During his opening monologue at the Golden Globes last month, Ricky Gervais announced, “It was a big year for pedophile movies — ‘Surviving R. Kelly.’ ‘Leaving Neverland.’ (pause) ‘The Two Popes.'” The audience erupted in laughter but I felt sick to my stomach. What about “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” a film that went on to win three of the top awards that night, including Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy?
Quentin Tarantino’s new movie includes Timothy Olyphant in a supporting role as James Stacy, an actor on the real-life Western TV show “Lancer” (starring Leonardo DiCaprio’s fictional Rick Dalton in the film) who was a serial pedophile. Stacy, who is my great uncle, in 1995 pleaded no contest to molesting an 11-year-old girl and served six years in prison. Although he had a charming role in Tarantino’s latest film, Stacy has long been the villain in my family’s “Once Upon a Time.”
Stacy was promoted as the next James Dean whose career ended after he tragically lost an arm and a leg in a motorcycle accident (Tarantino references this in the film). E’s “True Hollywood Story” did a profile of the whole “tragedy,” but those who really knew Stacy sensed something closer to karma. He preyed on numerous young girls and sexually violated them; his victims include members of my family and their friends.
As a film studies professor, I am in awe of Tarantino’s use of film language; every image, every word, every color and angle, you feel his purpose and intention. Why had he included my great uncle in this film? What did he want to symbolically use this man for? I was in no way prepared for Tarantino’s endearing representation of Stacy in a movie that also normalizes the sexual desire for teenage girls.
Stacy is just one of at least three real-life men in the film known to have sexually abused young women and children, including Roman Polanski and Charles Manson. The film never mentions any of these men within the context of their historical crimes or calls alarm to sexual desire of minors. Quite the opposite: We are primed to accept and replicate their behavior.
Through the film language Tarantino chose, he forces the audience to visually desire teenage bodies while his plot and dialogue lead us to villainize and blame the girls themselves for their unhealthy proximity to older men. They are Lolitas tempting men to cross the line. The relationship between Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) and teenage Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) is most prominent, but we are also introduced to a child actor (Julia Butters) who’s thrown to the ground by DiCaprio’s Dalton and then lovingly climbs into his lap. And we meet various young Manson girls who frolic across the screen with their bouncing boobs and plump pregnant bellies.
As Cliff Booth drives around Burbank, Tarantino uses camera shots that have the audience take on Cliff’s point of view while he gazes at a row of young women (including Pussycat) mesmerizingly prancing across the street like they are in a lineup at a brothel. Later, Tarantino shows Pussycat sitting at a bus stop, and again we are thrown into Cliff’s head as his gaze pauses on her in a macramé crop top and short shorts with her legs sprawled open. Tarantino has her confidently strut over to the car, and, instead of experiencing their conversation from mutual point-of-view shots, we watch from behind her as she leans into the car. This places her sensuous bare back and ass spilling out of her cutoff shorts in the center of the frame; we are no longer in Cliff’s head, but our gaze is forced to visually devour her body. Tarantino also centralizes a shot of Pussycat’s bare feet on the dash of Cliff’s car; as the lens lingers here he is having us consume her through his own notorious kink: his foot fetish.
After we are conditioned to lust over young female bodies through the male gaze, Tarantino’s plot and dialogue places these young women as the active pursuants and abusers, taking advantage of much older men like Bruce Dern’s George Spahn. And again I found myself asking, “Why?” What does this add to our journey through “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” beyond the harmful narrative that young women are to blame for their own abuse? Isn’t this the opposite of what Hollywood’s #MeToo movement is about?
What’s the psychological impact of a film filled with hidden historical pedophiles and sexual abusers, that parades young flesh across the screen for our consumption, dares us to imagine how gratifying it would be to f— a teenage girl, makes them the Lolitas egging us on — but never mentions the possibility of abuse or acknowledges known abusers?
Maybe Tarantino’s point was to force us to have a conversation about the hidden underbelly of sex abuse in Hollywood’s history and spotlight how movies themselves are responsible — but the threads are not clear, and, as the press tour and award season have dragged on, we are clearly not having that conversation. Perhaps Tarantino gave his opinion on the matter when he notoriously said of Harvey Weinstein’s horrific behavior, “We allowed it to exist because that’s the way it was.”
Here we are in the midst of the #MeToo movement, the “Great Awakening” to the saga of sex abuse, but a movie like “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” shoves bad behavior in our face and the industry doesn’t even bat an eye. What good does it do to take down individual men and continue with bias training if we can’t even see the systemic causes when they are under our noses? The film’s award season campaign declares, “Because You Love Movies.” For those of us intimately aware of predators, this film does not bring out our love of movies, but rather reminds us of their ability to normalize contemptible behavior like the sexualization of young girls.