Thursday, July 23, 2020

The Alternate Reality of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Anyone who has seen Once Upon a Time in Hollywood knows that it is set in an alternate reality and that it is set in the same universe as Quentin Tarantino's other movies. There is one big event in the film that makes it clear that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is set a universe other than our own, but even before that event is clear that it is not our reality. Furthermore, the differences between our reality and the one in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood go well beyond the fact that a show named Bounty Law starring an actor named Rick Dalton never aired here. Anyway, if you haven't seen Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I have to warn you: there will be some minor spoilers here.

Some Shows Had Longer Runs in the Reality of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Than They Did Here: Early in the film, actor Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) meets with his new agent, Marvin Schwarz (played by Al Pacino) in February 1969. In discussing the state of Rick's career, Schwarz brings up many of the actor's guest appearances on television shows on which Rick played the heavy. Of course, because he plays the heavy Rick is always defeated at the end of the episode. Schwarz then references various shows on which Rick could also play the heavy and get his butt kicked.

Curiously, of the shows Schwarz references, only two actually aired in the 1968-1969 season in our reality. One of these is The Wild Wild West. Now The Wild Wild West was cancelled by CBS in mid-February 1969 as a scapegoat in the then current outcry over television violence. That having been said, the meeting may have taken place before the cancellation or Schwarz may not have heard the show had been cancelled. The other show that was still on the air in our reality was Mannix. Mannix was then in its second season and doing respectably well. It ranked no. 30 in the Nielsen ratings for the season.

Beyond The Wild Wild West and Mannix, Schwarz names one show that never aired in our reality (more on that later) and several shows that had ended their network runs well before February 1969. Now Marvin Schwarz may not be the best agent in Hollywood, but he is probably well aware of what TV shows are still in production. It would seem that some shows that ended their runs in our world before the 1968-1969 season continued in Tarantino's universe. The first of these is Tarzan, on which Ron Ely played the title role. Tarzan debuted  in 1966 on NBC and ran two seasons. It aired its last new episode on April 5 1968. Never particularly a hit in the ratings, one can only assume it did better in the ratings in the Quentin Tarantino universe.

The second show that Schwarz mentions that did not air in the 1968-1969 season in our reality is The Man From U.N.C.L.E. It had been the smash hit of the 1964-1965 and something of a cult phenomenon. Unfortunately, in its third season The Man From U.N.C.L.E. took a turn towards camp that was probably responsible for a dramatic drop in its ratings. The Man From U.N.C.L.E. then ended its run on January 15 1968. In Quentin Tarantino's reality one can only assume that The Man From U.N.C.L.E. never took a turn towards camp in its third season and so it continued to get solid ratings or somehow it recovered in the ratings with its fourth season. Either way, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. apparently had a fifth season in the Tarantino universe. Schwarz also mentions The Man From U.N.C.L.E.'s spinoff The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. Never a hit in our reality, it apparently did better in Tarantino's reality.

The final show that Schwarz mentions that went off the air in the 1968-1969 season in our reality was one of the biggest hits not only of the Sixties, but of all time. Batman debuted on ABC on January 12 1966 and immediately became a phenomenon. Stores could not keep Batman merchandise in stock. Unfortunately, its ratings dipped in its second season. Batman was renewed for a third season, but with some changes to the show. Originally airing twice a week, ABC cut the show back to once a week. The character of Batgirl (played by Yvonne Craig) was also added to the show. Unfortunately its ratings did not recover and ABC ultimately cancelled the show. It last aired on ABC on March 14 1968.

Now, unlike Tarzan and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., there was a possibility that Batman could have continued in our universe. Following its cancellation on ABC, NBC offered to pick up Batman for a fourth season. Unfortunately, the extremely expensive Batcave set had already been torn down and as a result NBC decided not to pick the show up. It seems likely that in Quentin Tarantino's universe that NBC made the offer to pick Batman up before sets had been torn down and as a result the show had a fourth season.

There Was Another Show Besides Bounty Law That Did Not Air in Our Reality: Central to Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the fact that Rick Dalton played bounty hunter Jake Cahill on the hit TV show Bounty Law. While people in our reality have compared Bounty Law to the hit show Wanted Dead or Alive, there is one significant difference between the two shows beyond the fact that Bounty Law was a Screen Gems production aired on NBC and Wanted Dead or Alive was Four Star Television production that aired on CBS. Quite simply, while Josh Randall on Wanted Dead or Alive tried to bring his bounties in alive, Jake Cahill simply killed them (in a clip from the show, Jake says, "Amateurs try to bring men in alive. Amateurs usually don't make it.").  We can be assured that Wanted Dead or Alive aired in Quentin Tarantino's universe by the fact that Steve McQueen is a major star there.

That having been said, in his meeting with Rick Dalton, Marvin Schwarz mentions a show that aired in Quentin Tarantino's reality that starred an actor who doesn't exist in our reality. The show is Bingo Martin, which starred "new guy" Scott Brown. Unfortunately, we don't know much more about Bingo Martin beyond the fact that it starred Scott Brown and Rick guest starred on the show as a villain. From the filmography Quentin Tarantino created for Rick Dalton, we do know the show debuted in 1967. Given the 1967-1968 season saw the debut of several Westerns (The High Chaparral, The Guns of Will Sonnett, and so on) and crime shows (Ironside, Mannix), it seems possible that Bingo Martin was either a Western or a detective show.

Some Shows That Aired Here May Not Have Aired in the Tarantino Reality or, At Least, in Different Time Slots: Promos for Bounty Law establish that it aired at 8:30 PM Eastern on Thursday on NBC. Of course, it is possible it aired in different time slots during its run, as NBC had a habit of moving its shows around in the Fifties and Sixties. That having been said, both a promo at the start of the show and later promo material in the movie seem to hint that Bounty Law occupied that time slot during its entire run.

According to the filmography Quentin Tarantino created for the show, it ran from 1959 to 1963, and ended its run only because Rick Dalton wanted a film career. Of course, different shows aired in that time slot in our reality, meaning these shows did not air in Tarantino's reality or aired in a different time slot, perhaps even on a different network. The first of these was Johnny Staccato, starring John Cassavetes. It was a detective show which made extensive use of jazz music. It debuted on September 10 1959 and ran only one season.

In the 1960-1961 season the 8:30 Thursday night time slot on NBC was occupied by Bat Masterson in our reality. Bat Masterson would have then been in its third season. We can only assume that Bat Masterson was cancelled at the end of its second season or that NBC scheduled in a different time slot. In the 1959-1960 season Bat Masterson aired in the 8:00 PM Thursday slot, so it seems possibly that it could have remained there if it was not cancelled in Tarantino's reality. Of course, this would mean that the hour-long Western Outlaws would have to had occupied a different time slot, if it aired at all in the reality of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

It is the 1961-1962 schedule that presents the biggest problem in terms of scheduling. In our reality the smash hit Dr. Klidare aired on NBC in the 8:30 Thursday night time slot. While it is possible that NBC did not pick up Dr. Kildare in the Tarantino reality, it seems likely that it simply aired in a different time slot. Of course, given Bounty Law was a half hour show and Dr. Kildare was an hour-long show, it begs the question as to what aired after Bounty Law.

For what was the final season of Bounty Law, the 1962-1963 season, Dr. Kildare once more occupied the 8:30 Thursday night time slot on NBC in our reality. Again, provided NBC had picked up Dr. Kildare and provided it was a hit, it seems likely it aired in another time slot.

Bruce Lee May Be Different in Tarantino's Reality: One of the big controversies over Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is its portrayal of Bruce Lee. On the set of The Green Hornet, Rick Dalton's sidekick and stuntman Cliff Booth faces off against Bruce Lee. In the scene Bruce Lee is portrayed as a pompous, arrogant egoist who believes that he can beat Cassius Clay (now known as Muhammed Ali). The scene upset not only Bruce Lee fans, but Mr. Lee's daughter Shannon as well. Although certainly confident, from all reports Bruce Lee was a man who deeply cared about people and did not go around picking fights.

Given what I know of Bruce Lee and having been a Bruce Lee fan since childhood, I must admit that initially I was put off by the scene. Like many, I thought it was disrespecting Mr. Lee. That having been said, after I had thought it out, I came to two conclusions. The first is the fact that the scene plays out as a memory/daydream that Cliff has while repairing the television antenna atop Rick Dalton's house The scene is then being told from Cliff's eyes. While Cliff is an easy going guy, he also seems a big overconfident at times. It seems possible then that Cliff was seeing something in Bruce Lee that just wasn't there. It seems possible that Cliff was projecting his own overconfidence onto Bruce Lee. This means that in Quentin Tarantino's reality, Bruce Lee may be the same nice guy that he was in our reality.

The second conclusion is that the reason the Bruce Lee in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is different from the Bruce Lee of our reality is, quite simply, the movie is obviously set in an alternate reality. That people can vary from reality to reality has been well established in books, movies, and television shows. In It's a Wonderful Life, in the reality in which George Bailey was not born, his Uncle Billy is in an insane asylum and his mother is an old, bitter woman. In the mainstream reality of It's a Wonderful Life, Uncle Billy works at the Bailey Building and Loan while Mrs. Bailey is a relatively happy, well-adjusted woman. The differences between characters is even more pronounced in the Star Trek episode "Mirror Mirror." Quite simply, with the possible exception of Spock, every single character is evil. While Bruce Lee was a kind, gentle man in our reality, perhaps in the reality of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Bruce Lee was a pompous jerk.

Of course, here I want to stress that I can understand why Shannon Lee and Bruce Lee's many fans were offended by the scene. I was myself until I thought about it. Even now I wish Quentin Tarantino would have written the scene differently. It seems to me that Bruce Lee and Cliff Booth could have sparred without Mr. Lee looking arrogant and overconfident. I don't think it would be too far from reality to simply have Bruce Lee and Cliff Booth engage in a bit of friendly sparring. In this way Cliff's fighting skills could have been established, while the reality of Bruce Lee as a nice guy would be maintained.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has been commended for its recreation of Hollywood in 1969, but it is also a movie in which Quentin Tarantino has built his own universe. More so than any of his other films, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a film with a rich reality that serves as a background for its plot. One of the things that I have no doubt that television and movie buffs enjoy about the movie is not just noticing the many pop culture references, but also the ways in which the reality of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood differs from our own.


Evil Woman Blues said...

And I thought I was the only one who spent all night parsing through movies just to get some kind of high at references to long gone TV shows.

Aaron Proctor said...

The Bruce Lee scene is totally Cliff’s fantasy. It’s a guy thing, right? Fantasizing about kicking some badass’ butt. It’s so alluring to a tough guy like Cliff that he forgets his original motivation for he fantasy. Also note that important part of the fantasy is his friend, Dalton, going to the mat for him...which doesn’t happen at all in reality.