Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Fight Club, and the Quest For Authenticity
An exploration of the struggles in constructing an authentic self
As with any of Quentin Tarantino’s films, his ninth is a fountain of hot-takes. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has something for everybody with an opinion about just about anything. The film has touched off conversations about #MeToo, nostalgia, Christianity, and foot fetishism. In short, I fully understand that the last thing anybody needs is yet another angle on this movie.
Nonetheless, I would like to propose that Tarantino’s latest is not only the sweetest, most optimistic film of his career, it’s also a rather profound exploration of the struggles in constructing an authentic self. By looking at this film’s use of doubling, and by contrasting it with how doubling functions in David Fincher’s Fight Club, I want to argue that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood offers unexpected wisdom about the possibility of finding authenticity in a world of artifice, even as it creates an artificial past.
The film is utterly unique in Tarantino’s catalog, lacking (until the ending) the gruesome violence that characterizes so many of his films. The specter of that violence still hangs over this film and adds a lot of juicy tension to scenes like Cliff’s visit to Spahn Ranch. One has come to expect carnage in scenes like this in the past, and Tarantino masterfully uses that expectation to create a scene that is a masterclass in suspense.
Once Upon a Time‘s directorial craftsmanship is joined by absolutely stellar performances across the board. Leonardo DiCaprio’s lead performance as Rick Dalton is a complex web of rage, vulnerability, and desperation and should earn the actor an Oscar nomination if there is any justice. Likewise, Margot Robbie is simply dazzling as Sharon Tate and, like the film itself, she makes the viewer long for a world in which Tate survived Charles Manson’s impotent rage.
It is Brad Pitt as Rick’s stunt-double, Cliff Booth, that I want to focus this analysis on, however. Pitt’s performance pairs nicely with DiCaprio’s and his characterization of Cliff is a kind of negative to DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton. For all Dalton’s frantic, nervous desperation, Pitt’s Cliff is a rock of bemused stoicism, and the two performances feed seamlessly off one another. So seamlessly that they function as two parts of a single whole, which is of primary concern to the film, I argue.
The doubling of Cliff and Rick offers substantial food for thought about the nature of identity in this film, and I want to suggest that Once Upon a Time says something important about personal redemption. Some viewers have dismissed Tarantino’s latest as mere wish-fulfillment, but others, such as David Bentley Hart, see a sincere moral imagination in the film’s re-imagination of the Manson tragedy, and its attempt at crafting an alternative narrative that redeems the broken past through art. Hart’s reading of the film seems right to me and I think that central to the film’s power is Rick Dalton’s process of reconciliation with himself. He struggles with being two people at once, the biological Rick Dalton, and the Hollywood creation “Rick Dalton.”
DiCaprio’s Dalton is an amalgam of an old-Hollywood system actor. He is part Clint Eastwood, part James Arness, and part John Wayne. He is meant to be taken as an archetype of an actor who is a product of a star-driven system. Whatever role Dalton was playing, he was, for his audience, “Rick Dalton,” and his strength was in delivering on the expectations that system created. The problem with that for Dalton is that he became a fictional version of himself in the process. His individual identity, as an artist and as a man, was lost, replaced with the product “Rick Dalton” that was crafted and sold by the entertainment industry. And as Hollywood began transitioning away from the system in which this was successful, Dalton experienced a profound identity crisis.
The forging of that artificial identity required the pairing of Rick with Cliff, his confidant, and stunt double. “Rick Dalton” could not very well be an action hero if he could not fall off a horse. However, to do so would eventually bear a heavy toll upon Rick Dalton. Cliff, the rugged stunt man, could bear the physical burdens that made the on-screen persona possible.
The resulting partnership was a two-sided coin for Dalton. Sure it made the creation of “Rick Dalton” possible, but it stunted the human development of Rick Dalton, and in the midst of epochal changes in the industry threatened his very existence. Cliff made Rick look powerful on-screen, but off-screen, Dalton’s life became similarly dependent upon Cliff, who could not fix his own TV antenna or even drive his own car. To create the heroic, powerful “Rick Dalton,” Rick Dalton became nothing but a spider-web of powerlessness and anxiety.
“Rick Dalton’s” power resided fully in Cliff’s preternaturally capable hands. He may or may not have killed his wife, but he is a master stuntman nonetheless, an expert driver, a skilled handyman, and he even beat Bruce Lee in a fight. This is all before his near single-handed massacre of the Manson family at the film’s climax. In short, the power he brings to the creation of “Rick Dalton” is dangerous, with a mystical violence lying just below the grinning, calm surface he presents. He is the id to Dalton’s superego and together, they form a precarious ego.
Here a comparison to Fight Club is in order.
David Fincher’s 1999 adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel also dealt with a character split into two halves. The crafted persona of “The Narrator” (Edward Norton) comes to depend on the unbridled violence of his other half, Tyler Durden (performed by, coincidently or not, our own Brad Pitt). Durden is the id to The Narrator’s out-of-control superego, and he frees the depressed white-collar worker from the constraints put on him by consumer society, supposedly connecting him back to his state as a “natural man.”
Like Rick Dalton, The Narrator lives a life curated for success in the machinery of his industry. The demands of this effort eventually replaces any authenticity his life might contain with a manicured performance. His is a kind of simulacrum rather than a man.
Here is precisely where Once Upon a Time in Hollywood diverges from Fight Club, however, and the change helps make Tarantino’s film far more optimistic than Fincher’s.
For Fight Club’s Narrator, Pitt’s Tyler Durden is a hammer used to destroy the carefully curated image. Trapped in a consumer nightmare existence, Norton’s character invents a psychic projection of himself that frees him from the shackles of his inauthentic lifestyle. What many viewers of the film miss, however, is that, despite the apparent ethical move toward authenticity, what this actually results in is a kind of fascist movement (today we might call the Fight Club an Alt-Right group) based on a mythology of the past. In short, The Narrator and Durden replace one form of inauthenticity with another.
Once Upon a Time inverts the relationship between Pitt and his double. Here, the free and violent Cliff is not the solution to Rick’s problem of inauthenticity, he helps facilitate it in the first place. (One other major difference is, of course, that here Pitt’s character literally exists and is not a psychic manifestation of The Narrator’s subconscious). When, at the film’s end, Rick and Cliff amicably part, both are given the new opportunity to exist without dependency upon the other in this optimistic fantasy world in which Old Hollywood and New Hollywood come together without the violent fracture of the Manson murders.
The difference is significant. Because Cliff is not leading Rick from one artificial life to another, Rick is free from his codependency upon his stunt man and free to create a whole version of himself.
And as it turns out, Rick is a good actor. In the film’s third act, while separated from Cliff, he blossoms in his craft. Hired by a director who breaks with practices of the system that created “Rick Dalton,” Rick is forced to act, not merely perform “Rick Dalton.” DiCaprio’s performance in these scenes are the moral centerpiece of the film and we see a transformation in Dalton. Freed of the constructed identity that created “Rick Dalton,” including his id, Cliff, he sheds the confines of the old system and metamorphoses into an actor that may one day star in Roman Polanski films of an imagined New Hollywood.
Election still wins by a landslide
Twenty years later, the black comedy Election is still a hysterical look at power grabs and the meaning of integrity. But while the film hasn’t changed, the story is completely different —and better than ever.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of the incisive satire Election. Based on a Tom Perotta novel, Election tells the story of a high-school civics teacher, Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), who plans to take down know-it-all student Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) as she vies for school council.
The film is still hilarious — a well-liked but sad-sack teacher tries to thwart an overachiever’s bid for school president by throwing a popular football hero into the race (and, accidentally, his disaffected sister). Thematically, it’s as relevant as ever. Integrity. Meritocracy. Nihilism. Hypocrisy. Ethics versus morals.
Watching Jim and Tracy’s battle of the wits many years ago, I recall Election posing the question not just of who would win, but who should win. The audience grappled with who to root for because Tracy and Jim’s misdeeds were presented on relatively equal footing. On paper, Jim’s deeds are far more dastardly than Tracy’s, but at the time, their personalities mattered more. Reviewers painted Jim as imperfect but well intentioned, while Tracy was obnoxious. Seductive. Even an “aggressive vixen” (cough cough Roger Ebert).
But a rewatch in 2019 reveals Tracy as more of a heroine than ever — and Jim McAllister a more pathetic and mean-spirited hypocrite than he seemed 20 years ago.
Part of what fuels Jim’s disdain for Tracy is a complicated plot point—his best friend and fellow teacher, Dave Novotny, was fired because he began sleeping with her. The film (and book) mostly portray Tracy as an equal, willing participant in this relationship, even a manipulative one at that. Tracy narrates her full consent, a point likely meant to assuage viewers and readers of the 90s, but today’s (hopefully) better understanding of power dynamics have us questioning not just the claims of Tracy’s manipulation, but her ability to consent.
A clearer understanding of a troublesome sexual relationship aside, it’s also easier to champion Tracy Flick thanks to shows like Parks and Recreation, a rare mainstream hit that humanizes ambitious women. The strong parallels between Election and Parks and Recreation are obvious. In true Leslie Knope fashion, Tracy’s mother writes letters to successful women like Connie Chung, soliciting advice for her daughter. And the race between Tracy Flick and Paul Metzler—played hysterically by forgotten teen dope of the 90s Chris Klein—closely mirrors Leslie Knope’s city council race against Bobby Newport. In every one of Paul Metzler’s ditzy and excited proclamations, it’s hard not to hear Paul Rudd’s portrayal of Pawnee’s fortunate son turned political candidate. (It’s also hard not to wonder if April Ludgate was partly based off Paul’s nihilistic sister, Tammy.)
More than anything, though, what changes how we see Tracy Flick in 2019 is how we see Jim McAllister in 2019.
Twenty years ago, Jim was far more convincing as a passionate educator. Sure, he was smug and made stupid decisions and treated people poorly. But his steadfast belief in morality (skewed as his version of it was) made him more sympathetic than he deserved to be.
Jim is truly despicable, though. His obsession with thwarting Tracy’s achievements reveals precisely who he is. He is every man who had a chance to achieve and fell short. He is every man who wasted his privilege and settled for something less than great. And he is every man who has ever resented a woman for rising to where he didn’t, despite his head start.
What Jim hates more than anything is feeling bested, particularly by women. After Linda Novotny, Dave’s ex-wife, comes clean about their affair to Jim’s wife Diane, his smothering declarations of love instantly turn dark.
“Why did you do that?” he screams into Linda’s answering machine. “You ruined my life, is that what you wanted?” Later, when Linda explains their tryst was a mistake and that he took advantage of her vulnerability, his anger turns into gaslighting.
“You hugged me! You kissed me!” he whines, as though Linda didn’t promptly reject his first hamfisted advance right after her marriage fell apart. (She did.)
Much as he lectures about it, Jim has a piss-poor understanding of morality. His treatment of Tracy shows how little he cares about a grown man taking advantage of a high-school student; his scolding judgments of Dave’s relationship with her seem performative and self-important. For all the lukewarm proclamations of affection for his wife, when his infidelity is revealed, he expresses nothing more beyond an expectation to be forgiven after a waiting period. And while he wields it often, he shows no understanding of the unfair power dynamic he briefly has with Linda, a vulnerable and confused woman who relied on him for support during a difficult time.
That’s why, when Jim describes seeing Tracy silently celebrating her victory in the hallway outside his classroom, he projects his anger and clings to his version of morality.
Defending his plan to throw the vote count in Paul’s favor, he says: “The sight of Tracy at that moment affected me in a way I can’t explain.”
But we can explain it, no problem. He is filled with pitiful male rage.
After all, underachieving Jim channels his need for validation through his relationship with women — an affair with Linda, “winning” against Tracy. But Tracy only channels hers into achievements. Extracurriculars. College applications. And winning the student council election she knows she deserves. She’s never concerned with “beating” Jim McAllister because she knows just how insignificant he will be in her life. And that infuriates and enrages him, like it does with countless other men when they’re outwitted by a woman.
While the film itself obviously hasn’t changed in 20 years, this dichotomy between Tracy and Jim used to be murkier. Tracy Flick is ambitious, cutthroat, smarter than her classmates and teachers, and shrill. That used to be all you had to say to get an audience to view a female character as at least partially unsympathetic, if not an automatic antagonist.
Back in 1999, Election relied on this assumption to paint Jim’s and Tracy’s wrongdoings in a similar light.The film’s trailer pieced together snippets of Tracy’s most stick-in-the-mud soundbites and pitched the movie as the story of an “ego the size of the Grand Canyon.” And it still is, but now we’re finally asking the right question.
Whose ego is that?
Election was originally released in April of 1999.
Film Review: It Chapter Two
The sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans
The final installment in the It saga is a clever, scary, probably-too-long allegory about the power of friendship — complete with a 20-foot clown spider. Sure, it’s probably a half-hour longer than it really needs to be — but It Chapter Two is still a fantastic film that hits the sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans.
It’s a story about friendship, and just like the first film, it’s those relationships that make this story so compelling and keep it woven together in a way that you really care about what’s happening to all the folks Pennywise has been menacing across these two films. Sure, Bill Skarsgård’s absolutely terrifying performance as Pennywise is what puts butts in the seats, but at its heart, this is a story about the power of friendship to win out over pretty much anything. If we work together, we can overcome fear, loneliness, doubt, depression — and yeah — even a supernaturally godlike killer clown. Thankfully, all the blood keeps that message from getting too sappy along the way.
The first It in 2017 was a surprise, monster hit — but for good reason. The Stephen King adaptation by director Andy Muschietti is pretty much a horror masterpiece wrapped in a compelling coming of age story. Think Goonies meets a face-eating monster flick with jump scares galore to keep the blood pumping. But, despite a decently-closed ending to the first chapter, the story was always conceived as a two-part film run, which is pretty much the only way one could hope to possibly wrap up King’s massive tome (the studio actually briefly considered splitting Chapter Two into two films, because there’s just so much material).
It Chapter Two makes a wise decision to keep the stellar younger cast from the first film involved via ample flashbacks, while still providing space for the adult Losers to live and breathe (and, ahem, die) while bridging the gap between who they were and who they all grew up to be. It also embraces the inherent silliness and insanity of its premise to laugh, now seen through the lens of middle-aged adults as opposed to middle school minds. It’s a hard tone to hit, and it arguably might come off with more laughs than scares, but it’s true to the inherent madness of Pennywise.
The adult cast is also a home run by and large. James McAvoy makes for a capable adult Bill; Jessica Chastain is the embodiment of adult Bev; James Ransome nails grown-up Eddie; and Isaiah Mustafa does a capable job providing the necessary info-dumps as adult Mike. But the real breakout is Saturday Night Live alum Bill Hader as grown-up Richie. There’s scattered buzz that Hader could be worthy of an Oscar nomination for his performance, and he deserves every bit of it. We knew Hader had comedy chops, and he uses them plenty to keep this dark tale from getting too dark, but he really taps into the emotion of what it’d be like to go through something so traumatizing. And the moments that break Richie will almost certainly break you, too.
As for the changes to King’s original novel, sure, they’ll certainly be noticeable for fans. That said, the book itself — especially the ending — is absolutely wild and arguably impossible to adapt in a way that could work on the screen. The ending on-screen largely stays true to King’s themes built into the novel, and for the story that’s been told across these two films, it really does work. Hell, even King himself shows up in a cameo to make a joke about just how hard it can be to get an ending right.
Thankfully, despite a few bumps, It Chapter Two pretty much nails the landing. In a world filled more and more with King adaptations, this two-film run will stand as one of the best.
It Chapter Two is in cinemas now
IT CHAPTER TWO
Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Written by: Gary Dauberman
Cast: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Bill Skarsgård
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Run time: 169 minutes