In a recent episode of HBO’s Euphoria, the character of Cassie Howard (played beautifully by Sydney Sweeney) goes to a Halloween party dressed almost perfectly as Alabama Worley. Actually, she goes to two Halloween parties, but before the first one, her boyfriend makes her change. He thinks she looks too slutty and does not seem to get the reference.
At the second party (the next night), she hooks up with a guy who not only gets the reference, but charmingly compliments her choice and decision to wear the costume. But then he wants to go farther than she does, and when she stops him, her berates her about how worthless she is as anything other than a sex object.
That’s different from what happens to Alabama Worley in True Romance, who faces off with a hitman (James Gandolfini) in the third act, and takes a horrible beating from him. 17-year-old Cassie, who must have seen True Romance by way of a streaming algorithm recommendation would not have been thinking about that after the party, though. She’d have been thinking about how jerkish the boys in her life are, and rightfully so.
True Romance was released in theaters about nine years before Cassie Howard would have been born (Sweeney is 21).
Cassie might recall, probably much later, that Alabama ends up brutally killing the hitman with a shotgun after smashing him in the head with a toilet tank lid. It’s a rough fight, but she wins, and later saves her husband Clarence (Christian Slater) in addition to absconding with the drug money. And so she is the ultimate hero of the story and they live happily ever after on a beach in Mexico with their son, Elvis – named after the ghost of Elvis Presley (Val Kilmer) who occasionally visits Clarence when he needs advice.
Tarantino wrote the original screenplay, but he sold it, so his ending – where Clarence dies in the gunfight and Alabama gets away, but kills herself later to join him in death – was changed. Director Tony Scott said he just liked Clarence and Alabama too much not to see them happy in the end of the movie. In an early draft of the True Romance script, Clarence was writing his own screenplay, which Tarantino ultimately took out and wrote into its own script. That sold, too, and became Natural Born Killers, though Oliver Stone did some rewrites that left Tarantino displeased.
Patricia Arquette played Alabama Worley, making the character, by way of Euphoria maybe, something of a fashion icon now. But she was always an example of feminine empowerment, I would like to think. Arquette, of course, has become a vocal critic of Hollywood traditionalism, an advocate for equal pay and treatment for women in the industry.
I always liked True Romance, not least of which because I had an early sexual experience while it played on VHS in the background. It’s a pretty immature story, so maybe that makes sense. And the idea of a teenager going to a party dressed as Alabama Worley these days is not much different from me going to a party in 1998 dressed as Billy (Dennis Hopper) from Easy Rider.
Dennis Hopper directed Easy Rider, of course, and he also appeared as Clarence Worley’s father in True Romance. He is mentioned once by name in Tarantino’s new movie Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. When the murderous Manson followers show up in the Hollywood Hills, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) yells at them, calling the guy in the car “Dennis Hopper,” an obvious reference to the hippies in Easy Rider.
This scene in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood takes place in August 1969, and the murder that’s about to happen when Dalton comes out of his house would be a few weeks after Easy Rider premiered. Dalton would have known about that film, maybe seen it, and probably not liked it. Ironically, although that’s possibly the point, Easy Rider was indicative of an era of New Hollywood independent film – a major influence on Tarantino. What he did in The Nineties was a direct result of what happened in the late Sixties and Seventies.
Amusingly, if you like this sort of thing, Sydney Sweeney plays one of the Manson followers, though not one of any consequence in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Maybe Tarantino is making a comment on the way acting is sort of cyclical that way. Here is a young woman who appears in a series playing homage to an iconic character written by the director of a big movie that she also has a bit part in, released that same month…
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is all about actors, of course. And it’s no accident that the bad guy character Rick Dalton plays during a major sequence in the film is designed by makeup and wardrobe to look more or less like Dennis Hopper’s character in Easy Rider, a cowboy style hippie. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is meandering and plotless in a way that working in Hollywood often feels like, going from one project to another and hoping you’re noticed, that you’re presence is felt, that your role or the way you play it is big enough to get you more work.
In his memoir On Writing Stephen King says that situational stories are better than plot driven stories, and so he’d probably like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (also because it’s nostalgic for a time he probably enjoyed, cinematically speaking). But the situation in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is difficult to define. It’s more of a phase of life, something often vague and arbitrary, though easy enough to describe for an actor of that period.
Dalton was a 1950s TV cowboy, the lead in a long dead series, who’s now exploring other opportunities. These include guest appearances on similar shows with different leads, a stint making action and war movies, and possibly venturing into the spaghetti westerns popular in Italian Cinema at the moment.
That’s the situation. Obviously a character study, and subtle in the way that aging often is. By contrast, Dalton’s stunt double and bestie, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) entertains no illusions about a fading career. He’s resourceful and along for the ride.
To really enjoy Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, you really have to love cinema, and by extension Los Angeles, and appreciate some history of both. History, that is, that pays attention mostly to the look and feel of the time and place more than the facts. Hollywood Cinema has never been overly concerned with the facts of matters anyway. The form of popular feature presentation hardly allows for it, though honesty in this method of storytelling has more room to grow.
Rick Dalton, living in the alternate universe Tarantino has created for him in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is an inside out example of most of Tarantino’s early successes. Like John Travolta, who was playing the goofy sidekick to a wisecracking baby (voiced by Bruce Willis) in Look Who’s Talking (+ sequels) before he found renewed cool in Pulp Fiction. And David Carradine was nowhere to be found before Kill Bill. Rick Dalton is waiting for a director like Quentin Tarantino to come along and make him relevant again.
Tarantino acknowledges that it probably cannot happen, since Dalton is simply a character he made up, and one who’s likely to die soon-ish, if all that onscreen coughing is an indication of anything. He is also a heavy drinker and smoker. So maybe Dalton is the reason Tarantino made his early movies the way he did. And so all that’s left is make him a hero one last time. That’s why Once Upon a Time in Hollywood ends the way it does.
Transparency: I loved watching Margot Robbie play Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, but the story isn’t about her at all, which is why I did not mention her above. There are a lot of complaints out there about Robbie/Tate not getting enough lines, having her conversations silenced by narration, that viewers never get inside her. Those are fair commentaries. While she’s lovely to see going to the movies in Westwood by herself to watch herself and appreciate the audience’s reaction to her performance in some terrible Dean Martin schlock, that’s about all her character gets to do. But we know what will eventually happen to her, and so seeing her go about her life innocently oblivious is devastating enough. It also creates a disturbing tension about how meaningless Rick Dalton’s struggles might be, considering what’s going to happen to his neighbor. Then again, maybe not.