Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood – or is it Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood? No one seems to know, and the movie’s own poster stylizes it both ways, which, to me, proves that someone is screwing with us – is iconoclastic director Quentin Tarantino’s sprawling, messy, hypnotic, outrageous ode to a nervous breakdown.
Let me explain.
When I was in film school, many many years ago, I had a professor who gave a lecture on the history of Hollywood in a survey course about filmmaking. He talked about the general malaise the industry experienced in the transition from the classical studio system of Hollywood’s Golden Age to, more or less, its modern incarnation.
In addition to myriad business changes – the sports analogy would be the transition from a system where teams more tightly controlled each player’s career to free agency – the malaise was also a cultural one. My professor called it “Hollywood’s nervous breakdown.” As the staid 1950s gave way to the turbulent 1960s, the heads of studios like MGM and 20th Century Fox were flummoxed by the rise of the hippie movement and youth culture in general. They had no idea what kind of movies “the kids” wanted to see.
All this led to a wild time for film. Movies like I Love You, Alice B. Toklas, where “square” characters dive into the counter-culture, were released alongside more traditional fare like Doctor Dolittle (which was both a critical and financial flop upon its release in 1967). Back in the real world, protests against The Vietnam War, the struggle of people of color for their civil rights, and other issues were causing a societal nervous breakdown in general.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (OUaTiH) is Tarantino’s re-creation of and loving, yet gleefully revisionist, tribute to this fractious period in Hollywood’s history. Without giving too much away, this film is a spiritual cousin to Tarantino’s 2009 film Inglourious Basterds. That movie incensed more than a few people with its shockingly gory climax that reimagined the end of World War II.
The same will probably be true for OUaTiH. Tarantino puts his unique spin on the bloody, unspeakable events that closed the 1960s. When creating works of art, I have no need for the artist to feel constrained by the facts when representing real events. A big part of art is reimagining the world in new, different, and interesting ways. A possible exception is documentaries, but even those have exceptions to the rule. Mainly, the purpose Tarantino’s divergence from truth serves in OUaTiH, at least for me, was one of catharsis. Just like in Inglourious Basterds, we get to see good triumph over evil, in the bloodiest, most outrageous way possible.
Quentin Tarantino has always been drawn to the seedier sides of storytelling. His breakout smash hit Pulp Fiction takes its title – and the inspiration for most of its content – from the disreputable (read: trashy), sensationalistic genre novels of the 1940s and ‘50s. Ever since 2007’s Death Proof – one half of a double bill that is collectively titled Grindhouse – Tarantino has leaned into his exploitation predilections. His films Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight each pay homage to different exploitation filmmaking subgenres.
OUaTiH is a bit different. This time out, Tarantino is paying homage to the mostly unsung actors who fuel his exploitation obsession. Our hero, Rick Dalton, is a fictional amalgamation of actors who hit it big in 1950s and early ‘60s American television, but were never quite able to make the transition to movies; either because of their own hubris or lack of real talent. Rick is a stand-in for all the guys who went to Europe to make movies when the Hollywood work dried up, but who never hit it big in a Spaghetti Western the way Clint Eastwood did in the Man with No Name films.
After an opening sequence that introduces us to Rick in his heyday on the set of his hit ‘50s TV show Bounty Law, we jump forward to 1969. Rick has been relegated to guest-staring as the villain of the week on shows like F.B.I. (the equivalent of something like C.S.I.). His loyal stunt-double, Cliff Booth, is reduced to working as Rick’s glorified gofer and driver. He ferries Rick everywhere because the actor lost his driver’s license as a result of too many DUIs.
Rick lives in the Hollywood Hills. His new neighbors are the real-life young Hollywood “it” couple of the moment, director Roman Polanski and actor Sharon Tate. As you might guess if you know anything about the events that took place in 1969 involving Tate, along the way we meet the Manson family. They were living at the decrepit Spahn ranch, which, like Rick, had seen better days when it was used to shoot TV westerns, including, in Tarantino’s mashup of fact and fiction, Rick Dalton’s Bounty Law.
Tarantino’s obsession with filmmaking and pop culture minutiae leads to one of OUaTiH’s biggest problems. He stages multiple scenes, incorporated as cutaways, to the European films Rick has made in order to give us the flavor of his protagonist’s career. Really, it’s just an excuse for Tarantino to pay homage to all those exploitation films he loves so much. He takes glee in showing us snippets from (admittedly clever) Rick Dalton titles like Uccidimi Subito Ringo, Disse Il Gringo (English translation: Kill Me Now Ringo, Said the Gringo) and Operazione Dyn-O-Mite!
There are also the extended sequences of Rick filming his latest guest turn on a TV western. These scenes give insight into the filmmaking process, but not enough to justify their protracted length. Tarantino gets lost in them. They’re fun, and he clearly had a blast shooting them, but they slow the movie to a crawl, and add to the almost three-hour running time, which could easily have been trimmed by 30 minutes.
Another bizarre side road the film goes down is an extended day-dream sequence in which Cliff fantasizes about kicking Bruce Lee’s ass. This same sequence features a spectacular tone deafness about women from Tarantino in a gag – a flashback within a day-dream – about Cliff killing his bitch of a wife. It’s unfunny, unnecessary, and would have been best left on the cutting room floor.
The other big issue with OUaTiH is its treatment of Sharon Tate. She is ostensibly the third main character of the story, along with Rick and Cliff, as her storyline is intercut and eventually collides with theirs. As much screen time as Tarantino devotes to Tate – albeit less than he gives to Rick and Cliff – I never really got the sense that I knew her any better as a character. We see her going to a swinging party at the Playboy mansion (where actor Damian Lewis, playing Steve McQueen, gives us excruciating exposition about her); we see her slipping into a screening of a movie in which she is starring; we see her bouncing around her Hollywood Hills home. But for all that, she is ultimately just window dressing; a means to an end for Tarantino to be able to do his thing with that shocking night in August 1969.
How Tarantino deals with the female characters in OUaTiH is surprising. Considering the righteous vengeance of Beatrix Kiddo in his film Kill Bill, and the deeply layered and compassionate character he created with Pam Grier in Jackie Brown, I know he knows better.
Where the film really shines is in the lead performance of Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick, and Tarantino’s painstaking re-creation of late ‘60s Hollywood. DiCaprio does a bravura job as Rick. He digs into the psyche of a man desperately trying to hold on to his rapidly fading fame in a way you might not expect him capable of, considering DiCaprio’s sustained level of professional success. The touch of Rick’s slight stutter, which he can turn off as soon as he hears the word “action,” adds another layer to the character. It’s never addressed but gives us insight into Rick’s capabilities as an actor.
Tarantino brings Hollywood – the actual town, not the idea of institutional moviemaking – to life with every extended sequence showing Cliff speeding up and down the streets of the city. The music is booming, and the atmosphere is electric as Brad Pitt’s Cliff gets from one place to the next, repeatedly encountering Pussycat, a member of the Manson family. His run-ins with her lead to the most hypnotic sequence of the film. Cliff gives Pussycat a ride to Spahn Ranch, and he is dismayed by the ragged bunch of cult members who have taken up residence there. He demands to see George Spahn, the owner of the ranch and a friend from Cliff’s days of shooting Bounty Law there. It’s a tense sequence that kept me guessing as to how it would end.
Aside from OUaTiH’s helter skelter climax, the extended sequence with Cliff at the ranch is the most delightfully unpredictable bit in the film. Like The Hateful Eight, this film suffers from a sloppy voice-over that Tarantino only turns to in the last act. I suppose it works as part of his exploitation aesthetic. He’s always been most inspired by movies that feel like they were cobbled together from used bits and pieces. It’s his wholly original and inspired re-creation of a certain time and place in Hollywood’s past that makes OUaTiH stick in my mind. Despite its flaws, Tarantino has once more created a world I wouldn’t mind returning to again and again.
Why it got 3.5 stars:
- The love-letter-to-cinema-and-Hollywood aspects of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are second to none. Tarantino is a cinephile’s filmmaker. He also constructs several sequences with genuine tension and surprises (the extended Spahn ranch scene). And that ending…wow. But, he also gets lost a little bit in his re-creations, uses sloppy exposition and voice over, and gives his female characters disappointing short shrift.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- I don’t think Roman Polanski has spoken publicly about the movie. The entire time I was watching OUaTiH, in the back of my mind I was thinking about what it must be like to have lived the horror that Tarantino is arguably treating so blithely.
- There is a wonderfully written scene about half way through with Rick and one of his costars (an adolescent girl) discussing the craft of acting and the creation of performance. It is brilliant.
- Cinematographer Robert Richardson (who regularly collaborates with Tarantino as well as Martin Scorsese and Oliver Stone) turns in fantastic images, as you would expect.
- If you want to listen to Tarantino talk for three hours about his inspiration for OUaTiH, go here. It’s a good conversation, and Tarantino, as usual, is very animated.
Close encounters with people in movie theaters:
- This was a press/advance promotional screening. The audience was HYPE for this movie. It was packed, and I felt bad for two patrons who clearly didn’t understand how to pick seats when looking at them on a computer screen. They tried to blame the employee who printed their tickets when they realized their seats were almost all the way at the front of the house. Sorry, but it wasn’t his fault. You chose…poorly.