SPOILER ALERT: Be advised that I’m planning to talk about things that you might prefer not knowing before you see the film, unless you’ve already seen it. This includes the ending. Proceed accordingly.
I’ve seen Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood four times in a month, twice in IMAX (couldn’t resist). I can’t imagine that I’m done, though I may take a break for a while. The first time it didn’t kick in for me right away, but by the end I was there. It’s great. Maybe not Citizen Kane or Tokyo Story great, but Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is its own kind of great.
The film follows three main characters: slightly over-the-hill TV cowboy star Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), Rick’s stunt double/friend/companion Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), and actress Sharon Tate (played by Margot Robbie). Rick and Cliff are fictional characters, but Sharon Tate is a real person who was murdered by members of the Charles Manson “family” on Friday, August 8-9, 1969, in the home she shared with film director Roman Polanski in Los Angeles. Everyone knows this. When you hear the name Sharon Tate, the first and often only thing you think of is the Manson murders. This hangs over the film, an ominous foreshadowing of horrible things to come.
The performances are all excellent, especially Brad Pitt’s as Cliff Booth. DiCaprio’s character, Rick Dalton, is an alcoholic who has lost his license due to drunk-driving charges, requiring Cliff to drive him everywhere in Rick’s cream yellow 1966 Cadillac Coupe DeVille. Cliff’s own car is a beat-up ’64 Volkswagen Karmann Ghia convertible. Rick lives in a house next door to Polanski and Tate on Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon. Cliff lives in a trailer behind the Van Nuys Drive-In Theater. Tony Rome with Frank Sinatra and Pretty Poison are playing the night we see Cliff driving home. Cliff is a self-professed driver and gofer for Rick, and says he’s happy to do it. Late in the film, we hear in voice-over that Cliff is a “buddy who is more than a brother and less than a wife.”
An animus toward hippies is expressed throughout with frequent references to “fucking hippies” and “goddam hippies,” mainly by Rick. I was a bit thrown by this at first, but Rick starred in Bounty Law, a popular TV Western in the 50s and early 60s. He’s a generation before the rise of flower children and the counterculture, which may account for his resentful attitude. Cliff refers to “hippies” with a pejorative twist to the word, but I think he may be parroting Rick, rather than really buying into it. After all, Cliff wears hippie-style clothing, such as suede moccasin boots and a beaded wrist band. Through much of the film he wears a Champion spark-plugs t-shirt under an Hawaiian shirt. He flashes a peace sign back to Pussycat (a Manson family member played by Margaret Qualley) when he drives by her as she’s waiting on a bus-stop bench. So he’s not exactly adverse to the trappings of the counterculture.
Rick regularly suffers extreme hangovers. He’s constantly clearing phlegm from his throat with racking coughs and spitting. He plunges his face into a large bowl of ice water in his makeup trailer to get in shape for work. I wouldn’t want to hang out with Rick, but I would with Cliff. Cliff has a sense of ironic detachment in what he says and does. He seems to be in on a joke that only he knows. And he has the greatest dog in the world, a lovable pit bull (really) named Brandy, who will play a crucial part in the film’s climax. Brandy, by the way, received a special award at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, the Palm Dog, which was accepted on her behalf by Quentin Tarantino. Meanwhile, Cliff feeds her Wolf’s Tooth dog food, which, per the label, is “Good Food for Mean Dogs.” So far in my viewings I’ve noted “Racoon Flavor” and “Bird Flavor,” in addition to my favorite, “Rat Flavor.”
Margot Robbie is excellent as Sharon Tate. There’s been criticism that she gets short shrift in the film, but I don’t see it. She may seem a bit vacuous, but I think she’s simply dazzled by having parts in movies and living in Hollywood. We see this when she shyly talks her way in to see The Wrecking Crew, a film with Dean Martin that she’s in. Her reaction to seeing herself onscreen and the response of the audience in the theater obviously delight her. She’s an innocent, which makes the growing weight of the Manson vibe all the more of a buzzkill.
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is advertised on posters and in the trailers as “The 9th Film from Quentin Tarantino.” This might seem pretentious and self-important, but the truth of it is, I anticipate each of his films as an event, much like I did the next Dylan or Beatles albums in the 1960s. And he usually delivers. His command of the filmmaking process is so strong that you can’t help but be caught up. I know not everyone likes him, but for me he’s more than worth the attention.
The film is filled with killer music cues used to underscore or, in some cases, create, a mood or feeling. These include “Hush” by Deep Purple, “Twelve Thirty (Young Girls Are Coming to the Canyon)” by the Mamas and the Papas, and Vanilla Fudge’s weird version of “You Keep Me Hanging On” which is heard during the freaked-out climax in Rick’s house at the end. Despite multiple viewings, I couldn’t keep track of all the songs, but the music always feels perfect for what’s on the screen. Razor-sharp sound edits are used repeatedly, with a song being cut off in the midst of a lyric or chord as we cut to another scene. I often wanted to hear more of a song, but everything keeps moving forward.
At first I wondered about the use of narration in the film, which is not consistent. Early on, in response to Rick explaining to agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) that his car is in the shop, a brief voice-over by Kurt Russell cuts in saying that’s bullshit, that Rick lost his license and Cliff has to drive him everywhere. This is accompanied by a shot of an upset Rick in the foreground and a wrecked car in the background. That’s it for narration until Russell’s voice-over resumes near the end as Rick and Cliff are returning from making spaghetti Westerns in Italy. On the flight back we see Rick in first class with his new Italian wife Francesca (Lorenza Izzo). Cliff is seen back in coach, a reminder of the Hollywood pecking order.
Tarantino also occasionally uses on-screen titles to establish dates and locations (such as “Sunday, February 9, 1969,” “Playboy Mansion,” “Six Months Later”). As with the narration, there’s no formal consistency to this, but the film’s structure is flexible enough to allow Tarantino to use what he wants when he thinks he needs it, even if it draws attention to itself. Anything to better tell the story.
This being a Tarantino film set in 1969, you’d expect an abundance of period detail and pop culture references, and you’d be right. A lot of time is spent showing clips from Rick’s TV series Bounty Law, as well as preparation and rehearsals for a guest shot he’s doing on a new Western series called Lancer, which was a real series from 1968-1970. Bounty Law itself is most likely based on the Steve McQueen series Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958-1961). Which reminds me, Damien Lewis appears briefly as Steve McQueen in a scene set at the Playboy Mansion. He nails it. His look, his speech, and the way he’s lit evokes McQueen in an uncanny way.
In a flashback, Cliff has a very funny encounter with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of The Green Hornet.
There are copies of Kid Colt and Sgt. Rock comic books in Cliff’s trailer. Rick collects Hopalong Cassidy coffee mugs. We see him adding a new one to the shelf after he’s returned from Italy. This is all Tarantino.
An impressive amount of work went into creating the magazine covers and movie posters featuring Rick that appear in the film. Check the following. These are perfect.
The most powerfully sustained sequence in the film is Cliff’s visit to the Spahn Movie Ranch, a slow burn of tension. Several times earlier, when Cliff has been driving Rick or by himself in the Cadillac, he’s made eye contact with a “hippie chick” by the side of the road, trying to hitch a ride. This is Pussycat, a member of the Manson family, played by the excellent Margaret Qualley. Cliff hasn’t been going in her direction, until he is. He asks where she’s going and when she says to Chatsworth and the Spahn Movie Ranch, this gets Cliff’s attention He was Rick’s stunt double when Bounty Law was being shot there eight years previous. In answer to Cliff’s questions, Pussycat says she lives there with her friends. Cliff says he’ll drive her, not out of kindness or flirtation, but because something sounds fishy and he wants to find out what the deal is.
Once there, Cliff sees mangy dogs crisscrossing between ramshackle buildings and rusted car bodies, and a growing crowd of “hippies,” mostly young women, who watch Cliff intently. Cliff asks to see George Spahn (Bruce Dern), who owns the ranch, but is told it’s his nap time and he can’t be disturbed. Cliff insists, and the tension grows. Of course, we know the history of the place, so tension is built into our response to the scene. It’s a great set piece, masterfully shot and edited.
If you’ve seen Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, you know how it ends. If not, you probably should stop reading now, because I’m going to talk about that briefly.
Since Tarantino had already rewritten history by having Brad Pitt’s commandos kill Hitler at the end of Inglourious Basterds, and in a movie theater no less, it was no surprise that he would do something special here.
The big twist is that he lets Sharon Tate live. Manson sends four of his minions with orders to kill everyone in the Polanski house, but they never get there. They’ve impulsively decided to kill Rick Dalton, who has just kicked them out of his drive. Rick is in a frothing rage after finding a bunch of hippies in an unmuffled, exhaust-spewing ’59 Ford Galaxie junker idling in front of his house. Cliff has taken Brandy for a walk, but not before lighting up a cigarette dipped in LSD that he’d bought from a hippie girl previously. As he leaves Rick’s house with Brandy, he says, “And away we go!” He’ll repeat this later as he’s being wheeled out on a gurney to an ambulance, after he and Rick and the faithful Brandy have killed the intruders in spectacular fashion. This is the only real violence in the film, and it’s a doozy.
So in this telling, the Manson murders never happened. Joan Didion would never famously write, in her 1979 collection The White Album, that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969. At the very end of the film, after the cops have come and gone, Rick has been invited up to the Polanski house to meet Sharon and have a drink. As he walks up the drive with Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch), the camera cranes up and over, around the trees, and comes to rest looking down on Rick as Sharon and the others come out to meet him. I felt a melancholy sense of happiness knowing that they were still alive, that they hadn’t died. It affects me even now, as I think about it.
It’s at this point that the title, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, appears on screen for the first time. The title may reference Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America, but I think more importantly it signals that this has been a fairy tale. I think Tarantino fell in love with Sharon Tate and didn’t want to see her die. His film rescues her from Charles Manson. After all, fairy tales have happy endings.
There’s some overlap in the following trailers, but I think both are worth seeing.
I’ll close with a shot of the awesome Brandy. Never thought I’d love a pit bull, but what do I know? Supplemental materials for this film will be posted in 1-2 days. Stay tuned. — Ted Hicks