by Alan Yudman
If there are two things Quentin Tarantino loves, it’s movies and Hollywood. He wraps his arms around both and gives them a loving squeeze in ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD.
Tarantino’s attention to detail is a thing to behold. Living in Los Angeles, I know many of the locations he features in the film. From Musso & Frank’s Grill to the Spahn Ranch, to simple things like driving down Hollywood Boulevard or through the San Fernando Valley, Tarantino gets the look just right. Even if it isn’t 100% percent period accurate, it FEELS that way. That is very important in this movie. For someone who loves seeing old Hollywood depicted in film, this was full of delightful Easter eggs.
You may have heard this is about the Manson Family and to some extent it is. But it is more than that. It uses that plus the fictional story of Rick Dalton and his stuntman buddy Cliff Booth (Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt) to show us the end of an era. The old studio system is gone. The innocence has been stripped away.
Dalton is a former TV star who made his name in the Western, BOUNTY LAW, who now can only find work as the heavy. He sees headlights of reality coming at him and it is freaking him out. Booth can’t get work as a stuntman because he’s either pissed off everyone, or people are afraid of the rumors that he killed his wife (a plot point that is sort of explained, but not in any satisfying fashion). Booth is now Dalton’s “man Friday” running errands, fixing things and driving him around town in Dalton’s yellow Cadillac Coupe Deville. Dalton is panicked by his situation, drowning himself in booze and anxiety. He meets an agent played by Al Pacino who advises him to go to Italy to make movies. Dalton feels that is giving up. Before giving in to that advice, he takes a guest starring role on the TV pilot for the western LANCER, as yet another bad guy.
Meantime lurking on the fringes of all this is the Manson Family. Dalton lives on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills. His neighbors are Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate. Booth crosses paths with a Manson follower and goes out to Spahn ranch where he meets Tex Watson, Squeaky Fromme, Gypsy Share and others. Manson even shows up at the Tate/Polanski house looking for his old acquaintance, music producer Terry Melcher. Tate (Margot Robbie) almost literally flits through the film, an apparent angelic figure who has one incredibly vulnerable scene where she goes to watch herself in the Dean Martin movie, THE WRECKING CREW.
All these different plot threads could have wound up being a mess, but Tarantino expertly weaves them together into a completely enthralling story. The acting is sublime. DiCaprio is fantastic, better than his Oscar winning performance in THE REVENANT. Some say only a great singer can intentionally sing badly. Apply that here. When he Rick Dalton is acting in various TV shows, he’s not terrible, merely average. That takes real ability. Julia Butters plays a young girl who is in the LANCER pilot. She has one extended scene with DiCaprio that is truly special. Pitt is at his shaggy best. Robbie is wonderful even in the limited time she is on screen.
Tarantino pays as much loving attention to the soundtrack as he does to the rest of the film. The music adds to the story. And the drop-ins of actual radio DJ’s from the 1960’s just adds to the mood. If you are going to purchase a sountrack album, buy this one. Get in your car, turn it on and drive down the highway. It has the feel of listening to the radio in 1969.
This is one of Tarantino’s most heartfelt films. It feels like a movie that could have been made in 1969. It mostly doesn’t rely on his usual blend of uber violence and weirdness. The Dalton and Manson plots come together in an over the top, bloody ending that was somehow satisfying. Can’t say more because it would be a huge spoiler. Some may see ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD as Tarantino’s revenge fantasy against Manson and a commentary on the end of an era. That is not a far-flung assessment. But it is also among his best work and the Academy will probably notice that come Oscar time.