It’s only a movie – and a good one
“Once upon a time” is how a classic fairy tale starts.
“They lived happily ever after ” is how it ends.
So when Writer/Director Quentin Tarantino calls his movie “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” you know he will give you an out-and-out fantasy. The man is a history buff, but also a revisionist who likes the idea of righting wrongs – ten years ago, he killed Hitler in “Inglorious Basterds.” Unlike fellow-filmmaker Oliver Stone, who tweaks his movies to fit an alternate truth, Tarantino uses history as a concept for a good story.
And what a story he has come up with for “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.” This time, Tarantino’s mind is on Sharon Tate, the pregnant young actress, married to Roman Polanski, who fifty years ago was gruesomely murdered by three of Charles Manson’s disciples.
Saddled with this knowledge, watching “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” could mean hours of tense foreboding. Just how gruesome will those killings be? This is a Tarantino movie after all. But yes, this is a Tarantino movie after all… and the director is master of deception who can fool us whichever way he wants!
So you relax in the company of two best Hollywood buds, cowboy/action star Rick Dalton (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Their relationship is symbiotic: Rick is an Actor, with a home in the Hills, on Cielo Drive, and he pays his pal Cliff for various services. Like driving – Rick has racked up too many DUIs – and fixing home chores. And listening to Rick’s incessant worries about his career’s downward trajectory. In the last ten years, he moans, he’s gone from movie star, to TV-star with his own show, to guest-appearances on other people’s TV-shows. He is this close to the ultimate indignity, spaghetti westerns made in Italy.
Rick despairs. Maybe he somehow could meet his new next-door neighbors, the Polanskis… they are on top of the Hollywood hierarchy. Roman’s “Rosemary’s Baby” is a huge hit; Sharon, whom Polanski met on the set of “The Fearless Vampire Killers” and married, has been noticed in other supporting parts and has a great chance at real stardom.
As a stuntman with a questionable past (he may have murdered his wife and gotten away with it), Cliff knows his place and doesn’t ask for much. He lives in a messy trailer behind a drive-in theatre and is grateful for the occasional gig that Rick manages to get him.
The first half of “Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood” leisurely introduces Rick, Cliff, and Sharon as they go about their chores on a February day in 1969. Rick is messing up a scene, Cliff beats up Bruce Lee and fixes Rick’s TV antenna. Sharon sneaks into a movie theatre and watches herself in “The Wrecking Crew,” a Matt Helm movie starring Dean Martin.
There’s a lot of driving around in cars, and on one of his runs, Cliff picks up a “hippie” girl (Margaret Qualley, Andie MacDowell’s daughter) and takes her home to … the Spahn Movie Ranch!
This was the hangout of the Charles Manson “family”. The tension of the movie is jacked up tenfold when Cliff gets out of the car and asks to see his old buddy George, owner of the ranch. The request is denied by a pack of dirty, disheveled, very angry young women.
As this element of danger is introduced, “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” careens through one improbable situation after another, with, yes, the expected murder and mayhem of August 8, 1969. The Quentin Tarantino version.
The pairing of Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio is spectacular. It reaches Newman-Redford of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” status. Once teen heart throbs, now “men in full,” Pitt and DiCaprio don’t have to worry about finding the mature, challenging parts that escaped poor Rick Dalton.
Tarantino has surrounded his stars with an exceptional cast, some very young (Julia Butters, 12, has two scenes with DiCaprio), some of respectable age for actors – Bruce Dern, 83, Al Pacino and Brenda Vaccaro, both 79. Among the not at all old: Kurt Russell, Michael Madsen, Damian Lewis, Lena Dunham, Emile Hirsch. A slew of the up-and-coming: Rumer Willis (Bruce and Demi’s daughter), Maya Hawke (Uma Thurman and Ethan Hawke’s daughter; the ice-cream girl in “Stranger Things”), Austin Butler (Elvis in Baz Luhrmann’s biopic), Sydney Sweeney.
Dakota Fanning is a scary Squeaky Fromme, Margot Robbie an ethereal Sharon Tate.