Once Upon a Time...In Hollywood (2019), directed by Quentin Tarantino from his own script; starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Al Pacino, Margot Robbie, Kurt Russell, Bruce Dern, and Luke Perry.
Quentin Tarantino's ninth film is often sweet and surprisingly sentimental — two adjectives that most people wouldn’t easily associate with his name. Set in 1969, it chronicles the end of the 60s as well as the end of the Golden Age of Hollywood. It also gives Tarantino plenty of room — almost three hours of it — to explore his usual cinematic obsessions: martial arts movies, 60s television, B-movies, Nazis, spaghetti westerns, pop culture advertising, forgotten Neil Diamond songs, and women’s bare feet.
In real life, according to conventional wisdom, both Old Hollywood and the tumultuous decade of the 60s ended with the infamous Manson killings in early August of ‘69. Tarantino, however, twists that idea around to give us a “happily ever after” ending to the tragic and brutal events of the Manson saga. Yes, he does. And that’s all I can say about that, without offering spoilers.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as an aging, fading television actor named Rick Dalton. Brad Pitt costars as Cliff Booth, Dalton’s stunt double and chauffeur (Dalton lost his driver’s license after repeated DUIs). Dalton was once the star of a popular, long-running, fictional TV Western called Bounty Law, but now mostly does “guest” appearances on other series, such as The FBI, Mannix, The Green Hornet, Land of the Giants, and a Western called Lancer. (I watched all of those shows as a kid, except for The Green Hornet and Lancer. Apparently, I had much the same TV taste as Tarantino in those days.) In general, Tarantino does a lot of mixing up real people of the era, like Steve McQueen or Bruce Lee (played by Damian Lewis and Mike Moh, respectively) with fictional characters like Dalton and Booth. This gives Once Upon a Time in Hollywood an engagingly surreal atmosphere that’s goofy and fun. For example, Tarantino sometimes CGI’s DiCaprio into real footage of old shows and movies, which is fairly entertaining to watch.
On the Downside of Stardom
Dalton isn’t happy with the way his career is going and worries that he’s a has-been. Booth lives in a shabby trailer with a huge dog named Brandy, and doesn’t seem to have much in his life except being Dalton’s gofer and stuntman. This, despite the fact that he's so badass he can beat up martial arts legend Bruce Lee in one of the film's most entertaining set pieces. (Amazingly, Pitt at 55 is in better shape than most 30-year-olds.)
A smarmy agent named Marvin Swarzs (played by Al Pacino, with typical scene-stealing hubris), keeps urging Dalton to go to Italy to act in spaghetti Westerns, but Dalton isn’t sure that’s a good career move. He wishes instead that his new neighbor in Benedict Canyon — the hot new director Roman Polanski — would cast him in a film. But he never sees Polanski and his beautiful wife, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), except when they are zipping off to some cool Hollywood party. (Tate, of course, was in real life the most famous victim of the Manson family.)
Booth, meanwhile, encounters a cute hippie girl nicknamed “Pussycat” while driving around LA doing errands for Dalton, and gives her a ride home—to an old movie ranch called the Spahn Ranch. (If you’re my age or older, you know what that ominous name means.) Booth knows the place and its owner, George Spahn (Bruce Dern), from old times; Bounty Law used to shoot there a decade before.
When they arrive, he finds a band of slovenly, hostile hippies: the Manson Family. He arouses their animosity and barely escapes with his life. Here, Tarantino deserves credit for deglamorizing the Manson Family, especially the girls (we see a lot of their unwashed bare feet). They’re portrayed as dirty, disgusting, shiftless, menacing, and annoyingly weird. Standouts are Margaret Qualley (the daughter of Andie McDowell) as the annoying Pussycat; Dakota Fanning as a whacked-out Squeaky Fromme; and Lena Dunham as Catherine “Gypsey” Share (if, like most red-blooded Americans, you can’t stand Dunham, rest assured; she plays an unlikeable character here, and she’s very good at being unlikeable.)
As we follow Booth and Dalton, we also see something of Sharon Tate’s life: her last film, a fluffy, Dean Martin spy caper called The Wrecking Crew (1968); her growing pregnancy; her many friends. In a great, sweet sequence, she goes to an afternoon matinee of The Wrecking Crew and talks her way in for free by explaining that she’s in the film.
The depictions of Tate’s activities and those of her houseparty on the fateful night of August 8-9 are accurate (I've read Helter Skelter several times). They really did have dinner at a cheap Mexican Restaurant called El Coyote, and later, Sharon changed into a bikini because of the heat. Abigail Folger, known forever after in the press as the “coffee heiress,” really did don a prim white nightgown and go to bed with a roach clip and good book. Everything’s the same, except to the point where the four Manson killers (Tex Watson, Susan “Sadie” Atkins, Patricia “Katie” Krenwinckle, and Linda Kasabian) take a wrong turn and end up in Rick Dalton’s driveway, where a drunken Dalton rants about hippies and tells them to scram.
And Then the Real Tarantino Shows Up...
From that point on, Once Upon a Time... suddenly becomes a real Tarantino film. Let’s just say that dog-mauling, knife/gun fights, and a military-grade flame-thrower all play important roles in the ensuing activities. Speaking as someone who spent 50 years of my life hearing about the real Manson freaks, I found the ending very satisfying indeed. I'm not sure that younger people will really "get it," however.
The acting by DiCaprio, Pitt, and many of the numerous supporting actors is excellent. There are star-making turns for Qualley, Moh, and Julia Butters, who plays an eight-year-old Method actor starring with Dalton in an episode of Lancer. The cinematography, music, and art direction are all pure 60s nostalgia and cool, with many wonderful details like period-accurate caricatures of Dalton on the cover of MAD Magazine and TV Guide. In additon to the inevitable Neil Diamond songs, Tarantino revives the career of old, forgotten acts like Paul Revere and the Raiders, who were ubiquitous on pop music shows in the mid-late 60s. Chillingly, Mark Lindsay, the lead vocalist of the group, actually lived in the so-called "Tate murder house" a few years before the Polanskis moved in.
This is probably The One that will finally get Tarantino his coveted director's Oscar. (He already has two Oscars, but for screenwriting only.) It may not be his best film, but it's damn close, and Hollywood loves these self-referential-type films that are bathed in glowy nostalgia.