Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2021) – Quentin Tarantino

Man am I divided on this one. I love that Tarantino has given us his first novel, and allows it to expand on his film of the same name. It has a pulpy style to it that fits perfectly with the era, and the aesthetic of the film story he told. It also lists movie after movie that will have some cinephiles expanding their viewing piles, while some of us will be nodding our heads in agreement or disagreement as his characters pontificate on the movies they’ve seen.

Tarantino’s dialogue has always been great, if occasionally crude, homophobic, and racist (which is reflective of the time but is still tough to deal with) and I love the story of actor Rick Dalton, his stuntman Cliff Booth, and their brush with the Manson family and the fate of Sharon Tate, and by extension Roman Polanski.

Tarantino gives us a fairy tale in which the pregnant Tate wasn’t murdered, which hints that things may have played out differently for a number of people (ficitonal and non), which is cool, intriguing and ties in with the alternate reality he portrayed in Inglourious Basterds.

But he also sexualises a fifteen year old girl, an amalgam of actual Manson ‘Family’ members and no one in the story really seems to have a problem with that. And that ends up being really off-putting.

Every time I would sink into enjoying the novel, and its branching off from the film and discussions on various films, I would get a reminder about this character, Debra Jo by name, and the fixation that the male figures have for her. Yes, this character is in the movie, but things don’t happen to the extent that they do in the book.

Was it done to shock? Done to challenge societal taboos? I don’t know. I just know that anytime her character showed up in the story, I would question whether or not I would want to finish the book. Sure, the novel and film are set in the 60s, and ‘free love’ is a thing, but she’s a fifteen year old girl. Is she really capable of making sound decisions about sex at that point?

Or again, is that the point?

Perhaps.

But that doesn’t affect the males around her from sexualising her.

The rest of the book is so good, the deeper history on Dalton, his show Bounty Law, Cliff’s dog Brandy, the murder of his wife, the travelling to Italy to take part in Spaghetti Westerns, a multitude of scenes that didn’t make the cut (the majority of which are fantastic!) – and of course the confrontation with the ‘Family.’ But through it all, Debra Jo would be lurking just off-stage, and would leave me wondering why people would think this was okay.

I sincerely hope Tarantino writes more novels, I enjoy the style, I love the films that are mentioned, or at least love that they are mentioned and I will look forward to reading them, but perhaps with more trepidation now.

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