WARNING: This post contains very mild spoilers for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
The other day, my best friend says to me, "I think people think of me as your sidekick."
I was taken aback by this. Far as I'm concerned, she and I are equals, a good team as often as we are a force to be reckoned with. It never occurred to me that people on the outside might view the dynamic differently, or consider one of us more "important" than the other, but hearing that she felt this way troubled me a great deal. I assured her I didn't think that was the case, but it stung to think I might've contributed to that perception in any way. She assured me I hadn't done anything to perpetuate the notion, but still - the sentiment stuck with me. I spent no small amount of time after that conversation thinking about the nature of best friendships, and the relationship between heroes and sidekicks.
Upon watching Quentin Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, all those thoughts came flooding back. Here was a film that presented, on the surface, a hero (Leonardo DiCaprio's Rick Dalton) and his right-hand man (Brad Pitt's Cliff Booth). Rick considers himself the boss, endlessly talented and savvy about the world around him. He has advice to spare, a payroll to offer and companionship to provide, but he's also emotional, arrogant and prone to making reckless leaps when hanging back and letting a situation play itself out would do. Left to his own devices, he'd be an absolute mess.
Cliff, meanwhile, is a Hollywood fringe-dweller who hasn't seen work in a long time (he may, in fact, be unemployable were it not for Rick). To everyone around them, Cliff's a glorified driver. A gofer. An employee. He's the one who drives Rick to set, the guy who repairs Rick's TV antenna when it gets blown over in the middle of the night, the dude who lends Rick his sunglasses when Rick has yet another emotional outburst in public. To anyone on the outside looking in, sure, Rick seems like the boss and Cliff might seem like the sidekick, but even the smallest amount of scrutiny reveals this not to be the case.
For instance: Cliff, what with his troubled history and his lack of job prospects, is all out of options when it comes to pulling down a paycheck. Rick provides that. Rick can't be trusted to get himself to set on time (he's a hungover mess), but Cliff can always be counted on to have that car in the driveway at 7:15 AM. Cliff flies coach while Rick flies in First Class, but - without being told so explicitly! - one walks away from Tarantino's film understanding that Rick would probably shell out for a First Class seat if Cliff asked. Cliff doesn't ask, because he's more than happy to sip a "neverending Bloody Mary" back in coach, but that's another thing Rick likes about Cliff: he might be needy, but Cliff isn't.
What struck me most about the relationship between these characters wasn't their camaraderie or their banter, but the manner in which they both provided precisely the elements the other person is lacking. Tarantino beautifully illustrates this dynamic over and over again, just to make sure you understand that Rick ain't really the one running the show. They're both running the show, which is as it should be: in a true best-friendship, you're either equals or you're not (ideally, you're each other's heroes). Sure, Rick might be the guy holding the purse strings and Cliff might be the one who goes home to a busted-ass trailer rather than a home in the Hollywood Hills, but both would be totally set adrift without one another. These characters love one another as people not because their professional arrangement demands it, but because they enjoy one another's company and they get shit done together.
I was deeply moved by the portrayal of Rick and Cliff's friendship, in a way that I've never been moved by, well, just about anything in a Tarantino film. Despite what some naysayers would have you believe, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood contains more emotion and heart that every other QT film combined, and at the center of it all is the relationship between these two broken people (of course Margot Robbie's Sharon Tate brings another kind of heart to the film, but that's another editorial for another day). I watched this movie and I wanted to hug my best friend, and thank her for the innumerable ways she's made life worth living.
Halfway through Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, there's a gloriously intense sequence set at Spahn Ranch, the infamous home of the Manson Family. We learn that this is a place Cliff Booth spent some time at years prior, shooting Bounty Law as Rick Dalton's stunt double. Cliff suspects the Ranch's owner, George (Bruce Dern), is being held there against his will (or worse) by the hippies he's seen haunting Burbank Avenue, so he travels out there to make sure his old friend is okay. This alone speaks volumes about Cliff's character (he hasn't seen George in eight years, yet he's determined to make sure the man isn't being taken advantage of), as does Cliff's stone-faced refusal to leave the property once he's told to leave.
Eventually, Cliff gains access to George's cabin. A rat is slowly dying in a trap in a corner of the kitchen. Garbage is strewn everywhere. Two hippies (one in a top hat, to add insult to injury) appear to have just finished fucking in a school bus out in his front yard. It's an ugly scene, a confirmation of Cliff's worst suspicions. Once he gains access to George's room, he discovers his old friend laying in bed, blind, unable to care for himself and mostly apathetic to whatever the hell is going on around him. When Cliff attempts to roll him over, George snaps at him, refusing his help and angrily growling, "Everyone don't need a stuntman."
As anyone can see, George is wrong. We all need a stuntman.
We all need a person we can call whenever the worst occurs, whenever we need an emergency pair of sunglasses, whenever we need someone to watch our guest spot on FBI with. Someone who'll step in when things get to be too much. Someone who'll utterly destroy those seeking to harm us. We all have acquaintances, and those are nice, but it's vital that we all have a Cliff Booth. As the film's narrator intones at one point, these folks are "more than a brother and less than a wife", and I hope you're as thankful for yours as I am for mine. Not one of us is without our own unique faults or missing pieces, and we all need someone who can bridge those gaps and fill our empty spaces. Without a stuntman, you end up like George: alone, lost, blind to everything around you, and resigned to the absolute worst-case scenario.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is in theaters now. I suggest seeing it with your Cliff Booth. Or your Rick Dalton. You'll know who's who after you've seen it.