Tarantino’s transition from auteur to author, with the novelisation of his hit film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (OUATIH), is unputdownable. It is perfectly suited to the filmmaker’s tendency to meditate on the minutiae of films and filmmaking. Tarantino cranks up the pace and draws his readers into the lovingly detailed inner lives of his characters. There is Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), the actor whose career is headed nowhere, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), the stuntman and Dalton’s sympathetic sidekick and Trudi Fraser aka Mirabella (Julia Butters), the memorable child actor who schools Dalton on method acting. Tarantino’s pen lingers on the real life figures as well—Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski, Charles Manson and his ‘lost girls’. All this makes for riveting reading and turns out to be an incredibly visual experience comparable to watching and having your mind blown by the best of his films.
A provocateur, who once saw fit to rewrite the history of World War II as an outrageous revenge fantasy, Tarantino’s strength is his audacity, but every once in a while, his creative choices can be in surpassingly poor taste. Never has it been more apparent than in his portrayal of Bruce Lee in the film version of OUATIH which had the departed superstar’s daughter, Shannon Lee, up in arms against the filmmaker for the blatant mockery of a bona fide legend who battled impossible odds to achieve his cult status but unfortunately, did not live long enough to see his efforts pay off. Sticking to his guns, Tarantino has doubled down to make a case for Bruce Lee suffering from an inflated ego and insisting he was disrespectful to American stuntmen, whom he claims refused to work with Lee.
Be that as it may, one can’t help but think this is the sort of systemic racism actors who aren’t white have battled for eons. And the deliberately caricaturist portrayal of Lee sticks in the craw especially if you are a rabid fan of the great martial artist, like me. In light of the tragic fate that overcame Bruce Lee and later, his son, Brandon Lee, this whole arc is insensitive as well as unforgiveable.
It is particularly galling given how unabashedly sympathetic Tarantino is to Booth himself, who definitely murdered his wife (this scene is mined for romance and it is an outrageous flourish that is wildly entertaining and surprisingly sweet) as well as three civilians and has gotten away with murder. Worse is Tarantino’s near slavish devotion to Hollywood’s golden couple—Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). He clearly has nothing but respect for the former and love for the latter (who is never less than a beautiful, blonde angel), evident in his treatment of both which is disconcerting with regard to Polanski. Tarantino takes great pains to pay suitable tribute to a fellow auteur (I confess to being an admirer of Polanski’s brilliant body of work myself) and establish his undeniable genius but in a departure from his garrulous style keeps mum about the Polish director’s conviction for the rape of a minor.
Naturally, this makes one wonder why Polanski merits such adoration while Lee was raked over the coals for allegedly being disrespectful to American stuntmen who in all fairness are more than likely to have treated him with less than the respect that was his due. It just smacks of racist and exploitative overtones, given that Tarantino famously trotted out Uma Thurman clad in the iconic yellow jumpsuit Lee wore in The Game of Death, for his smash hit, Kill Bill, which was marketed as homage paid to the martial arts legend.
Even more disturbing is the filmmaker’s cavalier treatment of the pedophilia rampant in Hollywood. He asserts that Charles Manson used his underage girls as ‘catnip’, pimping them out to those who may serve his ends. Naturally, since he is the villain of the piece, none of this is glorified but the entire thing becomes a shade off-putting when an underage character insists on being called ‘Pussycat’. She offers sexual favours to Booth, who in an uncharacteristic move demands that she show proof of her age. This character then goes on to reveal that she had a sexual relationship with Charles Manson at the age of 14 and proceeded to engage in all manner of hanky-panky at his suggestion. At no point, is it suggested that she is a victim, susceptible to the machinations of smarmy cult leaders. Instead she is portrayed as a poster girl of the degenerate hippie culture Tarantino clearly despises.
It is even more troubling when Trudi, an eight-year-old actor, gets her flirt on with the much older Dalton, her co-star. She talks to him of love and marriage while going off script in an exercise to understand their characters better and later, calls him at an unearthly hour for the ostensible purpose of reading their lines together. Dalton protests very weakly about how unbecoming it is before indulging her. While it is apropos that the inappropriateness of it all has been stressed, it also makes the reader wonder if Booth was not speaking for Tarantino himself when he admits to liking a fictional character, who is “unconsciously racist, consciously misogynist”. After all, at the end of the day, Tarantino can really be an ‘Inglorious Basterd’ of the highest order, even when he is at his dazzling best.