Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (aka Once Upon a Time...in Hollywood) review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood takes place in 1969 Hollywood and orbits around true celebrities. But, like a lot of Tarantino films, it’s an idealized version of such a time, looked back on with a certain allure and longing present in most of the director’s revisionist takes on historical tales. This is nothing new but what’s most compelling about this particular film is that the director gives a humanizing and somewhat tender appeal to actors of the era.
Within the highly-detailed 1969 setting, we follow two fictional characters based on familiar acting careers. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a washed-up Western actor reduced to guest spots and due for a descent into the world of Spaghetti Westerns. He is meant to represent Steve McQueen’s troubled time after playing the lead on the Western TV series Wanted. He’s emotional, frustrated, and bitterly fearful of what his future holds. Sticking with him through thick and thin is his stunt double partner, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a champion for the hero and more or less representing the relationship of Burt Reynolds’ relationship with his stunt double. Whenever Rick feels his lowest, Cliff is always there with his big sunglasses, a long smile, and sometimes beer and pizza to remind Rick of how great he has it.
We get to know a lot about these characters and not merely through some mild narration by Kurt Russel, who better explains their careers than personalities. We see how Rick reacts in private while working on the set of a Western, breaking down in tears when questioning his career path and messing up his trailer when screwing up lines. He takes his job seriously with shaky hands, spending his off-hours in the pool running lines with a tape recorder of himself reading back the lines of others, trying to get his acting just right. As for Cliff, he spends his days eating mac & cheese out of his trailer and milling about the city trying to find stuff to do. He doesn’t have much but he takes life as it comes, unsure of the future but never too fearful of it.
Gravitating around these two are real figures of the era, seen in mere glimpses or flashbacks, from Steve McQueen opening up about gossip at a Playboy mansion party to Bruce Li challenging an actor on a Hollywood backlot. The one real actor we spend the most time with is Sharon Tate, played with great glee by Margot Robbie. Her subplot is somewhat uneventful but we get to experience her wonderment as that of a golden idol, the representation of the warmth and pride in being an actor, to lavish in your work once it has been completed. On the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s a brief glimpse of Charles Manson, also seen from a distance as that of an evil we can never fully comprehend within the picture. We do see plenty of his followers though, a collective of bitter and vicious hippies who cook up wild ideas of murder to attack the system.
Tarantino maintains his love of character within the picture, giving us plenty of time to get to know these characters and hang out within their worlds. Seemingly nothing moments always carry a certain allure of eye-candy in detail, from the old-fashioned beer in Cliff’s fridge to the retro radio spots heard during drives across the sunny cityscape. There’s a beauty to the film’s wonderment while also embracing the darker side, as the film slowly moseys towards a somber ending we know is coming. That being said, it does carry a lot of familiar Tarantino-isms that make his films so much fun, from great dialogue that carries on long scenes to brutally over-the-top violence that punctuates in a wonderful bit of fantasy.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is pretty obviously Tarantino’s romantic ode 60s cinema. He has spent years spouting his love of old films like your favorite pop culture professor who just can’t stop excitedly telling you about Lee Marvin or Sergio Leone. This is the director at his geekiest of film-making standards and it’s easily one of his most intoxicating masterpieces.