Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

(Tarantino, 2019)


The ninth film from Quentin Tarantino is a meticulously constructed portrait of Hollywood at the tail end of the 1960s, when the divide between the hippie youth and Los Angeles elite was at its most volatile. And while actors and movie producers dined at classy restaurants and smoked weed in their extravagant mansions, a failed musician named Charles Manson was preparing his cult of hippie youngsters for “Helter Skelter” on a dilapidated movie set where they used to film Western TV shows, like Bonanza. Tarantino explores his version of this pivotal moment in Hollywood through the eyes of his three characters: Rick Dalton (a self-conscious TV cowboy), Cliff Booth (Rick’s longtime stunt double and best pal), and Sharon Tate (an up-and-coming starlet and wife of Polish filmmaker, Roman Polanski). Rick and Cliff are suave, sentimental inventions of Tarantino’s nostalgic imagination, but Sharon Tate is a figure all too real. The juxtaposition between fantasy and history is something that has permeated every Tarantino project since Inglourious Basterds, but it has never been explored as carefully as in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

In August 1969, Tate was murdered on a whim by some of Charles Manson’s brainwashed followers because the infamous cult leader had a grudge against the previous owner of Tate’s Cielo Drive mansion. In real life, Tate’s closest neighbors, a family called the Kotts, lived nearly 100 yards away. In Tarantino’s Hollywood, Tate’s house borders another stylish Hollywood mansion, this one owned by a struggling TV actor named Rick Dalton. 

Rick is played by Leonardo DiCaprio, who gives one of his absolute best performances in this film. Though DiCaprio is known for his immutable charm and good looks, Rick Dalton emits a shy, nervous energy. He is utterly unsure of himself and his abilities as an actor, lamenting his status as a “has been” and drinking a hefty number of whiskey sours to calm his nerves. DiCaprio’s performance is extremely vulnerable and actually quite endearing. He perfectly captures the mindset of a man struggling for control of his life and career. The only time Rick is truly in control is when he’s in front of a camera, an occurrence much less frequent than he would like. But Rick’s part-time-stuntman and full-time-chauffeur Cliff Booth (played by Brad Pitt) is always by his side. In an uncharacteristically meditative and comedic performance, Pitt acts as a brilliant foil to Leo’s emotional cowboy. 

While Rick dons a number of personas throughout the film (as actors are often required to do), Cliff is always Cliff — a silent, smoldering presence with a strong reputation for doing whatever he wants, regardless of the impact it may have on his career. Through their performances, DiCaprio and Pitt toy with the expectations of the audience by commenting on their own real-life celebrity. Their characters are diluted and anxious and sometimes arrogant, though their celebrity personas are quite the opposite. It is, of course, the job of an actor to become someone else, but to fully embody the antithesis of your public face, and to do it so convincingly, is impressive. It is hard to overstate how great DiCaprio and Pitt are in this movie. Both fully commit to their nuanced, contradictory characters, and should they not receive Oscar nominations in seven months time, it would be a true shock.

Margot Robbie’s turn as Sharon Tate is a little harder to put into words. Since the film’s premiere at Cannes much has been made about the film’s portrayal (not necessarily her portrayal) of Tate, with many criticizing how little of the script is actually dedicated to the rising star. It’s hard to speak candidly about Robbie’s role in the film without spoiling the joy of the narrative, but what I can say is that the fleeting glimpses into Tate’s life are simple, yet effective. Contrary to what some have speculated, Tate is integral to the film and her inclusion is handled with a great deal of respect for the late actress and her legacy. It is true that Tate scarcely speaks in the film, but her character is intended to be more of a presence than anything else. Robbie’s scenes are often long and relatively mundane, portraying Tate with a great deal of humanity, as well as offering a much needed respite from the tense lives of Rick and Cliff. The Tate storyline is serenity; it is a fly-on-the-wall look at Sharon Tate’s life, and for that it is perfect.

As Tarantino nears his self-imposed retirement (he has long threatened to quit after his tenth feature film), it’s hard not to view this film (and Rick’s mid-life crisis) as a comment on the director’s own career. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not a film Tarantino could have made at the beginning of his career, but as the “ninth” feature in his ten-film plan (yes, Kill Bill counts as one), Tarantino seems ready to take on the idea of the fading and/or doomed career. It’s a topic he tackles with an unprecedented amount of maturity, a maturity that the director hasn’t shown so openly since his underrated crime drama, Jackie Brown, premiered in 1997. That’s not to say Rick Dalton’s mid-life crisis is a unique invention within the Tarantino filmography — it isn’t. It just happens to be the most overt reference to his own career (or rather, the future career he’s trying so desperately to escape from). Since this whole thing began with Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino’s characters have never been able to let go. From Beatrix Kiddo to Jackie Brown to Django Freeman, his protagonists have always been determined to get something back, to achieve stasis. But Tarantino hasn’t lost anything (yet); he’s still living in his professional and creative stasis. But he also knows that if he keeps directing and loses “his touch,” he’ll have to go on a Tarantino-esc journey of his own to win it back… and that just sounds like a lot of bloody hard work. ★★★★★

David Merkle