When asked in an interview what genre his film “Inglourious Basterds” falls under, director Quentin Tarantino said he believes it is acceptable to view his work as a sort of fairy tale since the story takes place within actual events, but fictional characters transform the outcome and create an alternate history of sorts. With “Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood” Tarantino similarly creates a fairy tale of Hollywood’s Golden Age centered around the young up-and-coming actress, Sharon Tate; the aging star trying to adjust through the times before he is forgotten, Rick Dalton; and the controversial stunt man who has worn out his welcome in the industry, Cliff Booth. Lead actor Leonardo DiCaprio described the film as 2 ½ days in Hollywood in 1969 with characters, both fictional and real, interwoven within the fabric of major events of history, creating a never-before-told version of life in a time we thought we were familiar with.
When the film was announced, there was a reasonable concern that this film would glorify the Manson Family as Tarantino films are usually saturated with gratuitous violence. The Manson Family is tied in with the story, but it is not what the story is about. Tarantino writes a tale that is very respectful to the human element of the tragic real-life events. In fact, Charles Manson is only on screen for roughly one minute in total. As out of character as it sounds for one of his films, I wouldn’t describe it even as a violent flick. Although there are isolated moments of violence, the main attraction is the characters, dialogue, and environments, which are outstanding.
DiCaprio, as the film’s lead, Rick Dalton, absolutely thrives. As a popular western television star in the late 50s, Rick tried and failed to make the transition from TV to film, and is now a has-been. He sees himself as one tough casting decision away from being Steve McQueen, an A-lister who was the lead in the hit film “The Great Escape”. After a healthy dose of self-loathing and alcoholism, Rick learns to take pride in his craft as an actor, but not without first being upstaged by a little girl and forgetting his lines amid an intense day of filming to catalyze the process. Although it takes some time for him to realize it, his director keenly pointed out to him, “I hired you to be an actor, not a tv cowboy”, and perhaps it is this epiphany that can provide his fading stardom a jumpstart. This role is reminiscent of many of DiCaprio’s performances from the 2000s, where his flamboyant personality is saturated within every action of his character, as compared to his most recent stoic turn in “The Revenant”. Rick Dalton will likely go down as one of Tarantino’s more memorable character and I predict Leo easily will be nominated for an Oscar for his performance.
Brad Pitt is exceptional too as Rick’s best friend, former stunt-double, and current gofer, Cliff Booth. His role is not as challenging, in comparison to his co-star’s, but it is exceptionally entertaining, providing for many of the film’s more humorous moments. I would describe him as a combination of the real-life cowboy that Rick plays on TV and a smooth bastard out of the mold of Matthew McConaughey. He has tremendous chemistry with DiCaprio, which more than anything, makes me feel cheated that this is only the first time the two superstars have ever worked on a film with each other. The boat scene with Cliff, which alludes to the nonfictional death of actress Natalie Wood allegedly at the hands of her husband Robert Wagner, is a pivotal and subjective scene that allows the audience to choose for themselves how they view Cliff as a human. Since we do not see if he actually killed his wife, his actions remain purely speculative and his morals ambiguous. This ultimately defines his character on a case-by-case basis, as he could be an innocent man or he could be a violent man depending on how you saw it.
Of the Big-3 in the cast, Margot Robbie is the only one who has the burden of portraying a person who really existed. She is tasked with presenting the legacy of the late Sharon Tate while balancing her noticeably limited dialogue with a decent amount of total screen time. In what is more attuned to a “show me, don’t me” performance, her presence on screen is carried by her outward demeanor more than her words. She portrays Sharon’s optimistic nature very well, as well as a display of her talents, which is exemplified by her training in martial arts with Bruce Lee for her fight scene in “The Wrecking Crew”. The relationships she forms with people is just as important as the words she says. She does not get a hearty monologue like Leo but still fulfills her role admirably, which is to serve as a stark contrast to the fading star of Rick Dalton. Seeing Sharon enjoy her early successes and be stunned to see her name on movie posters is the perfect display of the dreams that Hollywood’s Golden Age could inspire. As negative as certain aspects of the industry are, Sharon’s experiences in the film show that there is a lot to enjoy about making a career in Hollywood. While Robbie is an actress that could have no doubt handled more complex dialogue, it should not take away from the great performance that she does deliver.
And what is a fairy tale without a Happily Ever After? Tarantino delivers a brilliantly positive ending for his film. Cliff, having killed the Manson Family invaders, helps save his loved ones’ lives and arguably redeems himself. Sharon is not the victim of the murders and instead gets to continue her life and her career as well as give birth to her baby. And after Rick proves himself relevant again with his successes in Italy as well as surviving a murder attempt, Sharon finally invites him to his neighbor Roman Polanski’s house, something that he long believed would help his career revive itself.
Many of the film’s minor characters stand out too, even with their very limited screen time. Mike Moh as Bruce Lee has one of the most entertaining scenes in the film where Cliff fights him because he was bragging that he could cripple Cassius Clay (who later changed his name to Mohammad Ali). He delivers this monologue with such passion and charisma, you cannot help but love his portrayal, while the brawl displays well-choreographed martial arts and perfectly shows why Cliff is not welcomed in Hollywood with open arms. Julia Butters as a young 8-year-old actress who outclasses Rick and shares a touching moment of growth with him was amazing. She is a child but is very dedicated to her craft and takes her job very seriously. Leo went on to compare Butters to a young Meryl Streep, which is the highest compliment that can be paid to an actor. Dakota Fanning also gets the most out of her few minutes on screen, as Squeaky Fromme. She is abrasive, confrontational, manipulative and is totally believable as one of the leaders of the Manson family.
My initial reaction to seeing this film was “Oh, that was not what I was expecting, but it was very entertaining”. For me personally, I knew I needed a second viewing to fully grasp all that was put into this film, but maybe you won’t. I had at first perceived the film as oddly paced and unfocused, yet amazingly acted. But this was due to a misconception was that I had thought the film was trying to achieve something that it never sought out to do. I, like many others, thought this was going to be a film about the Manson Family, which it is not. A film should not be penalized for a viewer having poorly aimed expectations before viewing. In my subsequent viewing, was fully able to appreciate the painstaking detail that went into crafting each scene with a better understanding of what its purpose was. This is just my personal experience and yours could very well differ from mine. While some have called this film a love letter to Hollywood, it is unfair to claim that it is nothing more than a stylized montage of 1969’s greatest hits. I say this because I have noticed that some opinions on the internet seem to share my original sentiment and perhaps, they too were a result of the film not trying to be the film they were expecting.
I have given this careful thought over the past few days, and I am ready to proclaim this the 2nd best film of the year so far. But as my dad said to me “What does 2nd best get you?” and that is an excellent point. Considering my personal frontrunner is “Avengers: Endgame” and it is a comic book movie, rather than a “sophisticated”, award-friendly movie, “Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood” could be potentially lined up to score big at award season at the end of the year. Only time will tell.
I give “Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood” a tremendous 9.2 out of 10
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Margaret Qualley, Mike Moh, Luke Perry, Emile Hirsch, Julia Butters, Dakota Fanning, Austin Butler
Runtime: 2 Hours and 41 Minutes