Writers: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Dakota Fanning, Margaret Qualley, Julia Butters, Al Pacino, Bruce Dern
Running time: 161mins
What’s the story: Los Angeles, August 1969. Has-been actor Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) grinds out a living guest starring on production line TV shows, backed up by his stuntman Cliff Booth (Pitt). Living next door to Rick is Roman Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate (Robbie).
What’s the verdict: Quentin Tarantino’s 9th movie (if you include Four Rooms and Grindhouse, this is actually the twelfth QT movie we’ve paid to see) sees him use a familiar title gimmick for a movie that dazzles and defies expectations.
His most relaxed movie since Jackie Brown, this is a sprawling Altmanesque LA story spanning multiple plot strands. An elegiac ode to friendship. A tale of an Old Hollywood unable to stop the incoming easy riders and raging bulls. A psychedelic-hued comedy repeatedly pulled toward the violence and darkness festering in LA during the summer of 1969.
Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood is many things. One thing it isn’t is “Quentin does The Manson Family”. We see Family members in supporting roles, there is a creepy sequence set on the Spahn Movie Ranch which Charlie and his acolytes called home, and the film climaxes on that terrible August 8th night when on Manson’s orders, Sharon Tate and three friends were killed in her home on Cielo Drive.
But, as Spike Lee did in Summer of Sam, Tarantino’s killers are a background presence while foreground characters go about their day-to-days. Chiefly DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton and Pitt’s Cliff Booth.
Zeroing in on masculine duos is a Tarantino trait, and over the course of a leisurely 161-minutes, he observes the relationship between the talented-though-needy Dalton and the zen-like stunt/handyman Booth.
If Booth is Pulp Fiction’s Jules then Dalton is definitely Vincent, and DiCaprio and Pitt’s interplay is the most engaging the director has created since that Jackson/Travolta pairing back in 1994. And DiCaprio and Pitt are so charismatic and relaxed together you wonder why this team-up hasn’t occurred sooner and when it will happen again.
Around their lives are a host of characters, both historical and the product of Quentin’s fancy. But fear not, enjoyment of the film is not reliant on knowing which is which. Or that Lancer, the Western Dalton guest-spots on as heavy-of-the-week, was an actual show to which Tarantino bought the rights to feature here. Everyone and everything are refracted through the irrepressible director’s worldview.
Chief amongst these is Sharon Tate, vividly brought to breezy life by Margot Robbie. The most prominent victim of the Manson Family, part of the director’s mission is seemingly to reintroduce her to audiences as someone beyond the tragic legacy. Watching Tate’s daily routine – running errands, shooting the breeze, sneaking into one of her movies to check out the audience reaction – is akin to a cinematic séance and there is something intrinsically magical and heartbreaking that throws Dalton’s self-pity into sharp relief.
With the character of Tate, plus Dalton’s conversation with a Jodie Foster-like child actress (Butters), Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood could be Tarantino’s statement on women in Tinseltown.
No matter how dedicated they are to their craft, most women in Hollywood are destined for the ornament roles in which Tate was cast. Or end up peddling their flesh on street corners for a lift home, as a Manson Family member (Qualley) attempts with Booth. An extra frisson is granted courtesy of the fact Harvey Weinstein cemented Miramax as a major player off the back of Pulp Fiction’s box office, although casting couch horror stories are absent from the plot.
Multiple viewings are necessary to ingest all the interests Tarantino crams into his gorgeously shot love-letter to the city of lights.
TV’s part in the death of old Hollywood and the old’s fear of the young. Those stars who bridge the gap between classical and new Hollywood, represented by Bruce Dern in a role originally intended for Burt Reynolds. The actors who then dominated the industry; take a bow Al Pacino as an agent/producer with plans to give Dalton another shot at fame.
The restorative powers of European exploitation movies. The unreconstructed glamour of a Playboy party. The harshly lit weirdness of Manson’s ranch-home (lent real menace by Dakota Fanning’s turn as Manson girlfriend Squeaky Fromme). The biggest stars in Hollywood playing washed-up bums, never-weres or ghosts of 60s icons.
All set with typical Tarantino élan to a jukebox of 60s classics ranging from Simon & Garfunkel’s Mrs Robinson to British-invasion Chad & Eddy’s Paxton Quigley’s Had the Course (a real earworm).
Testament to Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood’s success is that the film’s most controversial scene is not that murderous night on Cielo Drive (shocking, but handled better than anyone could have expected). Rather, it is the depiction of Bruce Lee (Moh) as a man whose arrogance may outweigh his ability. Quentin may argue he is favouring truth over the legend, but you don’t mess with the dragon lightly.
This aside, we cannot wait to take a trip back to this celluloid wonderland to decide whether this is Tarantino’s best movie since Pulp Fiction.