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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not about the Sharon Tate murders. It was clearly never intended to be a movie about the Sharon Tate murders. Hell, I don’t think it was ever even marketed as a movie about the Sharon Tate murders.

I know there are many who are upset — even offended — that this movie doesn’t go into detail about the life and death of Sharon Tate, doing more to humanize her, tell her story, celebrate her legacy, portray her (and her friends and her unborn child) as the victim of a tragic untimely death. I’ve no doubt there’s a fantastic movie to be made with all of that material, and the subject certainly deserves it. Somebody should absolutely make that movie, if they haven’t done so already. This is not that movie.

And anyway, let’s be honest — if anyone was seriously going to make that movie, would you really want it to be Quentin Fucking Tarantino?

This is the man who previously made films set in Nazi Germany and the Antebellum South, both of which could charitably be called “historical fiction”, though straight-up “revisionist revenge fantasy” might be a more accurate label. So here we are with a movie set in Los Angeles, circa 1969, starring a washed-up cowboy actor (Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio) with a house on Cielo Drive, and a stuntman (Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt) who takes a tour through the Spahn Movie Ranch during the course of the plot. If those specific locations mean anything to you, then you probably won’t have to do a lot of homework before seeing the film.

(Side note: No, to my recollection, DiCaprio and Robbie don’t share any scenes together. Damn shame — I might have liked to see that reunion under Tarantino.)

Sharon Tate herself makes an appearance (here immortalized by Margot Robbie), but she doesn’t have any kind of active role in the plot and she barely has any dialogue. She’s there simply to look pretty, playing the part of the naive bright-eyed up-and-coming actor and wife/muse to white-hot director Roman Polanski (here played in passing by Rafal Zawierucha). This is of course made all the more tragic by our own knowledge about the respective fates that both of these Hollywood figures would meet over the next few decades.

Moreover, even though Robbie barely has any dialogue, she gives such an emotive and transformative performance that she totally sells the role. Of course, it certainly helps that she’s filtered through Tarantino’s unparalleled skill with camerawork and editing. Also, feet shots. Even by Tarantino’s usual standards, his trademark foot fetish is on heavy display here.

Is this portrayal of Sharon Tate true to life? Probably not. Is it a strong and empowering female role? Hell no, not even remotely close. Does it work as an idyllic starry-eyed symbol of ’60s Hollywood, with glamour and beauty and short-sighted optimism for the future? Absolutely.

Watching Tate go about her business in this movie — partying at the Playboy Mansion, watching a movie she costars in, nesting in preparation for the baby, etc. — it begs the question of what might have happened if she had lived. Would she be a stay-at-home mom for the rest of her life? Would she have gone on to a successful career in acting? Would she have flamed out when the next generation of pretty young actresses came along? Would Roman Polanski have even met Samantha Geimer? Most importantly — at least, where this movie’s concerned — how might Hollywood have been different if it wasn’t so radically affected by this heartbreaking tragedy?

We’ll never know, and that’s the real tragedy.

Ultimately, this movie is concerned with the Tate Murders as part of the grand seismic cultural upheaval that was the Summer of ’69. Neil Armstrong landed on the moon. Senator Ted Kennedy killed a woman in a drunk driving accident at Chappaquiddick. Woodstock made its debut in upstate New York. By any metric, this month-and-a-half window was a monumental turning point in history. That’s not even getting started on the slow collapse of the studio-driven system, which went out of vogue for a couple of decades after Hollywood got hit by the Recession of 1969. While Tarantino never even mentions any of these other events or what came after, he doesn’t really need to. After all, we know from our own experience and knowledge that nothing was ever the same again.

Thus Tarantino turns his lens toward the brief moment in time just before everything changed. The better for us to see how much has stayed the same, how much we’ve lost, and how much we might be better off losing.

To take it from the top, the real star of the movie is Rick Dalton, an aging cowboy actor who’s come to the crushing realization that he’s past his peak. (Remember, he’s literally Leonardo DiCaprio’s age.) It certainly doesn’t help that Rick is consistently coughing his lungs out, presumably after so many years of chain-smoking. He’s taking steady work playing villainous guest spots for various TV shows, getting his ass kicked by a rotating list of up-and-coming young actors. Long story short, he’s faced with the choice of staying in L.A. to continue brewing in his own encroaching obsolescence, or he can go to Italy and try his hand at the blossoming industry of cheap (and flagrantly racist) Spaghetti Westerns.

DiCaprio is all aces here, turning range and intensity like I haven’t seen from him since Wolf of Wall Street. What’s especially impressive is the movie-within-a-movie aspect, as we follow Rick Dalton through one of his gigs. We watch Rick run his lines and prepare for a role, then perform that exact same dialogue in costume and character, and the repetition is somehow compelling. It’s genuinely fascinating to watch Rick switch in and out of character in mid-scene, and often in mid-line.

But my personal favorite material has to be DiCaprio’s exchanges with a child actor played by Julia Butters. Here is the contrast of old and new perfectly demonstrated, as this aging drunken maverick trades words with a poised and dedicated professional not even a third his age. She takes The Craft seriously to an extent that Rick can’t even begin to comprehend, yet she’s treating him and trusting him as a fellow coworker and scene partner. Thus Rick (in spite of himself, and perhaps even without knowing it) looks to her for approval and some slight confirmation that he can still cut it as an actor. The two of them only get two scenes together, but they’re pure dynamite.

Then we have Rick’s stuntman/chauffer/handyman/drinking parter/best friend for hire, Cliff Booth. I know what you’re already thinking: If he’s charismatic and multi-talented enough to be played by freaking Brad Pitt, why isn’t he the star instead of Rick Dalton? Well, to start with, there’s an unfortunate rumor that Cliff murdered his wife. This isn’t helped by a brief yet painfully awkward flashback in which Cliff’s wife (Rebecca Gayheart) is shown as a shrill nagging harpy, with the implication that her husband was totally justified in her cold-blooded murder. Even if it’s never explicitly stated that he did it… god damn.

It also doesn’t help that Cliff clearly has an eye for younger — MUCH younger — women. In one of his introductory scenes, we see Cliff lusting after a hippie girl (“Pussycat”, played by Margaret Qualley) who’s barely more than a teenager, while “Mrs. Robinson” plays on the radio. Yikes. Yes, there is a moment when Cliff could have his way with her and he knows enough to turn her down without proof that she’s of age, but still. Squicky as hell.

With all of that said, Cliff is very clearly a throwback to the ’60s ideal of raw machismo. (See also: Steve McQueen, incidentally played in this movie by Damian Lewis.) He’s got a devil-may-care kind of attitude and a razor-sharp wit. He can take as many beatings as he can dish out. He’s nice until it’s time to not be nice, and he’s not the type to tolerate or dish out any bullshit. I’m sure you know the type, and Pitt is clearly having a blast in the role. It’s a performance with all the terrifying fun of Lt. Aldo Raine, but without so much of the over-the-top campiness.

Something else that’s notable about Cliff is that he’s our primary source of violence in the film. And surprisingly, we don’t get as much of that as you might think. We get a street fight with Bruce Lee (played here by Mike Moh), we get a hippie’s face getting curb-stomped, and we’ve got that over-the-top bloody burning chaos in the climax. That’s three brief yet awesome major fight scenes in the space of just under three hours, and Cliff is at the center of them all.

(Side note: Speaking of Bruce Lee, I’ve got to say that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the portrayal of the martial arts legend as a braying jackass with a chip on his shoulder. Then again, I understand that the real Bruce Lee was a consummate show-off who often got himself arrested for picking fights, so make of that what you will.)

With all of that said, I humbly submit that Tarantino didn’t really gain auteur status for his violent scenes. If anything, it’s really more the looming threat of imminent violence that shows off Tarantino at his best. It’s his Mexican standoffs, his interrogation scenes, the discussions between two or more people who may be only seconds away from blowing each other’s brains out.

In this case, most of the suspense comes from the looming Tate Murders and a brief walk-on appearance from Charles Manson himself (played by Damon Herriman). We know that things are about to go to shit in a big way, but because our two main characters are inventions of the filmmakers, we don’t know exactly how. But even when the Tate Murders aren’t a factor (Because, remember, this movie isn’t about the Tate Murders.), the dialogue exchanges are still compelling because of how much it shows us about the characters. It really is fascinating to see how much we learn about Rick and Cliff based on what they say, what they don’t say, how they react, and so on. These characters and performances are so compelling that they’re endlessly watchable, even when we’re watching the two of them carrying on with trivial conversations (like the aforementioned exchange between Rick and his young costar).

Alas, while the cast is loaded from top to bottom with a wide variety of talents, none of them really stick. Aside from our three main characters, nobody gets any decent amount of screen time. Margaret Qualley and Julia Butters turn in the best supporting performances by a mile, but that’s about it.

Sometimes (as with Kurt Russell, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Al Pacino, etc.), this comes off as a sad waste of talent. Sometimes (Hi, Zoe Bell! Hey there, Michael Madsen!), we get fun little surprise cameo appearances. But most of the time (as with Timothy Olyphant, Emile Hirsch, Damien Lewis, Lena Dunham, the late Luke Perry, and others), we get performers who come and go so quickly and with so little fanfare that they barely even register.

And of course that’s not even getting started on Maya Hawke, Harley Quinn Smith, Rumer Willis, and other showbiz kids working here as extras. They are all window dressing and little else.

Aside from a few token scenes of violence, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is far more contemplative than most of Tarantino’s work. It’s a 160-minute film not terribly concerned with rushing to the next action beat or plot point, but content to spend time with our main characters and soaking in the ill-fated Hollywood glamour of 1969. I can’t even blame the film for being all that bloated — even the apparently redundant moments convey so much about the characters, and often pay off in exciting ways later on.

Even so, sitting through such a long movie can be a huge ask. Especially since Tarantino is not a filmmaker for all tastes, and even some of the auteur’s aficionados might not agree with some of the directions he took here. God knows the ending has already brewed up no shortage of controversy, and rightly so.

The three lead performances are uniformly magnetic, and even the worst supporting role is charming enough. Plus, all of Tarantino’s well-practiced skills as a writer/director are on full display here. All told, I’d say this is absolutely a home video must-watch. And for those of you with a vested interest in the awards races, this should absolutely be considered mandatory viewing.

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