Once Upon a Hollywood, reviewed by Michael Minassian

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.

Quentin Tarantino’s title for his latest film should give us a clue from the start that this story is going to be like a fairy tale (or perhaps a cautionary tale) and those ellipses are there to give us pause, time to let the in Hollywoodpart of the title remind us of where the film and Tarantino himself are centered.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywoodis an obvious ode to Los Angeles and the film industry, specifically the Hollywood of the late 1960’s. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio as an aging television star whose career is faltering and Brad Pitt as his stunt double and friend, the two give outstanding performances. DiCaprio seems to be possessed by the spirit of Rick Dalton, depressed and sinking into self-loathing after his show has been cancelled and he is reduced to playing the heavy on other newer TV shows. Living next door to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate seems to deepen his funk, as he contrasts their rising fame with his own downward trajectory. Later in the film, facing the uncomfortable reality of his has-been status, he first flubs his lines, engages in some painful self-flagellation in his trailer, then nails a later performance, earning praise from his young co-star (the excellent Julia Butters).

            Cliff Booth (Pitt), on the other hand, seems to accept his fading career as a stunt man, finding it hard to get new work as a persistent rumor that he killed his wife follows him around (a minor sub-plot that is never given much screen time or explanation). As Cliff, he drives Rick Dalton around town, does handyman jobs at Rick’s house, and generally keeps Rick company as they share meals, drinks, and watch Rick’s appearances on TV. After driving around in Rick’s Cadillac all day, he gets into his own beat up 1960 Karmann Ghiaand goes back to his lonely trailer and dog. Rick and Cliff’s relationship is later summed up as “more than a brother and less than a wife.” 

            In a terrific performance, Sharon Tate is played by Margot Robbie in what I think is the emotional core of the film. Robbie plays a Tate full of optimism. In one of my favorite scenes, Tate goes to see herself in the movie The Wrecking Crewwhere she has a supporting role. In a typical Tarantino twist, the original film with Tate is showing in the theatre, adding extra poignancy to the scene. As Tate, Robbie first talks her way into the theatre getting a free ticket and escort by the manager, after announcing “I’m in the movie.” Delighting in her own role in the film, but especially reveling in the positive audience reaction to her scenes, Robbie plays the doomed actress as brimming with life and possibilities. It’s a remarkable scene and should generate Oscar buzz. 

            The film is also full of cameo appearances by a host of film and television stars, most notably Al Pacino, Timothy Olyphant, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Kurt Russel, the late Luke Perry, and many others. (My favorite cameo, however, was Damian Lewis who only speaks a few lines but really nails his role as Steve McQueen). Dern plays George Spahn, owner of the Spahn Movie Ranch, once a set for countless TV and movie Westerns, but in the late 60’s the home of the Manson family. Although we only see Charles Manson once when he scopes out the home where Tate and friends are living, Cliff Booth has several run-ins with members of the Manson family. When he takes Pussycat (played by Margaret Qualley) to the ranch, he insists on talking with Spahn to make sure he is OK. Coming out of the main house Cliff discovers one of his tires has been slashed and beats the culprit while the rest of the Family (mainly women) look on. Their silent stares and hive behavior are one of the creepiest parts of the film. It wasn’t until I got home and was going over that scene in my mind that I realized it reminded me of the silent looks of the children in Village of the Damned(minus the blond hair and blazing eyes).

            That bit of violence was only a warmup for the few minutes of cartoonish “ultra-violence” (to steal a phrase) near the end of the film. It’s almost as if Tarantino can’t let a film end without some over-the-top mayhem. Here it mostly closely resembles the burning of the Nazis at the end of Inglorious Bastards. Tarantino again plays loose with history. Without revealing too much, I’d say that he gives his audience the history we want to see, not the history we know. And why not, this is a fairy tale, and Hollywood is the place of dreams.

Michael Minassian 

Michael Minassian is a Contributing Editor for Verse-Virtual, an online magazine. He is a retired Professor, currently based in Texas. 

Reader Comments (2)

Great review of a film on our list to see.

August 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterAnca Vlasopolos

Great review! I especially liked the term "cartoonish" in the last paragraph to describe the scenes at the end of the movie. That helps explain why people were laughing (my husband included). I gave him a solid nudge in the ribs not understanding why any person who wasn't a bit "off the rails" would be laughing. I had to close my eyes until the dogs were gone and the flame throwing was over. Now I get it. It was on purpose! Yay!?!

Of course, I should have known after "Pulp Fiction" what to expect from this "kid" Tarantino (That's how I look at this filmmaker everyone loves--like a kid in my classroom about whom I would be VERY concerned! Thank heaven, Tarantino's weapon of choice is film and not an AK47.

But let's set aside my obvious "old lady" view of Tarantino and talk about the ending from a writing standpoint. Years ago, there was a comedy improv group in New York that my daughter, Bethany Therese, belonged to. The name of the troupe was "The Chainsaw Boys". Why? There was one comedic actor, talented as he was, who sometimes was stuck for an ending to a scene. His "go to" device invariably was to use a chain-saw his way through to the ending. GRRZRRZRRZRRZRR! End Scene!

I realize that the world views Tarantino as a brilliant filmmaker, blah-da-de-blah. I adored the acting, the writing, the cinemtography, almost everything, in the first seven-eighths of "Once..." (I do wish that since it's fiction, the real names of that whole real life horror were fictionalized as well. But if Sharon Tate's sister thinks that's ok, I won't complain.)

As for the ending of this movie though, it fe;t to me as if Tarantino just got tired and simply used his "go-to" devices, and for that, to me, he's just "A Chainsaw Boy". (Ok, I'll concede, it was a flame thrower and pit bulls, but you get the idea.)

August 14, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBillie Kelpin

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