Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is a many splendored thing. It’s dazzling and meandering, brilliant and indulgent, sparkling but also stretched. Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film is a portrait of the classic age of Hollywood movies and the people who made them. It’s soaked in nostalgia. It’s also a showcase for outsized, old-schoolstardom, with Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio delivering terrific performances. I first saw the film at the Cannes Film Festival and then again this week. I can’t tell you that I loved it. But I felt richer for having watched it. As the title ‘Once Upon A Time…‘ suggests, this is a fairy tale. But it’s a fairy tale marinated in melancholy. Because the plot hinges on horrific real-life events.
On August 9th, 1969 actress Sharon Tate, who was eight-and-a-half months pregnant at the time, and a group of her friends, were brutally murdered in Tate’s home by cult leader Charles Manson and members of his gang. Tate’s husband, the celebrated director Roman Polanski, was abroad on a shoot. The multiple murders sent shock waves through Hollywood and are widely seen as the end of an era. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood climaxes with the night of the murders. The film is constructed as three days in the lives of the principal characters.
But the film isn’t centered on Tate or even Manson and his makeshift family of mostly young girls. The focus is on Tate’s neighbor Rick Dalton, a fading actor who is clinging to his fame. And Rick’s stunt double Cliff Booth, who is described as ‘more than a brother, less than a wife.’ Rick was once the star actor on a television series called Bounty Law but now he’s mostly doing guest roles as the villain. He’s drinking more than he should. His face is weathered. When an agent, played with delicious glee by Al Pacino, warns him that audiences are going to stop rooting for him, Rick is reduced to tears. So Cliff loans him his sunglasses because people, especially the Mexican car park attendants, shouldn’t see Rick Dalton cry.
Cliff seems impervious to any such insecurities. He lives in a trailer with a ferocious dog named Brandy. Cliff seems unafraid of what life might throw at him. We are told that he may or may not have killed his wife. In once scene, he takes his shirt off and we see scars. We can sense that Cliff is capable of serious violence but Brad Pitt plays him with a languid ease and industrial-strength charm. Cliff and Rick’s bromance is the heart of the film. Even when the narrative becomes inert, their chemistry sustains entire scenes. DiCaprio is wonderfully free of vanity – there is a tragi-comic scene in which Rick chats with a child actor during a lunch break. She’s an eight-year-old devotee of Method Acting. Her dedication and his own inadequacy reduces him to tears. As I watched, I wondered: would any Bollywood star have agreed to do Rick’s role? Incidentally, Julia Butters who plays the child actor, is flat-out terrific. This character deserves her own spin-off movie.
Once Upon A Time In Hollywood languorously, over two hours and forty one minutes, immerses us into a distinct place and time. Tarantino fills the screen with references – some real like TV Guide magazine, which was once a Bible, and others fiction. The production design and costumes are fantastic. But this isn’t a film propelled by dramatic tension. A sequence in which Cliff lands up at a ranch where the Manson family lives is genuinely unsettling but there are enough stretches in which the narrative sags because people are just hanging around, talking. If you don’t get all innumerable pop culture references, the spell isn’t as magical and emotionally, the film doesn’t connect. The character of Tate especially is under used – she feels more an idea than a person.
The film ends with a burst of violence that is almost cartoonish. Like in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained, Tarantino is once again, tweaking history. But you need to know that history to get what the director is trying to do here. My suggestion is do a little homework before you see the film – read up on what happened. And go in ready to be transported to late 60s Hollywood. This film is a revisionist fairy tale and a time machine. It’s a slow burn that’s worth it. One more suggestion – prepare to willfully ignore the warnings about smoking and psychotropic drugs. A lot of characters are smoking so those warnings are practically in every frame and they really mess with your movie experience.