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Remembering Old Hollywood: Memory in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)

Remembering Old Hollywood: Memory in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019)

Returning to Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a divisive love letter to Old Hollywood, Grace LaNasa unpacks the nostalgia and fondness the director imbues in his film through the reimaging of reality and a glamorisation of the past.

The days of Old Hollywood have become a popular retrospective theme in modern cinema. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Quentin Tarantino, 2019) is a love letter to the Old Hollywood movie sets and actors. It’s an indulgence piece, encapsulating the feel and look of the glory days of Hollywood and the beginning of modernization in cinema. The film functions as a memory of star power and 1960s Los Angeles. However, this film interacts with memory more complexly, as it’s additionally a reimagination of Hollywood. The film creates an intersection of history and fiction, including real people but reimagining certain aspects of history to create a fictionalized glamorization. Once Upon a Time is about the moments before an era comes to an end and indulges in not only the recollections of that era but the memories of its individuals and their inability to adjust to the inevitable change that accompanies the passing of time.

The Memory of Hollywood 

The film starts with a black and white trailer of the fictionalized Western show Bounty Law, in which  Rick Dalton (Leonardo Dicaprio) stars in during the 1950s. In setting this sequence on a classic old television lot and in black and white, the film immediately evokes memories of the early days of cinema and Old Hollywood.  Establishing the Old Hollywood setting as the opening scene, the film continues into color, with “Treat Her Right” by Roy Head and the Traits playing over the next sequence as Dalton and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) drive off from the studio and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) arrive in the airport in LA and cruise through town on their way home. The mood created through this opening scene transitions the film into a new decade while eliciting the feel of the 1960s with the rock and roll non-diegetic sound, the bright colors captured in the cinematography, and the use of old classic cars. The film uses cinematography and high-contrast color to emulate the 1960s and romanticize this period. This colorful film illustrates the glamor of the Hollywood dream in its  first few minutes. The film emphasizes the end of the Old Hollywood era, as the first half centers around the nostalgia for silent films and their finished era. The film then continues to close the hippie era as the film jumps into—and takes place—largely during 1969. Memory and romanticization of both of these eras are the focal points of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

The role of cars and driving sequences in this film is not to be understated. The use of tracking shots of Los Angeles and the classic cars utilized is one of the main ways that Tarantino engages with memory throughout the film. The cars function as a symbol of star power in Hollywood, with Dalton’s 1966 Cadillac Coupe DeVille, Polanski’s 1950 MG TD, and Tate’s 1969 Porsche 911 all being representations of their fame and wealth from the movie business. These cars are contrasted with Booth’s 1964 Karmann Ghia Cabriolet and the Manson clan’s 1959 Ford Galaxie, which are both beaten up and symbolize their lower class status, as these characters are not celebrities of the time. The cars offer the audience a divided experience of the period as we see the difference in experience between star power and hippie culture in the 60s. It is through the driving sequences in this film that the audience is able to experience old Los Angeles, the bright colored signs and old cars, oftentimes experienced through the eyes of Booth. One of the most compelling driving sequences begins with Booth driving Dalton’s car throughout LA, passing old film studios and large film posters that transitions into Tate driving through downtown, passing the bright lights of the cinemas as a cover of “California Dreaming” by José Feliciano plays over the sequence. This scene glamourizes old Los Angeles and its film culture, and in addition, primes the audience with the music to be enamored with Los Angeles, as the lyrics of “California Dreaming” glorifies the singer’s memory and longing for California. This scene leaves the audience with a fabled idealized version of Los Angeles and encapsulates Tarantino’s love for his memories of Old Hollywood. 

Tarantino’s Memory

Tarantino has stated in several interviews that Once Upon a Time is an indulgence piece, his love letter to his childhood in Los Angeles. Tarantino’s childhood memories are included in small details throughout the film. In one scene, Booth makes Kraft macaroni and cheese, a meal from Tarantino’s childhood. Additionally, many of the driving scenes of Booth are often shot from the passenger seat, emulating Tarantino’s memories of looking up at his father as they drove through the streets of Los Angeles. The car scenes also include the radio station KHJ Los Angeles with radio voice Don Steele, one of the most popular radio DJs of the 60s, and a voice Tarantino grew up listening to. Injecting his own personal memories of Hollywood in the 1960s in this film simultaneously sentimentalizes the historic Old Hollywood and the Hollywood that Tarantino grew up loving. 

Reimagination of History

The film additionally engages with memory through the re-imagination of the life of Sharon Tate, the American actress and model. Tate was famously murdered by Charles Manson and his cult in 1969. Both of them are included in the film; however, Tate’s fate is reimagined. Tarantino likely assumed that when the audience is introduced to Tate, most will recall her unfair death, but the reimagination brings an extra fairytale-like quality to this film (bar the gruesome deaths of the Manson clan depicted in the closing sequence). Instead of Tate being murdered by the cult, the hippie group is murdered by Booth and Dalton as they go into the wrong home instead of approaching the Polanski residence. Tate is saved from her cruel fate and invites Dalton over for drinks in her home. This reimagination leaves the story with a much happier ending than the reality of history and allows the film to finish its eulogy of Old Hollywood. This reimagination subverts reality, as we are presented with Hollywood not as history recalls it but as Tarantino’s own image.

Films such as La La Land (Damien Chazelle, 2016), Hail, Caesar! (Coen Brothers, 2016) and Babylon (Damien Chazelle, 2022) are other recent glamourizations of the film industry and Old Hollywood. The memories of this time are thus not only able to be experienced through the rewatching of films of the era, but more and more, we are now able to interact with filmmakers’ own memories and idealizations of this period. The nostalgia for the films of Old Hollywood is driven by memory. Through remembering the early days of film, we are able to truly appreciate how far cinema has progressed and how impressive the art form can be with minimal technology. Memory serves as a valuable tool in cinema now, as it is able to draw together different time periods in film.

by Grace LaNasa



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