Film Review – Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Writer/director Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) is arguably one of his most affectionate undertakings. It’s a loving tribute to 1960s Los Angeles – not so much the one that actually existed but the one that resides in Tarantino’s memory. It’s a world of late-night diners, flickering neon signs, television shows, and of course, movies. It’s no secret that he imbues his material with pop culture references that mean something to him, and this is no different. But this time, his deep emotional connection to this specific place and time feels much more resonant.
This is best exemplified in his two leads. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an aging B-actor, who’s biggest hits are the western television show Bounty Law and WWII movie 14 Fists of McCluskey (both great titles). Rick’s closest companion is his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) who is all swagger and physical bravado, but whose criminal past prevents him from obtaining steady work. Rick and Cliff represent the old guard, two professionals who are slowly coming to the realization that their best days are behind them. Their routines often involve them simply trying to hang on to what they have. Cliff is resigned to a lonely trailer home with his dog, and Rick is a bag full of low self-esteem and constant anxiety. Rick sports a stutter and is moved to tears when a young child actor complements his work.
DiCaprio and Pitt are nowhere near washed up, but at this point in their careers they have developed faces displaying their ages. That is not a detriment. The baby-faced good looks of the past have changed to ones of experience, despair, regrets, tragedies, and triumphs. Because of that they’ve become much more fascinating to watch. DiCaprio and Pitt deliver outstanding performances. They have great chemistry with one another, developing a friendship – or “bromance” – that is authentic. As described in the film, their connection is a little more than a brotherhood and a little less than a marriage.
But if Rick and Cliff are the leads of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the soul is Margot Robbie, playing Sharon Tate. As some of you may recall, Tate – in real life – was an up and coming actress, married to director Roman Polanski, who was tragically killed on August 8th, 1969 along with Jay Sebring, Wojciech Frykowsi, and Abigail Folger at the hands of Charles Manson’s underlings. There has been some criticism laid upon Tarantino for limiting the amount of dialogue for Margot Robbie, but these are misguided. Just as much as he displays his love for the setting, so too does he toward Tate, whose legacy has sadly been marked by her death. Here Tarantino celebrates her life, filling her with joy and exuberance. Robbie’s performance is effective not by how many lines of dialogue she speaks but by the aura and energy her presence brings to the screen.
We see this in one of the best scenes, where Tate visits a movie theater to watch one of her own films, The Wrecking Crew (1968). As Robbie sits down, we see the real Sharon Tate projected on the screen, garnering laughs and cheers from the audience. This sequence has a strange, inverted effect. Robbie’s reactions don’t imply that she is judging what she is seeing, but that she is enjoying the experience of bringing entertainment to other people. The fact that she is watching the real Tate only emphasizes how Tarantino is subverting the legacy that has hovered over her. Even if it’s only for a couple of hours, Tarantino has managed to remind us that Tate was a flesh and blood human being, and not just a victim.
Just as Tarantino has done before, his great accomplishment is being able to juggle different genre styles and rearrange them however he seems fit. There is a lot going on here, from horror, to comedy, to western – and yet they all seem to balance. There are some truly suspenseful moments (a visit to the infamous Spahn Movie Ranch is unnerving, to say the least), but they are contrasted against scenes that are laugh out loud hilarious (such as Cliff’s impromptu fight against Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). Tarantino always keeps us on our toes, never allowing us to settle and predict what will happen next. The narrative has a sprawling, loose structure, opting to freely jump back and forth in time and perspective. At one point we will see Rick, Cliff, and Sharon go about their day, then we will jump to a movie set right in the middle of filming, and then get hurtled into a flashback explaining how all of these different character threads converged together. And of course, we cannot forget the bloodshed, which Tarantino displays with such unrealstic exaggeration that it could be mistaken for a Looney Tunes bit.
All the while, there’s the growing dread of what happens to Sharon Tate and her friends on that fateful night when the Manson clan visited them. This is marked by date/time stamps, like a ticking time bomb winding down to zero. As I was watching it, I wondered how Tarantino would handle this element. In a movie that is crafted as a fantasy with plenty of humor, I questioned how appropriate it would be to insert such a horrible true crime. The way Tarantino did it may be the only possible way it could have worked. His artistic choice (and no, I will not describe it to you) puts the spotlight on where it should be – on Tate and her friends and away from the perpetrators. Here, Tarantino leaves no doubt as to his feelings towards all involved, and he does so in spectacular fashion.
It has been wildly reported that Tarantino intends to direct ten feature films and then retire. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is his 9th (with Kill Bill: Vol. 1 and 2 counted as one). If Tarantino follows through with his plan and walks away after his next project, then the cinema will be losing one of its most distinct voices of the last thirty years. Whether you like him or not, there is no question that Tarantino makes movies that are entirely his own, and while he may have imitators, there are few that are his equal. There was once a time where a lot of filmmakers made passionate, individual works in the mainstream realm. Now, there are only a handful, and Tarantino is one of them. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not only one of the best films of the year, but one of Tarantino’s most personal.