles.
The stuntman idolises a misogynist and racist fictional character, and while Tarantino treats Cliff without judgement, like Belmondo or Mifune in the antihero films the stuntman loves, he makes it repeatedly clear he isn’t a good guy. He is good to Rick (and to Brandy), but he has outgrown morality. Is he a friend or an enabler? “Foreign films, Cliff thought, were more like novels. They didn’t care if you liked the lead character or not. And Cliff found that intriguing.”
Meanwhile, Rick is treated like the American hero — a Steve McQueen character — one who is defined by bursts of glory, and eventually circles around to his own moment of redemption. His triumphs are triumphs because he is told they are. In the book, Booth and Dalton engage in competitions with icons Bruce Lee and McQueen respectively — best two out of three — and in both cases the third, deciding round goes unplayed.
The villains of the film were Charles Manson and his ‘Family’, whom the book treats with disdain. Tarantino paints Manson as a craven wannabe musician who would trade his ideology for a chance at a pop single. He doesn’t let acolytes watch television, for fear that advertisements — relentless, seductive commercials — may break his spell. Booth, who once considers becoming a so-called ‘gentleman of leisure’ in Paris, concludes that Manson is playing from the playbook of the pimp.
One of Manson’s devotees, Pussycat, stars in the book’s most cinematic sequence. Accompanied by the imaginary voice of her guru, she crawls naked around a house occupied by an elderly couple, and Tarantino writes this Clockwork Orange scenario incredibly visually, thick with tension. In a different part of the book, Tarantino describes Polanski manipulating an audience by framing a Rosemary’s Baby shot a certain way, but Tarantino the novelist achieves something as masterful. I could swear I’ve watched, not read, the Pussycat sequence.
It is hard not to get swept up in this unironic love for the movies. A beautiful bit involves Tate (with, in true Tarantino style, a song continuing “to play in her head”) as she goes to a theatre to watch a comedy she starred in. She wants to see whether, while working opposite a slapstick legend, she managed to fall down properly. The motive is pure as can be, and she is gratified by the audience reaction. “If she could have, she would have shaken all their hands and thanked them all individually.”
I didn’t anticipate Tarantino’s enthusiasm translating this infectiously to the page. He shows up as a director who, decades after the events of this book, will take a gifted actress to her third Oscar nomination — with a remake. It sounds just plausible enough. The novel is a companion piece about companionship, about our need to invent truths to play our parts right, about the importance of the apocryphal story. A love letter to the movies deserves to be written in fake blood. It looks better than the real thing.