Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino’s latest offering. It is a slant on a nostalgic tinseltown that no longer exists, if it ever really did in the way that Tarantino depicts it, and the film’s ironic ending leaves one wondering just what his motives truly were. Critics have complained that the movie spends too little time on the Manson family and its tragic victims but this is the purpose of the entire film, to give a “Hollywood finish” to reality.
The film, starring Tarantino semi-regulars Leonardo DiCaprio (Django, and Brad Pitt (Inglourious Basterds) Kurt Russell (The Hateful Eight, Death Proof) and Bruce Dern (in a blink and you will miss him cameo as a last minute replacement for the late Burt Reynolds) is a long, somewhat meandering affair. **It should be pointed out that along with Russell, Dern has the most credits listed under Tarantino.**
Margot Robbie is the tragic Sharon Tate and there are a number of familiar faces, some more special that others, who fill out the cast list of this odd offering. Please do not misunderstand, this is a visual treat for the viewer, it offers much in terms of interest and threatens to become a brilliant character study. Although it never really delivers in term of character but it teases in other ways and provides a few laughs along then way.
I was 11 years old when the 1960’s ended, along with the lives of Tate, Jay Sebring, Abigail Folger and Voytek Frykowski, and Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood brought the sixties screaming back into glorious discordant life. The sounds of the radio advertisements, the television clips, the colours, the clothes and the cars all threw me right back into a pre-pubescent memory lane. This was both enthralling and somewhat, rather oddly, disturbing.
Tarantino gives us his version of ’60’s Hollywood. He also, by design, gives us the “Hollywood” ending to the entire “Helter Skelter” true story that the film is based around. (Not upon, as his tale is, to paraphrase a line from 1969’s The Wild Bunch of the event, not from it. In other words, it is the frame he hangs his work on.)
Once Upon a Time… focuses on Rick Dalton and his stunt double Cliff Booth. Tate is in the periphery as a reminder of the impending tragedy. She flashes on the screen in small glimpses that are designed to show her as a sympathetic character, all the more to make the ending hit that little bit harder. This is, however, a ruse. A MacGuffin if you will. A tactic that sets us up instead for the “Hollywood ending.”
Tarantino lets fantasy intrude at the tail end of the movie and here the discussion will stop in order to keep spoilers from appearing in this review. In many ways, the ending is a disappointment until one realizes that the fantasy is what Hollywood studios would have ordered were the real life murders a movie.
Hollywood has long had a fixation with endings that allow the hero to ride off into the sunset with the girl on one arm and a fistful of money clenched in his fist. The bad guy gets his just reward, a bullet or a grave, or both, and everyone lives happily ever after.
There are enough nods are “real” Hollywood to allow this to work. Booth’s besting of Bruce Lee on the backlot is based around Lee’s time on The Green Hornet. He was also training many celebs and newcomers on martial arts for both onscreen and off. Lee trained Tate for her role in the Dean Martin “Matt Helm” movie The Wrecking Crew. (Coincidentally, this was the last Matt Helm picture made, despite another being touted at the end credits.)
Dalton’s foray into Spaghetti Western territory mirrors, to an extent, Clint Eastwood’s own journey into the Leonesque world of Western Opera. While the connection is tenuous as best, unlike the Bruce Lee vignette, it is there for the film fan to notice and appreciate.
Once Upon a Time looks luscious and real, except for the odd continuity issue, as the hippies all have filthy feet, legs and hair. Dakota Fanning plays stunningly against type as the “momma bear” Squeaky Fromme and Margaret Qualley as Pussycat is all scabby legs, black feet and sexual promiscuity wrapped in a teen drugged up dream. Qualley does such a convincing job as a Manson minion that one can almost smell the scent of eu de rubbish skip that must permeate her entire essence.
The violence in the film is convincing yet, strangely, funny in the way it is presented. All except the scene at the Spahn Ranch, the blood looked as real as the Korean cinema’s blood work, which is head and shoulders above the rest of the industry.
DiCaprio’s performance as Dalton is convincing and his suffering artist makes us feel for him. I will admit to being moved to tears when the child actor – Trudi (played exquisitely by Julia Butters ) leans over and tells a teary eyed Dalton that this is “the best acting I’ve ever seen.” Truth be told, Butters comes damn close to stealing the film from the entire cast. This is one young lady to keep an eye on.
Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is one to watch. Perhaps not at the cinema, streaming or DVD may just suffice as despite looking brilliant and providing a magnificent nostalgic treat, it left me, at the end of the film, feeling a tad disappointed. However, it is an excellent example of Tarantino’s skill at hiding a genius move in plain sight. Like Inglourious Basterds he gives us a fictional version of an awful reality, one that equals, to a degree, a happy Hollywood ending. This then, is the ironic twist to Tarantino’s nostalgic Hollywood tale…