Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Review
The golden American summer of 1969 is currently enjoying a moment in the spotlight, thanks largely to the 50th anniversary of the first moon landing (celebrated in recent documentaries Apollo 11 and Armstrong, alongside commemorative television programming). Despite war raging in Vietnam and massive socio-political upheaval occurring on home soil, for once in far too long the American people felt some kind of shared achievement; a thrilling glimpse towards a hopeful future for the world their children would inherit.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood casts that nostalgic gaze at those aspirational youngsters and also their forebears; the worn hands who feel increasingly out-smarted, upstaged and endangered in a world moving too fast for the old and not fast enough for the young. The bright-eyed youth are personified by Margot Robbie as star-on-the-rise, Sharon Tate. Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt (sharing the screen for the first time, unbelievably) are fictional duo Rick Dalton - a fading cowboy actor - and Cliff Booth, his trusted stunt-double.
It’s incredibly easy to read Rick and Cliff as proxies for Tarantino. Both are struggling to be taken seriously in an industry slowly opening its eyes to the voices of storytellers from more diverse backgrounds, and both are made constantly aware of the oncoming storm of younger, smarter players.
Cliff’s professionalism, his integrity and his abilities are constantly questioned (Pitt steals the film from beneath DiCaprio, wearing his role as easily as Cliff does a glorious Hawaiian shirt, in perhaps the finest display of his talent in two decades). His only indisputable traits are loyalty to Rick and love for his dog, Brandy (at this point in time, the film’s only recipient of an acting award - the Palm Dog at Cannes). The strain of bearing the weight of Rick’s former success - both literally and metaphorically - isn’t evident in their cocktail lunches or beer-and-pizza binges, but slips through the cracks in backlot arguments and - more bizarrely - an encounter with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh). Moh plays Lee as a similar dreamer grappling to gain (and retain) his own star power, running recklessly into a one-on-one with Cliff for no greater goal than a simple display of prowess.
In contrast to Cliff’s casually resigned demeanour, Rick (DiCaprio on red-eyed, tobacco-breathing form) is all second-guesses and sweat. Desperate for salvation from villainous roles which pit him against the Western heroes he used to inhabit, he’s confronted on set by a young girl - more precisely, an eight year-old method actor played brilliantly by Transparent’s Julia Butters - reading a book on Walt Disney. One doesn’t have to look far for subtext (where’s the place for a singular directorial voice in an entertainment world ruled by the House of Mouse?), but Dalton’s fervent strive to reclaim his career reads as a far more optimistic development - that the old need the young to remind them just how great they once were, and can still be.
Still, in steadfast refusal to kowtow in the face of a more forward-looking landscape, many of Tarantino’s trademarks are present and correct (close-ups of feet; bared, booted, clean and dirty), as is his pop culture nerdiness. Overindulgent and irritating in years gone by (lest we forget the half-hearted scratchiness of Death Proof), every reference here is contextually-placed and is all to do with immersion, be it radio commercials for tanning butter, recreations of classic TV shows or reappropriated footage from The Great Escape.
Feet and 35mm are among the more harmless fetishes of this enfant terrible (his penchant for racial slurs is entirely absent, but so too are - with the exception of Moh’s brief appearance - roles for people of colour), with the more wearing resigned to the marketing campaign (“The 9th Film by Quentin Tarantino” - “The 11th-and-a-halfth at best” doesn’t look quite so spiffy on a poster).
Space is still made for staples of modern filmmaking: CG from legendary VFX supervisor John Dykstra is used sparingly, but to wonderful effect. Shots of a Pan Am flight occupy the hyperreal form of a painted movie poster, and the playful use of classical film footage with newly-inserted elements are a comedy goldmine.
Rightfully, this temptation is not indulged in with regards to Robbie as Sharon Tate, who visits a cinema to watch the audience react to her performance in The Wrecking Crew (the real Tate, untouched in the onscreen footage displayed to the patrons of a smoky matinée). Robbie’s role is small in screen-time (and, indeed, dialogue) but goes big on bittersweet impact. Tate is seen dancing carefree in her home, giving a hippie woman a lift in her car, spending time with friends at a restaurant and frolicking happily at Hollywood parties with Rafał Zawierucha as her boyfriend, Roman Polanski (Tarantino did not consult the convicted sex offender when making the film). The simple joy of seeing Sharon Tate alive and thriving peacefully is a gift in and of itself (though both she and Robbie's performance deserve so much more), even as the shadow of Charles Manson looms.
The two strands of the story (our less-than-dynamic duo and the promising queen of sunset boulevard) intersect in strange ways, leading to a conclusion that feels shocking, righteous and inevitable all at once. Those with a taste for Tarantino’s signature style of violence will be surely satisfied (“I like all that stuff; the killing!”, exclaims Al Pacino as a veteran casting agent), but more pleasing still is the restraint and - dare I say - sweetness that precedes the climactic outburst.
The default mode of cynicism, smugness and devil’s advocate preening are almost impossible to reconcile with this mature and self-aware tale that aches for a past that may have been imagined all along. Moving like a film from a young director at the height of their powers, all 161 minutes of this journey from wistful cowboy dreams to the dawn of a new American era pass in a seductive whirlwind of sunlight and celluloid.