Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an irresponsible, insensitive, sporadically
brilliant, and ridiculously entertaining buddy film by the cineophile auteur,
Quentin Tarantino. It is a celebration of everything irreverent, unbelievable,
and absurd in Hollywood. You might not like it if you think too much or too
little during the film.
People who expect the film to be a faithful representation of history are bound
to be horrified. As usual despite the use of some real life characters and
situations, Tarantino is mostly interested in the history of film or how history
affected film. There are other directors more suited for doing historical films
anyway like guys who get nominated for Oscars every year for making duller than
dishwater biopics. This is more like a Marvel What if comic than a History
Channel Bio show.
The film concerns two minor film figures who are experiencing downturns in their
careers. Rick is a mediocre C level actor who gets supporting roles in formulaic
TV Westerns (the kind of parts Shatner got before Star Trek). His character is
probably not based on one person, but he has some similarities to the handsome
but sometimes dull Burt Reynolds who also did some spaghetti westerns (does
anyone else remember Navajo Joe?). Reynolds also had a very dependable stunt man
friend that he was very close to.
As the Hollywood climate changes, Rick gets fewer and fewer parts (he might have
to go to Europe to do a spaghetti western) and consequently his stuntman whose
career is linked to Rick’s also gets fewer opportunities. Then something
interesting happens. Towards the end the movie becomes more and more fantastic
and diverges more from history as it goes along. The last part of the film seems
to exist in a sort of dream reality like Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Rick and Cliff
who are initially has-been drunks begin to act more and more heroically, and
they become the kind of people that would inhabit a cheesy 50s TV show.
Tarantino finds a way for the give the old 50s Hollywood establishment
(represented by Rick and Cliff) to gain a little dignity as they face off
against the new counter culture people that replaced them (embodied in the
Manson family). The standoff is almost as glorious, over the top and exciting as
anything in a Sergio Leonie or a Sergio Corbucci film.
The film stars Leonard DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as one of the best same sex
couples since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or Midnight Cowboy (I actually
like this film more than the first of the two.) Like most buddy films the real
themes sometimes barely below the surface are one man’s love for another,
repressed male desire in a society (even if they don’t consummate it), and
barely hidden homoeroticism. When Brad Pitt is lovingly shot sauntering up on a
rooftop to fix a TV antenna, it is a pivotal scene, and I could hear both men
and women in the audience squeal. It depends on your orientation, but Pitt may
be the seen as big sex object in the film.
I usually think DiCaprio is a bit overrated, and that he rides on the coat tails
of brilliant directors like Scorsese and Tarantino (I was not that crazy about
The Revenant) but he was much more likeable
than usual here. His boyish charm is still evident, but this film shows much
more of his vulnerable side, and Pitt is also impressive as the best friend,
confidant and driver money and Hollywood connections can buy.
Margot Robie is hypnotically watchable and fascinating in the role of Sharon
Tate, a minor actress who became a tragic victim of the Manson Gang in the real
world (SPOILER ALERT: in this quasi alternate universe the gang is stopped
before they get to her.)
Actresses like Meryl Streep and Glenn Close may get much more credit and
attention, but Robie’s presence has elevated every single character and film she
has tackled. She was one of the only good parts of the hyper violent and
ultra-dumb Suicide Squad, and she even made me like and feel sorry for Tonya
Harding for almost two hours in I Tonya. No mean feat.
Although she has a comparatively small role, Robie is featured prominently in
one of the best scenes in the film. She walks in on a schlocky film she was in
(The Matt Helm flick, The Wrecking Crew) and takes tremendous pride in watching
the film with the audience. Even though the film and role she played are no
doubt forgettable she is positively delirious with pride. The charming little
scene captures effectively what it must have been like to bath in the sheer joy
of being a young rising young starlet in Hollywood in the late 60s with the
world at your feet.
She also might be a surrogate for Tarantino taking pride in his work, I can
almost see him doing the same thing in a theatre (If you look closely there is
even a little reflection of Tarantino’s face in the glass in one of the scenes
in the theatre reminding us of his presence.)
Many have criticized the portrayal of Robie’s role in the film saying that it
transformed Tate into a mere sex object. It is important to remember that at the
time in Hollywood that Tarantino is paying homage to, women were mostly used as
eye candy especially in the type of B westerns and action films that this movie
Also, Sharon Tate’s sister saw the film and was completely convinced by the
performance. In Vanity Fair she said “The tone in her voice was completely
Sharon, and it just touched me so much that big tears [started falling]. The
front of my shirt was wet. I actually got to see my sister again… nearly 50
I had more problems with the Bruce Lee fight scene which frankly repulsed me.
The stuntman played by Pitt is shown easily defeating Lee and throwing him on
the car. The scene did not help the narrative progress and it was unamusing. The
first big global Asian action star deserved better than that. This was kind of
surprising because Tarantino has been almost worshipful of Asian film culture,
and he gave Gordon Liu (of the classic Kung Fu flick, 36th Chamber of Shaolin)
one of his best roles in Kill Bill Volume 1.
Moreover, as actors like Rick were fading in popularity, minority stars like
Bruce Lee and Pam Grier started to compete successfully with the old guard
(initially as mostly stereotypical characters). My theory is the defeat of Lee
could be seen as part of the old guard‘s final fantasy of fending off the new
generation of film stars before they get put out to pasture. Maybe Tarantino
even feels that way because his kind of films might be growing less relevant to
the newer generations who care more about special effects than dialogue.
Tarantino may not be at the absolute peak of his powers (he has not created a
film at the level of Pulp Fiction or the Kill Bill's for years.) But watching a
Tartantino film is not just an ordinary film experience. It is more like
communing with the old dead gods of cinema like Sam Fuller, John Ford and Robert
Aldrich while occasionally sharing obscure jokes with a friend that no one else
on the planet gets.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not the most innovative, intelligent or
groundbreaking film of the year, but it sure gave me much more pleasure than any
other recent big summer blockbuster. Also anyone pondering their own aging or
career obsolescence may find much to identify with in the film.