In Quentin Tarantino’s new film, One Upon a Time…In Hollywood we are given a look at a director who is operating at the top of his game and, as a result, has given us not an epic movie as some prognosticators may have suggested (including ye olde culpable film reviewer), but rather a very intimate art house film set against an epic background. It is to the good credit of Mr. Tarantino and his jaw dropping list of actors associated with the movie that we don’t get lost in sweeping panoramas or overwhelmed with orchestral, operatic flourishes; what we walk away with after a screening of the film is a feeling more personal that suggests something akin to Before Sunset or My Dinner With Andre versus Gone With the Wind or Spartacus.
Set during the second Golden Age of Hollywood during the summer of 1969, Once Upon a Time…follows television star Rick Dalton (DiCaprio who is hilarious and sad) and his friend and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt delivering his best work in quite some time) as they attempt to wrap their heads around an industry they no longer understand, one that has gone from Wagon Train and Leave It to Beaver to Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider. Is there a place in the new Tinseltown for the two?
As Rick and Cliff discuss their quandary – in some of the best dialogue between two characters since Jackson and Travolta in Tarantino’s 1994 calling card, Pulp Fiction – a dark cloud looms on the horizon: Charles Manson and his deranged “family.”
History as we know it dictates that up and coming actress and wife of renowned director Roman Polanski Sharon Tate will meet a horrific fate on the night of August 8, 1969 at the hands of the Manson family cult and by dropping two fictional leads – Rick and Cliff, again – into the days and weeks leading up to the brutal murders and by allowing them to ever so casually glide by and slightly intersect with Sharon Tate and Manson, the director creates an approaching atmosphere of dread. We the audience know what is about to go down, even as the characters remain oblivious. The film begins as a beautifully gaudy dream resplendent with micro-skirts and groovy music and quite suddenly devolves into a waking nightmare as we come closer and closer to that fateful evening. Tarantino knows all of this, of course, and plays his audience like a master Machiavellian; he allows us to laugh at Rick’s major insecurities and over the top meltdowns even as we worry for the fate of him and Cliff. Will the most likeable duo since Felix Unger and Oscar Madison also fall victim to a lurking Charlies Manson?
Juxtaposed with the fictional elements of Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood is the very real life happenings of Sharon Tate herself (Margot Robbie). In the story Rick lives next to Sharon yet she is already an intangible, known vaguely by him and representative of the New Hollywood he does not understand. Robbie gives a master class in portraying an almost ethereal Tate and, though her role is appropriately smaller than that of DiCaprio’s and Pitt’s, she is just as integral to the unfolding story, perhaps even more so. Recall the New York Times reporter at the Cannes Film Festival who attempted to call Tarantino out over what she deemed as an underwritten role? Tarantino wisely rejected that hypothesis as so much noise in an extremely hyper-politically correct atmosphere. Margot Robbie has real significance in this story and neither she nor Sharon Tate is marginalized in any sort of way by Mr. Tarantino’s script. Robbie is truly one of the best things in this film and through her work we are allowed to rediscover and fall in love with Sharon Tate all over again. She is that good.
As our characters race towards their impending destinies and final fates – both real and imagined – one is struck by the canvas that Quentin Tarantino has fashioned for himself in order to tell this story. Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood is not a regression or a last hurrah for what some deem as misogyny on the part of the director. There is true and visible growth in Tarantino’s work. In the past some have argued his films are bombastic, but here he proves himself to be what many fans already knew or at least strongly guessed at – a master of finding the smaller and more real stories amidst the whizzing bullets and oratories laced with pop culture and profanity. That’s all simply Warholian background and, though the cast for Once Upon a Time…is star studded, the real star of the film is Tarantino himself who walks out of the editing room with a genuine Hollywood masterpiece. That’s not a bad feat in an industry that long ago sold its soul to corporatization.