The social geography of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Class and spatial divisions in 1969 Los Angeles

There are three main characters in Quentin Tarantino’s film Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. They appear in close proximity to each other but are clearly separated in terms of class and space.

Sharon Tate (the moneyed elite) lives at the summit of society in the Hollywood Hills on Cielo Drive. She never travels outside her tightly-knit social and spatial circle, at most a 20-minute drive from home. Sharon is friendly to everyone she meets in her limited and insulated world because she does not see anyone as a threat – even Charles Manson gets a tentative wave hello.

Rick Dalton (middle class), lives next door to Sharon but is separated from her world of privilege by a large iron gate. Rick is a fading television star, a “has-been,” with no option but to go into spaghetti westerns in order to save his ailing career. His continuing presence on Cielo Drive is tenuous at best. Unlike Sharon, Rick does see the “god damn fucking hippies,” who seem to be all over LA, as a threat to his fragile existence.

Cliff Booth (working class) lives in a trailer in Panorama City way out in the San Fernando Valley, more than half an hour’s drive north of Cielo Drive. Cliff does not complain, and accepts his lot running errands and “carrying the load” for Rick. This is in essence what the working class does – “carry the load” for the middle class. He may seem passive but war-hero Cliff is not threatened by anyone, not even Bruce Lee.

In addition to the three main characters, there is a broad supporting cast, the most important of which is the Manson family who live at the old movie ranch that Rick and Cliff used to film at in the 1950s. The ranch is located even further off the grid in Chatsworth, near the Santa Susana Pass State Park – literally outside the city and outside the law.

In this world, racial minorities are a mere backdrop. African American characters appear fleetingly, while Latinos are only cast as parking valets and bandits in a TV western. 

The movie has a very simple structure that contrasts the lives of the three main characters in terms of class and space at specific times on three specific days.

On the evening of Saturday February 8th 1969, Sharon goes to party with their elite friends, who include Steve McQueen and Mama Cass, at the Playboy Mansion, a short drive away from Cielo Drive. Rick has to stay home in order to learn his lines for his guest appearance in the TV pilot he is filming the next day. After dropping off Rick, Cliff goes home to his trailer in Panorama City to feed his dog Brandy (rat and racoon flavour dog food) and eat instant mac and cheese in front of the television.

The following day, Sunday February 9th 1969, carefree Sharon lies in bed most of the morning and listens to records only to interrupted later by an ominous visit from Charles Manson. In the afternoon, she drives the short distance to Westwood Village to pick up a first edition of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and spend the rest of the day watching herself in the Dean Martin movie Wrecking Crew

Rick goes to work hungover early in the morning and spends all day on set. After messing up his first scene, Rick has an epiphany and realises that he needs to make some major lifestyle changes if he is to survive in the industry from now on. 

Cliff had to get up even earlier to drive Rick to work and then go back to Cielo Drive to fix Rick’s TV antenna, carefully observing Charles Manson as he walks up Sharon’s drive. In the afternoon, Cliff gives Pussycat, the hippy girl who has caught his eye, a ride back to the movie ranch. While Rick is pretending to be a tough guy on television, Cliff takes on the Manson family without breaking a sweat. There is a recurring theme in the film that life in the movies and on television is very different from life in reality.

Six months later, on Friday August 8th 1969, Rick returns from Italy with a new wife and an understanding with Cliff that they will have to go their separate ways. Rick can no longer afford his old lifestyle and will have to sell his house on Cielo Drive and buy a condo in suburban Toluca Lake – more affordable and closer to his work in the TV studios. Incidentally, this is the same neighbourhood that Tarantino’s character, Jimmy, lives in some 25 years later in Pulp Fiction. Cliff, meanwhile, like many middle-aged workers who have just be laid off, “does not have a clue what he is going to do.”

That evening, all three characters go to Mexican restaurants for dinner. Sharon and her friends go to El Coyote on Beverly Blvd in West Hollywood. Rick and Cliff eat at Casa Vega on Ventura Blvd in the Valley. They return home to their separate worlds later in the evening. Sharon relaxes with her friends, Rick fixes a pitcher of frozen margaritas and Cliff takes Brandy for a walk while smoking an acid-dipped cigarette.

It seems that our three main characters will soon be separated in terms of class and space for good. However, after the clock strikes midnight, we get a surprise fairy-tale ending when the Manson Family break into Rick’s house rather than Sharon’s and all the social barriers established during the first two hours of the movie come crashing down in a violent finale. 

The bad guys are vanquished in the most horrible way possible. And, after the violence subsides and the police have left, the iron gates to Sharon’s house miraculously open and Rick is finally admitted into the privileged world of the elite. Cliff, the selfless working class hero, is taken to hospital, still more concerned about Rick and Brandy than his own wellbeing. Rick tells Cliff that he is indeed a “good friend” (as noted by Al Pacino’s character at the beginning of the movie), suggesting that he too could at some point join Rick and his new pals in Utopia. 

Of course, every viewer knows what really happened on Cielo Drive in the early hours of Saturday August 9th 1969, and that the Hollywood – happily-ever-after – ending created by Tarantino is pure fantasy. The film is called Once Upon a Time for a reason: our heroes Rick and Cliff slay the dragon and save the beautiful golden-haired princess in the tower. 

In this sense, the film seems to confirm that the magical social mobility and integration of the finale is also a myth, an unobtainable fantasy that is only seen in movies, television and political propaganda. In reality, the socio-economic barriers between the moneyed elite, the middle-class, desperate to hang on to their limited privileges, and the working-class poor, that were already in place in 1969, only got more entrenched over the next 50 years.

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