Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood represents a consolidation of every theme, concern, and obsession the filmmaker has ever expressed. Not surprisingly, it has attracted an extraordinary amount of controversy, along with an equal amount of ecstatic
praise. Emily Todd VanDerWerff’s article in Vox, readily available online, is an interesting discussion of the charges directed against the film, and against Tarantino himself. However, it is to be read only after you have seen the movie.
Set in 1969, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is essentially the story of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a fading star of action movies and TV westerns, and Cliff Booth
(Brad Pitt), Rick’s stunt double, driver, factotum, and best friend. Rick has had one too many DUIs, so he needs Cliff to drive him around Los Angeles; Cliff is persona non grata at the major studios (other critics have told you why, but I will not) and dependent on Rick for money to pay for his battered trailer and food for his beloved pit bull, Brandy.
Rick himself has a pleasant house in the Hollywood hills, with a lurid poster from one of his biggest hits in the driveway. (Edmond O’Brien advised him to buy, not rent, a house, so he would always truly live in Los Angeles.) The house is on Cielo Drive, next door to the more palatial home rented by directing wunderkind Roman Polanski (Rafal
Zawierucha) and his beautiful wife, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie).
Already you see where Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood will alienate some viewers, simply by broaching the subjects of Sharon Tate and the
Manson Family. Manson himself—played by Damon Herriman—appears only briefly at the film, showing up on Cielo Drive looking for Terry Melcher, only to be informed by Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) that Melcher no longer lives there. But the rest of the murderous crew is present in abundance, including Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Dakota Fanning), Charles “Tex” Watson (Austin Butler), and
Susan “Sadie” Atkins (Mikey Madison). So are composite characters such as Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), who entices Cliff out to the Spahn Movie Ranch to meet the “family” one fateful day.
In any case, it is imperative to know as little as possible about the ending of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood when going into the theater. We already know, from Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, that Tarantino is a great believer in cinema as a
transformative art, in which you can, in some rueful but satisfying way, correct the injustices of history. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is his most daring foray into that thesis, and in my opinion his best. To say exactly why would reveal too much. However, you can say a great deal about the film’s impact by discussing its lead characters.
Rick Dalton is Everyactor, or at least Every Action Actor. As played by DiCaprio and written by Tarantino, Rick is an amalgam of every second-string leading man of the Fifties and Sixties. Outwardly macho and confident, he is inwardly neurotic, insecure, self-doubting. He is greatly
in need of the whiskey sours and frozen margaritas he swills by the bucketful, and of the pep talks Cliff gives him. “You’re Rick Fuckin’ Dalton,” Cliff says. “Don’t you forget it.” And in many ways he really is Rick Fuckin’ Dalton, a better actor and a better man than he at first appears. An extended set piece, involving the filming of an episode of the TV Western Lancer in which Rick is the guest villain, shows us Rick
at his best and worst. We see Rick with director Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond) and series stars James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant) and Wayne Maunder (the late Luke Perry). We see him doing some expert mustache-twirling as the villain until he blows a line, and then smashing up his trailer in self-loathing afterward. Above all, however, we see his interaction with Trudi (Julia Butters), a precocious child
actor who boosts Rick’s ego at a moment when he needs it most. Here we see Rick not only at his most vulnerable, but also his most likable and admirable.
Cliff, on the other hand, is everything the public imagines Rick to be. Life has dealt Cliff some rotten hands, including an incident that makes an enemy of Bruce Lee, played in the film by Mike Moh. (The film’s
portrayal of Lee as an arrogant jerk has provoked cries of outrage from Lee’s fans and family alike.) Cliff takes it all with an air of amused stoicism. Repairing Rick’s broken TV antenna, he leaps from rooftop to rooftop like a gazelle. Listening to Rick’s fears of ending up making spaghetti Westerns, he opines that there are far worse fates than making movies in Italy. (The film’s title, with its close affinity to the
movies of Sergio Leone, is the most blatant of in-jokes.)
However, Cliff really shows his mettle in his encounter with the Manson Family at the Spahn Ranch; this is one of Tarantino’s patented slow builds to unbearable suspense, which no one—with the single exception of Hitchcock—ever did better. Cliff faces down Manson’s sinister minions with more grit, courage and resourcefulness than Wyatt Earp,
Bat Masterson, Marshal Dillon and Bret Maverick combined. There’s also an elevated form of comic relief in Cliff’s meeting with the blind, randy old George Spahn, played by Bruce Dern at his orneriest. Cliff came out to the Spahn Ranch because he worked there when it was still an active movie location site, and he wanted to visit an old colleague. That is the sort of man Cliff is. Spahn tells him, “I don’t know who you
are, but I appreciate your coming to see me.”
Thus we have Rick and Cliff. Tarantino shows us who they are from the beginning, just by showing their feet. Rick is always in boots, Cliff always in moccasins. They are the Lone Ranger and Tonto, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Bertie Wooster and Jeeves. (And dare I say Butch and Sundance? You know Newman and Redford would have
played Rick and Cliff had the film actually been made in 1969. DiCaprio is Newman crossed with Brando; Pitt is Redford crossed with James Dean.) Cliff is obviously stronger than Rick, but neither could exist without the other—two living metaphors for the entire movie biz. They are to each other, as Kurt Russell’s narration tells us, “a little bit more than a brother and a little bit less than a wife.” Cruising Hollywood
Boulevard together, they are their era’s closest equivalents to knights errant, ready for adventure or whatever comes their way—their hopes, dreams, and moral compasses determined by what they learned at the movies and skewed slightly by the mind-altering substances they ingest. This becomes all-important at film’s end.
Of course Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood would be an obscenity if it
did not do justice to the memory of Sharon Tate. Here, Tarantino was careful to consult with Debra Tate, Sharon’s surviving sister, and the Sharon Tate portrayed in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is friendly, open, kind, still new enough to movies to be thrilled at seeing her name on a theater marquee. Margot Robbie is luminous in the role, and she and Tarantino deserve credit for restoring Tate to the world as something other than the victim at a crime scene.
There is much else going on throughout Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, which is among other things a fanboy’s love letter to the Hollywood of the 1960s. It is a jukebox movie, heavy with tunes from the period (The Mamas and the Papas are characters in the film, and Paul Revere and the Raiders might as well be). It is also a Nickelodeon movie, as in the vintage TV-show network, laced with so many
references to 1960s television that the whole film would collapse without them.
Of the enormous supporting cast, some of the standouts include Butters, a child actor to watch, and Fanning, who graduates from child stardom in a truly chilling performance. There are also notable appearances by Al Pacino, as a catbird of an agent; Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen, delivering a sharp two-minute monologue about the
love triangle between Tate, Polanski and Jay Sebring; and Russell, who does double duty as the film’s narrator and a stunt coordinator with a grudge against Cliff.
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is too dense and sprawling a movie to be summed up neatly. But if pressed, I would say the film is Tarantino’s testament of faith in his art, his belief that movies—when
done well and taken in the right spirit—can save you. He testifies to his beliefs in a style that is leisurely, but thrilling and masterly.
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood ties with Jackie Brown as my favorite Tarantino movie to date. If nothing else, you can just enjoy Leonardo Fuckin’ DiCaprio and Brad Fuckin’ Pitt cruising through
Hollywood in a lemon-yellow Cadillac, with Quentin Fuckin’ Tarantino in the back seat telling them where to go. It is, to sum up, a gas.