“It was so quiet, one of the killers would later say, you could almost hear the sound of ice rattling in cocktail shakers in the homes way down the canyon."
That's the first line of "Helter Skelter," the legendary true crime recounting of the Tate-LaBianca murders masterminded by Charles Manson - grisly killings that stamped themselves on the collective memory of America, fusing the upheaval of the 1960s, with what Greil Marcus once referred to as "The Old, Weird America," and the enduring blood and death mythos of Hollywood.
That opening, written by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry, tells the real story of what happened over two nights in California in 1969. A crew of hippie castoffs were inspired to commit a string of bizarre, motiveless murders that struck down "the Beautiful People" of the time, reducing them to "pigs" seemingly deserving of dehumanizing slaughter. That kind of story would seem an obvious draw to a filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino. Thus his 2019 film, "Once Upon a Time In Hollywood."
But two years later comes Tarantino's first novel, bearing the same title. On one level, you can say it tells the same story, but that would also be false, just as false as the Hollywood ending he gave the murder of Sharon Tate and four others in his movie.
The book subverts an obvious Hollywood tradition - the movie tie-in novelization, which usually appears at the same time as the film, for maximum monetization. And just like the time it celebrates, Tarantino's book comes in a retro, mass-market paperback edition that calls to mind hundreds like it available in second-hand bookstores across the country, their yellowed, dog-earred pages awaiting a new generation of readers anxiously turning the pages to keep their copies from falling apart.
The 400-page book also subverts another strategy - the tie-in following the movie, note-for-note, a prose re-rendering of the film, with some expansion of character motivations, but a work subservient to the screen, the prose usually reflecting a tight deadline. This book comes advertised as, "The new novel based on the film."
Before I get to the book, it's necessary to talk a little about the film. "Once Upon a Time In Hollywood" tells the story of aging screen actor Rick Dalton, a once-promising television star, perpetually knocking on the door of big time features, who never quite got the same break as contemporaries such as Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood. It's now the 1960s, and his career appears to be sinking as the needs of Hollywood change with the permissiveness of the times. Rick is the past, as is Cliff Booth, Rick's friend, stuntman and gofer, a no-nonsense veteran who is also playing out the string on Rick's payroll. Hovering in the background of their careers is Rick's next-door neighbor, Sharon Tate, who the audience knows, died at the hands of the Manson family on Aug. 9, 1969.
James Cameron's "Titanic" tells another familiar story - the sinking of the ocean liner - but takes three-and-a-half hours to tell the story. The audience knows what's going to happen - but Cameron gives you Rose and Jack and their love story so that you will learn to care about them, and thus, care about the tragedy of more than 1,500 people. Spoiler: The ship is going to sink. The iceberg cannot be stopped. The twain shall converge.
But "Once Upon a Time" is a comedy, and the unsuspecting audience enters the film with the knowledge of the Tate murders hovering menacingly in the background, providing steadily escalating tension. "How's this going to end?" they wonder, knowing there's nothing remotely funny about a young, beautiful woman in her ninth month of pregnancy being stabbed to death. Then Tarantino transforms Chekhov's gun into a flamethrower, and the Manson killers into slapstick villains getting their just deserts, at least on the screen. Rick is then invited up to an evening with Sharon, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger and Voytek Frykowski, all very much alive. Their show must go on. And by this ending, we barely care that the two hours of meandering plot we spent with Rick and Cliff have virtually no connection to this ending.
For his novel, Tarantino takes a different course. The movie ending -Cliff's dog dispatching Tex and Katie, Rick frying Sadie - are dispatched in a few pages relatively early in the novel. We even get a look into the future to see how Rick's career benefited from his exploits against the Family. This tells us that our experience in prose will be different. In Tarantino's 400 pot-boiler pages, we are treated to elaborate backstories for Rick, Cliff, Sharon Tate, and the Family member Pussycat. Pulpy chapters of fake western storylines unfold. The director unpacks pages and pages of films and television shows - some real, some fake - until we are unsure where the real world ends and this alternate universe begins. Which is interesting, because most of the novel is situated in the very real business of Hollywood make-believe.
The point - as with most of Tarantino's work - is cinema, the magic of getting a roomful of people to stare at a screen of rapidly moving still images, an illusion reflecting an illusion, and have their lives melt away by the intellectual force of the story unfolding before them. There's a passage, familiar to the film, where Sharon Tate takes in a matinee of "The Wrecking Crew" in order to judge the audience's reaction to her taking on pratfall comedy. But in telling the story, the director Tarantino recounts a story of Tate's husband, the director Roman Polanski, and a particular shot in "Rosemary's Baby." Why did he insist on framing the shot in a particular way? Sharon learns months later when she sees the film and watches hundreds of people crane their necks simultaneously in order to see something the shot obscures - something they obviously can't do.
"Why did he do it?
Because he could."
That could serve as an adequate explanation for why Tarantino decided to give us this novel, not quite a companion piece to the film, or a compliment to the film, but something else entirely. We learn that Cliff, personable fellow he is, is nonetheless a calculating killer who holds his instincts in check most of the time, Bruce Lee notwithstanding. Rick is a drunk because he's undiagnosed bipolar. Pussycat became a member of the family because Charlie Manson bribed her father by pimping out family members to him.
There are plenty of examples of Tarantino's flair for dialogue. One also gets the idea that Q understands the differences between his preferred medium and the printed page. A chapter where Pussycat breaks into a home, with Charlie's disembodied voice following her, goading her, instructing her, is well-done and succeeds in rendering something close to the spooky mystery of the real Manson on the page. And in the extensive fake filmographies Tarantino renders, he even places himself at the helm of a film in the 1990s that he never made.
The book also shares the film's celebration of a kind of male bonding and unconscious, oblivious masculinity that contemporary pop culture feels uncomfortable with. We know that Cliff is smarter than Rick, but Rick, with his constant grousing about his career and the course of his life, his proud ignorance, his thin skin, is both calculating and taciturn, and ultimately, a survivor. We get the impression that Tarantino wants us to acknowledge there is a kind of epic grandeur in cast-off cowboys, fighting against the demands of time and audience. This world of make-believe is real. In page after page, we understand that Tarantino truly loves his menagerie of serviceable TV westerns, Italian spy knockoffs, vaguely erotic European thrillers, bubble-gum rock, and 8-track tapes, where Burt Reynolds, Bruce Dern, Jim Stacy are constantly downing drinks at some obscure California bar, swapping stories.
If there is another discernible theme hidden in the novel, it is hidden in plain sight and shared with the film - the possibilities that brood behind every second of our lives. In "Once Upon a Time," Sharon Tate does not die. We do not know if she had a healthy baby, or if her marriage improbably survived the sixties, given what we know of Polanski's private life. She would be 78 years old at the publication of Tarantino's novel, and we would presumably know if her career ever fulfilled the promise that eluded her in life. But we know from the book that Rick becomes a regular guest on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, where perhaps he was asked, yet again, to tell the story he grudgingly recounts three times in the book - how close he came to getting the role in "The Great Escape" that eventually went to Steve McQueen.
This was a plot point in the film, but it gets more of a workout in the book. One reason for this story is McQueen's position in the mythos of "Helter Skelter" - he was almost in the Tate residence the night of the murders, and had supposedly been marked for death by the Manson family. But not only is Rick asked to recount the story several times, he is brought face-to-face with McQueen outside the gates of the Cielo Drive house. When Rick gives the story a final airing out, he attempts to destroy it. His point - he was never going to get the part. Yet the story dogs him, because of the tantalizing possibility of what his career might have been. He can't allow himself to go down that road, no matter how much he might want to. It's worthy of mention that, as Tarantino gives us a limited view of what becomes of some of his characters in the years to come, he omits Sharon Tate. But the nature of tragedy is not limited to her. Jim Stacy, after his time on"Lancer," lost an arm in a motorcycle accident to a drunk driver. He made a comeback, but eventually pleaded no contest to molesting an 11-year-old girl. After fleeing to Hawaii and attempting suicide, Stacy served a six-year prison sentence, before eventually dying of anaphylactic shock after receiving an antibiotic injection. He could have used several alternate outcomes.
The point is the movies, even between the pages of the book. The personalities at war with each other on sets, the compromises and coaxings needed to get performances on film, the vagaries of screen personas and how they are used to lead an audience, making careers rise and fall. The book ends, not in August with Rick and Sharon unaware of what happened in our world, but back in the Spring of 1969, with Rick on the phone with young costar Trudi Frazer, going over lines the night before a big scene, so that the show will go on, as it must.