Prior to seeing Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, I braced myself for a Quentin Tarantino bloodbath on the order of Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill or Django Unchained. Instead, what I initially experienced was a fun romp through a 1960s Hollywood period piece, a buddy movie complete with tons of great original TV clips and music. I wondered if Tarantino was trying something new. And then, following a trail of bloody breadcrumbs, it took a dark turn down a dead end street called Cielo Drive and straight into the horrific Charles Manson murders of August 8, 1969. Oh yeah, spoiler alert, but knowing this won’t ruin the movie.
Actually, knowing what I just told you, especially if you’re not a Baby Boomer, will help you research and prepare to understand what’s going on while Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio struggle with their diminishing roles in the movie business of the late ‘60s. Leo plays Rick Dalton, a fading TV tough guy trying to transition into movies, alongside his faithful stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). It’s hard to identify the star of this film since the two actors trade the lead role throughout the film and perform with equal humor and intensity.
Tarantino is clearly drawn to the most notorious human monsters in history, but it wasn’t entirely clear where this film was headed for the first hour or so. Tarantino teased out some hints of the story’s through-line early on, but eventually it is revealed that Roman Polanski, Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring live next door to Dalton. An exclusive area of Benedict Canyon, north of Beverly Hills, this is a very bad neighborhood to live in during August of 1969.
It seems that while everyone else was focusing on the 50thanniversary of the Apollo Moon landing in July, Tarantino was preparing for the release of this 50thanniversary alternate reality comedy/drama. Yes, dark comedy of the absurd brand that Tarantino can muster under the most grotesque of situations. Think about Andy Kaufman’s twisted humor. Tarantino likes to psychologically mess with his audience while delivering his own fantasy of how he’d prefer things to turn out – much like Nazis getting their come-uppance in Inglourious Basterds. And here again, that fantasy includes the most menacing of weapons – the flamethrower.
Born in 1963, little Quentin Tarantino either spent every moment of his first ten years in front of a TV and has encyclopedic recall, or he thoroughly researched the era and managed to dig up media assets that tug at the heartstrings of people about ten years older. I enjoyed scenes from Mannix, The Green Hornet, The FBI, and music very specific to the year 1969 and before, including Paul Revere and the Raiders, The Vanilla Fudge, Neil Diamond and others.
A segment at the Playboy Mansion has Cass Elliot partying with Michelle Phillips and there’s talk of Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys, who lived in the Polanski house and briefly partied with Manson. Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis), as cool as ever, reminisces about Sharon Tate’s attraction to short men. “I never stood a chance,” he laments.
The portrayal of this frenetic time effectively captures a generation coming of age, embroiled in Vietnam and two years beyond the “Summer of Love.” Hippies are falling out of favor, but remnants are under the spell of “Charlie” at the Spahn Ranch. Tucked away in a back room on the property is George Spahn (Bruce Dern), the 80 year old sex slave/owner. Of course, weaving fictional characters into notorious historic events is a Forrest Gump sort of fun. Time travel with a twist and lots of liberties.
This is a movie within a movie. We get to watch DiCaprio film a series of retakes in a stereotypical western barroom, then go back to his trailer and combust over his inept and embarrassing performance. Meanwhile, Pitt is on Dalton’s roof fixing a TV antenna and hoping for a part onscreen with Bruce Lee, whom he mockingly calls Kato. The resulting “knock down” fight exposes Lee as a fraud of sorts, a human hyperbole and Karate sound effects master whose “registered weapon-hands” prevent him from engaging in any actual fighting. And the exchange loses Booth his recently acquired job. Lee’s daughter has objected to this portrayal.
A number of scenes in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood are filmed using shallow focus, which, being a Tarantino film, leaves the viewer feeling as if something strange or shocking is about to arrive from off screen or deep within the field of vision. And that’s where this film leaves you sitting on the edge of your seat – for a long time. Those abrupt intrusions simply aren’t delivered.
Al Pacino makes an appearance as Producer Marvin Schwarzs, counseling Dalton on how to remedy his declining star power. He comments on his love for “All the shooting. I love that stuff, you know, the killing.” It’s a nod to his Scarface machine gun “little friend” that in 1969 is still 14 years in the future. This scene takes place at the legendary Musso & Frank Grill, a restaurant frequented by celebrities and the location of one of the best meals of my life. Angela Lansbury was at the next table while my family dined. It was the Summer of Love. I was 12 and had no knowledge of that event or who she was, but my mother was quite excited. It was like driving past Woodstock and wondering where the music was coming from.
Sharon Tate might have been better played by a young Bo Derek, but Margot Robbie nicely captured the essence of the 1960s actress whose tragically shortened career credits ranged from The Beverly Hillbillies to Valley of the Dolls. Actual scenes with Dean Martin from 1968’s The Wrecking Crew are shown as Tate sits in a Westwood theater watching her own performance and enjoying the audience reaction a mere six months before her death.
The film ends after the closing credits with a faux commercial for Red Apple cigarettes, with Rick Dalton praising the merits of the choice smoke that made its debut in Pulp Fiction. There’s lots of smoking throughout the movie.
We talked about this movie for a while the following day and agreed we might like to see it again after some research. Looking for threads that were woven early in the fabric of the seemingly chaotic script would be a fun challenge.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) runs 2 hours 41 minutes and is rated R.
Should I see this movie?