Release Date: August 14th, 2019 (UK)
Duration: 161 mins.
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Writer: Quentin Tarantino (Screenplay)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley,
Quentin Tarantino is, without a doubt, one of Hollywood’s best movie makers. He has cemented his place by making violent cinematic spectacles that are riffs on genre conventions replete with references and re-purposed iconic imagery from older genre films to synthesise entertaining experiences. The style is often the substance and it often feels like being in a closed world as thinly sketched characters act out their tales surrounded by callbacks to older entertainment. Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood feels like his most mature film to date because it is more of an open world. It speaks to more than just narrow sets of film fans as it relies upon and subverts the shared cultural memory of a wider audience who grew up with 50s and 60s Americana because the film is a melancholy love letter to a lost age in Hollywood where the transition from the fading allure of westerns to the glamorous swinging 60s was about to be knocked off course by the grisly fate of Sharon Tate, something that signalled the end of an era of innocence.
This slice of American belle epoque takes place in 1969 while the Vietnam war is happening but you wouldn’t know it because we’re in Hollywood and seeing the showbiz life as experienced by three characters: Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), the former star of the (fictional) TV western Bounty Law who is struggling to make the leap to movies; Cliff Booth (Pitt), Rick’s stunt-double and best friend, a war veteran with a bad rep after having killed his wife; Sharon Tate (Robbie) who, along with her husband Roman Polanski, has just moved next door to Rick in the Hollywood Hills. Their story-lines run parallel to each other as they experience the ins and outs of the movie industry before entwining neatly at the end. We live with them for a few days amidst the exciting and glamorous surrounds of film productions, negotiations and parties all while Sharon’s real-life death casts a pall over everything as we wait for how it will be told by Tarantino.
Typical for the film obsessive that Tarantino is, he captures the atmosphere with what looks like a faithful reconstruction of 60s Hollywood through costumes, sets and locations full to the brim with all sorts of period details, excerpts from contemporaneous TV shows and a soundtrack full of hits designed to strike the right emotions. The camera captures it all, often with beautiful tracking shots along city streets as people drive along the boulevards and highways (because you can’t get anywhere in California without a car). Indeed, many sequences are just spending time with Rick and Cliff as they drive, the camera sometimes positioned in the backseat as we cruise the streets and boulevards with them and enjoy the ambience. By steeping the audience in the location and all of its style we feel part of their lives. This has led to criticisms of pacing which probably come from those less enamoured with Tarantino’s style because I found myself wanting to hang out with the characters.
Although she doesn’t get as much screen time as the guys, the bright-eyed and bushy tailed optimism of Margot Robbie’s performance imbues her character with a effervescence and defines the film with a grace and meaning: she is innocence and wonder and enjoying all that Hollywood can give as she slinks around groovy parties and we enjoy being with her. Her spirit is the spirit of the age as translated through Robbie, and we are moved seeing her especially during a scene where she watches an actual Sharon Tate performance in a cinema and Tarantino focuses the camera on Robbie’s look of innocent delight at seeing her character. We’re all revelling in her evident pride for making it on the big screen and the bright future that awaits her, something which makes the tragedy we anticipate all the more poignant.
While Tate represents a girl on the rise, Rick Dalton represents the old guard being displaced. Leo’s acting test is to capture the contrary emotions of the coolness of an experienced actor while also hinting at his fear of being replaced by younger stars. This comes out in a showy stutter but becomes breathtaking when he rages and gets wrathful self-critical monologues. Watching these moments, well, he has the air of Jack Nicholson – see that snarl he gives in the shattered wing mirror in one of his TV appearances – but DiCaprio’s best moment comes when his character arc puts him in his greatest acting test with a girl who practises method-acting (another stylistic challenge to old guard Hollywood) who brings out his best. This sequence and the emotional payoff, and the Tate cinema moment are dialogue free and the emotions of the characters come through loud and clear. Indeed, a commendable aspect of the film is how Tarantino tones down his dialogue and the quiet moments are the ones where you appreciate how the actors inhabit their roles by looking at their faces. As the laid-back Cliff, Brad is perfect with a confident swagger and drawl, and a face with the steady gaze and resigned look of a guy packing so much experience but as cool as a summer’s breeze so you can see how he became the confidant for Rick as he acts as stability for his friend.
There is emotional weight to the characters rather than just coolness and snark thanks to the actors but there is also real life which the film draws on and the ominous references – the scandal around Polanski’s behaviour and the Manson family – are used by Tarantino to tease moments of high tension before subverting everything for his own end which makes the movie a surprise and turns it into a fairy tale (hence the title) but this may not work for all audiences.
Often times, Tarantino makes movies in a closed world where movie fans get the most out of endless references¹ but this one is more open and speaks to a wider cultural zeitgeist for certain generations. Younger audiences more ignorant of history may be put off. The one weakness of the film is that you have to know the story of the Sharon Tate murder for everything to work. I feel that my generation might be the last to have grown up with it being part of our cultural memory, likewise with the type of shows and movies that Rick, Cliff, and Sharon work in and so the film’s ending is a violent yet sweet farewell to that age, where hippies and the older generation could get along. Other potential drawbacks are the Bruce Lee scene which does feel a tad disrespectful and anybody expecting a full-on #MeToo mea culpa for Tarantino’s treatment of Uma Thurman and female characters in previous films best look elsewhere. There are some jarring moments where the tone switches to hardcore violence after so much restraint and the laidback atmosphere but Tarantino is a genre film-maker and anybody familiar with, say giallo movies of the 70s, won’t be too phased and the film is good enough that you go with it because we’re already sucked into the milieu and for those in the audience who know of the Manson family, well, there’s little sympathy for their characters.
For those familiar with that form of Americana and movie culture, this films with its verisimilitude and likeable characters is truly a moving farewell to that era and one of Tarantino’s best.
¹There are many references to other films especially in vignettes where DiCaprio is CGI’d into scenes from real films like spy flick Operazione Dyn-O-Mite! to completely made-up films that capture the manic B-movie action as seen in 14 Fists of McCluskey, a Dirty Dozen-alike. Once Upon a Time is littered with references to obscure and lost cult gems such as Luke Perry wearing a replica costume from, and talking about The Bengal Lancers which is an actual film that has been lost in protracted legal disputes (shout out to a friend for telling me).