Man did I screw this one up.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an exceptionally Tarantino movie. In fact, it might be the most Tarantino movie. The man has been making movies about old Hollywood for his entire career, and that passion for old movies is one of the things I love about Tarantino’s filmography. However, whereas most of his films explore this angle by means of homage, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood instead is more of a fairy tale about a specific bit of Old Hollywood lore. The movie does not just expect its audience to know this bit of lore: it demands it. Aggressively. And if that meta knowledge isn’t there, then I’m not sure one can say that the movie actually works that well on its own.
And unfortunately, I did not have this knowledge.
Let’s jump right to the point, and to do this I will be spoiling things with aplomb. This movie is not just a period piece about Hollywood in the late 60s. It is, rather, a period piece about three specific days in Hollywood, California in the winter and summer of 1969. Even more specifically, it’s about the Manson family murder of actress Sharon Tate at the home of famous human cockroach Roman Polanski. This serves as the backdrop for the film, and I knew absolutely nothing about this event. Sure, the name “Manson” is embedded enough in the cultural zeitgeist that I know in broad strokes the doings of that particular psycopath, but much beyond that is lost on me. I will invoke the ignorance of youth on this point: Quentin Tarantino was seven years old at the time of these events whereas I was -22. And while my love of old movies, history, and the like is serviceable, this is a blind spot in my trivia database.
The movie, then, had me at a considerable disadvantage and really hampered my enjoyment of the overall product. There’s an okay story in there even without the meta knowledge, though I’m not sure it’s really enough to carry the movie on its own, but then it’s not meant to. The movie makes no concessions and no apologies if you come into it unprepared. I can practically hear Tarantino respond to any complaints about this setup with “Well, that’s your problem”. And in fairness, he may be right: I watched A Bridge Too Far earlier in the day and I can’t imagine a similar opening to a movie like this. This is probably not a movie that should be preceded by a 5-minute voiceover prologue explaining the real-world history it uses as a backdrop.
Anyway, outside of the backdrop for the film, the core story ostensibly centers around Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double/friend/aide-de-camp Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) and their adventures in tinsel town. Rick is a former leading man starring in TV Westerns, namely Bounty Law, a pastiche of shows like Wanted: Dead or Alive and Gunsmoke. Gripped by alcoholism, a failed attempt to break into big ticket movies, and a declining career of guest spots on other shows, Dalton is in the midst of watching his entire life as an actor disintegrate before his eyes and is… not taking it too well.
Booth, for his part, has more or less accepted the fact that he never had much of a career to speak of, and is much more laid back about his declining role in Hollywood. Though prone to bursts of sudden violence (it’s all but outright confirmed that he murdered his wife) Booth’s outwardly calm and devil-may-care persona plays well to Pitt’s strengths of “smirk and look pretty” and acts as an interesting foil to Dalton’s neurotic and insecure breakdowns and self-criticism.
In another collection of plot threads, Margot Robbie portrays the real-life actress Sharon Tate, wife of Roman Polanski and neighbor to the fictional Dalton. Though Robbie is good in the role, the character is given very little agency within the story, serving more as a backdrop and embodiment of Hollywood at the time: the rising actress, not yet superstar famous, maybe never to be so, but plugged in to all the right people and in the midst of all the splendor of Hollywood. Playing around the edges of her life is the Manson family, of which the titular patriarch appears for only one scene, only to be obliquely name-dropped and hinted at for the remainder of the film.
These two abstract plots are thinly connected when Booth makes a visit to the Spahn Movie Ranch, the real-life home of the Manson family for a time, and the former shooting location for many of Booth and Dalton’s old fictional TV westerns. This is a perfect scene in which knowledge of the Manson cult is necessary outside of the movie: “Manson” is never once name-dropped throughout the entire film, only referred to as “Charlie”. And while the intersection of a cult at the Spahn Movie Ranch, a mysterious figure named Charlie, and an atmosphere of general dread should be enough to trigger the memory of a great many people, I just didn’t know enough about the events being referenced to have the neurons start firing. This scene is undoubtedly one of Tarantino’s excellent “creeping tension” moments, such as the interrogation scene in Inglorious Basterds or virtually the entire running time of The Hateful Eight. But you need to have the perspective of “these are the Manson killers” for it to have the full impact. It’s still tense without that connection, but I’m sure it’s only moreso if the real-world knowledge of who these people are is there for the viewer.
Things finally culminate when four of the Manson acolytes go to conduct the murder of Sharon Tate and three other house guests. And here is where fiction and reality get into a bit of a tussle. Instead of proceeding on to Polanski’s house and stabbing everyone approximately 100 times, the murderers are interrupted by an exceptionally drunk Dalton with a blender full of margarita mix. He lambastes them for idling their car on the street by his house and drives them off. Several of the murderers, in typical Tarantino fashion, display a level of cinematic literacy most likely well beyond their years (they’re all basically teenagers, referencing TV westerns from the 50s in 1969). They recognize Dalton and then have a spark of twisted inspiration: TV “taught” them how to kill, so in an act of revenge for that indoctrination, they should kill the people who were at the forefront of all that fictional violence. This is, apart from a way to drive the plot towards its alternate-reality ending, hard not to be seen as a kind of “take that” to the critics who often object to Tarantino’s depictions of graphic violence: it’s a justification so ridiculous that only someone as twisted as the Manson cultists could possibly ascribe to it with any kind of genuine sentiment.
So, after one of the acolytes gets cold feet and drives off with the escape vehicle, the three remaining killers advance on Dalton’s house, where a drunk Dalton relaxes in the pool with a pair of headphones and a radio and an acid-tripping Booth is attempting to feed his dog. They break in, confront Booth, recite the supposed words of the real killer “I’m the devil, and I’m here to do the devil’s business”, and Brad Pitt reminds us that he once portrayed crazy people like Fight Club‘s Tyler Durden in his career, and gives a damn unnerving performance as a drugged-out lunatic.
And then: glorious, glorious hyper-violence.
I had most of a review for John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum written up a while back, but couldn’t get around to actually finishing it. In it, I attempted to explain my persistent love of hyper-violence. Whereas Tarantino’s influences plainly come from the 50s, 60s, and 70s in most instances, I have a hard time believing that some element of 80s action movies doesn’t pervade his works as well. In 1967, Bonnie and Clyde was criticized for exceeding the boundaries of good taste with its bloody finale, in which our two titular protagonists are gunned down by law enforcement. And yet, this controversial scene at the time would be nothing compared to something like 1987’s Robocop.
Something about the unrestrained depictions of bodily horror in movies like this is weirdly entertaining. In a more straight-laced movie like Saving Private Ryan, graphic violence is sobering. In a deliberate horror flick like Saw it’s disturbing and gross. But in otherwise somewhat pulpy action or action/comedy movies like the above cited Robocop or Die Hard, it takes on an altogether different tone and instead feels like one more bit of outlandish fantasy that can be enjoyed for its absurdity.
Or maybe I’m just a sicko. That’s possible, too.
Anyway. Back on topic. The next 5 minutes or so of the movie are basically a blood orgy, with Booth (still on acid) and his dog (not on acid) absolutely obliterating the would-be murderers. I was in a full theater for this showing of the movie and I’ve never before heard that many “oooh” sounds of sympathetic wincing. The whole thing concludes when one of the thoroughly bloodied killers crashes through a glass door and into the pool that Dalton has been relaxing in, only for him to respond like anyone would and… well, actually, I’ll not spoil that bit. Even amidst a spoiler-ridden recap, this bit is just too much fun to ruin.
It is, I think, a kind of cathartic sequence for Tarantino and perhaps many others who grew up during that era: instead of the pretty young actress being senselessly killed, her would-be killers are instead obliterated with all of the karmic violence the Manson family racked up for itself. And following the brutality is a kind of strange but sweet upnote. Having heard the commotion, Dalton’s neighbors invite him in to talk about it. Dalton, who remarked that his next big break could be “just one pool party away” in light of who his neighbors are, goes to meet the still-living Tate and her friends, and a top-down angle shows them talking and embracing in greeting before going inside and the title card superimposes over the shot.
The outrageous action sequence, disrupting the real-world history of events, and the hopeful sentiment of “maybe Dalton can get his break” gives a distinctly fairy-tale feel, compounded by the title card of “Once Upon a Time” literally superimposed over the final moments. It’s not the first time Tarantino has played fast and loose with history (A theater full of Nazi leaders going up in flames, and Adolf Hitler himself taking a full magazine from an MP-40 to the face at the climax of Inglorious Basterds comes to mind), but this feels decidedly more personal for the director.
Again, Tarantino was a kid at this time, and grew up when the kinds of movies being talked about were beginning to fade from glory. Dalton, during the final act of the movie, goes to Italy to produce spaghetti westerns, the likes of which are exemplified in Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy. Most of Tarantino’s body of work draws from films of this era, with old westerns in particular being paid homage through The Hateful Eight and Django Unchained, but also we see old Samurai movies given a send-up in Kill Bill, blaxploitation (and Pam Grier specifically) are lovingly paid respect in Jackie Brown, and of course crime stories and pulp fiction are given their day in… Pulp Fiction. The thing I, and others like me, have always enjoyed about Tarantino’s works is that he clearly loves movies in a way that only a hardcore cinephile can. In practical terms, the constant references and stylistic borrowing can be distracting, but it’s so plainly understood by the audience that there’s an intense passion for old film there that’s probably the most admirable quality of a guy as prickly as Quentin Tarantino.
So then, it’s not hard to see what Tolkein might call the “applicability” of events in this movie when compared against Tarantino’s experiences. In 1969, when the old westerns and the last traces of old Hollywood are fading away (Jaws would exemplify the new “Blockbuster” format of Hollywood in 1975, with Star Wars close on its heels in 1977), the murder of Sharon Tate in 1969 can, in some ways, be seen as a parallel to the death of the kind of cinema that Tarantino so adored.
Even in the course of this film, the way in which he idolizes that era and the people in it is apparent. In one excellent scene, Sharon Tate goes to see her own film, The Wrecking Crew, starring Dean Martin. It real life, would be the last film of hers to be released while she was alive, her true final film, The Thirteen Chairs, being released posthumously in October of 1969. She mentions to the ticket-taker that she’s in the movie, but she is not, by any means, immediately recognized, being at one point being referred to as “the other one” alongside Patty Duke from Valley of the Dolls. Despite the initial ignominy, she enters the theater and sits down to watch her own movie. Real clips of the 1968 movie play onscreen, and Tate sits and watches, beaming with pride when the audience laughs at her character’s jokes and cheers at her victories. It is, for an actor, an idyllic moment, and there is a kind of wholesome purity in Margot Robbie’s performance here.
It would also be, for viewers with that meta-knowledge I’ve been talking about this whole time, a moment tinged with melancholy, since they know she won’t ever be able to have this same moment with her next film, or even have the chance to make any more beyond it. But things don’t go that way in this movie. Instead, she lives, and who is to say what happens from there? Maybe she goes on and a ticket-taker never fails to recognize her again. Maybe she makes dozens of movies, all playing to similarly receptive audiences. Maybe, then, in Tarantino’s fairy tale world, that era of Hollywood never comes to an end. Maybe cheesy westerns, cool actors, and bright young starlets continue to be the order of the day in place of bombastic action films. In his world, maybe if Tate lives, so too does the Hollywood of his youth.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, then, is perhaps the most wistful movie Tarantino has ever made, though I wouldn’t deign to call it his best. It has all his hallmarks, including characters who love all the same movies as he does, strange cut-aways and storytelling devices that speak directly to the viewer for one scene, and then never appear again, giving no indication of stylistic consistency. At one point three actors are identified by pop-up text on the screen, a treatment that is never given to other real-world figures, and probably unnecessary given that it’s used to point out Steve McQueen who is portrayed eerily well by Damian Lewis. At one point, there is a flashback lasting the better part of 10 or 15 minutes that includes another flashback within it so that the viewer nearly forgets where the story is by the time we emerge out the other side. The middle portion of the movie drags on, and the movie feels as long or longer than its 165 minute running time, a striking comparison to the 187 minute running time of The Hateful Eight, which manages to feel shorter. And again, it relies so strongly on audience knowledge outside of what the movie presents to you that one could arguably make the case that it fails on a basic level of storytelling, as the things that contribute to the tension of dramatic irony within the movie are never actually established within the movie itself.
All that to say, it’s not my favorite Tarantino flick. I will assuredly watch it again (especially now that I know what to look for), but its plodding length and disparate plot threads compare unfavorably to the deliberate pace of Kill Bill or the distinct “anthology” feel of Pulp Fiction. And yet it may be the first time I’ve legitimately enjoyed watching Leonardo DiCaprio in a role, who I’ve always criticized as having two modes of acting; those being “bad accent” and “shouting”. And while he utilizes both in spades in this movie, the fact that he’s not trying to be “dramatic Leo” in this case, but has a somewhat tongue in cheek humor about the whole thing makes it feel less ostentatious and more fun. This is not a Leo that will wander around the woods for a while then lecture you about global warming while everyone pretends that he deserved an Academy Award. It’s a fun role in a fun movie, and it makes his shortcomings as an actor significantly more bearable (even endearing) than if he were in a more dramatic production.
Brad Pitt is Brad Pitt. Either you’ll like that or you won’t.
The rest of the ensemble cast works well in a sort of ironic way: the stars of today paying homage to the stars of yesterday. And the sort of melancholy, wistful tone the movie has about those stars and that Hollywood, and the rose-colored glasses it uses to look back on those years makes the whole production feel less eye-rolling and self-congratulatory than something like 2016’s La-La Land. It is not an indictment of Los Angeles in the way something like Under the Silver Lake is, following and perhaps building on some of the #MeToo movement; indeed, one could make the case that given Tarantino’s involvement with the Weinsteins, and the movie’s connection to Roman Polanski as a plot element, it feels a bit uncomfortable to look at Hollywood with the kind of adoration that this movie does.
But I don’t think I have a ton of interest in making that case: Tarantino certainly made the movie he wanted to make, and I dislike the “why didn’t you make what I wanted you to make” school of film criticism. And beyond that, I think that even Tarantino knows that the Hollywood he writes a love letter to through this film isn’t necessarily real: the whole story is a fairy tale. A fantasy of what we may imagine Hollywood to be or have been. The title, then, is exceedingly appropriate: these are things that could happen in a story that begins “once upon a time…”