Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Al Pacino
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
When a filmmaker like Quentin Tarantino announces that his next film is going to be set against the backdrop of the Manson murders in the final years of the 1960s and that the late actress Sharon Tate is going to be a major character, it’s hard not to feel somewhat anxious or concerned. It’s a little like enlisting Michael Bay, a director known for unfiltered stylistic excesses and explosive glorification of warfare, to direct a thoughtful epic about a national tragedy (which, you know, happened). The recurring motif that Tarantino is probably best known for in his work, more so than his unique style of profane dialogue, his encyclopaedic knowledge of film and exhaustive pop culture literacy, or his fascination with feet, is his frequent depictions of over-the-top violence. Although the director’s views on violence in media are so well-documented by this point that his irritation at being made to reiterate them grows more and more visible with each new film, a question of taste has to be raised when discussing such a disturbing episode of recent American history. As much as I have (and still do) enjoy his body of work, I do often find myself questioning Tarantino’s judgement especially where it relates to matters of race and gender (plus there’s that time when he cast himself as an Australian). He is also, however, one of the few directors working today who I feel has earned the benefit of the doubt where experimentation and innovation are concerned and so I awaited this film with hopeful apprehension.
What’s strange about the movie Tarantino has produced is that it might be his most characteristic film or his least; it depends on who you think Quentin is. In true Tarantino fashion, Once Upon a Time is an ensemble piece with overlapping storylines. One concerns Sharon (Margot Robbie), an up and coming actress newly married to the celebrated Polish director Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha). One follows her next door neighbour Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a washed up TV star reduced to weekly guest stints in a desperate bid to remain relevant. The third features Rick’s employee and friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a stunt double whose career has effectively come to an end due to age and scandal. Yet for the longest time it doesn’t feel like the film has a story to tell or a point it’s working its way towards. The characters don’t really act so much as they just exist. Sharon attends lush parties with the likes of Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis), explores Los Angeles, and sneaks into a screening of her own movie. Rick attends a meeting with casting agent Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino), contemplates the direction his career is heading in, then spends the next day stuttering and drinking his way through a TV shoot. Cliff carries out a strict dinnertime ritual with his rigorously-trained dog, goes to Rick’s house to shirtlessly fix his antenna, and befriends a teenaged hitchhiker called Pussycat (Margaret Qualley).
As should be evidenced by the title, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is best understood not as the story of three people whose lives intersected but rather as the story of a particular time and place. There’s a clear nostalgia for that era on Tarantino’s part which is evident in the loving detail used to bring the period to life. The cinematography exudes this warm glow that evokes an eternally sunlit California in the midst of a cultural golden age. As Cliff roams the streets of Los Angeles in either Rick’s cream-coloured Cadillac or his own rusty Karmann Ghia, the movie invites us to lean back and take in the sights and vibes of this city where hippies meander down Hollywood Boulevard and neon signs are ready to light up the streets as soon the sun goes down while Aretha Franklin and Deep Purple play in the background. Tarantino is known for having such a deep knowledge and passion for cinema that he’d make most film nerds ashamed to call themselves such and this movie is teeming to the brim with enough references, homages and cameos to make their heads spin. However, as with Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained which both told unmistakably fictional stories in historical settings, the film is as much a comment on the present as it is the past, perhaps more so. This is an era of sweeping change in the entertainment industry in which certain customs, stories and even people are being left behind. Tarantino, an ever vocal advocate for celluloid film in an increasingly digital age, is trying to recapture something here that he thinks has been lost.
It’s worth bearing in mind that, even when setting his films in the past, Tarantino has never even pretended to feel beholden towards history as it really happened. If anything, his movies should be considered fantasies for the blatant way in which they rewrite the past, correcting historical injustices with acts of bloody retribution. Adolf Hitler is gunned down by a Jewish soldier and a slaveowner’s estate and livelihood is brought down in flames by a former slave. There’s an element of that going on here in the film’s portrayal of Sharon Tate, but on a more intimate (there’s a word I never thought I’d use to describe a Tarantino film) scale. Tate is mostly remembered today for three things: starring in the racy Valley of the Dolls, marrying Roman Polanski, and being murdered by the Manson Family. Tarantino clearly reveres the actress and uses this movie as chance to showcase the sides of Tate we never see in the history books. What the movie shows us is a young, rising star with an endlessly promising future ahead of her living a day in the life that would one day be violently stolen from her. In Robbie’s performance we see an exuberant joy for life, a passion for her work and even an anxiety about winning the public’s favour and becoming a star in an industry that will kick the Rick Daltons of the world to the curb without a second thought. One particularly moving scene has Sharon watching herself (or, rather, the real Sharon Tate) in The Wrecking Crew and being relieved by the audience’s warm, enthusiastic response.
While Sharon is the heart of this movie, the protagonists are Rick and Cliff. Rick marks the other end of the Hollywood star-making machine that Sharon has just entered; he’s a has-been who makes his living playing punching bags for the younger stars of new TV shows following in the footsteps of his hit 1950s Western Bounty Law. It’s a vicious cycle that systematically builds people up only to tear them down and there’s a distinct pleasure in watching DiCaprio, a bona fide movie star in his first starring role since his Oscar victory, playing this washed up former idol coming to grips with his own irrelevancy. He taps into this wonderful vein of pathos and self parody playing this embittered, self-hating wretch who isn’t ready to accept that he’s no longer “Rick Fuckin’ Dalton”. This comes to a head when a boozed-up Rick chats to an exceedingly professional child actress who has barely begun her own path towards stardom. They talk about the book that Rick happens to be reading and, finding that the themes hit a little closer to home than he initially realised, the cowboy actor is reduced to tears. It’s an incredibly funny scene, but it’s also a surprisingly touching one that reveals the deeper humanity of Rick, and perhaps even that of Tarantino himself who has sworn he will retire after making one more movie lest he become an old, irrelevant filmmaker trying desperately to recapture the glory days of yore.
As Cliff, Pitt proves himself once again to be an exceptionally charismatic star, imbuing this effortless cool that evokes the memories of Steve McQueen and Burt Reynolds. Even when he’s just standing on a roof fixing an aerial in the California sun, his screen presence is magnetic. Like Rick, he’s on the tail end of his career having gone from a Hollywood stunt man to his friend’s overqualified chauffer and handyman. Unlike Rick however, he’s pretty cool with the whole thing and is more or less content to take life as it comes. Even when his employment with Rick starts looking more and more untenable or when he’s found himself at Spahn Ranch where the Manson Family have taken up residence, nothing seems to faze the guy. So it is that, for the first two thirds of the movie, we watch Sharon live her life as it’s about to take off, Rick as his is about to come crashing down, and Cliff as he breezes his way along, all three of them oblivious of the terror that will take place on Cielo Drive in the summer of ‘69. At that point the movie takes a sudden turn and it is here that we’re finally treated to the Tarantino we all either love or loathe. With the blending of extreme violence with slapstick humour and stylised visual flourishes, the ending is trademark Tarantino. Whether that feels appropriate in such a film as this will fall onto the viewer’s taste and what they think of Tarantino films in general.
The ending is bound to confound some and confuse others, but I think the point becomes a little clearer if you think of this movie as a lament for both the 60s and for Sharon Tate. The 1960s were the best of times and the worst of times and it is a decade which Tarantino clearly holds in regard. There are some for whom the Manson killings mark the end of that era; a sudden, shockingly violent end where the world seemed to stop making sense and nothing felt certain or safe anymore. My feeling is that this movie is Tarantino’s way of mourning an age that he wishes didn’t have to come to an end as well as a life of such promise and potential that was tragically taken too soon. While I’ve long thought Tarantino a filmmaker of enormous talent and depth, I would never have thought him capable of making a film with such sensitivity and affection. There are still smatterings of violence scattered throughout as well as the director’s usual wittily coarse dialogue and fetishistic focus on feet because it wouldn’t be a Tarantino film otherwise but, between the humour and the mayhem, there’s a profoundly melancholic tone that we haven’t seen in any of his other films. That’s what makes it all feel so strange. This is perhaps the least characteristic film Tarantino made in his whole career yet it might also be the film that reveals the most about him both as a filmmaker and a person.