Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (2019)
Dir. Quentin Tarantino; Leonard DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie
[4 out of 4 stars]
I’ve never quite considered Quentin Tarantino and fairy tales in the same train of thought. Hype-violence? Yes. Homage and pastiche? Absolutely. But fairy tales? Not really. I suppose though that it’s been there more or less all along, just not in the way I used to think about it. Merriam-Webster defines the fairy tale as both “a story involving fantastic forces and beings” and “a story in which improbable events lead to a happy ending.” It would be hard to say that Pulp Fiction (1994), Kill Bill (2003/4), or Inglourious Basterds (2009), features anything other than “fantastic forces and beings,” all of them seemingly amplified versions of people and real-life circumstances that are pushed to be just crazy enough to take on the dream-like quality of a fantasy. No one would accuse Tarantino of being realistic, and in this way he is telling his own version of a fantastical story not too far divorced from the likes of “Hansel and Gretel” or “Cinderella,” just without the obvious magic involved. Moreso, it is apt to characterize the plots of the aforementioned three movies alongside Jackie Brown (1997) and Django Unchained (2012) as a series of “improbable events” that nonetheless lead to “a happy ending.” Many people die, much pain is had by all, and yet at the end of the day the Nazis still lose, the Bride has her vengeance, and so on. Tarantino brings all his talents and these penchants for telling twisted fairy tales to the forefront for his ninth directorial effort, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (2019), and the results are one of his most accomplished filmmaking efforts in years.
Hollywood tells the patchwork story of a handful of interconnected personalities, both based on real people and entirely fabricated, in Hollywood during a few days in 1969. In one corner, we have the fictional characters of fading Western icon Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Dalton was the star of the wildly popular show Bounty Law, but after issues with substances and poor choices, his career options are limited at best. This leaves Booth as a glorified driver and handyman to his friend, no longer able to secure Booth any Hollywood work. So both contemplate what the future holds while often hanging out in Dalton’s Hollywood home, which just happens to be next to the residence of up-and-coming actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her newly-acquired husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha). The two households exist in vastly different versions of Hollywood, what with Polanski being the hottest thing in Hollywood coming off of the massive success of Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Tate having entranced the country with her talent and beauty while Dalton and Booth do little more than drive, talk, and drink. Even with all this difference and separation, all of them in some way come in contact with Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) and members of the so-called “Manson Family” as they wander through Hollywood. As in Pulp Fiction, Tarantino uses the idea of parallel storylines, albeit more obviously connected, collapsing in on each other to propel his narrative towards a climax that brings its many parts together.
One of the criticisms often leveled at Tarantino, often with merit, is that his movies are so reverential of the genres and forms that they pastiche that it results in a final project that never rises above imitation. I believe this is what limited The Hateful Eight (2015) because Tarantino became too enmeshed with honoring The Thing (1982) and his beloved Spaghetti Westerns and forgot to say something original with his Western-stakeout-thriller. My favorite Tarantino movies use his impressive and expansive cinematic knowledge as a jumping off point for his inarguable directorial talent, and Hollywood seems to me an instance where Tarantino melded his reverence with a passionate vision and then navigated the two seamlessly. Placing the narrative in such a rich moment of Hollywood history allows Tarantino to reference a dizzying number of Westerns, war films, television shows, and Hollywood personalities without ever having them seem hollow. Each reference serves to help characterize the cast, either revealing the peak from which Dalton has fallen or highlighting how Tate and Polanski are on top of their respective games. This is partly due to wonderful cameo performances from Rachel Redleaf as Mama Cass, Mike Moh as Bruce Lee, and a truly scene-stealing turn from Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen. They are celebrity reference points, and paired with clips from shows like The F.B.I. (1965-74) and The Lancer (1968-70), we get an understanding for what Tarantino is drawing from without it replacing his own content. It feels like these subjects are woven into the text of the film because they are directly connected to the story as opposed to being simply idols for the movie to worship.
As a result, Tarantino’s directorial talents have more room to breathe without such a strict adherence to someone else’s style, and a chance for him to really show off what happens when an incredible writer gets the chance to see his vision through from page to screen. Tarantino cuts between scenes from the fictional projects that Dalton acts in to reality, creating a clear thematic throughline about what is real and what is fabricated. This is put to great use in one of the most virtuoso sequences of the film when Dalton is shooting a scene for the pilot of The Lancer where he plays “the heavy,” the villain, and struggles with himself to remember lines before locking in and turning in a campy but effective turn as an evil gunslinger. While this is happening, Cliff has driven Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), a member of the “Manson Family,” home to their compound, which is on an old Western set called Spahn Ranch. There is a heightened and manufactured sense of dread to the Dalton scenes, a pulling back of the production process to show how contrived his performance is, and yet how real it seems to him. This contrasts with the growing dread we fell as Cliff wanders deeper into the Manson compound, while also feeling oddly secure in his ability to protect himself because we have seen the crazy stunts he is able to perform. Here, Dalton is the fabricated gunslinger, while Cliff is the lone figure truly walking into danger on the outskirts of town, complete with dust and cowboy boots. Tarantino settles into a series of long takes interspersed with rapid cuts to close ups and medium shots, mixing the traditional framing from Westerns with his more modern style to blend the two wonderfully. It also features my singular favorite shot of the movie, a side tracking shot that follows Cliff as he walks down the stairs from the ranch house. Something about the smooth track with our lone gun flanked by the whipping dust and mountain range is simultaneously beautiful and unnerving, and it shows Tarantino operating on the highest level of filmmaking.
Filling all this out is a stupidly talented cast. Tarantino excels at writing morally convoluted characters whom he identify with, even while feeling uneasy about them. In Hollywood, he pairs those sorts of characters with more distinctly moral figures to offer a rich tapestry of personalities. DiCaprio turns in the best work he’s given since his supporting role in Django, giving Dalton the right mix of pathetic failure, self-righteousness, and genuine charm. In the moments when he is on set as an actor, we see the spark that draws directors to him, but then we also see him drinking and moaning when off set. A lesser actor would have made Dalton a caricature of the spoiled starlet, but DiCaprio turns him into a mess of a human being that we nonetheless want to see succeed, at least a little. Pitt is the best he’s been since Moneyball (2011), blending the stoic nature of a stunt man who has turned into the gunslinger he used to portray with the slight craziness of a man who, according to more than a few characters in the movie, “got away with killing his wife.” He is an alluring character because of his inaccessibility, but it is not a flat performance. Pitt steals scene after scene by being the straight man to DiCaprio’s flashier performance, and the understated nature of the performance is the best homage to Clint Eastwood anyone has managed on screen, particularly in the Manson compound sequence. All the while, Robbie turns Sharon Tate into so much more than the footnote in the Manson murders that history has consigned her to. One of the most memorable scenes comes when Tate wanders into a theater and sits down to watch herself in The Wrecking Crew (1969), an actual movie Tate made right before her death. There is nothing narcissistic about it, rather a true wide-eyed joy that it is actually happening to her, that she is actually in a movie with Dean Martin. She sits in the theater, and Robbie imbues her with an infectious joy whenever the audience laughs at one of her jokes, or reacts to something she’s done on screen. It is incredibly tender, and it works because Robbie makes Tate so lived in. Robbie, Pitt, and DiCaprio are only three of the many talented performers at work in Hollywood, but they are also the central unit from which everything else is made possible, and their performances are inspired.
All this brings us to the end of the movie, and the reason why I invoked fairy tales at the beginning of the review [a single spoiler will follow, read on at your own risk]. Tarantino’s choice for titling the movie Once Upon a Time suggests that he had fairy tales in mind when writing it, and this becomes most obvious in the final sequence, when he majorly rewrites history for only the second time in his career, the first of course being the moment when he had Hitler shot full of holes by the Basterds. In the real world of 1969, Tate was brutally murdered by the Manson family, along with her five friends who were in the house at the time. It is a dark moment in history that Hollywood has grieved ever since. In Hollywood, Tarantino has the Manson family members that killed Tate instead enter Dalton’s house, and come face to face with Cliff and his adorable but well-trained pitbull. When the three try and kill him, Dalton, and Dalton’s new wife, they are instead brutally beaten, bitten, shot, and burned, the only instance of extreme violence in the whole movie. It is shocking, and also seems to be Tarantino’s most profound statement in any of his films. Here instead of falling into the line of the fetishizing obsession with serial killers and their motivations that filmmakers and audiences often fall prey to [see: everything Netflix has released on Ted Bundy], Tarantino offers a bloody catharsis for the grief around the brutality expressed onto Tate. He suggests that there is nothing we should do in the face of Manson and those like him but eradicate the violence and darkness that they represent. It feels odd to say about such a violent scene, but it was deeply moving to watch it and feel viscerally the way Tarantino was suggesting a world where the woman who so joyously watched her career begin to bloom was allowed to live. He subverts his own reputation for over-the-top violence and uses such violence with such intentionality that I couldn’t help but be left in awe of the self-awareness and grace with which he employed it.
With Hollywood, Tarantino has created a fantasy world where Sharon Tate lived, and where the monsters who killed her were instead vanquished by the most unlikely knight in shining armour to ever live. Dalton, Cliff, and the whole motley crew of characters are intentionally removed from our world, and even the real people portrayed, like Tate, are a level removed from their actual personalities. It is no “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” but it offers a moral take on reality arguably more profound, and equally as affecting as anything the Brothers Grimm ever offered us. I may not suggest it for children the same way I would offer up other fairy tales, but it is a movie as exciting and compelling as anything Tarantino has released, and a welcome rescue from the slumping release calendar of summer 2019.