Synopsis – A faded television actor and his stunt double strive to achieve fame and success in the film industry during the final years of Hollywood’s Golden Age in 1969 Los Angeles.
My Take – If there is one director who could get a bunch of Hollywood heavyweights to share a screen together, it has to be Quentin Tarantino. Amid his trademark over-the-top violence and gore, as a filmmaker Tarantino has amassed massive popularity ever since he broke into the big screen with Reservoir Dogs (1992), mainly due to his respective treatment of old school cinema.
In a modern film industry increasingly reliant on VFX and CGI to tell its stories, as filmmaker Tarantino has always stood out because his imagination and writing have always been the biggest special effects of them all. Throughout his work, he has retained certain postmodern hallmarks, the pop culture pastiche, stylized violence, whip-crack dialogue, excellent music choices and inherently stylish characters.
Unfortunately for him, most of his films also often find themselves lost in controversy, and this ninth (possibly second last) film, hasn’t been without its share. Especially as it was centered on the infamous and tragic murder of Sharon Tate at the hands of Manson family, with people jumping to conclusions on how he might mishandle such a sensitive topic.
As it turns out, thankfully, the film isn’t really about Tate or the infamous family. Instead, it plays as an ode to the last days of Hollywood’s Golden Age and brims with the kind of palpable love for cinema that only a passionate cinephile like Tarantino could have brought to screen. Most importantly, the film is great in all the ways you’d hope and expect a Quentin Tarantino film to be.
Yes, some may find the film overlong and meandering, but it is also hard to deny how the film is so lovingly made, brilliantly acted and appreciate its use of cinematic and pop-culture mythology for a magical imitation of reality. Most importantly, despite the dark subject matter i.e. Los Angeles in the era of the Charles Manson murders, it is also very funny. A kind of film that only Tarantino could make.
Set in 1969 Los Angeles, the story follows Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a TV star and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), his long-time stunt double turned gofer, as they struggle to adjust to the new era. Rick is vulnerable to the vagaries of fame, plagued by self-doubt and a sense of his diminishing relevancy in a cutthroat, fast-moving industry.
Gone from being the lead to the “heavy” who’s constantly beaten up by whoever the new young actor in town is. However, the tough-as-nails Cliff, whose unflappable persona may hide a terrible secret, is the one exposed to the breadline if Rick fails to land new roles and put money in their pockets.
Things take a turn when Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), a director who just had a massive hit in the form of Rosemary’s Baby, and his wife, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), an up-and-coming film star, move into the house next door to Rick’s sprawling home, and the desperate actor longs to brush shoulders with these members of the Hollywood elite, considering this to be an opportunity to get back into the big time and avoid doing the Italian Westerns that his new agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) is keen for him to do.
Meanwhile, Cliff crosses path with the Charles Manson family, which is growing in number and nefariousness, as he accepts to offer Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), a young hippie member of the cult, to her residence, the Spahn Ranch. The film does not take the directions you expect, merging fact and fiction.
This is such an unusual film to watch, mainly as it doesn’t really have a plot. It is more like a day in the life of a fading Hollywood TV actor, his friendship, and about the beautiful real things that live in the midst of beautiful phony things. Yet it remains such as a fascinating watch.
Watching one of the most eagerly anticipated films on opening night in a theater full of fellow Tarantino fans is the manifestation of what makes the communal experience of cinema so magical. The famed filmmaker’s passion and verve for film-making beam out of the screen as he takes an unashamedly nostalgic but studied look at the final moments of Hollywood’s golden age. A rich world with various stars popping up for one-scene cameos.
Here, director Tarantino, who is famously obsessed with the history of cinema and its preservation, has recreated a world he wishes he could have worked in with such care and skill and love that, for the most part, it feels like his most personal film.
While the film is filled with loads of fun, it’s also strangely, hauntingly sad. The film invests more time in the recovery of Rick as a Western-genre hero and his self-discovery. The narrative plays out as a meta-film where fictional central characters encounter real-life demi-gods. An instance involves the scene where Cliff confronts Bruce Lee in a duel and eventually tames him.
The film uses montage as an effective way to deliver exposition like the conversational scene where an agent raves about Rick’s performances, only to slyly tell him that he’s turning irrelevant. The dialogue is also steered clear from the monologues, but instead, it feels more self-reflective in nature and a towering example is a scene where Rick converses with a fellow child actress on a book he’s reading.
And of course the presence of deceased actress Sharon Tate as a character. Sharon Tate is often remembered as little more than the actress from Valley of the Dolls, the wife of Roman Polanski, and the pregnant girl who got murdered by the Manson family. The film gives her emotional depth. Here, Tate barely speaks a page of dialogue, but the film never ceases to provide tension, particularly for those who have a decent knowledge of the incident, the premise is based upon. We know that violence is inevitable, but the fun is in knowing when it kicks in. The sense of anticipation is built through this guessing game.
And lastly, the subject matter: I was admittedly apprehensive about how the events of August 8, 1969 would be handled. While no one would be surprised to see these heinous acts glorified or even caricatured, director Tarantino continues to be unpredictable. I’ll just say this is handled tastefully and even respectfully, yet true to the classic Tarantino flair.
While there is the requisite violence, witty banter, and unpredictable outcomes, this is probably the most mature and intelligent Quentin Tarantino film yet. It also deviates from the Tarantino template by remaining somewhat linear. With a run time of just over two hours and forty minutes, the pacing is artfully throttled, allowing the audience to take in the authentic and painstakingly detailed scenery. The period music drives the narrative but never becomes a music video.
On the darker side, director Tarantino had to obviously race through the editing process in time for Cannes Film Festival, and it shows. There are some strange editing choices that give the film a jittery, stilted quality that wreaks a little havoc on its narrative flow. And it could easily have been at least half-an-hour shorter.
Another glaring issue with the film is how the Manson Family subplot feels like an entirely different film and is somewhat tacked-on. The two plots eventually come together in a bold third act that has the pace and drive, but the various members of the Manson Family we meet are loosely-sketched caricatures. Any time the film focuses on them, it just drags.
The performance side, as one would expect, they are flawless. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt are both excellent, and share an easy chemistry that makes their character’s connection authentic and the scenes that are basically just them hanging out are among the strongest in the film.
DiCaprio is, as you would expect, simply sensational and thrills with each emotional outburst. After a bad day on the set, when due to his drinking he can’t remember his lines, in his anguish and self-confrontation, he shouts at his face in the mirror, making it one of the film’s most heartbreaking scenes.
As for Pitt, this might be his best performance. At one point, Cliff finds himself at the Manson family hideout, and the way Pitt clocks the situation, gradually perceiving that something that seemed eccentric is, in fact, evil, is riveting. Throughout the film, Pitt exudes charm and a philosophical nature, but also the possibility of explosiveness.
Margot Robbie doesn’t get her due share of meaty dialogue, but her portrayal of Sharon Tate is touching and leaves a long-lasting impression. Her warmth, openness and exuberance are in sharp contrast to Rick’s jaded, lonely existence and she provides many of the film’s more tender moments. Young actress, Julia Butters shines in her scene-stealing with DiCaprio.
The massive ensembles consisting of Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Timothy Olyphant, Margaret Qualley, Mike Moh, Emile Hirsch, Lorenza Izzo, Austin Butler, Bruce Dern, Dakota Fanning, Maya Hawke, Luke Perry, Michael Madsen, Damian Lewis, Lena Dunham, Rafal Zawierucha, Scoot McNairy, Victoria Pedretti, Clifton CollinsJr, James Landry Hebert, Madisen Beaty, Dreama Walker, Brenda Vaccaro, Nicholas Hammond, Sydney Sweeney, Runmer Willis, Keith Jefferson, Damon Herriman, Ramon Franco, Craig Stark, Mikey Madison, Spencer Garrett, Clu Gulager, James Remar, Danny Strong, Martin Kove, Raul Cardona, Nichole Galicia, Costa Ronin, and Marco Rodriguez inhibit enough charm into the proceedings with their small roles. On the whole, ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ is an endlessly entertaining homage that offers dazzlingly sumptuous production values, rich storytelling, razor sharp black humor and top-notch performances you would expect from a Tarantino film.
Directed – Quentin Tarantino
Rated – R
Run Time – 161 minutes