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Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood - ★★★★

Breaking the Rules

Director Quentin Tarantino, the ultimate rule-breaker, is at it again in “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.” A kinder, gentler Tarantino? Yes and no. While the main arc of the film features two mellow buddies driving around Los Angeles, most of this bad-boy director’s trademark violence and revenge is left for the end.

The buddies are TV – and wannabe movie – actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). DiCaprio and Pitt together are as fine as you can imagine they would be. Pitt is surprisingly willing to play second-fiddle (or so it seems) to DiCaprio.

Good as it is, that buddy bit, male bonding and all, is secondary to the film’s themes. One is the built-in anxiety of the B actor, or of anyone who feels his or her career may be heading south (does that include Tarantino?). Another is the role of the Charles Manson murders in the American psyche. Stitching these two ideas together is another demonstration of Tarantino’s talent.

“Once Upon a Time …” opens on a small, square, black and white screen; a reporter is interviewing Dalton and, as an afterthought, Booth, on the set of their TV series, “Bounty Killer.” That scene establishes the dominance of the actor and the secondary role of his employee, gopher and stunt-man. The screen turns to color and expands to today’s widescreen standard, with a focus so tight that one can’t tell – until the camera backs out – that what’s in view is an enormous painting of Dalton that forms the end of his driveway at his Hollywood Hills home. The date on the screen in January 1969, though the film techniques are 1960s TV and 2019 hyper-focus. Tarantino is playing with our sense of time – are we in black-and-white TV time? In movie color 1969? Or in postmodern 2019?

More rule-breaking follows. Tarantino employs multiple voice-overs: sometimes Dalton, sometimes Booth, sometimes an anonymous person. There’s not simply an unreliable narrator, there’s no consistent narrator. As if toying with the audience, Tarantino employs a variety of filmic techniques to emphasize that we’re outside a realist frame, including the film-within-a-film, cross-cutting, short flash-backs, cartoon-like fights and car damage, choppy time-lapse photography and even a black-and-white cigarette commercial alongside the end credits. And yet, the film in part is “based on a true story” – the Manson murders. We’re let into that open secret early on when Dalton recognizes Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) in the driveway next to his on Cielo Drive. For those who know their American history, the street and the year 1969 are significant.

The stories of the buddies and the Manson victims-to-be appear to intersect when Cliff climbs onto Rick’s roof to fix the antenna, takes off his shirt (Pitt’s 55-year-old body still looks good), opens a beer and seems to be inviting Sharon Tate to come over from next door. But we never see Tate in this scene. It’s one of many Tarantino misdirections, of which the biggest is saved for the end. (And don’t miss the “Mean Dog” dog food, one of the many “plants” in the film.)

Besides the TV-show-within-a-film, there is a film-within-a-film, where Dalton (looking a lot like Burt Reynolds) is challenged to be an actor by a precocious child actress. DiCaprio shows his own acting chops here as he plays the emotionally fragile Dalton, acting both badly and well.

The heart of the film’s plot is cross-cutting between Dalton in his film-within-a-film; Sharon Tate in the audience of a Westwood theater, watching herself in “The Wrecking Ball,” with Dean Martin; and Booth’s surreal experience at the Spahn Ranch where the Manson cult figures are chillingly menacing (Margaret Qualley [as enticing jail-bait], Lena Dunham and Dakota Fanning play three of the “Manson girls” – and watch for Bruce Dern as ranch owner George Spahn). It takes time for this intersection to develop, and when it does, it’s powerful. The date on the screen is August 8, 1969.

“Once Upon a Time …” is also an ode to Los Angeles, albeit a very different one from 2016’s “La La Land.” There are no loving long-shots of LA, but many close-in, insider references – even to Tarantino’s own 35 mm theater, now known as “The New Beverly,” described here as a porn theater (and perhaps it was in the 1960s). The Spahn Ranch, a movie setting and ranch, where the Manson gang hangs out, was real, as was the movie Tate watches on her last day on earth.

Tarantino’s constant mixing of film technique, misdirection, layering of actors and acting, and the interweaving of what appear to be two separate plot-lines – one based on historical reality and one not - can leave one reeling, laughing and satisfied, or all three. The result is that – to appreciate all its pleasures--this is the rare film that should be seen more than once.


Date: 2019

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brat Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Bruce Dern, Margaret Qualley, Dakota Fanning and Lena Dunham.

Originally published in TheAmerican/InItalia, here.

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