There was a lot of change happening in America’s popular culture in the late 1960s. Hollywood was seeing the last remnants of its glorious Golden Age finally trickling away for good and the much trendier New Hollywood era was well underfoot, impacting a younger audience with a sense of urgency and unvarnished honesty unlike anything they had ever seen before. But with honesty comes reality. And the reality is that the world was changing around them–for better or worse–and there were only a few ways the youth of our country knew how to handle it.
Anyone who’s from Los Angeles or simply romanticizes old Hollywood and its history is going to love Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time In Hollywood, even if not for what it is, but at least for what it represents. A time in US history that was seeing tons of change. And with his newest film, it’s as though Tarantino presses pause between two frames of cinema, allowing us to see a blurred, yet crystalline image of both what came before and what is about to happen.
Set in 1969, our story revolves around fading Western TV actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), as both men deal with their own current state in the entertainment industry. Wistfully looking at the glory days behind him, Rick has a hard time accepting his current fame status. He’s being advised by notable casting agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) to take roles in these “new” Spaghetti Westerns shot in Italy, but Rick and his ego initially see these jobs as beneath them. Meanwhile, Cliff’s career is actually in the gutter, but since he operates virtually out of the public’s eye, he has no ego to speak of–at least not the kind that would turn down any kind of work.
Cliff has a thankless job, but he never sees it that way. At least, he never becomes transparent about his feelings to those around him. Rick, on the other hand, seeks the public’s love and affection at every moment, sniffling about the state of his career, even though he’s still well-employed. But Cliff, accused and eventually acquitted of killing his abusive wife some time ago, has found it nearly impossible to find any sort of employment in the industry, and spends most of his time driving around town in Rick’s 1966 Cadillac DeVille.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is as good a story about friendship as Tarantino will ever give you. Not bogged down by corniness, but giving us a pretty candid portrayal of the two relationship between the two “stars”. Rick and Cliff are best friends, with Cliff housesitting for Rick while he’s on set–a nice break from the humble and pre-retro Airstream he sleeps in at night. Rick compensates Cliff with his friendship, as he feels he, too, will soon be living outside of his means. Rick is overreactive and the type of dramatic you may expect some actors to be like. But Cliff is his rock, reassuring his confidence every step of the way–even when it should definitely be the other way around.
Moving in next-door to Rick is burgeoning film director, Roman Polanski (Rafał Zaweirucha) and his wife, up-and-coming actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a situation the Western star sees as a new opportunity. If he gets in good with Polanski then maybe his career can get a second wind.
Tarantino transforms the city into an unflinching replica of LA of yesteryear, establishing the environment with the help of some vintage relics still in tact today. Musso & Frank–Hollywood’s oldest restaurant–is one of the focal points of the film universe, as is the historic Spahn’s Ranch, an old Western studio lot that had already been out of service back in 1969 and was then a spot for Charles Manson’s cult to reside.
The Manson Family plays a crucial role in the movie and the assumed culmination of this story for those who have any familiarity with it. Details which, if you’re not privy to, may cause the overall significance of this story to be lost on you.
Tarantino always has a creative way of connecting two dots–a quality that’s helped him become a household name in this industry–and here is no different. He always utilizes a way for two characters to meet–moments any other filmmaker would just have speak for themselves–as an excuse to further expand the universe within his film. If Rick is meeting Sharon Tate, it’s done so with a pizazz that carries the story along with it. These instances are absolutely never just thrown away.
The filmmaker, as always, pays close attention to every aspect, sprinkling in a unique touch when he sees fit. In a few scenes, he shows Dalton on the set of his new project, but instead of the standard “peek behind the curtain” tropes we typically see in behind-the-scenes scenarios, the director just gives us the footage as if we were looking at the end result–except we get to see the actors mess up and even hear voices off camera from members of the crew. But we never see those people off camera–or the cameras themselves.
My only wish in this movie, and it’s a small one, is that Rick and Cliff were transformed more over the course of the story and we got to see how their fame and personal lives were impacted more after the circumstances they went through. At times, it’s hard to feel like their characters actually grow over the course of the film and that they’re supposed development isn’t only a McGuffin in itself–a means to an end. I laud the movie for being a shaggy dog story to the ultimate extreme, but some may want to care a tad more about the development of our two leads and have more weight placed behind it in connection to the overall plot.
And that’s not to say the characters aren’t without their own uniquely specific idiosyncrasies. But Tarantino, no doubt, was most concerned with showcasing his masterful sets and building up to yet another one of his classic climaxes. While the ending is poetic, the trajectory of our two leads is almost so much so that we feel like it’s missing something through all the nuance. And it’s because we like both guys so much that we want to know more about them and see them both succeed.
The film could also be a tad shorter–perhaps trimming down some of the on-set moments, that are admittedly still entertaining and somewhat necessary, though probably run a tad bit too long. But Tarantino choses to use the runtime to better build the world around him. And we can’t really blame him. Driving around Hollywood, we get such a sense of the rich history–and occasional tragedy–that has lived on these streets and resided behind these walls. The walls of countless dilapidated film sets still standing by no one’s will other than their own. Or in the rubble of sets that once housed great names such as Steve McQueen or Dean Martin. Sets more important than most buildings still standing today.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is no doubt Tarantino’s consummate love letter to Hollywood–a town he’s romanticized, much like his faithful fans have. A town that’s obviously inspired his career in whole, and can be seen bleeding through almost every frame he cuts. Half the fun of this movie is spotting the different famous icons represented from that era. Regardless of the story, I would watch this movie a dozen times just to revisit the mise-en-scène alone. And the underpinning premise following Rick and Cliff on their journey is the perfect through-line–a quintessence of what being “in Hollywood” is truly all about. A backdrop in place to loosely guide us–not force us–to our inevitable conclusion that ultimately feels earned in the best way possible.
As an aside, the film is a spiritual companion piece to last year’s other shaggy dog homage to Hollywood’s yesteryear, Under the Silver Lake. I can see how watching them back to back could be fun and interesting.