When it was first announced that Quentin Tarantino was going to do a film centered around the Manson Family murder of Sharon Tate and her three houseguests, there was immediate concern that the film would be an exploitative blood bath. I, for one, wasn’t all that worried. For all his punkish aesthetic, fetishization of violence, and bad boy posturing, Tarantino has a rather strict moral code (think about his recent slate of revisionist history films where the oppressed take down the oppressors). In that sense, he’s downright old-fashioned.
It’s the old fashioned Tarantino who takes center stage in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which, it turns out, is less about the Tate murders and more about a particular time in Hollywood history—when black and white turned to color, when films about cowboys and police officers grew more morally complex, when pants-legs got wider and sideburns got longer, when youth and drug culture exploded, and, yes, when the hippies came to town.
Tate, played by Margot Robbie, is a character in the film but not the main one. We see the young starlet arrive in Hollywood, with her new husband, the director Roman Polanski. She’s beautiful and filled with optimism. There’s a poignant scene where she goes to a downtown movie theater and gets a ticket for The Wrecking Crew, the Dean Martin film she has a supporting role in. We watch the pride and happiness wash over her as the audience laughs at the antics of her klutzy character. As her face glows beatifically from the light being cast off the screen, it feels like a benediction of sort, a moment of bliss for a doomed character. So yes, Tate, and what we know of her awful fate, hovers over the film, giving it a slightly ominous edge, but she’s not the film’s primary focus. Instead, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a classic buddy film, and an homage to the Hollywood of old.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton (perfect name), a strong, silent type of Hollywood actor, who specialized in Westerns and Nazi-hunting WWII flicks. His TV show, Bounty Law, has been cancelled and he’s now doing guest spots on other TV shows, usually playing the heavy. When he’s approached by a Hollywood broker of some sort (Al Pacino) to make spaghetti Westerns in Italy, he begins to process the depressing truth: He’s on the downside of his career, his Hollywood leading man days are behind him. Beset by self-loathing, he begins drinking (even more) heavily.
At his side, loyal as ever, is his best friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Cliff is a war vet and a certified cool guy—with his moccasin-style shoes, aviator sunglasses, and Hawaiian shirt, he’s clearly lot more laid back than Dalton. Cliff lives with his adorable and obedient pit bull in a trailer that overlooks the Van Nuys drive-in movie theater (I’m not exaggerating when I say that some of the film’s best scenes involve Cliff feeding his dog). And he’ll do just about anything for his buddy Rick.
Tarantino plays to both actor’s strengths, and they are both wonderful. Pitt gives Cliff a “been there, done that” weariness, coupled with a cocksure grin, and an unrushed way about him. He’s almost comically strong and brave and righteous, but Pitt plays him with so much lived in, natural charisma, you believe in him—or at least, want to believe in him.
DiCaprio’s role is much more dark and complex—and the actor is nothing short of brilliant. He deftly switches from his “hey there little lady” style public persona to the tormented, self-doubting, twitchy alcoholic he is in private. “You’re Rick Dalton!” he screams at the mirror, all but begging himself to channel the confidence of his screen roles into his real life.
Tarantino’s style for the past several years has been to incorporate lengthy set pieces—almost short films within his films—into his movies, which he does here. In one, Cliff gives a pretty hitchhiker a ride to Manson Farm, a converted film set, where he meets many of the famous Manson players and insists upon checking up on his old friend, the ranch’s aging owner George Spahn, played by Bruce Dern. We’re worried for Cliff, but he’s so half-amused, half-disgusted by the Manson Family members and so languorously confident, we go along for the ride with him.
In another, Dalton finds himself on the set of a cowboy show where he’s guest starring as the bad guy. It’s here that he meets a precocious child actress (Julia Butters) who first takes pity on him and later gives him a much needed confidence boost. “That was the best acting I’ve ever seen in my whole life,” she says, and it tells you something about Dalton’s fragile state that the words of an 8-year-old mean so much to him.
The film looks incredible. You truly feel like you’re in Hollywood in the ’60s, with the neon signs and tacky, faux-Mexican restaurants and shiny convertibles. The film has a wonderful golden glow about it—a beauty that suggests that the old Hollywood Dalton longs for was worth preserving. And although it has a staggering 2 hours 45 minute runtime, it’s impossible to resist the way Tarantino luxuriates in the world he has recreated—from parties at the Playboy Mansion to film sets where a young Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) picks a fight with Cliff to joy rides on the Sunset Strip.
Honestly, I could’ve watched the film for two more hours, but I do have one small quibble: There’s an inexplicable narration that pops up once, early in the film, and then again, for an extended period of time late in the second half. Narrations are generally lazy devices, and this one seems particularly arbitrary. (I almost wonder if Tarantino is referencing something I don’t understand. Were sporadic narrations a staple of B movies in the 60s?).
As for the film’s ending, some will love it, some will hate it. (I loved it.) I will say that it provides that burst of absurdist violence we were all waiting for. The rest of the film is less hopped up on Red Bull and show-offy than most of Tarantino’s works. It has a confident, leisurely pace. If this represents the beginning of a new, more mature era for the aging phenom—his Cliff Booth phase, if you will—I couldn’t be more excited for it.