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.
Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film (and second last if recent comments are to be believed) finds the director in a self reflective mood as he turns his lens to Hollywood in the late 1960s for ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’. The film is both typically Tarantino in many respects (killer soundtrack, ensemble cast, character actors galore) yet also subversive of what we’ve come to expect from him in others – it’s also the perfect era for the director to explore his influences. It’s a film that captures American pop culture in the late 1960’s superbly, intertwining hippie culture with the dying embers of Hollywood western films, and I really dug the way Tarantino pulled it all together.
The story of ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ primarily follows 2 days in the lives of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a former leading actor in the popular TV series ‘Bounty Law’, who now spends his time filming guest spots in other TV series with his career on a downward trajectory, and his former stunt double and friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). The film spends a lot of time exploring how both men are trying (and to an extent failing) to come to terms with the changes in their industry as a new period of Hollywood history arrives, represented by Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski’s glamorous power couple. 1969 is of course also the year of the brutal Manson family murders and this sinister piece of real history dovetails with the story of Dalton and Booth (and of course Tate and Polanski).
Tarantino has dabbled in alternate history before, most notably with ‘Inglourious Basterds’, and he’s absolutely in his element here, crafting meticulously detailed backstories for Booth and Dalton in particular that make them feel like real parts of actual Hollywood history. Creating all the fake film footage to flesh out Dalton’s ‘career’ brings out Tarantino’s playful side and his love and passion for his subject matter really shines through. It’s a character study of two men finding themselves out of place in a familiar environment, and I was surprised at how melancholic the film was at times, and in some respects the character of Rick Dalton can be seen as a surrogate for Tarantino’s own insecurities about his current place and future at this stage of his career. DiCaprio and Pitt are both as superb as ever, with Pitt’s portrayal of the more reserved and introverted Booth an impressive lesson in restraint, whilst DiCaprio hasn’t made a bad film in a long time and he isn’t about to start here. Surrounding them are various familiar faces in numerous roles, both glorified cameos and slightly more developed, many of whom are playing real people from this period of Hollywood history (Mike Moh’s portrayal of Bruce Lee has drawn some controversy in some quarters), and this includes the Manson family, Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski.
An entire film could have been dedicated to this infamous storyline but Tarantino has chosen to use it merely as a backdrop to the stories of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth, and to a lesser extent Sharon Tate. As a result, the Manson family aspect of the story hangs over the rest of the material like a sceptre, waiting to come to the forefront, and Tarantino utilises this angle in interesting ways. Margot Robbie’s role as Sharon Tate is smaller than perhaps many expected, but it’s an important one in drawing comparisons between the sunny exterior of Hollywood life and the darkness lurking in the shadows at the Spawn Ranch. She also contrasts with our central duo, with Tate (and Polanski) representing the new Hollywood era, and Dalton & Booth old Hollywood, a bygone era that is rapidly fading into memory. Robbie is really good and I wish we’d spent more time with her character (that scene at the movies is terrific), but that would have been against the nature of the film Tarantino was trying to make, making it more about her fate than about the stories he wanted to explore.
This is a long film, not a surprise from Tarantino, clocking in at just shy of 3 hours, but it still feels like there’s been a lot left on the cutting room floor (a rumoured 4 hour cut to be released on Netflix would partially explain this). Tarantino gets accused of being self indulgent with his lengths at times but I thought this went by really fast, and if anything, I wanted more than what we ultimately got. ‘Once Upon a Time in Hollywood’ is not the film I expected it to be, and initially I didn’t like it as much as I wanted too, but my feelings towards it have grown since seeing it as I start to think about it in greater detail. A second viewing is probably required to unpack everything that Tarantino has going on here, but on a first viewing there’s certainly enough to immerse yourself in and this is possibly Tarantino’s most controlled, mature film to date, at least for the most part.
Directed By: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Kurt Russell, Margaret Qualley, Al Pacino, Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, Luke Perry, Julia Butters, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Lena Dunham, Bruce Dern, Mike Moh, Damian Lewis, Nicholas Hammond, Rafal Zawierucha, Damon Herriman, Maya Hawke, Scoot McNairy, Clifton Collins Jr. and Zoe Bell