Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood (2019)
Written & Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Fifty years ago on August 9th actress Sharon Tate and three of her friends were brutally murdered by three people sent to her home by Charles Manson. At the time, Tate was eight months pregnant with her first child by husband Roman Polanski. Polanksi was in London scouting locations for The Day of the Dolphin, a film he would have to abandon when word reached him of the massacre that occurred at his home on Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon. This has become a horror story retold countless times when the dark side of Hollywood is discussed, an allegory for the nightmare that can bubble up to the surface in a town so closely associated with dreams. But, what if…?
This is the ninth film from writer/director Quentin Tarantino, the only director I know of whose posters now include a running count of how many movies he’s helmed. This is also the most straightforward plot structure he’s ever used with no chapters or non-linear plotting. There are plenty of non-sequiturs and it wouldn’t be a Tarantino film without gross self-indulgence, but at this point in his career, you cannot go to see one of his pictures and expect anything else. He is a filmmaker that is very clear about the type of cinema he wants to be involved with, so you are either in or out. There are cameos aplenty, and it’s effortless for Tarantino to get any actor he wants to come to do a day of shooting. Among the supporting cast are Bruce Dern, Dakota Fanning, Timothy Olyphant, and Emile Hirsch. Beyond that, there are even smaller roles populated by Luke Perry, Scoot McNairy, Lena Dunham, Michael Madsen, Kurt Russell, Zoe Bell, Margaret Qualley, Maya Hawke, Damian Lewis, and Al Pacino.
Front and center in this picture are Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt and while I usually don’t talk about the actors so much as the characters this is a movie where the actors are a critical part of how audiences will perceive the picture. These are both actors that are middle-aged and not able to play the same roles they once did when they started in Hollywood. Both men have reached a level of prestige in acting so that you wouldn’t expect to see them playing leads in farcical comedies or low budget horror. These are guys that will be placed in either Oscar bait or big-budget dramas. The characters they play in Once Upon a Time are like reflections from a parallel world where their careers didn’t follow the same trajectory. Tarantino has always had an interest in the washed-up has-been both in his scripts and in his casting. He’s credited with turning around John Travolta’s career (only for the actor to do his damndest to bury himself again), and Tarantino can’t seem to quit perennial screw-up, Michael Madsen. Tarantino idolizes old soldiers and cowboys, and this is probably his most earnest film when addressing those tropes.
Much less fleshed out is Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate. Robbie has done plenty to make herself known since her breakout performance in The Wolf of Wall Street. Strangely Tarantino has chosen to make Tate as a glorified prop which was shocking because he is a director who has a large number of well-written female characters under his belt. Instead, Tate is a background player in the lives of Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Pitt), and that feels strange in a film that ultimately reveals itself as a dream about what could have been. The most development we get out of Tate is during a day trip to buy a book for Polanski that ends up in her sitting in on a screening of her recent picture The Wrecking Crew. It’s a beautiful moment that dissolves and leaves her in the background again. Being fair, we get zero revelations about Charles Manson, who shows up in one and scene and then becomes a guiding presence in the lives of his acolytes. Polanksi is treated similarly as a famous guy who drops out of the script so we can focus on Dalton and Booth.
This is the least violent Tarantino film, though when the shit hits the fan in the third act, he most definitely steps on the gas. There’s a sense of contemplation in the work now which has never been this prevalent. The director has a deep love of this period of cinema and peppers the work with film and television both real and fictional. Once Upon a Time takes place in the same cinematic universe of Inglourious Basterds and Kill Bill, a fantasy universe where two-fisted heroes are real, but most people are just trying to get by day to day. This isn’t the Hollywood of our reality but the one from Tarantino’s nostalgia where Bruce Lee and Steve McQueen and Sharon Tate are all friends and party together. In this world, the likes Manson and his family are cartoonish buffoons who can’t succeed because evil never wins. It’s is why in the film’s final crane shot, looking out over a surprisingly peaceful Cielo Drive you can’t help but feel a catch in your throat at how nice it would be if life were more like the movies.