Warning: Mild Historical Spoilers included
Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to a by-gone Hollywood basks in late day sunshine, inviting us to sit down and spend some time with Rick Dalton, Cliff Booth, and Sharon Tate. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Dalton, a past-his-prime TV star and Brad Pitt is Booth, his stunt double. A luminous Margot Robbie brings Tate back to life. These actors are all movie stars … to me they feel like old-time Hollywood legends. Just watching them live these slightly weird and privileged lives is so much fun.
The sumptuous recreation of 1960’s Hollywood and use of diegetic music creates a completely immersive cinematic experience. I could watch a version of this film with no dialogue and I think it would still be a lovely experience. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a masterful recreation of time and place, and the ultimate buddy hang-out film. The time we spend getting to know these characters, understanding Tarantino’s worldview, and his take on relationships — in particular the directors pathological need to right wrongs of the past — are all part of its complicated humanity.
Crafted like a series of short stories, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood offers our three main characters to us in bite-sized bits. We get to know them much the same way we might get to know real friends … by spending time with them, and witnessing how these new friends live life. We sit in the car as Cliff drives home, practically in real time. And then we hang with him as he feeds his dog and settles in to watch some TV for the night. We are on set as Rick recovers from a hangover, confesses self-doubt to his eight-year-old co-star, and with her coaching goes on to triumph another day. We spend a leisurely day with Sharon. Shopping, and then going to the movies and watching her performance from the real-life 1968 film The Wrecking Crew.
For those who know history, our new friends seem to be careening towards an inevitable end, which feels exceptionally tragic since we are just getting to know them. Tarantino yearns for something he can never have… as if born out of time, and wishing he himself was a director back when he could have worked with the fictional Rick Dalton, or the real-life Sharon Tate.
For those who remember, Sharon Tate’s name is forever linked with the Charles Manson. We get glimpses of the Manson Family along the way, represented as simple hippies for the sake of the movie. Hippies are marginalized and the problem in this world. Tarantino has made them a one-dimensional villain symbolic of anti-establishment laziness and entitlement.
We are not quite sure what Tarantino personally thinks of hippies, but for sure Rick sees them as part of a changing world; a world in which he is quickly becoming irrelevant. He sees hippie’s as a threat to his way of life. Sharon Tate is the same generation as those hippie’s, but perhaps she represents the alternative — and for Rick a big opportunity — because she happens to be married to the top-of-his-game-pre-scandal Roman Polanski.
The films major fault lies here, because Tarantino does not differentiate between the Manson Family — a cult of people who look like hippies — and actual hippies — representatives of free love, the peace movement that killed LBJ’s reelection campaign in 1968, music and drug counterculture.
Tarantino seems to revel in old white male Hollywood, and it seems a little at odds with his past films. Rick and Cliff represent a very white, old school establishment. But the Manson’s version of change does not threaten the “white” part of their existence at all … in fact Manson and his followers wanted a race war. It’s kind of an old version of white supremacy versus a new one. The movie might erase this nuance to keep it tidily in the “old vs new,” but Tarantino doesn’t usually erase race. For all of Tarantino’s “problematic” tendencies, his movies usually acknowledge race far more bluntly and honestly than most white filmmakers. I’d love to hear Tarantino’s thoughts on his story choices surrounding this topic.
The Manson Family is super weird from the moment we meet them, and one of my favorite vignettes treats us to a horror short. Cliff gives a hitchhiking Pussycat (played by relative newcomer Margaret Qualley) a ride home to Spahn Ranch. Here he runs into Manson Family members played by Dakota Fanning, Lena Dunham and Bruce Dern … all extra creepy. Cliff senses something is amiss, and follows his conscience to check on his old friend George Spahn (Dern.) Every step on edge, Tarantino pays spine-tingling homage to film suspense.
This segment also serves as a little trip into what I read as Cliff’s true nature. He is concerned with protecting himself, but also with right and wrong. We know Cliff is a stuntman, but throughout the film we see he is really a superhero, both in his other-worldly physical prowess — he knocks people out with one punch, scales walls like Spider-Man, and even takes Bruce Lee out while barely throwing a punch — and his moral/friendship compass. He repeatedly exhibits classic chivalrous tendencies … he gives Pussycat a ride home, but does not accept her sexual advances, he checks on the safety of George Spahn even though he may be risking his personal security to do it. And then when a hippie slashes his tire, he beats the crap out of him to make him repair it. It’s brutal, but in Cliff’s old-school world this is about getting the hippie to take responsibility and do the right thing, even when it is as simple as fixing a flat tire. It is entirely believable and so much fun, and like all good stories gets us ready for something to come.
After hanging out with these guys for nine months in movie-time and over two and a half hours in real time, we arrive at the real-life events to which the film has been building. This is the third time (after Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained) Tarantino has pursued alternate history out of real-world tragedy. He delivers the gratuitously violent and bloody final act required by a Tarantino film, while bringing an unexpected sweetness.
At the beginning of this last act, Cliff and Rick spend a night getting drunk together. The narrator (Kurt Russell) tells us these two are the absolute best of friends … “more than a brother and a little less than a wife” to each other. Is the past better? Hard to say since it seems we always look at the past with sunset tinted glasses. At its heart this film is about living life amidst our own insecurities, relying on our few true friends, and hoping against hope to right the horrible realities that traumatize our collective consciousness.
I give Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood 8.7 Hollywood leading men out of 10 old-timey-movie-stars.