Tarantino is a magician and in the making of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood he brings back to life a time, place and people that have long faded into the past.
There are some tragedies that Hollywood just cannot shake. Be it the drowning death of Natalie Wood or Heath Ledger’s overdose, the catastrophic tales of people who made it to the top in a town known for chewing up and spitting out young hopefuls continue to haunt the studio lots and canyons where these actors used to live, work and play. One tragedy that has loomed large for years is the 1969 murder of Sharon Tate, a budding actress and wife of Roman Polanski, by members of Charles Manson’s “family.” Whether it be the sheer brutality of the act or its place at the end of a decade where the fabric of the United States completely unraveled, the murder (along with the Manson family) remains a fascination for both movie and history buffs.
Quentin Tarantino is no stranger to making historical fantasias that touch upon true events and even include real life characters. Yet, in every milieu the director explores – whether it be World War II, plantations in the slave-owning South or the snowbound reaches of the Old West, Tarantino eschews whatever conventions that come with each that could interfere with his vision. Instead, Tarantino reinterprets these genres and places to match the cool and violent modern epochs seen in his early work. And what other place is more appropriate for an encyclopedic font of movie lore to explore than Hollywood circa 1969?
Both a nod to Sergio Leone and a pensive prelude to a fairytale, Tarantino’s title sets the pace for a film that explores both loss and failure. The director’s prior films, Django Unchained (2012) and The Hateful Eight (2015), were not lionized like his early work. Could the director, who was once the flavor du jour that defined a whole generation of filmmakers, be losing his edge? With Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, Tarantino pulls back from the violence and cynicism (bordering on nihilism) found in The Hateful Eight to present us with an almost gentle (almost) look at two middle-aged men who are losing their place not only in Hollywood, but in a society that values youth and beauty more than experience.
Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a Western television star with a drinking problem. His options are dwindling and his agent (Al Pacino) is pushing for Dalton to relocate to Italy and star in a Spaghetti Western (another wink at Leone). Dalton can’t seem to grasp that his days as a leading man have come to an end. He gets by doing supporting roles as the heavy on genre television, and the idea of going to Italy strikes him as desperate and repugnant. Rick is all alone save Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), his stunt double-cum-driver. Outwardly cool and collected, Cliff dotes on Rick, but a current of violence simmers beneath his calm veneer. Like Rick, whose career is a bellwether for Cliff’s own destiny, the stuntman is also dealing with the notion that Hollywood no longer has a use for him.
Rick and Cliff ply themselves with alcohol as they perpetuate bachelorhood well into middle age. Imagine the guys from Swingers still acting the same way as they push 50 and you get the picture. Is Tarantino, no longer Hollywood’s enfant terrible, feeling like a relic, a bygone era of Tinseltown like the faded movie palaces and half-forgotten stars that he so lovingly resurrects with his camera? Mick Jagger sings towards the end of the film, “Baby, baby, baby, you’re out of time.” Is this meant for guys like Rick and Cliff or Tarantino himself?
Or could it be meant for Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), murdered along with some friends by Manson’s thralls? Rick lives next door to the ill-fated starlet and her director husband, and as Manson (only seen once here) and his family enter the film, a feeling of dread builds slowly. Tate’s story occurs alongside Hollywood’s main narrative. Unlike Rick and Cliff, Tate is a name on the rise, reveling in the glory of budding fame. In an extended sequence, Tarantino follows Tate as she watches a matinee of The Wrecking Crew, a movie in which she appeared with Dean Martin. Robbie makes Tate’s excitement palpable, almost hugging herself in glee when she sees her name on the marquee, her image on the poster, the crowd cheering during a key moment in the film. Yet, Robbie is not given much to say and her character isn’t as fleshed-out as the male leads. But as the clock ticks towards her inevitable doom, Robbie does show us that Tate was a bright light snuffed out too soon.
It is impossible to imagine someone seeing Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood without prior knowledge about Tate’s death and the Manson family. Tarantino gives us enough of a history lesson about the state of Hollywood in 1969, but assumes you know what happened to the actress. If you don’t know, take the time to read up before you see this movie. It will greatly enhance your experience. Trust me.
Cinema has always been about resurrecting ghosts, in a way. We can bring back these dead stars by watching a film, allowing people like John Cazale and Judy Garland to live and play again. News that Rutger Hauer died broke while I was writing this review. But he will always be alive whenever someone watches Blade Runner or Ladyhawke. Tarantino is a magician and in the making of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood he brings back to life a time, place and people that have long faded into the past. He gives Sharon Tate (and those murdered with her that night) a second chance to breathe, relish the magical wonderland of Hollywood and live on. Does that magic extend to Rick and Cliff? To himself? Or is Tarantino now a man out of time, a stranger with no name? Only time will tell.