Once upon a time in the career of Quentin Tarantino, a film like Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood would have felt blunt and forced in its inevitability – when the references and the homages and the trivia were the point, the only point, and the amusing but drawn-out genre-y winking was nothing more than a delivery vehicle for that. The fact that 10 to 15 years later the director has managed to tackle head-on his own industry’s mythology in its defining essence – not through a specific sub-genre, not through history, but firmly planted in the middle of LA in 1969, when one Hollywood was witnessing its own demise and a new one was yet to be understood by the existing players – and delivered a film with this much soul is a truly remarkable achievement.
Typically heterogeneous, lopsided, uneven and packed to the brim with little sketches and side characters, Tarantino’s latest boils down nonetheless to two main narrative strands: the story of Rick Dalton, a successful TV cowboy in the late ’50s whose transition to movie stardom didn’t quite work out, leaving him to play a succession of villains at the expense of his self-confidence, and that of Sharon Tate, a luminous star on the rise, newly married to Polanski, whose bright outlook on life and cinema pushes against the sense of tragedy that we feel looming over her.
The two are neighbors, and only this feeble connection keeps them linked prior to the film’s climax. The choice allows Tarantino a blank slate in how to modulate the resonance between the two stories, which he does brilliantly. One is the past, the other the future, one is pure, the other consumed. Leonardo DiCaprio, as Dalton, embodies the struggle: to stay relevant in a business that is forgetting him, but also the actual one, on set as an actor. We see him chasing roles, refusing the shame of going to Italy to do spaghetti westerns (until, of course, he goes), running lines and then forgetting them, waiting with a book in between takes. On the other hand Tate, suavely played by Margot Robbie, has a much shorter screen presence, and her relationship with the medium is encapsulated by a visit to the theater to watch herself (in The Wrecking Crew), happy to be let in for free, her smile unperturbed by the manager’s suggestion to pose for a picture next to the poster, so “people know who you are”. In the darkness, she follows along with the movie anticipating audience reactions and giddily recreating a fight choreography. It’s equal measure celebration and realization of the self.
In short, she’s fine because her relationship with her persona is mediated by the device of cinema. Rick Dalton, meanwhile, is lost without a safety net: Tarantino shoots the inserts of the movie he’s working on without the signifiers of make-believe, opening right on the dusty street of a Western town, and playing out the story in full. There’s no quick pan to the director’s chair to save him. When he flubs lines, the camera stays on his face, and only his frustration breaks character before he keeps going. Only when he finally nails the scene does Tarantino bring him back from the depths, earning him the admiration of a young co-star in a beautiful extended sequence that rises to portray the end of a day’s work for the whole of Hollywood, and for the city itself. Out of the theater, outside the set, everybody goes home on the notes of California Dreamin’, wrapping things up with a time-jump before dealing with what you know is coming.
And yes, spoiler-phobia is out of control, but I have no problem obliging the (increasingly numerous, potentially superfluous, sometimes condescending) requests from directors to not mention anything past a certain point in their film, as Tarantino did for Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Frankly, there’s so much more worth discussing about this more introspective, low-wattage turn from the man. His best film since Inglourious Basterds, which it mirrors in more ways than one, and a throwback to the atmosphere of Jackie Brown, the cliché intellectual pick for best in his filmography past a certain age. And yet fitting, because like the characters in that film, and like Tarantino himself (whose hyper-curation of his brand left him trapped in a construct of his own making), there is just so much sadness about Rick Dalton’s (surprisingly open) emotionality, Tate’s wide-eyed awareness, and a portrayal of LA itself as information-dense and saturated with notices, posters, neon lights, and signs of all shapes that seem to weigh heavily on these people’s shoulders.
Only Brad Pitt’s laid-back but menacing Cliff Booth seems to know how to handle it all with levity. Not inside cinema, not in front of it – he is firmly behind it, living in a trailer just off the Van Nuys Drive-In with his impressively trained dog. It’s through him that we get a glimpse of the new order, casually strolling at an intersection: the “fuckin’ hippies” that the whole town is so anxious to reject, pushing them to the outskirts of the city, in an old ranch where they used to shoot movies and where this guy Charles Manson is now leveraging their burning desire to rebel against what all those names on those posters back in Hollywood came to represent.
As Rick Dalton’s old stuntman, and now driver and friend, he has a more relaxed approach to the fading of a long career, and consequently more receptive eyes to what else is going on around him. Driven by simple values, he is depicted (in the film’s attempt to have its cake and eat it, too) as a real-life cowboy of rugged coolness, while also engaging with the more toxic side of that kind of masculinity, even if at a distance. His visit to the Spahn Movie Ranch is another clever showcase for Tarantino, leveraging the multiple levels of storytelling in the film to thrilling and provocative effect.