Once Upon A Time in Tennessee, there lived a boy born in 1963. At age four, he moved to a far away land, where he would be destined to do many controversial, iconic and pop cultural things. This land was California. The boy, was Quentin Tarantino.
Growing up in California at a young age, Tarantino assimilated everything about Tinseltown with all the trimmings. He was averse to school, favoured films and relished story telling. He told Entertainment Weekly, one of his abiding memories was of his grandmother taking him to see a John Wayne movie. Abandoning high school, he worked as an usher at an adult movie theatre, took acting classes and got a job at Video Archives in Manhattan Beach.
Unsurprising, then, he would forge a career in the film industry and treasure every aspect of it along the way. And ‘Once Upon A Time in… Hollywood’ (OUATIH) is a testament to his obsession with cinema.
The 9th film from Tarantino positions itself as his most mature movie yet, perhaps because it’s more personal. It’s melancholic, psychedelic and historic. Set in 1969, it’s a nostalgic nod to movielore told through a kaleidoscopic collage of the real, surreal and unreal.
Featuring a star-studded cast, Leonardo DiCaprio is Rick Dalton, a ‘has been’ actor of the fictional TV western, ‘Bounty Law’, tragically trying to navigate a film industry he’s no longer au fait with. While his stunt double, Cliff Booth, portrayed by a blasé but bold Brad Pitt finds fulfilment being ‘more than a brother, but less than wife’ to Dalton. They’re duo dynamic, was inspired by a composite of any number of TV show leads, in which the protagonist’s stunt double would have also been tethered. Namely, Chuck Connors, from The Rifleman, where its final episode would air in 1963, thus propelling the portrayal of Dalton firmly forward. Hal Needham springs to mind for Booth’s character, as he was the most preeminent stunt man of his time. It’s a romantic reflection of the past but crystallises the reality of the zeitgeist for the future.
As Dalton faces the spectre of career obsolescence, who better to advise than the Godfather of Hollywood himself, Al Pacino, as his new agent, Marvin Shwarz. Recognising Dalton’s on the precipice of failure, he encourages him to make a shift to movies, specifically spaghetti westerns in Italy. But such suggestion is sordid in Dalton’s obstinate opinion. So while Dalton’s trialling an alternative career trajectory, he lands the role of a villain in a new series ‘Lancer’. Yet the chain-smoking, alcohol addict he’s become inhibits his performance and proves pitiful. So he resorts to a moaning monologue in his trailer, promising to do better next time. Ironically, a brilliant performance in itself.
It’s a principal later reinforced by Dalton’s child co-star, Trudi, (Julia Butters), who’s catching up on some light reading on Walt Disney’s biography but takes a necessary moment to assuage Dalton’s ambivalence about being an actor with rather precocious philosophies. Trudi concedes some actors strive for perfection but it’s ‘unnatural’ and she tells him ‘it’s the pursuit’ that makes the job worthwhile. When he returns for another take on set, he delivers his best performance yet and Trudi whispers ‘that was the best acting I’ve ever seen in my whole life’, glazing his eyes with tears and affords him the kick of confidence he needed. It’s metacinema at its majesty.
But this is a Tarantino movie, so that’s not the only story transpiring. Dalton’s is just one third of a series of set ups that culminate in something much larger. She’s on the posters, she’s in the trailers, so what’s Margot Robbie’s story? Robbie playfully portrays murdered actress, Sharon Tate. She is wife to French-Polish director Roman Polanski, and next-door neighbour to Dalton who both live on Cielo Drive.
It’s still 1969, but it’s February, so if you’re familiar with Hollywood history, it isn’t until Tate arrives at her new house where angst begins to permeate the screening. This is where Tarantino torments our senses. And the apex of anguish isn’t achieved until we’re taken to Spahn Movie Ranch, a 55-acre land rented out to studios in LA for Western productions and for a time, home to the Charles Manson Family.
Elsewhere, an idle Booth, sets himself up for a self-jeopardising display of machismo with Kung-fu fighter Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), on a studio backlot but wins having thrust him into the car of Stunt Coordinator, Randy, (Kurt Russell)’s wife. It’s framed through a flashback, so soon after Booth cruises through the sun-kissed streets of Hollywood trying to fulfil some hazy purpose. The streets are lined with hippies aplenty and one hitches a ride.
It’s Booth’s somewhat sensible encounter with the girl, later revealed to be one of Manson’s acolytes, Pussycat, a hippy to the tee with her unshaved armpits, sexual promiscuity and a flower-power crop top, played by Margaret Qualley that leads us to Spahn’s Movie Ranch. Having worked on the set in his earlier stunt double career, Booth recognises it as the home of George Spahn (Bruce Dern) and insists on meeting him. Tarantino judiciously neglects any such music here, because our thoughts alone are Helter Skelter.
Yet the remainder of the scene unfolds using typical Tarantino technique, when Booth tentatively observes the ramshackle dwelling and its dwellers. It feels selfish, that we know more than Booth does here – dramatic irony done brilliantly. He badgers the cult to see George until a wickedly weird, Squeaky Fromme, a commune mainstay, played by Dakota Fanning, challenges him. Hitherto you’d have thought the incumbent foot fetish reached its quota, but it hasn’t. Tarantino is just being plain mean now. Booth returns to his car where, hillbilly hippy, Clem, has punctured his tyre. Booth demands he fixes it, Clem resists, Booth draws blood. It’s a torpid, torturously time-consuming scene that results in succinct violence that puts you at ease.
Meanwhile, Tate is relishing the burgeoning success of her career as an actress as she kicks back in a seat, literally with her filthy feet up, in a matinee screening of herself in the 1968 comedy, ‘The Wrecking Crew’. She stumbles upon the theatre, poised and proud of what can assume is the first time she’s seeing her name in majuscule letters on a theatre marquee. As Tate observes her on-screen performance in huge and fabulously framed reading glasses and absorbs the crowd-pleasing laughter and approval, the overarching feeling is poignant and sentimental.
OUATIH, is many things but it isn’t typical Tarantino. Yet the filmmaking is as ever fantastic from Robert Richardson’s sun-drenched, stunning cinematography that captures Hollywood in its twilight, to Arianne Phillips’ rich and retro costume design. And the coalescence of sounds from the late 60’s with its radio talk and TV chatter is a time machine to the epoch of Old Hollywood.
The three subplots might seem protracted, but it has a powerful pay-off in the film’s final moments. If you haven’t done your homework, it might be alienating. But this is quintessential Quentin, so while it might read like a Brothers Grimm fairy tale on paper, on the silver screen, you enter a revisionist realm of fantasy.