Quentin Tarantino directs Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Margot Robbie in this love letter to 1969 Los Angeles where a fading Western star, his stuntman buddy and Sharon Tate go about their lives, all at a moment of career flux.
I went to see this in 35mm at the Filmhouse with Natalie, Gráinne Maguire and Stuart Laws. All excited to be there on opening night. Gráinne was concerned there wouldn’t be a chance to escape for a break over three hours. I knew there would lots of languorous shots of people driving the freeways and boulevards, off ramps for beer runs and wee breaks.
We were being taken back to the sixties, when car cruising longuers were part of cinema grammar. Back to a city that sprawls like no other, where automobiles are essential. Into a world like a shark, like time, in constant forward motion with only the illusion that if you are in the driving seat, you are in control of your direction. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a movie about three individuals being chauffeured towards their new destinies, unaware of the separate destinations but suddenly aware they are moving, things are going fast. Whether by car or by career, these are three movie workers floating along the stream of time. Watching them get soaked in the water, struggle a little against the tide but mainly going with the flow is one of the most ambient experiences ever produced in mainstream cinema. A blockbuster about beautiful people not taking action, not fighting back, just being conscious they are on the ride of their lives. And if you can sit in the backseat, not expect too many heads to explode, not expect automotive serial killers to try and slam your brains against plexiglass, then you too can hitch a ride into this more relaxed Tarantino time stream too. Get in the car. It is a bitchin’ yellow Coupe De Ville. It will be Mr Blonde’s car in 20 years time.
We are in that back seat when the dual credit appears; Leonardo DiCaprio / Brad Pitt. Equal billing, playfully swapped over in alignment to screen position. A partnership we never knew we wanted. Two Hollywood pretty boys heartthrobs entering whisky tanned middle age gracefully. Two of our last proper movie stars. DiCaprio’s name is the only name above a title that still can launch original IP into blockbuster status. Pitt is just cool as fuck. In real life, as in here, better as the gorgeous, laconic wingman than the lone lead. The Brad Pitt of Ocean’s 11 or Snatch is my jam. Not carrying the movie but supporting it with a laid back, self assured charm. Nervy, intense, hard grafting ultimate (ultimate in so many ways) megastar and relaxed Sundance. Tarantino knows why we bought a ticket. This is the Bogart and Bacall… the Meg and Tom… the Laurel & Hardy of 2019. Multiplex power couple casting.
DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton is a meta exercise. One of our very best playing a struggling TV star has-been. An excuse for Tarantino to bung in pastiches of violent Westerns, War movies and what ifs. Pepper the freewheelin’ journey with a bit of trademark destruction. But Dalton is a human character. A dolt you want to hug as he struggles through a day at work. His image changed in a make-up truck conversation he cannot keep up with, an ever intruding stutter and a lack of confidence in foreign names off camera, a drunk. Like Aldo Raines or bounty hunter John Ruth or even Vincent Vega he’s the lead, the hero… but rarely the smartest man in the room. People often bring up Tarantino’s violence towards women or his enthusiastic use of “forbidden” racist epithets as evidence he is just another white guy making movies for white guys. Yet look at his favoured use of the masculine movie star… near constantly a schmo, pointedly only front and centre in the narrative because he is a white, red blooded, American swinging dick – not because of ability or talent… certainly not wit. Written and directed that way too, a choice not to continue the myth. His fate is invariably death or at the very least being taken down a peg or two for his over confidence or lack of wiles compared to the Samuel L. Jacksons or Uma Thurmans in the story.
Although this collaboration with DiCaprio is incredibly sympathetic to the QT lead lunk, for once. There’s something so unguarded and vulnerable about Rick Dalton. Watching a perfectly coiffed man tear up (“Don’t cry in front of the Mexicans”) and self lacerate himself every act of a movie, to go through his crisis of confidence alone… well, it ain’t Easy Breezy. For all his advantages and bluster you want Dalton to keep at being an actor… rehearsing his lines late into the night, smashing scenes with precocious children and playing the heavy in Hollywood or anti-hero in Rome. And he has good qualities too… he knows his limitations, is in touch with his emotions, hates hippies. I’d go for a drink or 8 with Rick Dalton, give him a manly pat every time he is troubled by existential thoughts bigger than his intelligence. Beneath it all there’s a nice boy lost in the sea of almost success.
Then Brad Pitt takes his top off. Stuntman Cliff Booth is the more fascinating, undefined and attractive character. Scarred yet happy, mellow yet hard to break. Someone comfortable with their place on the lower rung, who can be as warm or as aggressive as he feels fit in his interactions. He might have killed his wife, yet he keeps his partner on the rails and feeling loved. And can shift his weight so a punch to the face from him means something. Again Tarantino has tooled around in this character area before too. There’s fellow trailer van dropouts Dennis Hopper and Michael Madsen in True Romance and Kill Bill Vol. 2 respectively. Craggy men living on minimum wage, with spartan lifestyles, philosophical about their violent regrets and wrong turns. Robert Foster in Jackie Brown speaking maturely about his choice to get hairplugs, able to fully interact with hardened criminals without losing his ethics. Sonny Chiba hiding his deadly skillset in a sake house loft, trying to eke out a normal life as a gregarious innkeeper. Then there’s the unavoidable Floyd in True Romance, who mathematically, geographically and thematically could be Cliff Booth’s son. The bong smoking doppelgänger elephant in the Tarantino universe room. I wouldn’t want a DNA test if I was “the old cowboy looking dude” in a Hawaiian shirt bumping into the spaced out couch dweller in 1993.
Dalton and Cliff are a team. They get along, have affection for each other yet one is the employer and the other is the employee. The story that needs to be resolved is if ‘Rick Dalton, Hollywood star’ is no longer a viable business then what will Rick do. But if Rick quits the grind of pilot seasons and spaghetti westerns as he is considering then Cliff won’t have a job as his driver and steady hand either. The partnership could be dissolved, the friendship abandoned. They exist symbiotically. As introduced “If you think you are seeing double – well… you are.” So Cliff and Rick spend a day apart. We see Rick struggle on set alone without his stuntman to help shield him from the hits of interaction, “carry his load”. Ultimately Rick does alright, nailing a big scene. Yet Cliff spends the day silently exploring his future too. He picks up a member of the Manson family, Pussycat (a magnetic Margaret Qualley) but isn’t interested in her sexually. Maybe Cliff wants to poke around in this the hippie lifestyle, he keeps seeing it at the crossroads and he is reaching a crossroads. See what dropping out from mainstream existence actually feels like, now he has time on his hands and Rick’s hatred of hippies is temporarily sequestered away at Columbia Studios. He doesn’t like what he glimpses (in an incredibly tense sequence, the closest Quentin has gotten to pure horror so far) but doesn’t completely reject it either. After all he does buy an acid dipped cigarette for later. It is not a total pass on a life that may come next. Just like Manson’s homeless drop outs, Cliff’s own position in society is precarious. He is unemployable away from Rick and only gets along with the few he chooses to. Mainly Rick and his dog. And what a lovely dog.
Like Inglorious Basterds or Django Unchained this is also one of QT’s exercises in alternative history. Robbie is effervescent as Sharon Tate, movie star on the cusp, a physical performance of glamour and grace. Her day to day involves dancing, partying, dancing, catching herself in a movie, dancing, buying Roman Polanski a copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles. The eventual movie he adapts from it is one of his very finest.
*** SPOILER COMING UP FOR THE REMAINDER OF BLOG ***
The movie’s conclusion doesn’t tally up with realities version of events. In an incredibly violent penultimate scene, different people live and different people die. Over the past decade Tarantino has killed Hitler and his cronies, cast a slave to free the slaves and saved Sharon Tate. I think he is revelling in the fantastical power of cinema not being reality. I have no issue with him shifting the sand of times to make a lovely sandcastle out of the muck. And if you have any issue with the extreme pain inflicted on the hippies because they are young women… shame on you. They get what they deserve. Dog can, fireplace mantle and flamethrower. I can accept some people don’t click with Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood because very little happens. Don’t agree with that assessment but can accept it. But if you are whining that a Tarantino movie has some thrillingly gory carnage, meted out on real life mass murderers… well, you are a fool. What were you expecting at the juncture of his career? A chairs in a circle meditative intervention?! Fuck off.
You can’t be a tourist in this Hollywood era and not see some stars. Bruce Lee is painted as a braggart. Watch some interviews with him. He was. As was John Lennon or Muhammad Ali. It was a particular strain of fame the Sixties induced in their new talents. A mouthy self belief that was distasteful and slightly forced. Anyway if you want Cliff Booth to be seen as our hero then he needs a star leading man to be his punching bag. As charming Hollywood powerplayer Marvin Schwarzs (a gleefully game Al Pacino) informs us very early on “That’s an old trick.” Tarantino foreshadows it just like the acid dripped fag, the hefty dog food and the flamethrower. These aren’t throwaway jokes, they are putting pieces on the board. Bruce Lee’s fictional ass-whupping establishes Cliff as a man not to be fucked with. That’s good old fashioned storytelling too. More unexpected is the scene where Damian Lewis plays Steve McQueen as a lovelorn loser. He is in the worst wig known to cinema, a not entirely inaccurate wig. You could be a leading man with bad hair right up until the heyday of Bill Murray and James Caan. But like Rick Dalton, he is focusing on what he hasn’t got, rather than all he has achieved. The biggest, coolest star of the 60s and stuttering former Bounty Law lead. Simpatico.
Tarantino doesn’t just rewrite crime history with his redemptively gory ending. He potentially reignites his leading man’s career. We close on Rick Dalton being invited into the New Hollywood compound. A hero and a curio to that creative community that shunned him only an hour before. He has the infamy of besting those hippies. Four Italian genre flicks waiting in the can. Hollywood property. And he is now part of the new network. In QT’s alternative universe are we now going to see Rick Dalton as the Gunny Sergeant in The Last Detail or Sterling Hayden’s Cop in The Godfather or Quint in Jaws? A career boosted by being in with Tate, Polanski et al will no doubt keep Cliff employed too. The loving, supportive partnership they’ve fostered no longer will torn asunder by the fickle fortunes of Hollywood. That could be Cliff Booth being eaten by a rubber shark in longshot come 1975.
It is hard not to see the parallel between this Hollywood and modern Hollywood. Thematically they are going through a period of entropy. Stars have little value. Pitt and DiCaprio narrowly avoid being Rick Daltons through choosing exciting directors and mature projects… they are the final stars to avoid television and contracts playing capes (Cruise, Denzel and maybe Keanu have fallback franchises that keep their career prestigious). All had their initial period of hits well before the millennium. The star is a dying breed. Like pandas or old buildings I feel we need to protect this endangered species.
We have one Tarantino movie left. He refers to … in Hollywood as the climax of his stories. “That last 30-minute set piece is my last set piece. I think it is my most effective. I don’t know what ten will be but I imagine ten might be epilogue-y to the entire career.” Don’t be silly, Quent you are the rare Hollywood filmmaker who attracts freedom, control, budgets and brilliant casts. Don’t give up on us, the loyal audience who want fantastic actors, in adult situations, having fun, being cool, surviving squib heavy chaos and with the best soundtracks ever. All these words…. Did I not mention the soundtrack? Ear candy.