Trapped in Quentin Tarantino’s Memory Palace

If you want to know what the 1960s looked like to a six year old, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood, the book, is for you.

Quentin Tarantino’s retro novelization of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, packaged as an old drugstore-rack paperback, is subtitled Hollywood 1969… You Shoulda Been There! It’s a sort of almanac written by someone who celebrated his sixth birthday that year.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
by Quentin Tarantino
HarperCollins, 416 pp.

Much of what the book relates really happened. Sharon Tate was married to Roman Polanski. KHJ was called Boss Radio and did play the Monkees and Paul Revere and the Raiders, along with less-remembered groups like 1910 Fruitgum Company (“Simon Says”). Spaghetti westerns were still considered career suicide for cowboy actors. Mannix was in the second year of its eight-year run.

Once Upon A Time in Hollywood reads as though young Quentin is standing on a Danish coffee table at his parents’ cocktail party, prompted by Uncle Sal to recite everything he knows about 1969. And when I say “everything,” I mean that in the first chapter, Tarantino drops 110 names of actors, movies, television shows, and cigarettes, including Ralph Meeker, Michael Callan, and Gardner McKay; The Chapman Report; The Virginian; and Virginia Slims. I hope the grown-ups were suitably impressed, or at least drunk.

I mostly enjoyed the movie of the same name, although I found myself truly present only during the Cielo Drive scenes, and not just because Brad Pitt was shirtless. I live two blocks north of there in Benedict Canyon, and I was hoping to see my house. I didn’t.

Tarantino’s novel isn’t bogged down by petty encumbrances like plot or character, freeing him to a devote a large part of one chapter to Alan Ladd’s career, including what may be the most inside-Hollywood-baseball sentence I’ve ever read: “William Bendix, Robert Preston, Brian Donlevy, or Ernest Borgnine, they all seemed like hambone actors compared to him.” The book’s second chapter is an exegesis on Swedish politics, and Generalissimo Franco’s impact on it, as portrayed in 1967’s erotic (not in this novel) groundbreaker, I Am Curious (Yellow). The Brad Pitt character, a stuntman named Cliff, gets to list his five favorite Kurosawa movies (number one is a tie between Seven Samurai and Ikiru), and we get the full back story on Cliff’s dog.

What passes for the book’s (and film’s) central narrative is that Rick, a washed-up TV cowboy drowning his sorrows in booze, tries to salvage what’s left of his career with the help of Cliff, his one-time stunt-double, now demoted to loyal friend. Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski live next door, and Sharon hates being in her husband’s convertible because “my hair!”

Charles Manson and Squeaky Fromme make appearances without adding a single shred of tension. Charlie’s musical career does get a lot of attention, but after Doris Day’s son Terry Melcher rents his house out to Polanski and Tate, neglecting to leave a forwarding address, Manson fades from view.

Squeaky’s goal is to be the only female member of the Manson Family who gets to live inside the house, and—spoiler alert—she succeeds. Where Squeaky didn’t succeed in real life was in her subsequent attempt to assassinate President Gerald Ford in 1975.

The Manson “family” had much better luck with Sharon Tate and friends. But not in this book. Those waiting for the film’s big counterfactual climax, in which Rick gets off his pool float and charbroils the Manson family with a flamethrower, may be disappointed to find Tarantino demotes that exciting scene to a throwaway memory about 100 pages in. In this new version, the home invaders are just a couple of unnamed hippies. Rick’s wasting them elevates him into the darling of the law-and-order Nixon Right.

I’d hoped that the book’s second half would deliver a wholly new, maybe even absurdly violent, twist. Alas, it’s devoted to the first time Rick is cast as the bad guy, in Lancer, an actual TV western. Rick is sorely put out when he’s forced to wear a long, dark “hippie” wig and glue on a droopy Pancho Villa mustache. He gets talked off the ledge, but not by his two-dimensional agent, or his best friend Cliff, or the TV show’s star, Jim Stacy.

No, Rick’s enlightenment comes from his scene partner, an eight-year-old girl, who becomes his de facto acting coach, his life coach, and, in a particularly creepy turn, his stalker, hellbent on moving in with him. Then—out of nowhere, like a seventh grader who’s finally hit the 250-word mark on his book report—Tarantino ends his novel.

Tarantino the film director is so adept at rewriting tragic history to give it a happier ending (Sharon Tate lives; a brave and beautiful Jewish woman vanquishes the Nazis; a Black man sort-of defeats slavery) that I wondered whether he brought up James Stacy to rewrite Stacy’s life. In 1973, this rugged TV star lost an arm and a leg in a horrific motorcycle accident. Although the Jim Stacy in the book rides a motorcycle, it and he remain upright.

No doubt there are myriad political, cultural, and social reasons why Tarantino so reveres 1969. It sure as hell wasn’t Woodstock. He probably misses the time when everyone smoked, drank beer steins of whiskey sours, and could be as casually misogynous as they pleased—all pleasures he was probably too young to experience at the time.

World War II was still recent enough that men could be unambiguous war heroes.

Movies were made by men, for men, to take their dim dates to, which led to a lot of mansplaining.

In an early testosterone-rich passage, Rick schools his agent: “Bill Witney didn’t just direct action, he invented action. You said you like westerns—you know the whole Yakima Canutt action gag where he jumps from horse to horse, then falls and goes under the hooves, in John Ford’s fuckin’ Stagecoach?”

Marvin nods his head yes.

“William fuckin’ Witney did it fuckin’ first and did it one year before John Ford, with Yakima Canutt.”

Women were valued for how short their skirts were, how freely they offered their “pussies,” a word the author bandies about with almost Tourette’s-like frequency, and how little they have to offer this story.

I guess this is powerful stuff when Tarantino looks back on kindergarten. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, the novel, suggests he never grew up.

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Janis Hirsch

Janis Hirsch is a veteran comedy and sitcom writer. Most recently, she was a consulting producer on HBO Max’s Hacks, where she rendered services as The Old Lady Whisperer.