In Los Angeles, 1968, Dennis Wilson was the beachiest of the Beach Boys, the only Boy who actually surfed. He was the cool guy with the cool car, cool shades, cool hair. When he admired his disheveled reflection in his California-shaped swimming pool, his steely blue eyes must’ve told him: Dennis, you deserve it all. True, his band’s best years were behind him. And true, his divorce tarnished his reputation; his ex had told the court how he used to beat her. But as sure as his Ferrari purred—as sure as that gold-record sun went swanning into the Pacific every evening—Wilson was going to enjoy himself. With his pals Terry Melcher (Doris Day’s son, a cool guy) and Gregg Jakobson (a total nobody, but still a cool guy), he formed a trio called the Golden Penetrators, who fancied themselves “roving cocksmen,” as his ex put it. They vowed to seduce as many women as possible.
Likely this oath was at the front of Wilson’s mind when he picked up some hitchhiking hippie girls, escorting them to his mansion for “milk and cookies.” Soon those teens, along with more teens and their leader, Charles Manson, were Wilson’s full-time guests. Having reached peak cool guy, he bragged to the press: “I LIVE WITH 17 GIRLS.” (Now this is just called living in Bushwick.) Ushering Manson, whom he called the “Wizard,” into Hollywood, Wilson and his fellow Penetrators set the stage for some of the most infamous murders in American history.
Though the Golden Penetrators, in their caricatured machismo, seem ready-made for a Quentin Tarantino film, they’re strikingly absent from his latest, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. In their place is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), the cool guy with the cool et cetera, a washed-up stunt double who functions as a Wilson stand-in. Booth, too, is a generation behind the times. He is a relic of Westerns, where Wilson was a relic of surf rock. And Booth, too, is clinging to his glory days with rakish ease, trailed by rumors of the violence that ended his marriage. But when, like Wilson, he picks up a Manson girl, Booth does something astoundingly un-Wilson: he declines her advances. Eventually, his sobering encounter with the Manson Family allows him to prevent, with vintage cool-guy, ass-whooping skills, some of the most infamous murders in American history.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is nominally a fairy tale (nominally in two senses of the word), which is why it entertains these counterfactual revisions. In a fairy tale, Cliff Booth can say no to the sex that Dennis Wilson could not wait to say yes to. Cliff Booth can dispatch, with a bit of LSD-induced chutzpah, the same killers who stabbed and shot five people, including Sharon Tate, on Cielo Drive. Critics have found these deviations appealing or appalling; to me they felt inchoate, as if Tarantino had tinkered with the past only long enough to tire of it. Even if he wanted a storybook finale with a flamethrower, he didn’t need to divest himself so completely of the era’s history. Much of the reality would have served his revisionist ends.
If Tarantino wanted grist for a happy ending, a thorough account of the crimes offers an embarrassment of riches: apocryphal episodes, shady walk-ons, and near-misses. Sharon Tate’s mother, who investigated the murders for years, was convinced that Sharon wasn’t supposed to be home that night; the killers struck because they believed she was gone. Plus, as the official story goes, Manson ordered his killers to the Tate house only because he knew that Terry Melcher—of Golden Penetrators fame—used to live there. Details like these go some way toward explaining our fascination with the murders: their arbitrariness makes them feel easily preventable. Tarantino is right to seize on that feeling, but the contrivances of his plot are nothing next to reality.
And what of the era’s upheaval, its anxieties and social frictions? You’d hardly know it to watch Hollywood, but in 1969 the world was changing, or so people thought. Student antiwar activism had roiled the Nixon administration; cherished institutions were being rocked at their foundations. The zeitgeist reached even the most insular quarters of Hollywood. Soon after the murders, Billy Doyle, a drug dealer to the stars who was one of the first suspects, told an LAPD detective that he had trouble separating the “straight” people from the crazies. “In California,” he explained, “everybody has a tan. Now, if people don’t have a tan, they look a little different. You can see things in their face[s] that a tan covers up.” It’s a sentiment out of Raymond Chandler, hard-boiled, paranoid, but there’s truth in it: in the land of the tan mask, poseurs and prodigies attended the same parties, passed the same joints, dreamed of the same ways to undercut the status quo. Seldom had the line between genius and lunatic worn so thin.
There’s little sense of this blurriness in Hollywood. The camera turns away from questions of intent. The characters are suspicious of no one. Even on acid, Cliff Booth always knows the score. Only in his elliptical encounter with George Spahn (Bruce Dern, noticeably without a tan) does Booth see that he’s been asleep at the wheel, has failed to grasp the times he lives in. Spahn owns an isolated ranch in Chatsworth where Westerns used to be filmed; now those dusty hills and old sets, the sites of so many of Cliff Booth’s finest moments, have been infested by the Manson Family and left to rot. A bunch of hippies have cajoled an old man into surrendering his property—and Spahn is loving it! How did this happen?
Tarantino could’ve brought such depth to the rest of his script had he not elided Dennis Wilson and his ilk, shaping them into the bowdlerized form of Booth. The fact that Booth may have killed his wife is only a gesture toward moral ambiguity, as if to concede that even in fairy tales, not all is cut-and-dried. Having inserted that asterisk, Tarantino is free to ignore the tangle of complicities that framed the sixties, embodied in men like the Golden Penetrators, whose appetites enabled Manson’s rise. As young Hollywood insiders, the Penetrators could’ve been his fairy tale’s villains, a perfect foil both for Booth’s old-school bravado and Sharon Tate’s grace and innocence. Excising them and all that they stood for, Tarantino turns his fantasy into a farce.
I don’t begrudge him his vision: a bloodbath in which Tate is spared and guys get to be dudes, a fiction that gloats in its demented fictionality. Even barring Hollywood’s box-office success, it would be foolish to dismiss the thrill of seeing history reversed onscreen, a cosmic wrong righted by brawn and derring-do—and by some of the most watchable stars of our age (no one is suggesting that Brad Pitt keep his shirt on). But the movie could’ve accomplished all this—its wry comment on Hollywood mythmaking, its revanchist make-believe—without treating the sixties like an exotic backdrop. Hollywood is set not in 1969 but “1969,” an ersatzville with a wide aspect ratio and a glut of winking. A film set is a controlled environment. But as with the real year, you get the sense that much of what happened on-screen was a chaotic accident.
Dan Piepenbring is an advisory editor of The Paris Review and the coauthor of Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties.