Why 'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood' Sparked Controversy Before It Even Opened

once upon a time in hollywood
Sony Pictures
Sony Pictures

Quentin Tarantino doesn't shy away from the kinds of subjects that make other people cringe. With political correctness the norm (at least among the very online younger generation of Americans) and racism and violence against women and minorities are scrutinized and criticized (ditto), a new Tarantino movie usually generates its fair share of controversy. The backlash typically begins after the movie is released, but in the case of his ninth film, set to hit theaters in July, the director managed to ruffle feathers months before most of the world will get to see it.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood stars Leonardo DiCaprio as an aging actor struggling to find meaningful work in the last days of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and Brad Pitt as his stunt double best friend. The movie charmed many critics at the Cannes Film Festival (including yours truly) for being more of a buddy film than a historical caper (it's set right before followers of Charles Manson murder actress Sharon Tate and her guests). Many were surprised, however, that Oscar-nominated actress Margot Robbie, who was cast as Tate, barely gets any screen time compared to the two male leads.

That's not to mention the fact that the film does end on the night of the murders, which were perpetrated by three women and a man -- members of the Manson Family cult. Without spoiling too much of what happens, that scene ends up being the only moment of shocking Tarantino-esque violence in the whole movie.

Why is there controversy over Margot Robbie's role in Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood?

New York Times reporter Farah Nayeri attended the film's press conference at Cannes, where she attempted to ask Tarantino why he cast someone as famous and talented as Margot Robbie, and then barely gave her any lines. Tarantino snapped, “I reject your hypothesis,” before Robbie herself took over answering the question.

"I think the moments I was on screen gave a moment to honor Sharon," Robbie said. "I think the tragedy was the loss of innocence. To show the wonderful sides of her could be done without speaking. I did feel like I got a lot of time to explore the character without dialogue, which is an interesting thing. Rarely do I get an opportunity to spend so much time on my own as a character."

Tarantino also spoke to IndieWire at the festival, where he explained that lots of characters in the movie, including Tate, had longer scenes that were ultimately cut, though he's thinking about putting some of them back in for the film's wide release: "There was a little bit more of her; everybody lost sequences. It’s not her story, it’s Rick’s story. It’s not even Cliff’s. And she is an angelic presence throughout the movie, she’s an angelic ghost on earth, to some degree, she’s not in the movie, she’s in our hearts."

Pitt spoke about the violent scene at the film's end, which features him, echoing what Robbie had said: "I didn't see it as a rage against individuals, but a rage against a loss of innocence."

How Roman Polanski's wife, Emmanuelle Seigner, stirred up more controversy.

At the end of May, director Roman Polanski's wife Emmanuelle Seigner spoke out against the film for including a dramatized version of her husband without asking him about it. “I am just saying that it doesn’t bother them [in Hollywood] to make a film which takes Roman and his tragic story… while at the same time they have made him a pariah. And all without consulting him of course,” she wrote in an Instagram post (translated by People).

In the movie, Polanski -- who was married to a pregnant Tate when she was murdered -- is played by Polish actor Rafal Zawierucha and shares a few scenes with Robbie. Tarantino confirmed at the film's press conference that he didn't talk to Polanski about the movie at all, probably because Polanski has been a fugitive from justice for more than 40 years. Polanski, if you're unfamiliar, pleaded guilty in 1977 to unlawful sexual conduct with a minor after he was charged with drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl at Jack Nicholson's home. Before sentencing, however, Polanski fled the United States and has been unable to return to the country ever since, traveling mostly between France, Poland, and Switzerland. He therefore remains a controversial figure in film for pretty obvious reasons, and any time he makes a movie or the Tate murder comes up in the media, the story gets fresh legs. 

Quentin Tarantino brings his own baggage to the controversy table. 

The above would be enough to spawn headline after headline on its own, but the Once Upon a Time talking points are exacerbated by Tarantino's own history. He's come under fire for his treatment of Uma Thurman, which included convincing her to drive an unsafe car during the filming of Kill Bill, leading to a crash. In the past, he's defended Polanski's behavior, which makes the Polish director's inclusion in Once Upon a Time more curious, and Tarantino's association with disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein has brought the treatment of women in his films under closer scrutiny. 

Suffice to say that the controversy won't die down anytime soon -- especially since most people haven't seen the film and can imagine it to contain whatever they want. 

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Emma Stefansky is a staff entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @stefabsky.