“Hey,” stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) shouts to his best friend and collaborator. “You’re Rick F***ing Dalton, and don’t you forget it.”
More than a mere pep talk, Cliff’s order highlights one of the central themes of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. His movie career stalled and his television heyday behind him, Rick Dalton (Leonardo Dicaprio) is a washed-up actor in a state of confusion, unsure of who he is. Writer-director Quentin Tarantino frames Dalton’s redemption story as a celebration of cinema’s imaginative power—its ability to show us things (about others, about ourselves) we otherwise can’t see.
Steeped in the mythology of late 1960s Hollywood, Once Upon a Time contrasts Dalton’s descent with the rise of real-life actor Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). Although Tate starred in films such as Valley of the Dolls, she’s more widely known as the murdered wife of director Roman Polanski, who was killed in her Hollywood home in 1969 by followers of Charles Manson. But as portrayed by Robbie, the Sharon Tate of Once Upon Time is vibrant and vivacious. We share in Tate’s joy when she drops by a theater to watch herself in the Dean Martin vehicle The Wrecking Crew. She smiles with pride at her performance, and her happiness multiplies as the crowd reacts to her scenes, exploding with laughter at her pratfalls.
In one of the many bits that blend fiction with fact, Tarantino intercuts footage of the real Sharon Tate fighting on screen with that of Robbie, as Tate, rehearsing the fight with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). We also see Robbie’s Tate playfully karate-chopping in her theater seat. In that moment, seeing the joy she brings to others, Tate knows herself and knows her gifts.
The preceding scene finds Dalton experiencing the opposite. After flubbing lines in his latest ignoble TV guest appearance, Dalton storms back to his trailer to berate himself. The camera stares as Dalton stomps and kicks; quick cuts intensify his violent mood swings. Finally, Dalton looks at himself in the mirror and threatens the man he sees. “You’re going to show all of them who Rick Dalton is,” he rages. “Or your brains are going to be all over this mirror.”
This juxtaposition reminds us that few things can be more important than the way we see ourselves. Haunted by images of his former glory, whether they be the clips of past roles or the old movie posters that litter his house, Dalton can only see himself as a failure. But when moviegoers join Tate in laughing along with her performance, she recognizes the power of her talent.
Cinema can show us things (about others, about ourselves) we otherwise can’t see.
The great critic Roger Ebert famously compared movies to “a machine that generates empathy.” Once Upon a Time illustrates how movies can build empathy for ourselves, helping us see how we’re seen by others—and by God. In the Bible, this occurs when David sings, “I will praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” We see it when Christ describes God’s love for each individual in the Parable of the Lost Sheep and when Paul declares that “we are God’s handiwork.” Scripture insists that we each matter so much to the Creator that we have all been endowed with gifts to reflect his glory.
Theologians call this endowment imago dei, the conviction that each person is made in the image of God. In his book The Day the Revolution Began, N. T. Wright links imago dei to the vocation God instills in every person, the “genuinely human tasks to perform as part of the Creator’s purpose for his world.” The “main task of this vocation is ‘image-bearing,’” Wright claims, “reflecting the Creator’s wise stewardship into the world and reflecting the praises of all creation back to its maker.”
At some point, we all lose sight of this vocation and who we are created to be. Unquestionably, movies can sometimes aid in this forgetting. Even Once Upon a Time asks the audience to laugh at comic brutality in a way that fails to honor our imago dei. After two hours of relative restraint and exercises in empathy, the movie’s finale explodes with violence that's both vivid and absurd, making its heretofore hapless protagonists into heroes who inflict horrific pain on those deemed worthy of suffering.
But at its most lyrical, Once Upon a Time revels in humanity at its best. Before joining the audience of The Wrecking Crew, Tate must first convince the theater’s box-office attendants that she is who she says she is. Rather than resent the interrogation, Tate happily runs through her credits. When the manager finally accepts Tate as Tate, he asks for her picture, telling her to stand next to the poster “so people will know who you are.” Tate strikes an exaggerated pose, her excitement radiating to and from her new fans.
The movie finds a similar moment of grace for Dalton shortly after he berates himself in his trailer. An earlier scene introduced us to Trudi (Julia Butters), a child method actor whose studiousness initially seems to underscore Dalton’s pathetic demise. But when the two perform a later scene together, Trudi not only goes along with Dalton’s improvisations, but she also praises his emotional, “Shakespearean” performance. “That’s the best acting I’ve ever seen in my life,” she tells him, with such earnestness that he ignores the fact that she’s only eight. With tears of pride replacing tears of shame, Rick relishes in the compliment and recalls Cliff’s words. “Rick F***ing Dalton,” he tells himself. And because he sees what Trudi and his co-stars saw, he finally believes it.
There’s a fantasy element to these scenes, as there is to every powerful moment in Once Upon A Time, pulling the movie further away from the world as we know it. But the greater the disparity, the more the movie makes us long to become the people we were meant to be, fully realizing cinema’s sacred imagination.
Think Christian Podcast: Redemption? (Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood, Aziz Ansari's Right Now)