One of the things that makes Quentin Tarantino a great director – indeed, I would argue the key to making him a great director – is his ability to blend a history of the old with something completely new. By throwing back to genres and influences as varied as the French New Wave, the samurai epic, the film noir, and the Spaghetti Western, Tarantino finds ways to provide visions of things his audiences have likely never seen before, like Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and Kill Bill, or even the best moments of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. I can’t say with any degree of certainty that I felt any of that “newness” in his latest film, Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood, but there is a refreshing, emotional nostalgia pumping throughout the film, and as a tribute to a time and place before the world turned upside down, I’d say he comes pretty damn close to nailing it.
It’s 1969, and Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) has reached a critical time in his career. Having sacrificed his long-running TV show Bounty Law for a failed television career, Rick goes for an all-out television blitz, hoping to avoid what he views as a fate worse than death: Spaghetti Westerns. When he’s not filming (and even when he is), Rick spends his time being chauffeured around and getting drunk with his stuntman/gofer/best friend, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a war vet with a dark past and a penchant for violence. Over the course of three days, the two drink, relive the glory days, reflect on past mistakes, run into a series of familiar faces, including Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) and their next-door-neighbor Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and question the ever-growing presence of flower children traversing the streets of L.A. spreading the good word of “Charlie.”
The two films that most quickly sprang to mind while watching Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood are Robert Altman’s masterpiece Nashville and Hal Ashby’s Shampoo, both from 1975. In the case of the former, Altman uses the entertainment industry to explore a variety of characters in the aftermath of the 60s, ranging from patriotic country singers to angsty womanizers to poor women looking for any opportunity to prove their worth in a male-dominated world. It all comes together as a slow-drifting patchwork examination of America during a specific time in a specific place. Meanwhile, Ashby’s Shampoo is a scathing, hilarious satire exploring much of these same themes – it follows a group of hedonistic Californians as they argue politics, money, and sex, all while convinced that there is no way the free love era will come to an end – on the night of the 1968 election, one of three cataclysmic events that would destroy the dream of the 60s forever. Tarantino is combining these themes with his love of Hollywood to study what he feels is the largest turning point in American history: 1969. This is the year, he feels, when Hollywood shifted away from dreamy musicals and brave war films to reflect the horrors of the world around them; when noble politicians would leave office and be replaced by an evil and corruption that would span decades. It was a time when a country that once felt safe and loving would watch an opportunistic sociopathic huckster seduce a generation of youngsters through a mix of sex and racism to effectively murder the last remnants of goodness in the country. Tarantino is exploring an important moment in our history, one that affected both the film industry and the country in general. When Charles Manson’s Family murdered Sharon Tate and company in the hopes of starting a race war, it resulted in a corrupt crackdown on crime by Nixon, which led to the U.S. turning on him, which made him paranoid, which led to Watergate, which led to nationwide disillusionment, which led to a culture clash that would last generations to come. In the meantime, Hollywood began to reflect the disillusionment borne out of the Nixon Administration and Manson murders, and brought about the New Hollywood directors. Tarantino’s goal here is to capture that era in all its messiness – the cultural clashes, the beauty and shortcomings of old Hollywood, the intelligence and inanities of New Hollywood, and the general feel of a country on the edge of a massive cultural shift.
Now, as far as this all goes, this does bring me to my biggest slight against this film. While it does feature a patchwork of episodic great scenes, like Nashville and Pulp Fiction, it never feels like it comes together into a fluid whole. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – lots of films are made up of great episodes that don’t all work together. But here, you’re constantly hoping that the film culminates in some sort of true grand statement, or some sort of grand statement, and the best you get is a bunch of sporadic remarks in between glory day reflections. There are, of course, several great sequences in this film: a martial arts-fistfight between Cliff and Bruce Lee, a party at the Playboy Mansion, Rick Dalton getting schooled in acting by an 8-year-old feminist method actor, the eerie sequence set on the Spahn Ranch, Sharon Tate at a matinee of one of her movies, Rick melting down inside his trailer, the final scene, and more are some of the most entertaining moments of any film this year. There’s a series of fascinating driving shots that show off the L.A. of Tarantino’s dreams, a fantasy world filled with throwbacks to the Valley of the Dolls-style of filmmaking he loves so much. And naturally, he picks music to match his scenes perfectly, from a May-December flirtation set to “Mrs. Robinson,” a perfect use of Neil Diamond’s underrated “Brother Love’s Travelling Salvation Show,” and an obvious-but-needed use of “California Dreamin’.” It’s all of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite things, delivered in a decidedly un-Tarantino, Altman-esque way. But as great as these scenes are, they never feel like they flow together as a cohesive whole. And any time the film does try to discuss something serious, Tarantino quickly brushes it off to return back to the comedy of it all. Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth is accused of killing his wife, a crime it is highly implied he committed, and yet people tend to ignore it because he was a war hero. Is this commentary on the things we let “heroes” get away with? Meanwhile, the Manson Family reveals that everything they learned about violence came from watching 1950s Westerns, and seeing people get killed every week. Is this the film’s potential commentary? And what of Rick and Cliff’s “more than a brother, less than a wife” homoerotic relationship? Surely there’s something there to be explored. But no. Tarantino is much more fascinated in the Big Picture than he is the microscopic themes and questions he raises. And that’s fine. I just wish he hadn’t taunted us with them along the way.
But now that I’ve gotten my biggest frustration out of the way, I can go back to focusing on all the things I like about Tarantino’s love letter to filmmaking. You can tell from Day 1 that Tarantino has wanted to make a Hollywood satire, and this is the closest he’s ever going to get. Much of the film takes place on sets, inside trailers, and exploring the ins and outs of the craft. One of the best sequences in the film is a nearly one-take demonstration of the filming of an episode of Lancer, a cheesy two-season Bonanza rip-off on which Rick Dalton portrays the villain. The shot mostly places you right inside the film itself, immersing you in the audience experience, until everything – from the score to the tension – is broken when Rick forgets his lines. It’s a funny sequence made funnier by Rick’s trailer meltdown about two minutes later, and it allows Tarantino to have his cake and eat it too – to show the audience the kind of Western he grew up watching, and to show the audience what it looks like to make one of the Westerns he grew up watching. However, Tarantino isn’t just interested in exploring how films are made; no, instead he wants to use the history of Hollywood to explore the history of the craft itself. The central tension of the film, the emotional core, comes from Rick finding himself at the crux of Old and New Hollywood. And Tarantino, a lover of both eras, uses this tension to mine for laughs and commentary along the way. Rick is very much a student of the Old Hollywood era – he hates hippies, he views Spaghetti Westerns as a lesser art form that “nobody likes,” and wistfully imagines a world where he successfully had beaten out Steve McQueen for The Great Escape (brilliantly editing him into the 1963 classic, and playing a sad note on the piano whenever someone mentions it). Viewed by many as the Ideal Man, Rick is something of a John Wayne-esque figure who never really backs up his blustering manly-man talk. Just as the real Wayne carefully avoided World War II, Rick Dalton asks the crew if they can “do anything about the heat” on a flamethrower he uses as a prop. However, while Rick is incapable of realizing he’s out of touch, much of the film’s general drama comes from his realization that he is becoming a relic. There’s a brilliant moment when he is offered a guest spot on the 1966 series Batman, which both references a show beloved to Tarantino (and me!), but also comments on modern-day stars being eaten alive by the Marvel model. And Rick is emotionally connected to a book he’s reading about a cowboy who’s past his prime and feeling useless. Rick’s declining career is defined by an unseen narrator as “The End of an Era,” and it truly is – Rick represents the death of the Studio System, and the disappearance of classic stars.
Meanwhile, just as Rick’s star is in a downward spiral, the film takes its time to meet the stars of tomorrow, both as a tribute by Tarantino and his way of mocking a strange new system. We first meet New Hollywood in the form of the glamorous Sharon Tate and her husband, Roman Polanski, “the hottest director in the world.” We travel with them to the Playboy Mansion, where they dance and drink the night away with everyone from Steve McQueen to Mama Cass (Rachel Redleaf). We also see Mike Moh as legendary martial artist Bruce Lee, early in his career and long before he changed the action film genre forever in the early 70s. By introducing us to these figures, we as an audience learn more about the artists and performers that would force the Rick Daltons of the world out of the business, and learn more about where we went as a culture, historically and artistically. Of course, Tarantino is more than willing to take this new generation of stars and talent down a few pegs. The “bold, edgy new director” who wants to make his show relatable and satiric screams things as Dalton like, “Give me Evil Sexy Hamlet!” That Bruce Lee sequence I mentioned earlier quite questionably portrays him as an arrogant ass who isn’t quite as talented as he seems (an analysis I’m not entirely pleased with, but is funny in context). And as mentioned above, in one of the film’s best sequences, Dalton finds himself getting taunted by an eight-year-old method actress. Portrayed by Julia Butters, this rising actress spends much of her screen time rolling her eyes at Rick, discussing her dedication to the craft, only answering to her character name, and practicing her pratfalls to become a better actress. She’s hilarious, whip-smart, and both a perfect love letter and satire of the uptight method actors like Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman, and Marlon Brando, who came to prominence during the late 60s and early 70s. Whether Old Hollywood or New, Tarantino is giving them all the love and mockery they deserve.
Of course, this film isn’t just about the glamour and pageantry of Hollywood. It’s also about the future, lurking nefariously and darkly under the surface, manifested in the form of Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) and his Family. Like the menace of the Vietnam War, when we first meet the Manson Family, they are but an idea, a background image easily pushed away by the sight of stars like Rick Dalton and Sharon Tate. However, just as they slowly oozed into public consciousness in real life, so too do the Manson girls slowly invade the scenes and story. We first meet Manson in the creepiest of manors – driving a dilapidated ice cream truck to the Tate residence and trying to weasel his way in, unaware of its new owners. But despite his creepy appearance and our general knowledge of the monster he is, it can be easy at first to get suckered into the charm of it all. Manson is a faux-celebrity, hanging out with Dennis Wilson and surrounded by highly attractive flower children. But as fun as it all seems, the film makes sure that these monsters go from fun to creepy in no time flat – just like the sociopathic “children” can change emotions on the fly to lure in guests. The arrival on the Spahn Ranch is one of the most horrific sequences of the year, with a rat caught in a glue trap thrown in for extra symbolism. While Cliff Booth remembers a time when the Spahn Ranch was a booming movie set, we see it devolved into shambles under Manson’s reign – perhaps an allegory for what happens to America in his aftermath. And yet, the film still manages to mine comedy out of the tragedy and horror of it all – for if we can’t laugh in the face of oppressors, then what are we, really? A terrifying sequence involving Bruce Dern’s George Spahn turns into pure comedy on a dime. Upon meeting Rick Dalton on the eve of the infamous murders, the Manson gang uncharacteristically geeks out over their love for Dalton’s acting. And in a soon-to-be controversial finale that I won’t spoil here, I will say that Tarantino continues dolling out historical justice in that special way only he can. I don’t want to say much about these scenes, as Tarantino has asked audiences to go in unspoiled, but I do have a couple quick points I want to raise. The first is a simple notation: I’m a little disturbed by the violence against women portrayed in the finale, but given the circumstances I’d be hard pressed to say that the film (and historical context) doesn’t justify its existence. And the second is a much more simple acknowledgment: despite its controversial nature, despite its flaws, and despite its inhumanity, it is still one of the best sequences of the year. Full stop. Tarantino uses the Mansons to killer effect, and it’s a fitting use for America’s most notorious murderers.
And finally, as we segue into the film’s acting, I want to talk about Sharon Tate – both in terms of Robbie’s performance and the film’s use of her as a whole. Much has been made of Tate’s limited role in the film, and I think a lot of that is because of the casting. There would have been no issue had she been billed similarly to, say, Damian Lewis or Rafał Zawierucha as her husband, Roman Polanski. It is the misleading of audiences that she would be a major role that raised defenses from worried audiences at Cannes. Understanding the role and the context, I can confirm that what Robbie – and to a certain extent, Tarantino as writer/director – does in this film is truly stunning work. For much of her introduction – most of the first act, in fact, we only hear about Sharon Tate as discussed by the men who surround her. Steve McQueen monologues about her relationships with Polanski and Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch), men ogle her as she dances, and her dialogue is limited to answering questions and dancing in her living room. This is intentional. The reason we have to hear about Tate so mystically is because, well, she is a mystical figure. Because her violent death and short life have become so immortalized in our pop culture lexicon, she has become more of a symbol to us than a living, breathing person, a woman with feelings and flaws and emotions. By addressing the mythology from the get-go, Robbie and Tarantino have the freedom to destroy these illusions built up over 50 years with a personal, intimate sequence of Tate living her everyday life. Robbie as Tate radiates goodness throughout her time onscreen, allowing us to feel this woman’s heart and soul. We see this kindness as she earnestly and honestly picks up a young hitchhiker we the audience realizes is a Manson girl. We witness her quiet intelligence as she buys a copy of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, a book film lovers know is her favorite, that she bought for Polanski as a gift, and which he later turned into the terrific Tess as a love letter to her. And above all, she loved people. In the film’s most heartwarming sequence, Tate enters a quiet theater, puts her bare feet up on the chair in front of her (because this is a Tarantino movie, after all), and smiles quietly to herself as the audience laughs and cheers for her performance in The Wrecking Crew. The look of pure joy and contentment on her face as she sees the joy she brings to others is why people make movies, why we watch movies, and precisely why Tarantino made this film. Robbie makes the most of every moment onscreen, and her final sequence drives the final point home in a subtle, yet emotionally joyous conclusion: that goodness goes on in the face of evil, that Tate was a real woman who tried to bring joy to people’s lives, and that sometimes, having a drink and watching a movie with the people around you is the greatest gift of all.
Outside of Robbie’s incredible performance, this film is a two-hander, delivered by stars delivering some of their greatest work to date. DiCaprio is operating on Wolf of Wall Street-level greatness here, immersing himself in the ins and outs of Rick Dalton’s pathetic machismo performance. He is hilarious in every facial cue and verbal tic, and I loved the little flourishes he gave to his character traits, including a hatred of hippies and a penchant for crying for little to no reason. In fact, the only actor in the film who outdoes DiCaprio is Pitt, who hasn’t been this good since…Snatch? Thelma and Louise? I’m not entirely sure. It’s a performance that plays off of his movie star persona, which reminds viewers that “Holy sh*t, Brad Pitt is hot,” and balances badassery with comedy with delicate balance. Pitt is capable of staring down Bruce Lee and a loaded gun, emotionally connecting with the world’s cutest pit bull Brandy, playfully riffing on Rick’s shows Mystery Science Theater style, and delivering lines as perfect as “You were on a horsey!” with great ease and charismatic aplomb. It’s one of the best performances of the year. In terms of other performances I loved, I’ve already said a great deal about Julia Butters as the eight-year-old, and while I had some questions about the portrayal of Bruce Lee, there’s no doubt in my mind that Mike Moh does a terrific job making that role work. Damian Lewis, a great actor in his own right, does a terrific job portraying Steve McQueen (whom he looks a great deal like), but also sports a terrible wig that draws the eye whenever he’s onscreen. Nicholas Hammond portrays television director Sam Wannamaker, and he gives one of the quietly best performances of the film. And Kurt Russell and Zoë Bell portray bickering married stunt coordinators in one of the funniest pairings the film has to offer – I loved whenever the duo was onscreen. Meanwhile, in terms of the Manson Family, the biggest talking point coming out of the screening has to be Margaret Qualley, who portrays Pussycat, the flirtatious member who tries to corrupt Cliff. Qualley is a lot of things at once, in a rather difficult role – seductive, sexy, creepy, free, smart, and unhinged, all at the same time, and she pulls it off with particular aplomb. Meanwhile Dakota Fanning as Squeaky Fromme is surprisingly inspired casting, but she only gets to creep us out in the role for a few minutes. Bruce Dern is solid as George Spahn, the blind ranch owner, but I couldn’t help imagining how great originally-cast actor Burt Reynolds would have been in the role. Newly-cast Elvis Austin Butler is a creepy, yet oddly funny Tex Watson. Oh, and I enjoyed the Tarantino Legacy performances of Rumer Willis and Maya Hawke.
Once Upon A Time…In Hollywood is the wonderfully messy result that comes as the result of a director striving for greatness. It is his love letter to cinema, and a love letter to an age of innocence we all sorely miss. It’s a film that I would be lying if I claimed to love, but would feel inaccurate to say “only liked.” It’s an accomplishment in and of itself, restrained in as many ways as it’s audacious. I really want to see this film again, without a project that breaks down fifteen minutes in (this happened) and a sea of stoned Tarantino bros behind me yukking it up at the swearing and the violence). Free of such burdens to focus solely on the artistic filmmaking, I may in fact see a masterpiece. As it currently stands, it is only a near-masterpiece. Still, a near-masterpiece is an accomplishment in and of itself, and I’m sure you will leave Hollywood as giddy as I am writing this review.