Inspired by an era that is special to him, writer/director Tarantino is at his masterful best in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, as are DiCaprio and Pitt as the two leads. The film of the year so far.
Contemporary filmmakers attempting to portray the sixties and seventies have not fared well in my view. Dross like 20th Century Women and The Only Living Boy in New York spring immediately to mind. Quentin Tarantino isn’t drawing on personal experience in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – he was only 5 in 1969, when it is set. As great a writer/director as he can be, I had my doubts about how well he would pull this off. And I am delighted to report that the world he has conjured up in his filmmaker’s imagination, probably largely through reference to films of the time, rings gloriously true visually and tonally without resorting to cliché.
The sets, including urban streetscapes, were designed with meticulous attention to period detail, and apparently without CGI enhancements. The look is that of a film set and shot in the era, but incorporating the production values of today. Add the sheer cinematographic class and perfectly cast elite performers working off crack dialogue that are givens in Tarantino’s films and the results are nothing short of transporting.
Think 1969 LA, and you think sixties counterculture, hippies, rocknroll, drugs, the Manson murders…
And sure, all these elements are present in OUATIH, but none are laboured. There’s nothing obvious about the era signifiers, no box ticking. Everything is integral to the film in some way.
There’s a Playboy Mansion party attended by the Hollywood glam set including Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), whom we know is fated for a grisly end at the bloody hands of members of the Manson cult. Mama Cass (Rachel Redleaf) and Michelle Philips (Rebecca Rittenhouse) from The Mamas and Papas are there also, along with an acerbic Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis – great lookalike!), who offers a jaundiced insight into the likely longevity of Tate’s relationship with her famous partner Roman Polanski.
The Top 40 rock and pop music of the time is all-pervasive, as indeed it was back then (I was 14 in 1969). It veritably courses through the film. Any time anyone gets in a car the radio goes on loud.
There are recurrent takes of “Pussycat” (Margaret Qualley), a flirty teen hippie hitchhiker in hotter-than-hot hotpants. We subsequently learn that her destination is Spahn Ranch, derelict hangout of Charles Manson and co. These are the only hippies to appear. They are not, of course, the peace and love flower children variety, but miserable, ragged, unhygienic-looking specimens lounging about and regarding any intrusion from outsiders with hostility. Manson himself (Damon Herriman) makes a brief showing at one point early in the film, and while Tarantino denies the little fuck any more spotlight, the spectre of the Family and the atrocity that waits in store casts a sinister shadow throughout.
The counterculture is only part of the fabric of the movie, rather than the main game. It’s the Hollywood milieu that Tarantino is mostly interested in, and his two lead characters: actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his chain-smoking ex-stuntman and buddy, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick, having found fame and fortune as the star in a 50s/60s black-and-white TV western series called “Bounty Law”, is now battling to save his career, while Cliff is reduced to working part-time as his driver. It’s not a bad gig, though – he gets to cruise around in Rick’s Coupe de Ville, which is the worse for wear but has a blaring radio and is cool as hell from the vantage point of 2019.
Like the era, Rick and Cliff are in transition. As is Hollywood, with the Golden Age over and the next phase in formation.
Ominously, Rick happens to live next door to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate’s mansion, but that’s as close as he gets to the Hollywood glam set these days. His options limited, he accepts anything going, including a role in a spaghetti western.
Rick is all angst, self-pity and self-doubt, whereas Cliff, who lives in a trailer next to a drive-in (ha!) is happy in his own skin. He’s a war vet with a bad reputation and not to be messed with, as Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) discovers when they face off in a scene that feels a bit uncomfortable. Lee is sent up, presented as a petulant bighead who cops his just deserts when he takes on a lippy Cliff. American whitey beats Asian martial arts expert – hmmm. For me, this was the only blight in a film I found hard to fault.
Margot Robbie does a good job of her bit-part as Sharon Tate, who’s presented as breezy, beautiful and innocent. There’s a great scene in which she attends a cinema showing her film The Wrecking Crew. Sitting back with her feet on the seat in front, she takes child-like delight in seeing herself on screen and gauging the audience reaction to her character.
A high point is a poignant and very un-Tarantino interaction between a drunk Rick and a precocious child actor (10yo Julia Butters – terrific!). She brings him to tears trying to comfort him as he battles to learn his lines during a crisis of confidence. DiCaprio’s acting chops are brilliantly showcased in a subsequent take on the set of the western he’s in, when he overcomes his tendency to fluff and forget lines, putting in a blinder of a performance as he slips into character. The scene culminates with him flinging his child confidante to the floor, following which he rushes to her to check that she’s unharmed. Really touching stuff, and about as close to sentimentality as I can recall Tarantino venturing.
While DiCaprio and Pitt are superb – both, in my view, worthy of a Best Actor Oscar nomination – the narrative is slow-paced and meandering, yet tight. I was absorbed from the first frame to the last, but staying with it could be a challenge for viewers with little interest in the era. The violence you know is coming explodes in vintage Tarantino style towards the end of the movie, when the Manson cult arrives at their date with destiny in the Hollywood Hills, but it’s genuinely cathartic, even if typically extreme. Indeed, I would go so far as to venture that it is fired by a moral outrage on Tarantino’s part. That comment will not make sense unless you have seen the film, and it would be spoiling if I were to elaborate here.
For me, this is Tarantino’s best work since Pulp Fiction, and in terms of its crafting his best work period. Goes without saying, then, film of the year.
PS: Anyone who was around in 1969 knows the story of the Manson murders, but going by some of the mystified post-screening responses I heard, many younger viewers might not. If you’re unsure of the history, it’s vital to your understanding of the film to read up on the Manson cult beforehand, even if your research extends no further than Wikipedia.
Movie Website: https://www.sonypictures.com/movies/onceuponatimeinhollywood
Australian release date: Once Upon a Time In Hollywood currently screening in Australian cinemas
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