SPOILER SPECIAL – ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD. With Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Kurt Russell, Al Pacino. Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. Rated R for language throughout, some strong graphic violence, drug use, and sexual references. 161 minutes.
THIS ESSAY CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR
ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD.
LOTS OF ‘EM.
Writing a spoiler-free, pre-release review of Quentin Tarantino’s ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD felt a bit like typing with one hand tied behind my back. Only a bastard would dare divulge the shocks and delights that make a first viewing of this film such a raucous rollercoaster ride, so if you haven’t yet had the pleasure please stop reading right away. I’m about to be that bastard.
Tarantino plays upon our knowledge of the Manson murders to tighten the suspense screws, ramping up and dragging out the dread before suddenly flooding us with cathartic, cartoonishly comic relief. But what’s maybe most impressive upon repeat viewings is how deftly he sets up his surprises, the punchlines often hiding in plain sight. Tarantino films are always unpredictable but they never cheat. He’s not a trickster trying to pull one over on the audience. The movies tend to tell you exactly what they’re doing while they’re doing it. This one especially.
I’ve seen “Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood” three times now and I adore the film beyond all reason. This tale of two none-too-bright, mid-level has-beens on the verge of never-was is in many ways Tarantino’s sweetest picture, improbably moving in its painstaking re-creation of a magnificently tacky Los Angeles at the end of an era. The grandeur of Hollywood’s Golden Age had already gone to rot by the time this film begins in 1969, but Tarantino has such contagious affection for crap-culture ephemera that it translates into a touching sense of longing for this gaudy, Jurassic world. It’s a blizzard of bubblegum pop ditties, middling TV westerns, catchy advertising jingles and disposable studio programmers conjured with such loving attention to detail you can practically smell the after-shave and stale cigarette smoke. I wish I could live inside this movie.
The first tip-off to where we’re headed is a clip from “The Fourteen Fists of McCluskey,” what was intended to be the big-screen breakthrough for Leonardo DiCaprio’s modestly talented TV cowboy, Rick Dalton. For every Clint Eastwood or Steve McQueen who made the jump from television westerns to movie stardom there were dozens of guys like Rick who couldn’t quite pull it off. The glimpse we get of this studio standard, WWII men-on-a-mission movie finds an eyepatch-wearing Rick torching Nazis with flamethrower (along with a priceless behind-the-scenes insert in which our prima donna asks if somebody can do something about the heat). Of course that flamethrower is gonna pay off big in a couple hours or so, and since Tarantino loves referencing himself the scene is also supposed to put us in mind of his “Inglourious Basterds,” another film in which history’s monsters are at the mercy of the movies.
Shaping up to be the film’s most curious controversy is a very funny flashback in which we see how Brad Pitt’s supercool stuntman Cliff Booth rendered himself unemployable by picking a fight with Bruce Lee on the set of “The Green Hornet.” It’s a layered sequence and its placement in the film is pivotal, as we’ve previously only seen Cliff as a kind and supportive pal to basket-case Rick. But now we’re rudely informed by Kurt Russell’s put-upon stunt coordinator (who also narrates the film with just the right amount of surly disdain for our protagonists) that Cliff killed his wife and got away with it. Pitt is giving the warmest and most enormously enjoyable performance of his career, to which Tarantino tries to complicate our responses by waiting so long to drop this biographical bomb. A flashback within the flashback is teasingly inconclusive, alluding to Natalie Wood as a way of further muddying the waters. Is Cliff really a murderer?
We’ll never know for sure. He’s definitely an asshole though, as evidenced by the hilarious, ball-busting banter between Pitt and Mike Moh’s Bruce Lee. It’s a situation in which Cliff understands full well that he should really just shut up and drink his milk (a marvelous touch) but he simply can’t resist being a dick, even if that means the end of his career. A lot of people have been mischaracterizing the scene as Brad Pitt beating up Bruce Lee, which is the kind of statement that gets you attention on Twitter but isn’t actually what happens in the film. It’s a three-round match and in the first Cliff is immediately planted on the ground by a single kick from the kung fu icon. During the second Cliff goads Lee into repeating the exact same move, which he counters and sends him flying into a car. Round three is interrupted, so I guess if hard-pressed you could say they fought to a draw.
It strikes me as deliberately disingenuous to claim that Quentin Tarantino – a man who has done more to introduce mainstream American movie audiences to Asian and martial arts cinema than any other living filmmaker and even had Uma Thurman wearing Bruce Lee’s yellow “Game of Death” jumpsuit in “Kill Bill” – somehow intended here to insult his idol. In fact, Tarantino already explained exactly what he was up to in the film’s very first scene, when Al Pacino’s fidgety talent agent tells Rick that the networks are using him in villain-of-the-week roles to boost the bona fides of their up-and-coming actors. If some nobody on his first TV show is seen beating up a guy like Rick Dalton, he becomes someone the audience can take seriously as a star. So what better way to establish Cliff’s seemingly superhuman physical prowess than by having him tussle with the most formidable fighter of all time? It’s a tribute, and a damn funny one.
Besides, I think any question of who really won the fight is answered by the fact that Cliff is remembering it all from up on a roof fixing Rick’s TV antenna because he can’t get any other work and Bruce Lee is off somewhere busy being a legend. Tarantino hammers this home with quick shots of Lee training glamorous friends like Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring, while Cliff lives in a trailer behind a drive-in with his dog. And if you really feel like getting into the weeds of it, the whole sequence is deliberately framed as Cliff’s memory of events, and as in nearly every Tarantino movie from the commode story in “Reservoir Dogs” to the snowy blow job in “The Hateful Eight,” tall tales are always as suspect as their tellers.
Besides, there’s already a pretty porous line between the movies and reality in this Hollywood fairy tale. The cameras and studio lights go missing from the soundstage during Rick’s performance on the TV pilot for “Lancer,” which is presented to us in glorious widescreen with a florid, Italian spaghetti western influence unheard of in television productions of the era. (That is, until Rick forgets his dialogue and we can suddenly hear the camera rig squeaking along the dolly track.) Tarantino even digitally inserts DiCaprio into a scene from “The Great Escape,” showcasing the limits of Dalton’s big-screen charisma as compared to his fellow former TV cowboy Steve McQueen. (Some have speculated that the character’s nagging smoker’s cough is a hint that Rick’s in the early stages of lung cancer, which would claim McQueen in 1980. If so, it’s even more perverse that the closing credits include outtakes from Dalton doing a cigarette commercial.)
Similar slight-of-hand finds DiCaprio replacing Burt Reynolds on an old episode of “The F.B.I.” But Tarantino pointedly leaves the vintage footage untouched during this film’s most beguiling sequence, when Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate catches a matinee of “The Wrecking Crew” and watches the real Tate on a big screen with an appreciative audience. It’s the most heartfelt scene Tarantino has ever filmed, a valentine to the movies and to the late actress, embodied here by Robbie as a beatific beacon of lost promise. The film mostly keeps a respectful distance from her, the camera gazing from afar or overhead as she bounces and dances with giddy abandon. I’m not sure how you ask somebody to play an idea, but Robbie becomes the heartbeat of the movie – wide-eyed and full of wonderment as a whole new world of glamour and excitement are just beginning to open up in front of her. That we know this will all soon be sadistically snatched away in a massacre makes the fleeting moments we spend with Sharon almost unbearably poignant.
This depiction of Tate has become quite an issue for people who apparently don’t know how to watch movies. At Cannes a reporter asked Tarantino why Robbie didn’t have as much dialogue as her co-stars. (He answered curtly with, “I reject your hypothesis,” which was frankly more cordial than such a dumb question deserved.) Branching off from this nonsense, Time Magazine had not one but five reporters actually sit down and count how many lines are spoken by women in Tarantino’s films, then discarded “Death Proof” from their results because apparently it didn’t fit whatever point they were trying to make about the director of “Jackie Brown” and “Kill Bill” being some sort of sexist. I’m at a loss for words when a national publication presumes that such a dopey, anti-art stunt is how one is supposed to engage with cinema, particularly when Time Magazine’s film critic Stephanie Zacharek is one of the very best in the business and a personal hero of mine who has already written gorgeously about the movie in question.
“Baby, baby, baby, you’re out of time,” sings Mick Jagger on the soundtrack in one of the film’s only music cues that doesn’t come from a visible source like a car radio. (It’s also a 1975 arrangement of the song, imposed editorially from the future.) The first time I saw the picture my palms were sweating and I had a pit in my stomach while Kurt Russell ran down the bone-dry, police report tick-tock of the hot August night that would prove to be Sharon Tate’s last. The movie dawdles on day-to-day details, as if fixating on the quotidian will forestall the inevitable. At the same time we’re watching Rick and Cliff sharing a drunken farewell dinner, their bozo boys’ club coming to a close as the falling star stares down an uncertain future of dubious career prospects, new marital responsibilities and a condo in Toluca Lake. Everybody’s running out of time.
Upon second viewing the song took on a different meaning. When Mick sings “you’re obsolete, my baby” he might as well be talking directly to Rick and Cliff, two dinosaurs from another era ill-equipped for the New Hollywood. They’re men out of their time, old cowboys who aren’t about to learn any new tricks. Watch how Tarantino shoots Pitt during the film’s brilliant, white-knuckle centerpiece sequence at the Spahn ranch. He’s a lone gunslinger in a Hawaiian shirt, with collapsing western sets from his glory days in ruins around him and the dusty streets lined with sneering, malevolent young people he no longer understands. (There’s a theory going around that Tarantino has made the most Gen X movie ever, as it’s all about being surrounded by sexy, scowling millennials who hate your guts and the moral of the story is that baby boomers ruined everything.)
It’s telling that he’s filled out the Manson family with the next generation of Hollywood offspring, including the daughters of “Pulp Fiction” cast members Uma Thurman and Bruce Willis, along with Andie MacDowell’s kid Margaret Qualley in a star-making turn as a hippie hitchhiker who props her dirty feet up on Pitt’s dashboard. The cultural climate in which a hotshot young director like Quentin Tarantino could become a household name was long ago crushed by stay-at-home streaming options and Disney franchise domination, while a lot of the punkish provocations in his earlier pictures would never pass without significant censure today. (Rick and Cliff let a few slurs slip but they’re nowhere near as casually racist as they’d be if Tarantino were writing this script twenty years ago.)
In casting Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt he’s deliberately picked the last two modern movie stars who don’t do sequels, social media, TV series or superhero shit, so in a way they’re almost as out of touch with our current era as the men they’re playing are in 1969. Tarantino’s always talking about retiring while he’s still at the top of his game, and it’s in this regard that “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” begins to feel intensely personal and elegiac, like the work of a guy making peace with the fact that his run is just about up.
But maybe it doesn’t have to be just yet? The delirious charge of this movie’s gonzo wish-fulfillment fantasy climax isn’t just in watching Beavis and Butt-head here save the day, it’s also in an idea that’s become something of an obsession for Tarantino but has never quite clicked for me before this particular film. “Inglourious Basterds” and “Django Unchained” are about movies righting massive historical wrongs, killing Hitler and burning down the slave plantations. “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” works on a more modest scale, seeing movies as a brief, blessed escape that can keep these characters and their dreams alive for just a little longer, at least until we see them through to the closing credits.
It’s amusingly typical of Rick and Cliff’s relationship that the stunt double gets stuck doing all the work while the star is lounging obliviously in his pool. Rick’s wasted and rocking out to The Royal Guardsmen’s novelty hit, “Snoopy Vs. the Red Baron” – a bizarre, crazily catchy tune in which everyone’s favorite illustrated dog shoots down notorious WWI flying ace Manfred von Richthofen. Of course we’re hearing a song about a cartoon animal vanquishing a real-life historical menace while a fictional stuntman kills the crap out of the Manson murderers, because once again Tarantino movies love to tell you what they’re doing while they’re doing it. He even works in one of his own beloved self-references, allowing an acid-tripping Pitt to reprise his gloriously zonked reactions to James Gandolfini and the gun-toting gangsters from “True Romance” some 26 years later.
I daresay I may not see anything funnier this year than DiCaprio, pantsless and resplendent in his robe, slurping margaritas from a blender pitcher while screaming about hippies and his property taxes. But I was unprepared for just how moved I would be to hear Robbie’s voice as Sharon Tate, safe and sound, speaking through the intercom after the film’s frenzied finale. It’s an incredibly delicate, exquisitely judged scene, with the gates to Sharon and Roman Polanski’s Cielo Drive mansion opening up for Rick like the entrance to heaven, a hale and hearty Jay Sebring standing to the side like St. Peter with a better haircut.
The final music cue is not one of Tarantino’s precious pop earworms, but rather a snippet of Maurice Jarre’s ethereal, melancholy score from “The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean,” John Huston’s absurdist 1972 Western starring Paul Newman as a semi-insane, self-appointed lawman madly in love with an actress he’s never met. That film opens with the epigraph: “…Maybe this isn’t the way it was… it’s the way it should have been,” from which this picture no doubt took much inspiration, along with an annoying ellipsis.
But notice how we never do get another real look at Sharon Tate? When she rushes outside to greet Rick, Tarantino’s camera remains deliberately at a remove, way off up high and above the house. Her voice is faint and her back to us, as if she’s there but somehow not quite fully present… because we know all too well that she really isn’t and could never be. It’s a wistful, heartbreaking acknowledgment that there’s only so much movies can do. Even a movie as miraculous as this one.•••
Over the past twenty years, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.