As a movie lover, I’ve always been a little averse to writer/directors who only seem to reference other films in their work. I prefer to learn how they view things through the prism of their life experiences, not cinematic ones. Quentin Tarantino has certainly come across as a movie encyclopedia throughout his career, yet in his case, films so clearly are his life. He finds joy from a breathtaking set piece, a surprising turn of phrase, or that perfect marriage of visuals and music. I can easily imagine how thrilled he must have been when watching the kinetic opening sequence to Trainspotting. You can almost see him filing away a great line like, “All I want out of life is a 30 share and a 20 rating” from Network and desperately wanting to make his own mark some day. He obviously has done so, but time marches on, and while he still has a singular voice, he has publicly questioned his own desire to continue making films. With that in mind, he seems to have poured all of his angst into Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood, one of the most problematic yet entertaining films I’ve seen in a long time on the topics of aging and relevancy.
Set gloriously in 1969 Los Angeles, the film follows alcoholic, fading star, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), as they try to stay afloat in an industry that has discarded them to make room for the new shiny pennies. As embodied by rising stars Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) who move in next door. Rick knows he’s just one small fence and a pool party away from scoring a role in the hot director’s next film. His reality, however, sees him relegated to playing bad guys in TV Westerns. Cliff, even lower on the totem pole, acts more like Rick’s personal assistant than as a stuntman these days. An early scene with an old school agent (Al Pacino, overdoing the Jewish stereotype to cartoonish effect) leaves him with the option of escaping to Italy to make Spaghetti Westerns. Pacino calls them “pictures” and I’d like to propose we resuscitate that amazing term! Rick will do anything to stay in the game. Simultaneously, we intercut Rick and Cliff’s adventures with that of their neighbors as Sharon and Roman drive fast, dance at parties, and generally live that charmed life where everything is still possible. I mean, wouldn’t you have loved to have gone to the Playboy Mansion and get whisked away by Mama Cass or get ogled by Steve McQueen? Also, lurking in the background, we see the Manson Family ambling through the fringes of society. History, of course, tells us where all of this is headed, but Tarantino is less interested in that, staying focused on his fictional characters’ dying hopes and dreams.
The story takes its good, sweet time getting anywhere. Shaggy and rambling, it reminded me of Inherent Vice in that stoner/hangout way, but Tarantino knows film structure, and what seemed random feels intentional and necessary in retrospect. Yes, had he cut out half of the shots of characters driving around to an endless array of 60s pop songs, the film would have been 30 minutes shorter, but Tarantino has gone for a fully immersive experience here. He wants you to know exactly what Los Angeles felt like at the time. We get the inky blacks of the Ventura freeway, the neon overkill of Hollywood Boulevard, and the sunny casualness of Westwood Village, and I wanted to live inside legendary cinematographer Robert Richardson’s beautiful frames. Besides, we would have been robbed of a great sequence in which Cliff speeds from Rick’s house to his trailer behind a drive-in theatre. He greets his precious pitbull Brandy for a long, slow, viscerally engaging dinner scene. Brandy waits patiently as Cliff plops kibble and canned food into a giant bowl. It’s all so casual until you later realize everything has a purpose.
Same goes for a fantastic set piece in which Cliff picks a fight with Bruce Lee (scene stealer Mike Moh) or an extended sequence on the set of a TV pilot where Rick meets his match in the body of an 8-year-old co-star (the wonderfully self-possessed Julia Butters). Fosse/Verdon Emmy nominee Margaret Qualley as one of Manson’s followers also makes a great impression as she continually crosses paths with Pitt’s character. The highlight for me, though, gave us Sharon Tate talking her way into the Bruin Theatre in Westwood to watch herself on screen in The Wrecking Crew. I loved her innocence and pride as the audience laughed and applauded her performance. When entering the theatre, she poses for a photograph with all of the goofy charm our current selfie culture lacks. In fact, I found it so refreshing that the photographer snapped the pic of Sharon alone instead of posing with her. Tarantino, in this moment, gives Sharon back to us, reframing her as a promising talent instead of as a murder victim. Robbie, despite having very little dialogue, brings a magical presence to the film. It feels like an unexpected gift.
Tarantino overstuffs the movie with tons of cameos. Some work better than others. Kurt Russell gets some laughs as a Stunt Coordinator who absolutely does not want to hire Cliff, and Dakota Fanning creeped me out as Squeaky Fromme. Many of the lesser known cast members, however, made a much bigger impression. Austin Butler gives Manson’s henchman, Tex, a chilling edge, while Nicholas Hammond (Friedrich from The Sound Of Music, you guys!) perfectly captures the phoniness and transparent negotiation skills a director needs in order to get what he wants out of his actors. Talented actors like Lena Dunham, Damian Lewis and the late Luke Perry feel plopped in simply because they wanted to be in a Tarantino film. It’s a lot to absorb, but doesn’t ruin it.
None of this would work quite as well as it does, however, without DiCaprio and Pitt’s great chemistry and committed performances. DiCaprio proved in The Wolf Of Wall Street that he had a gift for an over-the-top style of acting, but he outdoes himself here. Insecure and short-fused, he taps into Rick’s rage and despondency, yet never forgets to entertain the audience. It’s a very showy piece of acting, but also surprisingly moving. Pitt adopts a more laconic style, the better to conceal his astute observations, whether it be of Rick himself or of the dangerous cult which grows insidiously closer to him. Moreover, he knows exactly how to make his scenes with his dog sing. Both DiCaprio and Pitt walk that fine line between broad comedy and genuine pathos, and do so to perfection.
With its extended duration, there’s plenty of time to reflect on where Tarantino’s headed. The cumulative effect of all this casualness slowly reveals his central thesis, which I found disturbingly conservative, yet intensely relevant. Those in power won’t give up so easily. Rick and Cliff aren’t going to let the young upstarts and the hippies get in their way. They intend to fight for old Hollywood, for a time when films had a classic sheen, before the 70s gave us antiheroes and grittiness, before life got messy with Vietnam, Watergate, assassinations, and yes, the Manson murders. They want to make America great again. God help us all. Tarantino may employ an overused method of his to make his point in the shockingly graphic, insane final half hour, but it still works like gangbusters and all comes together in the end. The final shot of the movie packs a quiet, lovely, heartbreakingly emotional punch.
Tarantino takes a flamethrower to the influx of the counterculture, yet disguises it with a wistful nostalgia. He’s tapping into a similar feeling which gave rise to our current political “leadership”, yet finds something sweet at its center. Problematic messaging? Sure, but not as pointless as it first appears. Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood, like its title suggests, embraces a fairytale quality to make some scabrous observations about ego, aging, and the thirst for a seat at the table with all the newbies out there ready to take your place.
GAY SCALE: For each review, I’ll rate the film on my 50 SHADES OF GAY SCALE to let you know how far it tips in our favor. Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood gets a 10 out of 50. Tarantino clearly wants to explore toxic masculinity and entitlement, and strangely does not have one gay character in a film about that gayest of Businesses we call Show. Still, the way he fetishizes Sharon Tate, showering her in golden light, a steady stream of music, and enough walking in boots shots to suggest a Nancy Sinatra biopic was made on the sly, it’s just a shade queer.
By Glenn Gaylord
Once Upon A Time In…Hollywood is in US theatres now and released in the UK cinemas Wednesday 14th August. It’s a picture best experienced on a big screen.