Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ Novel Is a Cineaste-Baiting Blast, With Big Departures From the Movie: Book Review

·18-min read

“A love letter to cinema” was the tired-but-true trope that everyone trotted out when Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” the movie, hit theaters two years ago. But it’s now clear just how insufficient a mere mash note to the movies was for Tarantino. This week saw the arrival of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” the 400-page book, as his epic Penthouse Forum Letter to cinema. You’ll know this trade-paperback novelization is cineaste-populist porn when you see it.

The end result is not so much like reliving the movie on the page — although the book does have a few scenes in which the dialogue and descriptive beats are transcribed note-for-note from the screenplay — as much as a catalog of constant diversions that’s like being locked inside the New Beverly for a week with Pauline Kael, Harry Knowles and Leonard Maltin. Let that intrigue or daunt you as it may, as you decide whether or not to plunk down $7.48 (the very reasonable Amazon going rate, at press time) for a book that’s been deliberately designed to resemble something that would have sat on a rusting metal rack in a drugstore in the ’70s. It’s definitely not for everybody… not even everybody who loved the film. But if you’re the kind of film lover who feels like you have a dog in the hunt when somebody tries to start a bar fight about whether there might have been a better leading actor for “Vanishing Point” than Barry Newman (as Tarantino does here), or if you’re apt to chuckle even the third time a character refers to “that prick Jennings Lang,” then this might be the best kind of dirty book.

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Part of the fun of the film was how much pulp non-fiction Tarantino weaved into the made-up stuff. Real-life film lore and criticism make up a substantially larger portion of the novel. If you’re wondering what the book has that the movie didn’t — besides a solution to the mystery of whether Cliff Booth actually murdered his wife in cold blood (and yes, it does answer that; more on this later) — start here: It has no fewer than six pages (count ’em!) devoted to the now largely forgotten late 1960s erotic art movie “I Am Curious (Yellow).” A much more compact two pages about the suspense-building technique of Roman Polanski in “Rosemary’s Baby.” An entire chapter recounting the career of real-life “Lancer” Western TV star James Stacy. Further chapters that retell the “Lancer” series’ cowboy backstory mythology as if Tarantino were recapping real 19th century events — yes, it’s a mini-novelization-within-a-novelization. A late chapter in which Cliff hangs out on a Spanish movie set with the alcoholic but still charming actor Aldo Ray, one of Tarantino’s faded-glory favorites.

And then there’s the flood of opinions about the movies, which are kind of like pieholes: everybody in this story has got one about seemingly every mid-level, mid-century movie or filmmaker you could think of. In interior monologues, the three main characters — Cliff (portrayed on film by Brad Pitt), Rick (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) — all indulge in movie criticism, in their trifurcated way all obviously channeling Tarantino’s own cinematic fetishes and biases. We also learn a lot about theirs — i.e., QT’s — tastes in pop music of the day, too, although the book necessarily contains just a little less KHJ than the movie, given the medium. But mostly it’s about film, and most of all, it’s the stunt man Cliff who turns out to be the previously unknown hardcore movie buff. “Cliff didn’t know enough to write critical pieces for Films in Review, but he knew enough to know ‘Hiroshima Mon Amour’ was a piece of crap,” Tarantino tells us. “He knew enough to know Antonioni was a fraud… And he thought the mopey dopes in ‘Jules and Jim’ were a fucking drag.” Cliff has a list of his favorite Kurosawa films, and they’re all from his early career, when the Japanese auteur embraced pulp and hadn’t supposedly succumbed to his own good reviews. (A horndog at heart, Cliff also has a deep affection for naughty art movies that finds him dropping by by the New Beverly Cinema after work, back when it was running nudies in the ’60s and early ’70s as the Eros.)

Having established that this version of “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is practically filthy in its lust for film nostalgia, let’s talk about what it isn’t: anything resembling a straight novelization.

Inasmuch as the book version repeatedly steers far off-course from the final screenplay, you can read that as being kind of a meta joke on the form. In the golden age of ‘60s and ‘70s movie novelizations, film fans flocked to these cheap paperbacks, usually written by B-grade writers who’d been granted access to a screenplay draft but not the finished film, in the hope that they’d contain some interesting deleted scenes. (I have distinct memories of reading the “Alien” book adaptation for descriptions of sequences left on the cutting room floor, before bonus-packed laserdiscs and DVDs rendered this need moot.) If there’s an overriding gag here, it’s that “Once Upon a Time” is a book of mostly deleted scenes. Some we know were actually filmed and abandoned. (The paperback’s back cover shows stills of scenes not in the film but seemingly described in the book, like Julia Butters on the phone in non-period dress on the phone, or the Steve McQueen character in his convertible. A scene in the novel of Cliff going 8-track shopping was seen being filmed, but all that set dressing of the “Hot Waxx” store that popped up on Riverside Drive ended up being just for the benefit of Tarantino location-shoot lookie-loos.) But some of what’s here was probably never intended to be shot at all. The book is meant to be a companion, not an encapsulation, with fealty when he damn well wants it and a free-wheeling sense of randomness when he doesn’t.

It seems like a funny idea to announce a spoiler alert for a novelization, but maybe this would be the time for one. The book’s most radical departure: an entirely different and new last act that effectively forgets the Manson family even exists. The murderous clan isn’t even mentioned or alluded to for the final 64 pages, and yeah, that’s as puzzling as it sounds — although maybe justifiable, if you try to wrap your head around Tarantino’s possible reasons for veering that far off course from the film. I can say that I probably haven’t spent a more enjoyable 6-7 hours this year than the ones I spent reading these 400 pages. I can also say that, over the course of that reading, there were probably close to a hundred instances where I thought: Really? Thats going to be your choice, right here? Of course, the shock of the Manson family just disappearing from the last fifth of the book is diffused, if you haven’t scanned ahead.

Then again, maybe you already figured out to what degree Tarantino has subverted his own narrative structure when the movie’s climax does appear — on page 110, of a 400-page novel — tossed off, in a handful of sentences, as a funny memory of something weird and funny that happened back in 1969, quickly recounted from at some point in the future. We’re told that Rick got a lot of Carson bookings as a result of the still somewhat unexplained incident on Cielo Drive and became a “folkloric hero of the Silent Majority.” Why throw away one of the most memorable endings of any movie in the last 20 years as a barely-worth-mentioning aside when the book feels like it’s just getting started? Maybe it’s just Tarantino being perverse and effing with readers; that can hardly be ruled out. Or perhaps it’s the filmmaker punishing himself slightly for having given the movie anything so conventional as an action climax — for having reverted to expected form and giving fans a bit of the old ultraviolence in a film that was otherwise without it. Or, you know, maybe he just decided mere prose was insufficient to translate the visual poetry of hippie-human-torch slapstick.

After I initially felt like this constituted an inexplicable, if not necessarily cheap, trick, the upending of the structure and ending sat better with me in retrospect. Tarantino’s new last act is a (frankly) wholly uneventful evening of drinking at a bar for cowboy actors out in the San Gabriel Valley, with Rick and Cliff being joined by “Lancer” star Stacy, who should be pretty well established by this point in the book as one of Tarantino’s actual screen heroes. And also joined by his dad… as in, yes, Tarantino’s actual father, who is the guy playing “Little Green Apples” at the piano when everybody walks in, and who later stops by to ask Stacy to sign an autograph to his 6-year-old son. It’s the most sentimental moment Tarantino has ever allowed himself, in any medium, and it’s easy to imagine some readers thinking: You threw out an action climax so you could get gooey? But his fleetingly bringing family into it near the end makes sense: With this adaptation, Tarantino wants to make it even clearer that he was primarily making a buddy movie, not a bloody movie — and maybe that finale was the reverse-engineered hemoglobin-fest that allowed him to justify the vast, mellow hangout that led up to the bloodshed.

The Manson family is still in the book, quite a bit, mind you, before slipping out of the picture. The sequence in which Cliff has a showdown with Squeaky Fromme at Spahn Ranch, the last time any of the Manson kids appear in the book, is intact, and as taut on the page as it was on screen — although it ends with the stunt man seemingly leaving peacefully, not beating hell out of some guy with a tire iron. There’s a truly bizarre added sequence in which Margaret Qualley’s Pussycat character breaks into an elderly Pasadena couple’s home and briefly terrorizes them; it doesn’t seem to have much to do with anything, but it’s quite a little set-piece on its own. Those viewers who thought the film was being exploitive in incorporating the Mansonites may not like it any more now that he’s reduced them to almost inconsequential players. But there is some provocative humor to be had — if something short of the real truth — in how Tarantino takes Charles Manson down not so much as a psychopath, but as a pathetic careerist. In one of the book’s funniest sentences, he writes of Manson’s acolytes, “It never would have occurred to them that he’d ditch all that horseshit in a minute to put on a Revolutionary War outfit and trade places with Mark Lindsay.”

Speaking of Paul Revere & the Raiders, pop criticism comes into the picture quite a bit — with Tarantino (and/or his characters) being critical of anyone’s who’s critical of pure pop. After Polanski expresses disdain for “that bubble-gum garbage” on KHJ, Sharon Tate silently disagrees: “She liked that song ‘Yummy Yummy Yummy’ and the follow-up song by the same group, ‘Chewy Chewy.’ She liked Bobby Sherman and that ‘Julie’ song. She loved that ‘Snoopy vs. the Red Baron’ song. She wouldn’t tell this to Roman or any of their hip friends like John and Michelle Phillips or Cass Elliot or Warren Beatty, but to be completely honest, she liked the Monkees more than the Beatles.” It’s fair to guess that Sharon Tate is Quentin Tarantino, at this moment, given how the book’s narrator has already informed us that the Beatles’ arrangement of “A Day in the Life” was pretentious. If you wonder if Tarantino ever met a bubblegum song he didn’t like, we get the answer: “On 93 KHJ,” he writes, “nighttime disc spinner Humble Harve keeps coming in and out of the Roadster’s shitty speakers, as does a ridiculous tune by Diana Ross and the Supremes, ‘No Matter What Sign You Are, You’re Gonna Be Mine You Are’.” But you get the feeling he’d still rather hear that than the Doors.

For his part, the Cliff character spends a lot of time in the book defending his counterculture-defying love of Tom Jones generally, and one song specifically. As he tells his underage Manson-girl hitchhiker: “Look, fuck you, you stuck-up hippie bitch. I like the song ‘Delilah.’ You got a problem with that?” At another point, Tarantino offers an explainer: “Naturally,” he writes, “Cliff is partial to songs about guys who kill their women.”

So, there’s that. The answer to whether Cliff’s wife was accidentally or purposely speared to death on that boat may un-ingratiate the character to a lot of viewers who warmed up to Pitt’s portrayal of him as the strong, silent, fix-anything type in the movie. I don’t think Tarantino loves Cliff any less for the revelation that the wife was just one of several people Cliff got away with killing since he returned home from WWII, where, as a highly decorated war hero (literary hyperbole alert), he personally slaughtered more Japanese than anyone but the Hiroshima bombing pilots. Or that he used to run the film’s most beloved character, the canine Brandy, in deadly dogfights, after figuring out he wasn’t cut out to be a pimp. You, the reader, however, may come away with a bit less affection, which is the danger of offering this much additional information. On the other hand, Tarantino does perhaps mean to engender a bit more sympathy for Rick — whom the author flatly declares at one point has “low intelligence” (reinforcing that by having the actor respond to a Shakespearian directorial suggestion with the thought, “Who’s the Bard?” — by noting that in later years, well after the end of these events, Rick’s alcoholism was found to be due to self-medicating for a bipolar condition. (And also — duh — because he’s an actor, and it’s the 1960s, leading to a QT detour on the great drunks of golden-age Hollywood.)

As a prose stylist, Tarantino largely tries to avoid style, per se. Or at least he does for the purposes of this book, where, if anything ever seems flat, or purple, or if the attitudes about gender or race seem unenlightened, he has the plausible deniability: This whole thing is an homage to a dishonorable literary genre, after all, right? Yet, and maybe this shouldn’t come as that much of a surprise, much of the writing is very, very good — in its best, simplest and driest moments, striking just the right tone, which might be described as deeply-slumming-Hemingway. When he’s not going down enjoyable rabbit holes about where exactly in his career Antonioni went wrong, he provides some pretty crisp observations, like this straight-outta-noir description of drinking rituals on location shoots: “It’s not like he preferred the taste of chilled gin to room-temperature gin. To Cliff, gin tasted like lighter fluid, and gin over ice tasted like chilled lighter fluid. But the addition of a couple of cubes of ice did give one the appearance of drinking a cocktail, as opposed to the depressing sight that drinking warm gin out of a plastic cup provided by a cheap hotel thousands of miles from home gave.” These kinds of passages aren’t Papa, but they aren’t child’s play, either.

Regrettable moments? It has a few. The opening chapter is the hardest to get through; it replicates the scene in which Rick meets Al Pacino’s Marvin Schwarz for a career recap (now set in the William Morris office instead of Musso and Frank), and reading descriptions of all the fictional actor’s fictional movies without seeing any of the corresponding clips is frankly a little deadly. The flashback to Cliff consoling the wife he has just fatally injured is played for over-the-top laughs, but isn’t funny; it’s as if Tarantino, having completely jettisoned the gory humor of the movie’s climax, decided he needed to make a place for it in the book somewhere else. On a less provocative level, he risks elevating subtext to text when he has Rick’s agent say something as on-the-nose as calling his client “an Eisenhower actor in a Dennis Hopper Hollywood. … When you weren’t looking, the culture changed.” We got that. But of course Marvin and Quentin are not about to stop there, and it gets more fun when they start naming names — and the book is all about naming names, on every page. “You gotta be somebody’s hippie son to star in movies nowadays. Peter Fonda, Michael Douglas, Don Siegel’s kid Kristoffer Tabori, Arlo fuckin’ Guthrie! Shaggy-haired androgynous types, those are the leading men of today,” Schwarz says. The come-to-Jesus talk culminates in the agent begging Rick to lose the pompadour, pointing out, as a punchline, that even Edd “Kookie” Byrnes is doing “The wet head is dead!” commercials now.

The book doesn’t have a huge number of flash forwards, but it does offer some glimpses of how lives and careers turned out for some key players. In a way, it’s less like the old-school novelization it’s dressed up as and more akin to something like Mark Frost’s “Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier,” where you beg for the crumbs coming from the creator’s brain about what else befell the characters during and after the on-screen action. If you ever wondering what became of Julia Butters’ pipsqueak Trudi, we find that she was nominated for best supporting actress playing Timothy Hutton’s girlfriend in “Ordinary People,” then went on to get a nod for best actress Oscar for her role in “Quentin Tarantino’s 1999 remake of the John Sayles script for the gangster epic ‘The Lady in Red.’” Apparently, in this alternate timeline, that project is the end result of the butterfly effect from the Manson family’s early decimation. (Also, alert Mark Harris: in this parallel universe, Mike Nichols did not take over “Day of the Dolphin.”)

What’s most subversive about “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” in both the screen and film versions, is how little regard Tarantino has in either for the old adage that drama is conflict. In the film, the Mansonites were obvious antagonists, but in an almost three-hour movie, that really came to a head in just two scenes, Spahn Ranch and the finale. With the latter scene effectively removed here, the novel is even more about quirky but likable people coming off amiably. Which shouldn’t work — even if you don’t wholly subscribe to old adages — but does, somehow, with the fairy dust Tarantino has somehow sprinkled over his late ’60s idyll. When the movie first came out in 2019, it was easy to assume from the trailer that the filmmaker would be satirizing or at least spoofing elements of the milieu, or the shows-within-a-show. That was largely down to us, and our conditioning to think that any older form of entertainment that has a quaintness or guileness to it must be good for a laugh, if only an affectionate one. But Tarantino didn’t want us to laugh at “Lancer,” or any of the other shows Rick appeared on; I’m not sure we were even supposed to giggle at his Red Apple cigarette ads. It’s a similar thing when Marvin Schwarz shows up to advise Rick, or the unfictional Sam Wanamaker comes in with a flamboyant attitude about how to make him into a groovy Western villain — you expect these characters to be amusing stereotypes, and it takes about half-a-scene to adjust to the idea that Tarantino just digs and wants to celebrate them.

It’s almost as if Bruce Lee is the only soul in the world he has a real beef with. (That’s another rabbit hole, but Tarantino does at least explain more of the root of his animus here — Lee had an established rep for injuring stuntmen, in his telling.) But maybe the most puzzling thing about the movie and, now, this companion piece is how no conflict ever develops between Rick and Cliff. Surely there’ll be some falling out, after years of a relationship in which there is a definite pecking order, and one eventually has to fire the other? Nope. Perhaps that’s a failure of imagination or drama on his part as a writer, or maybe its part of a bold experiment — now just a little bolder — in trusting that he can keep our attention, at length, in an atmosphere of almost unalloyed affection.

His refusal to resort to any real parody, or indulge any real villainy for very long, gives his version of the late ‘60s an almost hippie-ish level of idealized bliss… without the hippies, of course. So those porn comparisons may not fit after all. “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is all about true amour — a man’s mostly unstated love of his fellow man, and also, sure, a man’s love of “Mannix.”

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