It was an otherwise calm news day on the Croisette, back in May, at the Cannes Film Festival. That is until the “Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood” press conference began and proceeded to set the internet on fire. Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino was posed a pointed question by the New York Times about why he chose not to give actress Margot Robbie many lines. The auteur immediately shot down the reporter, curtly stating, “I reject your hypothesis.” His reaction inspired the public writ large to pile on with a bevy of questions surrounding whether or not he can write women – something that shouldn’t be called into question given his history with the indelible female characters populating his pictures.
Tarantino’s new period piece has been advertised as a sprawling Los Angeles-based comedy-drama about two men (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt) whose careers are on the wane. Robbie plays a tertiary, yet pivotal role, portraying actress Sharon Tate. As a filmmaker, it’s his prerogative to tell whatever story he pleases. This is, after all, someone whose ingenious, out of the box thinking gave us an uproarious, outrageous perversion of history with “Inglourious Basterds.”
Not only was this question insulting for a seasoned professional like Tarantino, but it also inadvertently devalued Robbie’s contribution. Character interpretation without the crutch of dialogue is a necessity for any actor or filmmaker. And while Tarantino perhaps did not use the best tone and choice of words to answer in a more thoughtful manner, he’s had a hand in creating a slew of complex, multi-faceted women.
Tarantino’s ability to shine a light on the delicate facets of female trauma provides a substantive tether binding a few of his films. In his world, leading ladies’ arcs don’t begin with strife. They are fully-realized, resilient women prior to the catalyst for the shift in the psyche which awakens their latent strengths. In “Inglourious Basterds,” Shosanna (Mélanie Laurent) was a humble farmer’s daughter before Nazi Col. Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) murdered her entire family and sent her on a vengeful quest. In “Kill Bill,” perhaps Tarantino’s most fiercely feminist feature, The Bride (Uma Thurman) is a badass assassin who uncovers her true inner power once she’s assigned the toughest mission imaginable: motherhood. In “Django Unchained,” Broomhilda von Shaft (Kerry Washington) is a woman retaining what little agency she has, using her smarts to survive as a house slave.
These women aren’t defined by their jobs either. In “True Romance,” Alabama Worley (Patricia Arquette) isn’t a one-dimensional archetype as the ditzy prostitute. She’s an intelligent woman with a flair for kitsch and a yearning for love. She taught us all how to beat up a burly thug with a corkscrew and a toilet tank lid. She also rescues Clarence (Christian Slater) in the end, both in the physical and metaphorical sense. In “Inglourious Basterds,” Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) isn’t solely a shallow actress, nor an uptight spy. She’s forthright, witty, and courageous. And, even though the ladies in the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad in “Kill Bill” are a unified force executing the wishes of a jealous man, their personalities and motivations vary dramatically. This is a dynamic, diverse group of women, reflected not only in Tarantino’s writing and direction but also in the range that actresses Thurman, Lucy Liu, Vivica A. Fox, and Daryl Hannah bring to their roles.
“Death Proof” might be a ringing example of how Tarantino’s representation of “the male gaze” is often misunderstood. He might glide his camera over their bodies, but as written these women are fully in control of their sexuality. They aren’t objectified as much as they are revered for their command of male attention. These are women expressing their influence, autonomy, and agency freely.
“Pulp Fiction” would assuredly not be the same without Mia Wallace (Thurman), the raven-haired, bored, cocaine-addled trophy wife of an LA gangster. Tarantino and Thurman dive deep into the hidden corners of Mia’s mindset, exposing her vulnerabilities and challenging Vincent Vega (John Travolta) with astute insights and observations. The film also covers the gamut of feminine traits – from nag Jody (Rosanna Arquette) to neurotic Honey Bunny (Amanda Plummer), to caring Fabienne (Maria de Medeiros), to nosy Esmarelda Villalobos (Angela Jones).
Similar to the flashy comeback role he wrote for John Travolta in “Pulp Fiction,” Tarantino wrote a starring role for Pam Grier with “Jackie Brown.” The eponymous character’s razor-sharp decision-making and ability to keep calm under pressure might have been part and parcel of Rum Punch, the Elmore Leonard novel on which the film is based. However, Tarantino and Grier’s collaboration is a perfect meld of storyteller and performer. They explore the depth and scope of the character’s conundrum. Plus, he gives her a fairly sexy love story to play up with co-star Robert Forster – something very rare for characters “of a certain age,” even in mainstream indie films like this.
There’s also something to be said for Tarantino not being afraid to show women as wholly unlikable and complicated. If snarky, stoner beach bum Melanie (Bridget Fonda) in “Jackie Brown” is Tarantino dipping his toes in the pool, sass-mouthed fugitive Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in “The Hateful Eight” is him plunging into the deep end. She’s obnoxious, brash and unapologetic. Though it’s tough to watch Daisy used as a punching bag, it’s a bold risk he and Leigh take putting this detestable character on equal footing with the men that surround her.
Despite there being a real-life woman at the center of his latest film’s narrative’s crux, it’s clear that her well-known story is not the primary one Tarantino wants to tell. Over the decades, he’s more than proven to be a capable filmmaker when it comes to giving women their much deserved time in the spotlight. “Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood” may or may not fill that bill – and that’s okay.