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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: a pop culture guide


Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is steeped in a love of pop culture. But that's what we've come to expect from writer-director Quentin Tarantino.

The controversial film-maker has long incorporated a love of such things, going right the way back to his 1992 break-out hit Reservoir Dogs. His ninth movie is a crafty mixture of fact and fiction, set in 1969 in a romanticised version of Los Angeles that's on the cusp of great societal change.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Rick Dalton, a struggling TV actor who may have missed his chance to break into movies. As he threatens to sink into obscurity, the fate of his long-term stunt-double and friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) can't help but head the same way.

The difference is, Booth displays a calm and zen attitude towards the changing political and cultural landscape (despite being dogged by rumours that he murdered his wife). By contrast, the insecure and alcohol-fuelled Dalton despairs of the rise in hippy culture and the lack of opportunities coming his way.

Whereas these two characters are made up, during the course of Tarantino's movie they intersect with a host of elements and people drawn from reality, namely Dalton's next-door neighbour Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).

Struggling to unpick the multitude of real-life pop culture references in Tarantino's latest epic? If you've already seen the movie and need to retrospectively fill in the blanks, we're here to help...


1. Lancer

We begin the film with Dalton and Booth in production on fictional Western TV show Bounty Law. It's Dalton's presence on this series that brings him into contact with garrulous agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino), who eventually books him onto the pilot episode of new Western show, Lancer.

But did you know that Lancer was in fact a real series? The programme ran from 1968 to 1970, and one of the featured stars was Wayne Maunder, portrayed in Tarantino's movie by Timothy Olyphant. (He reminds Dalton about his failed bid to star in The Great Escape, one of the film's funniest moments.)

With typical obsessiveness, Tarantino luxuriantly recreates the look and feel of this cult cowboy favourite, which explores the fate of the Lancer family. Dalton's inability to remember his lines when playing the villain opposite Maunder is one of Hollywood's most entertaining moments.

2. The F.B.I.

Later on in the movie, Dalton and Booth are kicking back with drinks, about to welcome the former's guest appearance on TV show The F.B.I. While this might look like another fictional Tarantino creation, it's yet another real-life series dredged from the director's encyclopaedic brain. 

Created by Quinn Martin and Philip Saltzman, The F.B.I. premiered in 1965 and ran until 1974, and details the exploits of government agents as they defend civil liberties against deadly threats. Real-life F.B.I. chief J. Edgar Hoover served as consultant on the show until his death in 1972.

The show is of course the catalyst for Dalton's big break: an enthusiastic Schwarz is so delighted with his shotgun-toting, bad guy-blasting appearance that he gets him cast in a series of Spaghetti Westerns to be shot in Italy.

The audacious approach of using a real-life TV series to further our understanding of a fictional character is pure Tarantino.

3. Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski

The most significant real-life presence in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Sharon Tate. In 1969, she was an aspiring actress poised to hit the big time – this is teased in Tarantino's movie when she tells a sceptical ticket usher that she starred in Valley of the Dolls.

Later, Tate sneaks into the same cinema that's showing her film The Wrecking Crew, where she takes great delight in the audience's reaction around her – the incident may be fictional (at least we assume it is), but Tate and the movie itself (in which she starred with Dean Martin) are very real.

Tate's presence in the movie is Tarantino's clearest intersection point between reality and fantasy. She is Dalton's next-door neighbour, and he desires an invite to one of her pool parties in order to get his name out there among Hollywood's elite.

Tarantino reworks Tate's eventual and tragic death: in reality, the pregnant actress and her friends were savagely murdered at her Cielo Drive home by the followers of psychopath Charles Manson. At the time, Tate's partner, film director Roman Polanski (later famed for the likes of Chinatown), was away shooting a film in Europe.

In the movie, Tarantino upends things by having Dalton, Booth and Booth's dog Brandy savagely dispatch those who killed Sharon in real life. At the end of the movie, Dalton gets what he wants in the form of an invite to Tate's house, the ultimate wish-fulfilment irony.

Whether one already knows the actual history, or finds out for themselves afterwards, the knowledge of how things really went down on that night in 1969 tempers Tarantino's violent onslaught with a potent sense of melancholy.

4. Charles Manson

One of the most infamous psychopaths in history, Charles Manson's exploits caused the hippy flower power movement to curdle, and are credited with instilling a sense of nationwide disillusion at the end of the 1960s.

He's portrayed (very briefly) by Damon Herriman in Tarantino's movie, when he comes skulking up Cielo Drive to scope out Tate's house. He's spotted by Booth, who's on the roof of Dalton's house fixing his TV aerial, and one suspects Pitt's no-nonsense character gets the measure of him immediately.

Somewhat surprisingly, Manson is nowhere else to be seen in the movie – perhaps Tarantino was squeamish about giving him a profile he frankly doesn't deserve? A simpler explanation is running time – Herriman has himself said that Tarantino cut a great many Manson scenes and more from the movie.

5. The Spahn ranch

The film's tensest sequence occurs when Booth drives young hippy Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) to the Spahn Ranch. It's here that he discovers the hotbed of Charles Manson's followers, including the menacing likes of Lynette 'Squeaky' Froome (Dakota Fanning), who is keeping blind owner George Spahn (Bruce Dern) hostage.

All of this is based in fact: the Spahn Ranch was a deserted movie lot where Manson and his followers did indeed set up shop and plan their horrendous deeds. Into this real-life depiction Tarantino cleverly drops fictional construct Booth, whose interactions with the likes of Froome and Catherine 'Gypsy' Share (Lena Dunham), crackle with tension.

Even more audaciously, Tarantino stages the arrival of notorious Manson member Charles 'Tex' Watson (Austin Butler) as a moment that riffs on Spaghetti Western iconography. Having been alerted to Booth's presence, Watson rides into action on a horse in a sweeping aerial shot that could have come from the films of Sergio Leone.

However, Booth has already left, having punched out Mansonite Steve 'Clem' Grogan, played by James Landy Hebert. Watson will eventually join fellow Manson 'disciples' Susan 'Sadie' Atkins (Mikey Madison) and Patricia 'Katie' Krewinkel (Madisen Beaty) during the grisly final confrontation with Booth at Dalton's house.

6. Bruce Lee and The Green Hornet

It goes without saying that Bruce Lee is one of the icons of martial arts. Hence why his appearance in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has proved so controversial. Lee's appearance, in which he's humiliated by Cliff Booth, is in the eyes of many fans an insult to the star of Enter the Dragon, the man who arguably brought martial arts cinema to Hollywood's attention.

It's of course worth noting that the sequence, which is very funny, is filtered entirely though Booth's point-of-view (it's signalled by a close-up shot on Booth as he fixes Dalton's TV aerial). Hence it's perhaps intended as a less-than-reliable account of what went down – certainly, many have spoken out against the depiction of Lee as an arrogant, showboating oaf, who gets thrown into the side of a car.

Even so, there's no denying it's a controversial take on a real-life icon. While debate rages on, eagle-eyed viewers will have spotted the background detail: Booth and Lee scrap on the set of cult TV series The Green Hornet, in which Lee starred as martial artist Kato. Based on the popular comic strip, the show ran from 1966 to 1967.

7. Sergio Corbucci

If you're up on your Spaghetti Western movies, no doubt you'll get a chuckle out of the fictional Rick Dalton's ignorance towards the genre. At the start of Tarantino's movie, Dalton is offered an opportunity to reinvent himself in Italy, which in 1969 was the home of the burgeoning Spaghetti Western (exemplified by the likes of Sergio Leone's Dollars Trilogy).

Dalton, however, is disparaging, claiming he doesn't understand their appeal (the irony being he's mired in static American TV Westerns that aren't allowing him to grow as an artist). Later on, he dismisses the name Sergio Corbucci, who is now widely regarded as one of the masters of the genre (1968's The Great Silence being one, which acted as a profound influence on Tarantino's very own The Hateful Eight).

8. Antonio Margheriti

Of course, Dalton eventually capitulates, travelling to Italy at Schwarz's behest and making a name for himself in Europe, where he also meets and marries his wife. Amidst a rapid-fire montage of posters, narrator Randy (Kurt Russell) presents us with the name Antonio Margheriti, which on one level is an in-joke referring to Eli Roth's alter-ego in Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds.

Margheriti was, however, a real-life Italian film director, known for specialising in a host of genres including Westerns, sci-fi and horrors. 

9. Sam Wanamaker

The Sound of Music actor Nicholas Hammond cuts a flamboyant figure as Sam Wanamaker, the director of the Lancer pilot episode. This in fact happened for real – Wanamaker was a renowned actor and director with an extensive array of credits to his name. Not only did he helm aforementioned Lancer episode 'The High Riders', he had earlier appeared in the likes of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1965).

Blacklisted during the notorious 1950s American Communist witch-hunt, Wanamaker moved to England where he built a reputation as the man who saved The Rose Theatre. This in turn precipitated the modern recreation of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre. He is therefore commemorated on-site with the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse.

10. Steve McQueen

Surely you don't need an introduction to Steve McQueen? As far as icons go, he's among the most iconic, the star of The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, Bullitt, The Thomas Crown Affair and Papillon.

McQueen's enigmatic, gruffly charismatic screen persona and chiselled features meant he was one of Hollywood's biggest stars throughout the 1960s, and he's portrayed in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood by Billions actor Damian Lewis.

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