I Like to Watch | Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood

I Like to Watch | Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood

By Don Hall

NEWSFLASH: There is a substantial difference between masculinity and toxic masculinity. If you refuse to acknowledge that difference, you are a misandrist.

Last week, in the casino I manage, I was talking to a guy who is roughly my age. We talked a bit about moving — he just moved back to Las Vegas after fifteen years in Utah, I just moved here after thirty years in Chicago. He finds out that this is my first time working in a casino.

“Good for you. A lot of people come out here and can’t get any kind of job that pays more than $10 an hour. Especially if they look like us.”

“What? Old white guys?”

“Yeah. It’s just discrimination is what it is.”

“True, but I figure I was on the top of the food chain when I was a twenty-five year old white guy and I’m positive there were some more qualified people who were passed over when I was coming up who were not white guys. I guess I chalk it up to the playing field getting evened up. Is it harder for guys like us to get by? Yeah, but maybe it’s our turn to get the shit end of the stick, right?”

I think about the difference between what I consider admirable masculine qualities versus those on showcase so often in the news of the Weinstein nature. Hell, I’ve written about it countless times. It is the defining quest of my post-middle age, to find those balances without merely cowering in fear of reprisal from those looking to simply get even for the injustices of men.

In that pursuit, I find examples of men who are tough but not belligerent, charming but not smarmy, unquestioningly loyal but not lap dogs in movie characters. Avatars of masculinity without machismo to model our behavior. Gentlemen with that Gene Autry sense of duty to women, children, and those not in the power position in the American pursuit of happiness. The guys who can beat the crap out of a Nazi but use that aggression wisely rather than lord it over the weak.

Tarantino has given us a number of these characters onscreen — flawed, violent, but ultimately non-toxic men. Yes, Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) in Pulp Fiction is a killer but by the end of that film he demonstrates that he is trying to find his place in the world apart from all that. Butch (Bruce Willis) is tough as nails but is gentle and caring to his girlfriend and finds an ally in an enemy once a common threat is exposed. Max Cherry (Robert Forrester) in Jackie Brown is a man’s man and is nothing less than that old school example of a solid, dutiful, compassionate yet masculine dude. 

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With Cliff Booth in Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood, he and Brad Pitt have given us a complex and wonderful example of an über-cool, kind to women, loyal to his friend, incredibly capable white man to emulate while also offering the non-toxic opposite in Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) to balance Booth’s cool demeanor with obvious self-doubt, emotional struggle, and the desperate need for positive affirmation.

Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood has been called a “Requiem for White Men” in the New York Times. Maureen Dowd tells us that the movie is entirely built upon a nostalgia for a kind of man that no longer exists. I disagree. Men like Booth and Dalton do exist despite the societal screed that all men are indelibly creeps, power grabbing monsters, and wannabe rapists.

If anything, other than a brilliant, funny, captivating piece of cinematic revision of history, Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood is less nostalgia and more celebration of those kind of men. At a time when painting the past as the Pillage of the Patriarchy, perhaps this film is a reminder that not all men are Weinstein and Cosby. In fact, most are not.

Yes, it is suggested that Booth murdered his wife and got away with it ,which means he’s a sociopath but there is equal weight to the possibility that his wife was killed in an accident and he was wrongfully accused and has spent a part of his life living with this conjured accusation without acrimony or bitterness. His behavior toward the hippie chick Pussy Cat (Margaret Qualley) indicates he is both chivalrous and cautious. His violence is only unleashed when provoked and is then decisive. No posturing, no displays of macho.

Perhaps the film is nostalgic but the interesting part of nostalgia is that we pick out the things we want to remember about our past. The most common nostalgia is to see our past as pleasant and warm. The Woke want us to see the past through the lens of all the ugly rest of it and, by virtue of being a darker kind of nostalgia, is no different in its disregard for anything else. 

The world Tarantino sees and presents is both complex and yet incredibly hopeful: the hit man reflecting on his legacy, the freed slave burning down a plantation, the assassin hellbent upon revenge finding her child, a band of Nazi-killers and the daughter of Jews murdered putting an end to Hitler, the preening has-been TV star and his stoic stunt double unknowingly preventing a horrifying tragedy.

I understand and accept this shift in societal paradigm where we old white guys are getting it in the teeth for the privilege we wielded so haphazardly in the previous century. It’s high time the balance was mended and injustices of the past atoned for. I won’t, however, dismiss the qualities of chivalry, toughness, loyalty, and the radar to truly see what is worth fighting for rather than what might feel good to overpower.

I read so much about angry young white men using that masculinity to buy assault rifles and tiki torches to reclaim their sense of place and time but I’d like to tell them that that is not the sign of a man. Instead of embracing those emotions of angry children, perhaps it is a better choice to bear the brunt of what you perceive as unfair with a bit more grace and stoicism. Life is unfair and has never been otherwise. The white guy talk is to suck it up, deal with it with a set of strong shoulders and a set jaw, and quit bellyaching about it’s unfairness.

“I don’t want to live in a world without Cliff Booth,” says my wife after I read some of this to her.

I want to live in a world where I am Cliff Booth and I thank Tarantino and Pitt for giving him to me.

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