ONCE UPON A TIME IN… HOLLYWOOD (7/26/2019
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 84% Certified Fresh
PLOT: A fading 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 is a little bit like Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It’s big, bombastic, and goes the long way around the barn to get to the finale, but in the end it all makes sense and is a transcendent experience. That’s not to say it’s Tarantino’s BEST film overall, in my opinion. That distinction still belongs to the one, the only, “Pulp Fiction.” But “Once Upon a Time…” is certainly one of his top 2 or 3 films.
Let’s see, where do I start?
First of all, the film’s evocation of 1969 Los Angeles is like Mary Poppins: practically perfect in every way. I’m no fashion scholar or visual historian, but every exterior shot of the city was pretty convincing to my layman’s eyes. The movie theatres, the movie posters, the restaurants (anyone else remember “Der Weinerschnitzel”?), the cars, those HUGE sedans sharing the road with VW Bugs and M/G’s…it’s clear they did their homework.
There’s the performances by the two leads. Tarantino once said he considered himself the luckiest director in modern history because he was able to get DiCaprio and Pitt to work on the same film. Can’t argue with him on that score. They carry the film in a way that few other tandems could have (Newman and Redford come to mind), though they don’t look much like each other, considering one has to be the other’s stuntman, but you get the idea.
Above all, there’s the story. DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a former leading man from ‘50s TV westerns who is now playing colorful bad guys in ‘60s TV westerns. Brad Pitt plays Cliff Booth, the stuntman who’s been taking the dangerous falls for Dalton for years. Dalton happens to live next door to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills.
All the trailers, and all the industry buzz, reveal that the Manson family and Sharon Tate play a part in the film. That’s no spoiler. Given what we know about those events, the movie plays like “Gimme Shelter”, the documentary about the ill-fated concert at Altamont that was due to take place a few months after the events of THIS film. What I mean is, it’s all very suspenseful, in the sense that we know what’s coming, we’re just not sure how the movie is going to approach it. So every scene with poor Sharon Tate in it is overshadowed by the fact that we know her ultimate fate in history.
It’s like the famous Hitchcock analogy of suspense. Two people are eating at a restaurant when a bomb suddenly goes off under their table…that’s surprise. Put those same two people at the restaurant, where the audience KNOWS there’s a bomb under the table, but it doesn’t go off right away as the two people eat and converse and have dessert, and will they leave BEFORE the bomb goes off or not…? That’s SUSPENSE.
And THAT’S the genius of this movie, of Tarantino’s sprawling, winding screenplay. We get to know Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth intimately, we get the rhythms of their relationship, of Dalton’s mood on set, of Booth’s quiet acceptance of his role as Dalton’s sole support system. We are treated to lengthy scenes showing Dalton at work on the set of a TV western, so we can appreciate the vast differences between an actor and their characters. There’s a brilliant “backstage” scene between Dalton and a child actor who is impossibly, but hilariously, advanced for her age, and who winds up giving Dalton some goodhearted advice.
And interspersed through it all is Sharon Tate. Sharon Tate bopping to music at home. Sharon Tate picking up a female hitchhiker on her way into town. Sharon Tate almost passing, then backing up to admire with youthful excitement, her name on the marquee of a movie theatre, right next to Dean Martin’s name. Sharon Tate dancing, walking, smiling, drinking…living. She’s the diner at the restaurant, and the Manson family is the bomb we know will eventually go off. It casts a pall over the proceedings, but not in a bad way. It’s just…an interesting way to bring the reality of the situation into focus from time to time.
Now, it’s at this point that I have to end this review before I inadvertently give away certain, ah, plot elements that elevate Tarantino’s film from a mere character study or period piece into the heady heights of cinematic transcendence. I have not myself read any reviews of the film, so I can only guess that whatever negative reviews are out there probably center on the film’s finale, or perhaps on its meandering script. All I can say, or will say, is that I am firmly on Tarantino’s side on this one. The way the conclusion was written and filmed is the kind of thing that people will still be talking about years from now.
So just take it from me. If you’re a movie fan, and ESPECIALLY if you’re a Tarantino fan, this is right up your alley. It’s easily his most slowly paced movie since “Jackie Brown”, but that just gives you time to e-e-e-ease into the characters, like putting on a tailored suit piece by piece. It’s a treat.