In the early days of Quentin Tarantino’s career, he was backed and promoted by Harvey Weinstein, who was the Oscar whisperer for a good several decades. It’s probably not something anyone wants to talk about with a new Tarantino movie on the horizon, but it is important when viewing Tarantino’s history with the Academy. The one thing Harvey (and his team) was really good at was knowing how to sell to “them.” That meant not just the Academy itself, but the entire awards industry that surrounds them. He knew how to sell Tarantino. That meant that “Pulp Fiction,” from 1995, had a really good shot at the major awards. It would end up winning Best Original Screenplay. That was the year of “Forrest Gump,” however, which ended up taking Best Picture and Best Director.
“Pulp Fiction,” to borrow a line from “Bull Durham,” announced Tarantino’s presence with authority. It remains among the most influential and beloved American films ever made. It introduced (even further than “Reservoir Dogs,” his breakout film) the Tarantino universe of pop culture/cinema-infused gangster films, or whatever they are. Tarantino writes and directs and it’s always been debatable which of these talents are his best. His writing has always been quotable and his directing memorable.
Tarantino worked for many years with editor Sally Menke, going all the way back to “Reservoir Dogs.” Her last movie with Tarantino was “Inglourious Basterds.” She was also his editor on “Pulp Fiction,” “Jackie Brown,” and “Kill Bill Vol. 1 and 2.” “Django Unchained” was the first movie Tarantino made without her, then “The Hateful Eight,” and now “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.” I personally believe this collaboration was key to the Tarantino visual style, like Thelma Schoonmaker’s is for Martin Scorsese, or Verna Fields’ was for Spielberg’s “Jaws.” You might not recognize it when it’s there, but you most certainly notice it when it’s not.
Tarantino’s films are now edited by Fred Raskin. In looking back on Tarantino’s work, there will always be a pre-Sally Menke and post-Sally Menke division, but that’s not to say one is better than the other necessarily, just different. That’s because the Tarantino/Menke style was so visually knowable and familiar. Now, with each new film, we sort of never know what we’re going to get – only that we know it’s Tarantino and that it will be verbose and bloody.
No matter, though. With the exception of the hard-to-take “The Hateful Eight,” the Academy and the industry overall always seem to love them some Tarantino. After all, what’s not to love? Tarantino’s brand is built from the durable DNA of Hollywood history. He works to preserve “cinema” – real film, real theaters, real stars. He resurrects dead careers of former icons. He worships them the way they want and need to be worshipped. But beyond that, they simply really seem to like his movies. They’re entertaining, they’re original, they’re full of life.
That is why it’s a pretty good bet that “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” will be an “Oscar contender.” Nothing is ever certain, of course. You just get hunches one way or the other. But I’m gonna bet that with so much rigidity and near-fascist policing of art as of late – where every aspect of a film or even those involved in the films are scrutinized with arbitrary standards of purity – Tarantino’s film will be like a breath of fresh air. Without having seen it myself, it’s impossible for me to comment on whether it’s good enough to actually win Best Picture.
However, it’s important to note how most people did not think Martin Scorsese’s The Departed was “an Oscar movie” or “good enough to win.” They thought Leo’s death at the end meant it wouldn’t/couldn’t. What they didn’t get was that Martin Scorsese was coming up to bat with the bases loaded. He’d come so close to winning Best Picture for so long, he was so beloved in the industry and by fans and by audiences, a grand slam was only a matter of time. They didn’t have to wait for him to make a “Schindler’s List” or “Titanic.” They could get there with a movie that was just plain good.
Tarantino could be coming up to bat with bases loaded this year, depending on how the rest of the game goes. I say this only because of the recent increasingly tense atmosphere of the Oscar race and how it seems to be begging for a kind of explosive win like a Tarantino win might afford. “Once Upon a Time” is the third in a trilogy of American history rewrites of tragic and unforgivable – unthinkable – events: the Holocaust, slavery, and now, the Manson murders. Tarantino’s rewrites where his characters exact revenge (for the first two anyway) are fantasies, for sure, but they also soothe an eternal ache that has been embedded in our national psyche for decades.
Either way, I would not write off Tarantino’s movie to be considered, even if it doesn’t seem serious enough. Like Scorsese, like the Coens, he’s carved out a place for himself in film and Academy history, and there is a good chance they will hold a place for him this year.