7/10 I’m sure writer/director/producer Quentin Tarantino enjoys Once Upon a Time in Hollywood very much.
Once upon a time in Hollywood – Feb. 8, 1969 to be exact – TV cowboy Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) tries and fails to transition to the movies in an attempt to hold on to a fading career. The film walks us through a day in the life of Dalton on the set of “Lancer,” one of the various television shows he’s taken hired work for as a villain of the week, and his erstwhile stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who discovers Charles Manson’s cult squatting on Spahn Ranch. Also, emerging Hollywood star Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), Dalton’s new next door neighbor, does some shopping and sees a movie and says very little while the camera stares at her butt and bare feet.
Two years earlier in 1967, Bonnie and Clyde tore down barriers for depictions of violence in cinema. In 1968, after being increasingly ignored for the past several years as more lurid films succeeded without approval, the Hays Production Code was formally abandoned and replaced with the MPAA rating system, opening the gate for more subversive content. This was the formal end of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
In 1969, Hello Dolly! killed the large-scale movie musical, which had been the dominant event film since the development of talkies, while Midnight Cowboy, an X-rated drama about an aspiring male prostitute, earned second place at the box office and the Best Picture Oscar. The studio system had died, or more realistically had moved to younger filmmaking countries, and a brash new breed of American auteur, led by Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, were about to take the industry by storm. The sea change was in full effect.
Just after midnight on Aug. 9, 1969, emerging Hollywood star Sharon Tate and four of her houseguests were murdered in her home in Benedict Canyon by four members of Charles Manson’s cult. Manson’s followers believed he was a manifestation of Jesus Christ and that an apocalyptic race war was imminent, but in this case, he just wanted to get back at a record producer, Terry Melcher, who didn’t like his music. He ordered four of his followers to invade the home Melcher used to rent – knowing he was no longer there – and “totally destroy everyone in it as gruesome as you can.” Tate, 26 and eight and a half months pregnant, was stabbed 16 times. A coroner reported five of the wounds would have been individually fatal.
If Bonnie and Clyde and the MPAA meant the end of the Golden Age from a business standpoint, the Tate murders helped end it from an emotional standpoint. The murders were a media sensation, casting a pall of fear over Los Angeles and the entire country. There was a wave of home security installations in the city, and some stars moved away entirely. Various conspiracy theories about motive and perpetrator abounded until the killers were arrested in December, one of them as far away as New Hampshire. The pulpy violence of films noir and the horrifying media reports from Vietnam had come to real-world Los Angeles, and a city that was never innocent by any stretch was still never the same.
I’m going through all this context for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood because the movie itself doesn’t. All of Tarantino’s films are infinitely better with context, to the point that possibly the only one who can appreciate everything they have to offer Tarantino himself, but they’re all a delight completely on their own merit. This movie is unapproachable for a viewer who doesn’t know what happens to Sharon Tate, and it’s the first time he’s made something like that.
Romance for the Golden Age movies he grew up with is the key thematic through line of Tarantino’s work, but where he’s put references to and nostalgia for the era in front of the camera for most of the rest of his filmography, in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, he brings the camera back in time to it, to the sun-drenched Hollywood we all somehow seem to somehow remember even though it was dissipated long ago by merchandising and mergers.
You can’t capture a sea change in a film that takes place over the course of a day or two, but you can capture one man struggling to adjust to it. Rick Dalton is a heightened version of DiCaprio himself, whose unassuming interview demeanor is warped into a character who is shy and illiterate, with a bad stutter and a not-so-private inferiority complex. Trudi (Julia Butters), an 8-year-old actor on the set of “Lancer,” parrots the real-life DiCaprio’s method acting.
DiCaprio is a riot as Dalton, and his scenes are many of the film’s best. On the set of “Lancer” opposite Trudi and James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant), we get to see him flip the switch from the timid star who can’t read his lines to a menacing, black-hatted marauder. In scenes during production, the camera will often take the place of “Lancer’s” camera and Tarantino will play with long one-takes that include Dalton acting, messing up and then getting back on track all within the shot. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a funny film and a tense film, and it’s always clear that the audience is in the hands of a master.
Alongside Dalton is Booth, an older, out-of-work stuntman whose mannerisms reflect a heightened version of Pitt just as Dalton’s reflect DiCaprio. Booth offers a deeper glimpse into the waning power of Dalton’s career from the perspective of a man who is entirely dependent on it, but has no power over it. He’s purely a casualty in the ruthless behind-the-scenes whims that dictate life in the studio system.
And then there’s Tate, who really isn’t part of any of this. Tarantino snapped at a Cannes reporter at the film’s May premier over how few lines Tate has in the film, and she is an astoundingly quiet character, especially in the confines of a Tarantino film where, traditionally, all characters are verbose to the point of tedium. Part of the goal for Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was to reclaim Tate’s image, letting her be remembered for her life instead of how it ended, but in the end, a traditionally feminist filmmaker falls into an old sexist trope of having a character there whose essential function is to be pretty, and he seems like he knows it.
This isn’t the first movie to spend a significant amount of time gawking at Robbie’s body, but where The Wolf of Wall Street objectified her with the pointed, sardonic glee of a movie explicitly about excess and where Suicide Squad looked her over as an incompetent afterthought in a movie marketed to teenage boys, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood leers at her. The camera hovers on her with a creepy giggle. Butt shots, of her and others, abound, and where foot shots pop up in all of Tarantino’s movies as innocent wisecracks about his famous fetish, here there are multiple scenes in which an actress’ entire pair of feet is prominently featured in both shot and reverse shot.
This is Tarantino’s first film divested from Harvey Weinstein, who launched his career and produced all of his films until this one. It became public knowledge in October 2017 that Weinstein had used his power to harass and assault more than 80 women, and that Tarantino knew enough to know that he shouldn’t have continued working with him. This knowledge is present in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood from its first logos – Sony won a stiff contest for distribution rights.
The creep factor is ramped up further by the necessary presence of Tate’s husband, Roman Polański (Rafał Zawierucha). Polański, a star director, was working in Europe at the time of the murders, and like Tate, his legacy is defined not by his films but by the end of his time in Hollywood – he drugged and raped a teenager several years later in 1977, and while he’s continued to make acclaimed films, he’s most notable as a fugitive of American justice for the past 40 years. More accusers have come forward about Polanski in the wake of the Weinstein scandal.
If Once Upon a Time in Hollywood feels kind of pervy, I can only assume it’s because Tarantino meant it to, but I don’t know why. I was reading an article a few weeks ago about Jeffrey Epstein and how the sexual revolution made the rape of underage girls into just another taboo that was to be ignored by the enlightened, an article that speculates Polański took this mentality as well. It’s not the only time that connection has been drawn. Maybe Tarantino’s goal was to bring us back in time in that sense as well. It certainly feels like it in one particular scene.
Tarantino’s dream, clearly, is a Hollywood in which the Golden Age never ended, and Dalton is his imagination of a Golden Age actor, an “evil sexy Hamlet,” who makes the transition into the more serious and important films of New Hollywood – but only implicitly, and in a way that’s only accessible to viewers who know what has happened, what really happened, and what was about to happen in 1969.
The media blitz surrounding Once Upon a Time in Hollywood explaining as much as audiences need to know about the real story is, in this case, a vital part of the experience. It remains a highly enjoyable film with no context, but not one as momentous and reality-shattering as it means to be.
Tarantino has made a movie for himself here, which is what he does. That’s why we love him. As the movie industry slips into an outright monopoly that seems to be leading everything back to the days of absolute studio control, he remains the old-school, uncompromising auteur, the kind of filmmaker who remains a star behind the camera. Such a star that his questionable decisions stay in the shadows and his work is considered unimpeachable.