When news broke out that Quentin Tarantino’s ninth feature film would tackle the 1969 Sharon Tate murders committed by the Manson family, it sounded like a match made in heaven. The notoriously brutal killings seemed like the gore-crazy director’s cup of tea. Not only would it give him plenty of room to work with his trademark violence, but he’d also be able to touch on the nostalgia of the late sixties – a subject he loves, as evident by his previous work. However, when all is said and done, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is more a love letter to the counterculture in Los Angeles at the time rather than a focus on the real-life aspects.
The film – his most Pulp Fiction in style since…well, Pulp Fiction – focuses on a series of events between the three protagonists: nearly washed-up TV western actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), his best friend and stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), and Dalton’s next-door neighbor on Cielo Dr., actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). The film first takes place in February 1969, where Dalton has been relegated to guest spots on popular television shows after his has been cancelled. Casting agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) suggests that Dalton should travel to Italy to star in spaghetti westerns, a decision he considers as the nail in his acting coffin. While acting on a guest spot for Lancer, Dalton realizes that the more he ages, the more useless he feels. He hopes that getting to know his nextdoor neighbor Sharon and her husband, Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha), will give him a chance to revive his career.
Since Dalton doesn’t get much work, Booth spends his days doing household chores for his friend, training his pit bull, Brandy, and cruising the streets of Los Angeles. He offers a ride to a young hippie hitchhiker named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), who just so happens to live at the Spahn Movie Ranch with her friends. Finding this curious since Spahn Ranch had previously been used as the filming location for his and Rick’s TV show, Booth decides to explore Pussycat’s “home.” He visits the owner, George Spahn (Bruce Dern), concerned that the old man is being taken advantage of, but Spahn swears he is fine with it. Nevertheless, Booth finds the whole outfit suspicious, barely making it back home.
Meanwhile, Sharon Tate drives into town to run errands when she notices a theater is playing her new film, The Wrecking Crew. After some convincing that it actually is her in the movie, Tate gets to view it for free. She takes delight in the audience cheering for her, feeling the blossoming sensation of stardom.
The film soon jumps forward in time to August 8, 1969, where Dalton and Booth are arriving back home from Italy. Dalton had decided to take Schwarz’ suggestion and starred in four Italian films, with Booth joining him once again as his stunt double. The two friends return to Dalton’s house, joined by the actor’s new Italian wife and Brandy the pitbull, to drunkenly celebrate what may be their last night together before their careers head off in new directions. Little do they know that four residents of Spahn’s Movie Ranch are making their way to Cielo Dr.
Quentin Tarantino is a director of distinct style, his films being recognizable right away thanks to their strong violence, frank language, and sophisticated dialogue. Yet, he veers in a different direction in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Though it still showcases his many trademarks, the director treats this venture more like a “hangout film.” Rather than focusing on one consistent plot, he instead follows the main characters as they go about their day. In fact, the situations the characters find themselves in – as well as the locations – are characters in their own right.
Though there are historical names and elements in the film, in no way does Once Upon a Time in Hollywood represent a real world. As is evident in the title, the film is ultimately a fairytale of a bygone era, a choice that is nothing new for the director. Tarantino has rewritten history a few times and it’s becoming yet another infamous trademark of his – a trademark that suits his style quite well. This is the Hollywood that the filmmaker wants to remember, the one he is nostalgic for. That being said, it is a changing Hollywood that matches the changing world of the characters – the carefree nature of the sixties has almost ended, the war is escalating, and once-famous stars are being replaced by new faces.
Even with this nostalgic narrative, Tarantino still touches on current subjects, particularly through the character of Cliff Booth. The stuntman has trouble finding work due to a rumor that he allegedly killed his wife – perhaps a jab at the controversies surrounding longtime Tarantino collaborator Harvey Weinstein. Booth also has a reputation of upsetting producers on set, as depicted in a scene where he challenges Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) to a duel. The altercation is stopped and is ultimately considered a tie, but the choice of having a white male serve as a challenging opponent to the legendary martial artist could be the filmmaker’s comment on how actors of color are still trying to gain their much-deserved Hollywood representation.
What is curious about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which may very well turn some viewers away, is its total refusal to appeal to a mass audience. Quentin Tarantino is a popular director with many devoted fans, but it never seems like he was making this film for them. Instead, it feels as though he was making it for a specific demographic – people in love with the nostalgia of the sixties. He includes everything from a soundtrack filled with selections of the time, obscure movie references, and expectations of the audience to be incredibly familiar with all of it. Many scenes are just of Booth driving through the city set to the pop music playing on his car radio, instances that may be dull for some but great for those that enjoy hearing said songs on loud theater speakers. He doesn’t even attempt to explain Charles Manson’s brief appearance (Damon Herriman eerily resembling the cult leader) or what the young hippies were doing living at Spahn Ranch. But this ultimately serves the film for the better, pleasing for members of the audience who are aware of the references. It feels like a movie Tarantino made for himself, a personal dive into a changing world and what it feels like to reach the midpoint in your life when you aren’t seen as being useful as you once were.
However, the nostalgia-factor is far from the only enjoyable aspect of the film. Brad Pitt gives one of the best performances of his career with the cool, calm, and collected Booth while Leonardo DiCaprio has the perfect opportunity to display his layered talent. Margot Robbie’s perfectly cast as Sharon Tate, portraying her with love and respect, treating her as an actress and person rather than a murder victim. Other great performances come from the loaded cast including Emile Hirsch, Timothy Olyphant, newcomer Julia Butters, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, the late Luke Perry, Kurt Russell, and many more. Matching its love for the star-studded town, the film almost serves as a vehicle for these stars to showcase their talent.
Despite not being his usual fare, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is easily one of Quentin Tarnatino’s strongest films. It might even be his most personal offering, as evident by the love and care put into everything from the script to the spectacular set design – the film recreates 1969 Los Angeles all the way down to period-accurate advertisements posted on the store windows. While the experience Once Upon a Time in Hollywood offers may not be had by all audience members, those fascinated in the era that occurred fifty years ago are sure to love it. They may even find themselves driving to the soundtrack on the way home from the theater.