I have a great amount of respect for Quentin Tarantino as a filmmaker. He is a combination of modern pop culture auteur and big name money-making director. The period of 1969 in Hollywood, was a pivotal period for the town. It would also host one of the most tragic crimes to haunt the city since the Black Dahlia. To this day, the memory of it is fairly fresh. Tarantino has chosen to address that period and time in a unique way with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. The Tate Murders by the Manson Family may seem like a subject of poor taste even, for a Tarantino film, and I must admit to having a minor sense of dread through the first two of the two hour and forty minute running time of the movie.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton a one time hot property in Hollywood westerns and action films. His glory days were as a 1950’s bounty hunter in a television show called Bounty Law. But since then, he’s been languishing in B movies and guest appearances on other shows as the bad guy of the week. Brad Pitt is Cliff Booth, Rick’s best friend and his stunt double for many years. Both have found their careers waning in a Hollywood that is changing. Dalton lives right next door to Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, the new young faces of Hollywood. It is also a world he doesn’t think he’d ever be a part of. Next door neighbors to one of the hottest directors in Hollywood and he’s never met him or Sharon Tate.
More than any other Tarantino film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood does not have an overall plot like the claustrophobic The Hateful Eight, or alt-historical Inglourious Basterds. Most of his films may seem like they lack a plot, but they tended to coalesce in the end to tie everything together. This is a character driven piece that also serves as a love letter to a bygone period in Hollywood glitz and glamour. Rick’s latest bad guy of the week show is on Lancer, a real television show that ran from 1968-1970. During the filming, it dawns on him that he truly is a has been and is old news.
Cliff has not exactly had a stellar career himself and his reputation is somewhat tainted as he may or may not have killed his wife. The last time Rick managed to talk stunt coordinator Randy (Kurt Russell) into having him on set, he started a fight with Bruce Lee (Michael Moh) and dented the car of of Randy’s wife (Zoë Bell). So most of the time, Cliff spends his days running errands for Rick, driving him around (because Rick had his license suspended after the last DUI), and fixing things around the house.
While driving about Los Angeles, he picks up a hitchhiker who he’s been seeing all over town. He gives her a ride to the Spahn Ranch, which is the historic compound of Charles Manson and his “Family.” That sense of unease starts to settle in right about here. And as the compound was an old western set, it has a certain tension about it that is evocative of how Sergio Leone would film scenes that were pure tension leading to brief moments of violence.
Interspersed between the stories of Cliff and Rick is Margot Robbie absolutely exuding charm as Sharon Tate. The up and coming starlet spends much of her time having a good time around town, visiting a bookstore in Hollywood and even watching her own film, The Wrecking Crew at a movie theater (single screen, kids). We don’t see much of her for a good portion of the film until the third act where she is very pregnant. And frankly, Tate, as a character just sort of breezes in and out of her scenes like some wisp. Margot Robbie isn’t the only person to get the short straw even though she shares the billing. The women really get little to do. The most significant female role that effects that interacts with the male leads is a child actress played by Julia Butler who gives precocious acting observations and opinions while Rick is on the set of Lancer.
So let us address the elephant in the room. This movie is not about the Manson Family murders. The Manson story and the Tate story is peripheral to Rick and Cliff’s story. And without giving away anything, bare in mind that Tarantino does not make historically accurate films even if they are in historical settings. His point seems to be that Hollywood is at the cusp of change in 1969. Taking place a year after Robert Kennedy’s assassination in a California hotel, as the country seems to have lost its innocence with Kennedy’s death, Hollywood is about to lose its innocence with the horror of the Manson Family. Charles Manson is played by Damon Herriman who has portrayed the infamous cult leader twice now, once in this film and again in the upcoming second season of Mindhunter for Netflix. He’s obviously doing something right since he’s darn creepy in the few scenes and lines given to him.
The Dragon in the room is Bruce Lee. Now Michael Moh portrays Bruce Lee very well but he also plays him as not a person but a caricature of not just Lee but of the Kato character from The Green Hornet. Sure cliff is a total tough guy and can hold his own. But in real life, just like when we were watching the Batman/Green Hornet crossover that Kato would kick Robin’s ass. We all know that Bruce Lee would really kick Cliff Booth’s ass. He’s not only nerfed in his skill but he is also mocked it, which I think is quite disrespectful. Film portrayals never do enough research to figure out hat he fighting style Lee used in his films was not how he sparrerd in real life.
This is unabashedly a love letter to the lost richness of not only Hollywood but old L.A. where extinct icons of late 60s Los Angeles are portrayed in their heyday as we drive along with Cliff in Rick’s Cadillac. And no matter how you may feel about Quentin Tarantino as a director, his movies are without a doubt shot really well. Much respect is due him for still using film in the age of digital. The nostalgic scenes of driving around the city with old Hollywood landmarks still standing were recreations, and not computer generated — another point of praise owed to Tarantino. Older Los Angeles and Californian natives may enjoy that nostalgia like I did, others may not realize how much has changed since then since it is before their time.
But the film is ultimately a collection of character piece scenes that showcase the talents of Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. When the dual are on screen together, they are captivating. This may go down as one of the biggest bromances in film history. The two actors have a natural chemistry together as if they have made dozens of films together as opposed to this being their first. But because it it is more character piece than plot driven it can feel dragged out and disjointed. There really is not a plot to speak of and as star studded as the cast is, outside of DiCaprio and Pitt, the rest of the cast is relegated to cameos, even Margot Robbie. Nevertheless, this is some of the best work that DiCaprio and Pitt have ever done.
The tone of the ending and the way it ends is going to be divisive in some ways. Debra Tate, Sharon’s surviving sister, did give the movie her blessing after being reached out to by Quentin Tarantino. But it does seem like a total tonal shift in the way the movie had been coasting through for the last few hours. It’s as if the director felt obligated to insert his signatu7.5re staples and tropes into it. It’s not horrible, but it is unexpected and came across as cartoonish. I was not sure if the laughter in the theater was nervous or cathartic at what it could have been. This film will do well for for history buffs.
In some ways, this is Tarantino’s most accessible work, but it is also uneven plotless film with a collection of character scenes, some of which are brilliant in either the way they are acted or shot, but other scenes bloat running time make the movie feel long. It could run shorter. And in fact, if the whole Manson subplot were eliminated it could have been a fine straight up comedy and avoided an ending that plays loosely with history. But Tarantino is not telling history here, he’s telling a fairy tale. It’s a fractured and flawed fairy tale, though. It also does nothing positive for the women characters considering 1969 was a pivotal period in the Women’s Movement. And like practically all film portrayals of Bruce Lee, it chooses to portray him as a mirror of his on screen personality as opposed to the real him.