Review: Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood
Quentin Tarantino’s look at late 60s Hollywood, as we follow fictionalised fading TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), during the last years of the Golden Age. A former star of his own western TV series, Dalton is now a boozing, insecure mess reduced to villainous guest roles on other people’s hit TV shows. Brad Pitt plays Dalton’s loyal, long-time stunt double Cliff Booth (also fictional), who has an erratic reputation of his own. They need each other – Rick would be an even bigger mess without Cliff, Cliff’s dodgy past pretty much rules out most solo employment opportunities, but Rick is also starting to have trouble getting Cliff gigs alongside him. Meanwhile, in the corners of the film we notice young Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), the real-life star of “Valley of the Dolls”, and pregnant wife of filmmaker Roman Polanski. The Polanski’s live on the same street as Dalton. One day, Cliff (who lives in a trailer, by the way) picks up a young hippie (Margaret Qualley, satisfying QT’s requisite weird foot fetish scene) who has taken up resident at a place called Spahn Ranch with some other hippies and a guy named Charlie (Aussie actor Damon Herriman, well-cast but underused). Cliff knows the owner, George (Bruce Dern), so he decides to pay ‘ol George a visit. Kurt Russell and Zoe Bell play a couple of stunt co-ordinators (A clever QT in-joke for those who get it), Mike Moh plays then-TV star Bruce Lee, Nicholas Hammond is Sam Wanamaker, Damian Lewis is a squinting Steve McQueen, Al Pacino a schmoozing agent, and lots of familiar faces turn up in tiny roles.
Oh dear, I appear to have become a Quentin Tarantino fan. Or at least a fan of his films. I still don’t like “Pulp Fiction” or “Jackie Brown” much, but “Reservoir Dogs” is fine enough for a directorial debut. I started to really turn around on his films with the entertaining exploitation love-fests “Kill Bill” vol 1 and 2, and with the exception of “The Hateful Eight” and the disappointing outlier “Death Proof”, I’ve loved what the guy has come out with in recent years. Don’t get me wrong, I liked “The Hateful Eight” quite a bit more than some people seemed to, but it was definitely a step back from his masterwork “Django Unchained”, and QT deserved a metaphorical uppercut for that oddly intermittent and unnecessary narration in particular. What on earth was the point of that? This 2019 film is a tick back upward however, I’m very pleased to say. Whilst not quite up to the standard of “Django Unchained” or “Inglourious Basterds”, it sits pretty comfortably just behind the “Kill Bill” films and is pretty irresistible entertainment especially for film buffs such as myself in addition to telling an interesting story.
Tarantino has matured as a director over the years, so this isn’t just a collection of fun film references. I love that stuff of course, but QT is trying for something loftier here. I don’t think he’s pulled it off quite as brilliantly as he probably thinks he has, but it’s one heck of a good effort. I love that while we’re following Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as this washed-up B-grade TV actor and his loyal but troubled stunt double, Tarantino also has something dark lurking in the background. We’re slowly and sinisterly introduced to the real-life characters of Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski, Jay Sebring, and the Manson crew. You get the distinct impression that the two sets of characters will eventually merge at some point, but the Manson/Tate stuff definitely takes a backseat, forming the film’s atmosphere and backdrop rather than being a fully-fleshed plotline. Along the way the two sets of characters are teasingly and fleetingly coming into contact with one another, but you get the lurking sense of greater, dangerous collision by the film’s end. Some seem to be upset at Tarantino using real-life characters and real-life tragedy for historically inaccurate purposes. I understand why people have a problem with QT taking people and events out of context, but I disagree with those people. These people are in my view somewhat misguided and perhaps haven’t seen what QT previously did to Hitler. This is small potatoes by comparison to the climax of “Inglourious Basterds”, in addition to being beside the point. QT gets away with any bad taste in my view here because it’s clear that this film, like many of QT’s films, doesn’t actually take place in the real world. They’re in QT’s cinephile universe, where fictional and real-life characters can intertwine to the point whee I’d argue that the real-life Sharon Tate and Charles Manson aren’t really in this film. And yet, one can’t deny that QT does actually offer up quite a convincing worldview of that time in American history nonetheless. So it’s kind of complicated, but I think he gets away with it, at least for me. It’s fascinating, clever, and creepily ominous, like if P.T. Anderson decided to make a horror film or something. I’ve always found this kind of thing really unsettling and interesting, the “In Cold Blood” idea of people just living their lives unaware that big bad trouble is coming their way. In this case, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth happen to live near the Polanski household, Dalton in fact right next door. However, we’re also seeing a film about three careers, two on the downslide (Dalton and Booth), one on the rise (Sharon Tate), and the latter we’re pretty sure is gonna have an unhappy ending.
As light-hearted and fun as the film is, it’s also rather sad and at times quite tense. For the latter, look to the scene where Cliff ventures to the infamous Spahn ranch in search of an old acquaintance. That whole piece is filmed with an undercurrent of malice, it’s borderline horror movie stuff and we’re never 100% certain if Cliff is gonna make it out alive or not. Having said that, so long as you’re not sensitive to QT’s messing around with real-life figures, I actually found it as funny as I did tense. It really was hilarious to me that QT would take this washed-up yet still efficient stunt man and have him put in danger at Spahn ranch, let alone what happens back in Hollywood. And to anyone crying misogyny at the climax let me remind you that a) These people were sadistic murderers, and b) A flame-thrower gets employed. So stop being ridiculous about it, yeah? It’s a Tarantino movie, you know that going into it, surely you can’t be shocked.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s waning TV star isn’t based on any one individual according to Tarantino himself. You can definitely see bits of Steve McQueen (who starred on TV’s “Wanted: Dead or Alive”) but it’s likely that Rick Dalton is meant to be a McQueen wannabe, with uber-manly Ty Hardin a more likely inspiration as he was both a TV actor and a veteran of westerns (including spaghetti westerns like 1971’s “Day of Judgement”). There’s perhaps a touch of the self-destructive Jan-Michael Vincent in there too, I’d suggest. Besides, Steve McQueen himself turns up at one point as played by a not entirely convincing Damian Lewis. He only looks a bit like McQueen when fixed on one specific facial expression and sounds nothing like him. This Dalton is a guy who showed some early promise on his TV series “Bounty Law”, but is now relegated to guest roles on TV shows playing the villain for the week. He’s also a self-destructive mess. With the exception of one unfortunate scene, DiCaprio is terrific as the insecure, has-been B-grade actor whose nerves are completely shot. He’s also engaging in completely counter-productive behaviour that exacerbates his problematic situation. I think DiCaprio tries too hard in the scene where Dalton keeps forgetting his lines on set, but the subsequent self-loathing in his trailer is some of the best work the actor has done to date and overall he’s quite strong. Apparently DiCaprio had a hard time trying to play those scenes, but he definitely nails that second one at least. Although I’m not entirely certain he deserved an Oscar, Brad Pitt gives one of his best performances to date, and certainly better than the one he delivered in “Inglourious Basterds” (he was the only dud thing about it). As for Aussie actress Margot Robbie, she gets more dialogue in this than I expected and does just fine as Sharon Tate as written by Tarantino. Some – again, misguided – people got all up in arms about how Robbie’s Tate is barely used throughout the film as anything more than background flavour. I really don’t know what these people were expecting, to be honest. What side of Ms. Tate are we not seeing here without interfering with the rest of the film – a film that isn’t meant to be about Sharon Tate? Are those same people upset at the lack of depth afforded to Michael Madsen or Timothy Olyphant’s characters? Oh, we’re just concerned with a female actor and not the male cast? Yeah, thought so. All smart arse-y quips aside I get it, but this ain’t the film or the role for that argument at all. I’m not exactly an aficionado of the late Ms. Tate, but I can’t think of anything much to add to her character here that wouldn’t bloat the running time or divert attention away from the main crux of the film.
QT still doesn’t forget to have a lot of cinephile fun throughout, and I especially loved the hilarious snippet we get of one of Dalton’s movies, an “Inglourious Basterds” type of C-grade war-actioner involving Dalton mowing down Nazis with a flame-thrower. We also get a funny bit where we learn Dalton was on a short list for “The Great Escape” if Steve McQueen passed on it. We see Dalton superimposed with the footage from the actual film, and…thank God it didn’t end up starring Rick Dalton. He’s terrible…and terribly funny. I also liked the early bit of Dalton rehearsing his lines, even while in the pool. Meanwhile, QT casts regular Michael Madsen on Dalton’s Western TV series, and Aussie resident Nicholas Hammond turns up as QT’s imagining of actor-director Sam Wanamaker. The former von Trapp kid Hammond is actually pretty spot-on in the part (Only nerdy film buffs like me or older people will likely remember Wanamaker), which like most of the characters we see here – fictionally based and otherwise – is used more to represent something or a type, rather than to be a documentary/factual portrayal approach. QT’s films by and large exist in their own weird world where reality and fiction can mix without the seams showing or people’s butts getting hurt. Well…actually, people did get pissed here and not just with the Sharon Tate/Manson stuff. Enter Mike Moh as martial arts movie legend Bruce Lee, and oh boy did people get pissed off about this, including the late Lee’s family. They felt QT slighted the legendary Lee by portraying him as an arrogant show-pony who challenges Pitt’s stuntman Cliff to a fight in between takes on “The Green Hornet”. For the most part, I don’t actually see the problem here and agree with QT when he said in the press that Bruce Lee was indeed ‘kind of an arrogant guy’. Personally I think that arrogance was more in the winking Muhammad Ali kind of way, where I don’t think he was entirely serious, but putting on a bit of a self-promotional show of things. However, I can certainly see what QT sees in Lee, with all due respect to Lee’s family. So the cockiness or arrogance in Moh’s portrayal of Lee didn’t bother me. Nor did the fight itself, which I had heard was quite one-sided in Booth’s favour. Nope, y’all must’ve been seeing a different fight to the one I saw because a) It was barely a fight, and b) Lee still could’ve won the damn fight if not for it being interrupted. I don’t see the fuss, and anyone who has seen “Kill Bill vol. 1” knows Tarantino is very much a Bruce Lee fan anyway. Are we all just gonna forget Uma Thurman’s yellow tracksuit? I will however call out QT for suggesting that Lee would be so petty as to instigate a fight with Booth in the first place. Arrogant or not, I don’t think that would’ve happened, and although once again this is a QT film not a documentary, I still think that’s one step slightly too far for my liking. At first Mike Moh is actually pretty dead-on as Lee, less so once he takes the sunglasses off. The eyebrows are all wrong for the great man, and it’s quite distracting. Otherwise, a damn good impression. Also impressive in this section of the film is Kurt Russell as a stunt co-ordinator who is perfectly aware of Cliff’s erratic reputation. He continues to show that he’s still one of the most underrated actors going around. I’m not sure he needed to double as the film’s narrator, though the name-dropping of Antonio Margheriti, Telly Savalas, and Joseph Cotten making spaghetti westerns is fun for us film buffs and spaghetti western fans. I don’t know what it is with QT and strangely intermittent narrations, but I hope he doesn’t continue the trend into his next film. Look out for an hilarious cameo by Kiwi stunt performer/actress Zoe Bell as Russell’s feisty wife, who has an even stronger negative opinion of Booth than Russell. In similarly small parts, Al Pacino isn’t exactly at his best here, but looking a bit like Peter Bogdanovich, he’s quite silly fun as an enthusiastic schmoozing agent who suggests Dalton go make B-grade spaghetti westerns overseas (Not bad advice, really). I personally can’t stand Lena Dunham at all, but playing a Spahn ranch girl, she’s quite effectively cast actually. Dakota Fanning is also well-cast as Squeaky Fromme. Although he’s almost as infirmed as he was in “Chappaquiddick”, QT gets a bit more use out of the great Bruce Dern as poor, cranky George Spahn. As usual, Tarantino brings the goods with his soundtrack selections too, with Jose Feliciano’s stunning, haunting version of ‘California Dreaming’ a particular highlight. I’d never heard this version before but I instantly loved it. I’m not sure the film is as great as the director was likely hoping for, but I really enjoyed this film.
A mixture of light and dark, trivial and ambitious, it’s definitely worth seeing for film buffs. It’s really clever, it’s possibly QT’s most accessible film, if not quite the filmmaker’s best to date. It’s definitely one of his more straightforward and mature. Stunningly shot by Robert Richardson (“Shine a Light”, “Hugo”, “Django Unchained”), too. Another winner from Mr. Tarantino and I have to say I’m excited to see what he comes out with next.