Film Review: Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood

Inside Tarantino’s Hollywood Memory Palace

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Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film, is a nostalgia-laden love letter to Hollywood during the era of the Summer of Love. A project that feels deeply personal, the film dials down the director’s penchant for provocation and sensationalism, and instead delivers a mature snapshot of friendship, vintage Tinseltown, and a time that has escaped our grasp. Elevated by the powerful trio of Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, and a radiant Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is some of the best filmmaking that 2019 has to offer.

Just a few short months ago, while still shrouded in secrecy and before its standing ovation at Cannes, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood was primarily regarded as director Quentin Tarantino’s “Manson Murders Movie.” The working theory was that the storied director would once again be diving into the sanguine pool of sensationalist violence that has since become the director’s trademark. The outcry was fierce: it’s one thing to assassinate Hitler, or to give slaveowners a gruesome comeuppance, or to cut a Bride-fueled swath of bloody vengeance, but the darkness and depravity of the real-life Sharon Tate murders is something else entirely. An innocent young woman in her prime and the unborn life inside her cut down, along with four other guests in her home, the Manson murders stoke a morbid curiosity, and when put together with Quentin Tarantino, they become a potentially troubling recipe for insensitivity. But now, almost two weeks after the film’s wide release, it has become evident that not only was this not the case, but that Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood can be construed as Tarantino’s most sensitive film. A wistful reminiscence and a mournful wish, Once Upon a Time is a leisurely journey through Tarantino’s late 60s mind palace, and a narrative that treats the memory of Sharon Tate with the utmost respect.

While many remember the 1960s as a time of love, hippies, and a burgeoning counterculture, that fateful era also saw the death of American innocence; by decade’s end, Vietnam, assassinations, and the civil rights movement had shaken the country to its core, with the vicious Manson murders acting as a macabre capstone that all but ensured the death of the American Dream. Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood takes place during the months in 1969 leading up to that bloody evening on Cielo Drive, with each title card ticking away like a pendulum of dread. And while the film works its way towards the events of August 8th, it engages in a freestyle haze with its three main players: Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a Hollywood star in the twilight of his career relegated to playing heavies on television serials; Dalton’s driver, stuntman, and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a salt-of-the-earth type with a violent past; and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), the real-life starlet that flits in and out of the story. The historical murders loom over the film, but Tarantino makes it clear that the Mansons and their crimes aren’t the point of the story - Damon Herriman as Charles Manson is barely present, given what amounts to a spectral cameo. Hollywood is also the first Tarantino film to not have a cohesive narrative: it is a film that functions more like a hangout movie, but a hangout movie with a central theme. Through its captivating performances and incredibly detailed world, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood pulses with Tarantino’s desperate longing, a desire to preserve in amber a Tinseltown playground on the eve of its destruction.

“…Hollywood pulses with Tarantino’s desperate longing, a desire to preserve in amber a Tinseltown playground on the eve of its destruction.”

Within Tarantino’s world, we witness three parallel stories with different trajectories acting as Hollywood allegory. Tate, Dalton, and Booth make up a compelling triptych: a rising star, a fading talent, and an unsung cog in the show business machine, these are three individuals caught in the ebb and flow of the Hollywood game. Rick and Cliff’s stories are inextricably linked, centered by captivating performances that can only be described as extremely Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, and their journey through the curtain call of the 1960s is what makes up the bulk of Hollywood. And while our characters may live in Tarantino’s retro film paradise, it’s no utopia. As Rick’s star wobbles on the precipice of oblivion - a career crisis personified by a magnificent meltdown in a trailer halfway through the film - Cliff acts as the one to “carry [Rick’s] load” as friend, stuntman, and driver. Chauffeuring Rick back and forth between set and his home neighboring Sharon Tate’s, Cliff makes his way back to his own residence: a ramshackle trailer on a dirt road, far away from the glitz and glamor of Los Angeles. A man with a murky past - namely, a wife that he may or may not have killed - Cliff has his own troubles working, as most productions won’t hire him. Instead, he spends much of the film dangerously close to the Manson clan, at first striking up a curious flirtation with the freewheeling Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), then winding up in a masterful sequence of nail-biting suspense at Spahn Ranch, where the entire Manson family resides. It’s one of the film’s best setpieces, as Tarantino weaponizes our familiarity with real life events against us while Cliff traipses through the lion’s den, oblivious to the danger that surrounds him.

In terms of world-building, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is a meticulous production pulled straight from Tarantino’s childhood. From the El Coyote Café to the Cinerama Dome, from the period-accurate cars to the Hollywood sets, real-life locations and details convey a fully lived-in landscape and a golden nostalgia. Familiar faces from history also dot the landscape - Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) cameos at a house party, Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) and Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) float around the periphery of Sharon Tate, and Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) grapples with Cliff Booth on the Green Hornet set. It’s an incredible world brought to vivid life, but where there’s Quentin Tarantino, there’s also controversy. A whole lot can be said about Bruce Lee’s appearance in the film, which has drawn plenty of criticism from his surviving relatives and the Asian community, but I found it to be troublesome in another way: as a telling indication of how a portion of racism functions in this country, namely, as a byproduct of American myth-making. In the film, Lee - with all his nose-thumbing and vocalizations intact - spars with Brad Pitt’s Cliff Booth to a draw, with Booth scoring the last blow by tossing Lee into the side of a car. Shannon Lee, Bruce’s daughter, said in a recent interview that it was “disheartening” to see her father portrayed as an “arrogant blowhard” so easily defeated by a white protagonist. But where Shannon Lee and others see a racist caricature taken down a peg when he shouldn’t have been, I see Mike Moh’s fairly accurate deconstruction of a real human being with real human vulnerabilities, pigeonholed by a racist industry. Fellow critic Walter Chaw, for Vulture, articulates this very perspective much more effectively than I ever can: “Watching Once Upon a Time, we are not operating under the fantasy that Lee never struggled against racism, or that he wasn’t forced into an outsider role in Hollywood. Here, Lee understands that his status depends on a carefully constructed reputation for supernatural indestructibility…While some critics saw this as another example of Hollywood doing its best to humiliate an Asian legend, I see it as a man doing his best to hold on to the key to the kingdom.”

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“And while it’s true that she doesn’t have many lines, Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate will probably go down in history as one of my favorite dialogue-lite performances.”

There have also been countless takes about the marginalization of women in Quentin Tarantino’s filmography, and Once Upon at Time…in Hollywood certainly hasn’t been immune from that same line of questioning; much has been said about Sharon Tate’s ephemeral presence in the film, most of which points out her lack of lines and screen time. In an almost laughable stunt piece, TIME Magazine physically tallied every line every woman has spoken in every Tarantino film; and while the director’s treatment of his female characters is more than a valid topic for debate and discussion, to summarize an art-form with mere numbers and statistics on a page is reductive, smug, and self-congratulatory. What TIME and other critics fail to grasp is that the true measure of an actor or actress reaches beyond a mere word count, and whatever can be said about Tarantino’s other films - in my opinion - applies the least to Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.

It’s true that she doesn’t have many lines, but Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate will probably go down in history as one of my favorite dialogue-lite performances. A rising starlet in sharp contrast to Rick Dalton’s fading glory, Tarantino’s Sharon Tate is a wide-eyed effervescence, characterized by a certain warmth and humanized by the fleeting narrative that follows her everyday life. The real-life Sharon Tate was defined by her beauty, known more for her modeling and photoshoots than her acting roles, and she was a Hollywood presence that was more often seen than heard before her untimely death. In Once Upon a Time, Tarantino lends her a voice in which her brightness shines through rigamarole: Robbie’s Tate attends house parties, picks up hitchhikers, and listens to records. And in her best scene - undoubtedly the best scene of the entire film - Tate attends a screening of her own film, 1968’s The Wrecking Crew. Walking up to the theater ticket window, she hopes that she’ll be recognized. When she isn’t, she asks how much admission would be if she was actually in the film playing. When the girl behind the window is still incredulous, Tate demures. “That’s me! I play Ms. Carlson, the klutz.” After a brief photo op in the lobby, she sits down to watch herself in the Dean Martin action comedy, and what unfolds is a sequence of meta wonder. Simultaneously relaxed (bare feet up on the seat in front of her) and crackling with nervous energy, Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate watches the real Sharon Tate on screen, absolutely beaming when the audience around her laughs or reacts to her performance. From a film lover’s perspective, it’s the purest of scenes: one that underlines Tate’s humanity and specialness, resonating even more when juxtaposed to her real-life murder that’s just around the corner.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino at his most tender. And while his signature ultra-violence does eventually creep its way into the film’s ending, it feels far removed enough to feel more like an ellipsis than a coda. The film’s ending, just like the Mansons and their heinous crimes, isn’t the point. Hollywood is Tarantino’s Bottled City, a flickering daydream of an evaporated time, distilled to its essence. Lazy, meandering, thrilling, evocative, and transcendent, the film fully captures a Los Angeles moments away from seismic change, and wonders: What if that change never came?

GRADE: A-