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How Tarantino Made Cliff Booth One of His Most Interesting Characters - Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Novelisation)

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---- This article contains plot details and spoilers for Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Film (2019) and Once Upon A Time In Hollywood, Novel (2021) ----

Quentin Tarantino doesn’t want you to forget that ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ is not only his ninth film – and possibly one of his last – but that it is also his most important; his most personal. It’s the culmination of a thirty-year directorial career, encompassing all that he has learned and developed as a filmmaker since the release of ‘Reservoir Dogs’ in 1991. Dense with Tarantino’s classic tropes of long conversations, comedic characters and ultra-violence, the duet performances of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt were evidently the film’s most critically acclaimed facet, particularly Pitt’s performance, reminiscent of Tarantino’s other on screen character-friendships. It’s essentially a reflection, not only of Hollywood’s gradual shift from its traditional roots to a more artistic and modernist era but also of Tarantino’s love for the filmmaking artform and how these seismic shifts in the cinematic landscape had affected his own style and intentions as a director.

Its a slice of life-esque film; the stakes aren’t too high; it isn’t on a particularly large scale (unless you consider the film’s hefty budget) but it is Tarantino at his most metafictional, setting the period piece at a time that he is most comfortable with. It can be inferred that Tarantino wants to dispense a wider message on old Hollywood and the new wave of cinema but more importantly, he wants to invite the audience into ‘his world’, effectively his childhood that eventually shaped him into the acclaimed director that he has undoubtedly become. All that one needs to know to understand Tarantino’s motivations with this film is by reading the apparent slogan of the film’s novelization ‘Hollywood 1969… You shoulda been there!’.

Adapting film to a more grounded and literary format isn’t as common as it once was, and Tarantino seems to know this, hence the novelization’s final pages containing advertisements for some of his preferred movie novelizations such as Sidney Lumet’s ‘Serpico’. Yet Tarantino has also clarified that OUATIH isn’t a direct adaptation of the film’s script like other adaptations, but a re-envisioning, taking the script and rebuilding it into a more acceptable and digestible literary form. By doing this, Tarantino has been able to enlighten the audience with new chapters of exposition, a reorganized narrative structure and points-of-view from characters that don’t have as much prominence in the plot as one would’ve thought when watching the film. Additionally, the novelization has allowed Tarantino to do what he seemingly has been desperate to do since the film’s release in 2019: rebuild Cliff Booth.

Brad Pitt’s supporting role in OUATIH is one of his most applauded and awarded yet it has also been the center of discussion regarding the character’s backstory and presence. Tarantino had seemingly left out a significant amount of exposition regarding the life of Cliff Booth, likely to shorten the run time and not hinder the film’s pace with long segments of flashbacks and scenes that aren’t relevant to the overarching narrative. Therefore, a literary format is the perfect medium to explore Cliff’s backstory as well as the many personality traits that Tarantino hadn’t explored. Tarantino provides an extensive backstory for Cliff, describing his military service and notoriety as a decorated killer, his moral ambiguity towards violence and crime, the relationship with his dog, Brandy and his love for foreign pictures. By reading Tarantino’s OUATIH, it becomes apparent that Cliff Booth is one of Tarantino’s most intriguing and engaging characters and this will only be more noticeable if Tarantino gains creative control to release a director’s cut.

Cliff is a Kurosawa Fan.

Upon meeting Cliff Booth in both cinematic and literary forms, one wouldn’t necessarily perceive him as somebody who engages with foreign cinema, as there still seems to be a stigma regarding watching subtitled films in the present day.

Yet, Cliff is a consistent cinemagoer of all genres and languages compared to that of protagonist Rick Dalton. Tarantino elaborates on this by stating that ‘To Rick, movies are what Hollywood made…’ whereas Cliff’s life experiences have opened his eyes to an entire plethora of relatively untouched films by Western audiences, viewing Hollywood films as ‘juvenile’ and cemented in ‘fake normalcy’.

It’s an interesting decision by Tarantino to pose Cliff, a stunt double who is always seen on screen but never really credited, to be the one who appreciates world cinema compared to Dalton, an actor who ought to research and envelope himself into all distinct types of cinema. Cliff even goes as far as to consider American actors as radiantly inauthentic, deeming the performances of Brando and Paul Newman as having a ‘level of artifice to the character that stopped them from being convincing’. Instead, Cliff cites Japanese actor, Toshiro Mifune as his favorite actor. Mifune was a frequent collaborator with acclaimed Japanese Director, Akira Kurosawa, working with him on 16 films during his career. Therefore, it’s an inevitability that Kurosawa is a favorite of Cliff’s. Tarantino doesn’t stop here, however and his instead delves deeper into Cliff’s admiration for Kurosawa with a Top 5 list; ‘Ikiru’ and ‘Seven Samurai’ are tied at number one.

Tarantino’s novel is recognized for its overindulgence, particularly during the writer’s lengthy diatribes and speeches about the film industry and using Cliff as a vessel for this is a distinct authorial method, albeit one that can be argued as unnecessary. It’s also an intriguing narrative choice for Tarantino to poise Cliff as a lover for Japanese cinema despite his military history, evidencing that one can set aside personal or professional hinderances to appreciate the artistry of another culture, making Cliff a far more tolerant and progressive character compared to Rick. In fact, this distinct difference between the two may be an encapsulation of OUATIH’s core thesis when discussing the character of Rick Dalton; the idea of accepting and adapting to changing circumstance, opening oneself up to newer prospects and ideals, a key character development that Rick recognizes he needs to make by both the film and the book’s culmination.

Cliff's Military Decorations and Exploits.

Cliff’s military service is briefly skimmed over by Tarantino in the film however the novelized format allows the Screenwriter and Director to divulge the reader of Cliff’s extensive record as a model soldier with an equally extensive kill count.

Tarantino explores Cliff’s service in both Italy and the Philippines, resulting in his decoration with the Medal of Valor twice, the latter medal being awarded since ‘no other American Soldier had more confirmed kills of Japanese enemy soldiers than Sergeant Clifford Booth’. Sixteen of these confirmed kills – according to Cliff – come from his proficiency with knives, which has a noticeable effect on Rick upon hearing this. Tarantino establishes that despite Cliff’s charismatic and laid-back persona, he is a methodical and practical killer and has been consistently rewarded for this too. Proficient in hand-to-hand combat, with knives and with firearms, Cliff’s heroism as a soldier makes him a perfect choice for a stunt double; someone who risks their health and life behind the scenes and with the mindset to do so without much trouble.

To add more character to Cliff, Tarantino explores Cliff’s experiences as a prisoner of war in the Philippines, in which he makes a daring escape. Showing his astute leadership, Cliff encourages his fellow prisoners to mount an escape by forcibly overthrowing the prison guards, escaping into the jungles. This war story is an exemplification of Cliff’s heroism and practical manner, but also establishes an early link between Cliff’s military service and the Hollywood film industry. Notably, Tarantino continues with his metafictional allusions by making a nod to Paul Wendkos’ film ‘The Battle of the Coral Sea’ which – within Tarantino’s established universe – is a historical ‘reimagining’ of Cliff’s escape. Coincidentally, Rick Dalton also performs in the film, years before meeting Cliff. In Tarantino’s version of Wenkos’ film, the ensemble cast are a submarine crew, possibly to alter the history of the event for entertainment purposes. However, this may also be possible reference to Tarantino’s own intentions with OUATIH; basing the narrative within the grounded reality of Hollywood whilst also re-imagining certain events, films and actors as well as rewriting history in the form of the Tate-LaBianca murders.

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Cliff’s Murders.

Tarantino opens Chapter Ten of OUATIH in a blunt but comedic style, answering a question that viewers of the film have asked since its release in 2019.

‘The minute Cliff shot his wife with the shark gun, he knew it was a bad idea.’

Cliff’s proficiency and hardened psyche as a trained killer overlaps into the present narrative of the novel, resulting in the death of his wife on a boat trip. This is heavily suggested in the film, although Tarantino never shows the murder take place and has been cemented as one of Tarantino’s best ‘moments before disaster scenes.’

Despite Tarantino’s light-hearted approach to the murder, briefly utilising it for some darkly comedic effect in both film and novelised format, the tone makes a dramatic shift in the novel as Cliff stays with his wife for seven hours at sea as she clings to life, in which they ‘recounted their whole life together’. This is an excellent example of Tarantino’s motivation to both answer the unanswered whilst also rebuilding the narrative from the pre-existing foundations of the script, developing Cliff as a character and giving more insight into his relationship with his wife. Additionally, where the reader is now aware that Cliff did commit the act, Tarantino continues to utilise the ambiguity of the situation to create a legend-esque mystery amongst other stunt doubles and those whom Cliff has worked with. Tarantino presents Cliff as an almost mythic figure amongst film sets, citing that ‘no matter what set he set foot on, he was always the only man on that set that everybody in the know knew got away with murder.’

This isn’t the only time that Cliff’s violent tendencies have overlapped into his homelife. Noticeably, Tarantino establishes the backstory regarding how Cliff came into the ownership of the only female ‘who loved him back’.

Brandy, the ‘flat-head bent-eared Pitbull’ was originally the ‘pet’ of Cliff’s acquaintance, Buster Cooley. Cooley, a fellow stuntman is presented as a schemer who owes Cliff a sum of money that he has racked up over five years. Evidently unable to pay Cliff outright, Cooley presents Cliff with Brandy – not as a pet – but as a tool for financial gain. Tarantino has already delved deep into Cliff’s immorality as a trained killer despite his relatively relaxed mentality and stature although he perseveres with protruding deeper as Cliff and Cooley invest into dogfighting, using Brandy to pay back the money owed to Cliff. Since dogfighting is widely accepted as a morally repugnant and immoral example of animal cruelty, Tarantino emphasises Cooley’s antagonistic streak, showing little remorse for the Pitbull and only viewing her as a worker for his profit.

In the face of Brandy’s eventual loss in the dogfighting ring in which she is brutalised by a competing dog, Cliff expresses his distaste with continuing the venture, not to mention his dismissal of dogfighting as ‘illegal… there was just too much that could go wrong’. When Cooley resists Cliff’s demands to cease the dogfighting, showing that he has grown to care for Brandy, the two fight in Cliff’s trailer. Cliff kills him.

Another case in which Cliff’s ambiguity comes into question, Tarantino continues to press the character’s moral compass, an aspect which wasn’t entirely developed in the novel’s cinematic counterpart.

Cliff’s stark impulsivity towards violence is also noticeable after the war, in which he eludes punishment for shooting two men dead in a restaurant. Tarantino exposits that these two men work for the ‘Mafia-connected hoodlum Rudolfo “Patsyface”’ Genovese and that they have been sent to warn Cliff away from his date, who is revealed to be the mistress of Patsyface. Cliff casually dispatches of the two thugs and his reputation as a war hero grants him immunity from arrest, showing that Cliff’s accolades have allowed him to commit various crimes without legal ramification whilst also bolstering his reputation as a morally ambiguous and hardened supporting character.

One of Tarantino’s Best.

Cliff Booth’s cinematic appearance presents him as suave, charismatic but also shrouded in mystery. He is enigmatic, provoking intrigue from others around him as well as the audience. There is a level of ambiguity and ruthlessness in Cliff’s approach to both his work and his actions outside of it, with Tarantino portraying him as an almost Bondian character in terms of his disguised bluntness due to his charm and good looks.

Therefore, its reasonable for some to consider Tarantino’s novel as detrimental to Cliff as a character, as particular viewers may prefer the mystery to Booth, preferring to theorise about his past. However, Tarantino seems to disagree. Its evident that Tarantino desired to explore Cliff in more depth in his magnum-opus and its entirely plausible that the longer 3 hour and 20-minute cut includes the astute detail and interesting stories that shaped Cliff’s character. Nevertheless, Tarantino’s novel clarifies many things that may have been lost in the making of OUATIH whilst also providing his viewers and readers with an experience which isn’t a generic copy and paste scenario, instead opting to develop and adapt to the literary form whilst still maintaining his style of storytelling. In other words, Tarantino’s presentation of Cliff in his novelisation supersedes that of his cinematic counterpart, making the stuntman one of his most intriguing characters, expositing a mound of detail without losing the charm of his darkly comedic register.

© 2021 Matthew Barratt

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