As someone who became a legend making films about film, Quentin Tarantino would naturally choose Hollywood as the subject of his ninth, and allegedly penultimate, film. After taking mostly lauded liberties with several genres (crime, war, Western and martial arts movies), what he has left is the studio lot that churned them all out. And just like that studio lot, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is a staging ground for deeper observation on the medium without seeming so much like a film-nerd homage. By looking inward at the history of the entertainment machine rather than just one category of it, Tarantino now has free reign to kill Nazis or stage a fight scene with Bruce Lee, completely unquestioned.
Tarantino’s chosen muse is Leonardo DiCaprio, a fine specimen from the pantheon of Tarantino’s recurring cast choices. No doubt the glass-smashing scene DiCaprio performed as racist plantation owner Calvin J. Candie in Django Unchained proved he literally bleeds for his roles. Portraying a fictional “handsome cowboy man” in an alternate 1969 Hollywood, is the role of a lifetime, even for the A-list star who’s played Jack Dawson, Jordan Belfort and Jay Gatsby. But for actor Rick Dalton (DiCaprio), a breakthrough role in films seems out of reach. By 1969, he’s typecast as villains after a decade of slowly fading TV stardom. Not even Dalton’s Hollywood Hills bachelor pad or bottomless thirst for whiskey sours takes the edge off the feeling his career could end without his even knowing it. Self-important jerk or sacrificial lamb? Either way, the pressures of walking around as someone else, or trying to live up to a masculine ideal always sitting on the next barstool, is taking its toll on Dalton.
Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is someone with no problem walking around being someone else; he is Dalton’s stuntman/chauffeur/house sitter. Here we have Pitt at his best, not as a leading man, but exploring a character with no expectations. And what he draws upon is a mix of the iconic stoner Floyd from True Romance and, presumably, the bachelor life Pitt now leads after separating from Angelina Jolie in 2016. You can’t help but feel Pitt has some great reverence for Booth, a Canadian-tuxedo and moccasin-wearing dude who answers only to his loyal pit bull. Booth is just as classically handsome as Dalton but is content in the latter’s shadow, where it’s easier to obscure the dark past trailing him.
Just next door in the Hills are newlyweds Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha). The young actress’ days are a lovingly rendered snapshot; she’s the life of the party in go-go boots and supporting roles in Dean Martin vehicles. Personifying a Hollywood era turning over on Dalton, Tate shines and delights in even the crappiest walk-on roles. And it’s through her that Tarantino truly romanticizes the time period, with help from cinematographer Robert Richardson, who places us in the backseat of a purring classic car as Tate and the infamous Polanski descend their sloping driveway to the Playboy Mansion. It’s a decade we’re hard-pressed to leave: when the grotto water is always the perfect temperature and your name somehow appears on every guest list.
It’s when we depart the houses off Mulholland Drive that Tarantino shows us those envious nobodies lingering outside the party, far from the glitz and glamour the main characters know. At the Spahn Movie Ranch, the nesting point for the Manson Family, Tarantino layers the suspense but ultimately spares little screen time for the acid-soaked envy of the shrill, grimy Garbage People.
But would this really be a Tarantino film if finding relief from the suspense didn’t include a cathartic blast of cartoon violence? The graphic gore in Once Upon A Time doesn’t reek of desensitization; it’s less of the plot device we’ve come to expect from his other films, and there are rarely easy death scenes for Tarantino’s actors. Crying foul now on something we’ve watched him do time and again is futile.
What Tarantino does new this time is thrive in the magic hour of Hollywood. Granted, every character is narcissistic, but that’s balanced by a blissful or drunken ignorance of the larger world. Both Dalton and Tate have a propensity to watch themselves. Is it to improve their technique, or are they checking for bags under their eyes? Dalton tries to forge ahead while his health and sanity show signs of fraying, and ultimately it begs the question if the admiration of others is worth his effort. Still, we delight when we see Dalton nailing his lines, and we don’t have to cringe when we see his motivation slipping on set. Anyone would make mistakes when they tie one on like he does.
As for period ambiance, Tarantino polishes the finest details of radio ads, newsreel interviews and, of course, all the faux films of Rick Dalton, re-exhibiting his singular passion for dissecting and reassembling. His Hollywood isn’t just full of familiar nudges to his personal back catalog; it’s also true to the difficulty of acting, the being constantly “on.” If there’s a 1969-to-2019 parallel here, it’s that we’re “on” just as often, whether it’s our jobs, technology or defending our politics. Just like the character of Rick Dalton, we as a society are waking up to the fact that there are consequences for trying to live a lie.
Amid Tarantino’s trademark digressions, he drops and loses a host of themes and thoughts, but an abundance is better than a lack. (He’s already written half a season of Bounty Law…get at him, Netflix!) His characters may have unresolved issues, but that’s difficult to avoid, and almost certain the point, at a pseudo-historical moment when moral blindness is about to be shattered. What’s beautifully captured here is the innocence of the era, when movies didn’t just help us escape but showed how to live in a dream that danced all night, tasted smooth and had a great tan. Tarantino’s most explicit film about film rescues that innocence, and far from exploiting the tragic death of people who never saw it coming, dares to dream of saving them.