ONCE UPON A TIME… IN HOLLYWOOD

Reviewed by GREG KING

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Stars: Leonardo Di Caprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Zoe Bell, Bruce Dern, Timothy Olyphant, Michael Madsen, Damian Lewis, Mike Moh, Luke Perry, Emile Hirsch, Nicholas Hammond, Margaret Qualley, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Rafal Zawierucha, Maya Hawke.

Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Al Pacino in Once Upon a Time ... in Hollywood (2019)

Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film is a love letter to movies and the golden years of Hollywood and television. But as the title suggests it is also something of a fairy tale. Set against the backdrop of Hollywood in 1969, this sprawling mix of fact and fiction serves up a slice of revisionist history and, as with his 2009 WWII drama Inglorious Basterds, turns history on its head. This was the end of Hollywood’s golden era and the rise of maverick filmmakers who eschewed the studio system. It was also the time in which the murderous spree of the notorious Manson family brought and end to the hippie era’s ethos of peace, love and harmony.

Rick Dalton (Leonardo Di Caprio) is a former A-list actor who starred in his own hit television series Bounty Law in the early 60s, a popular western along the likes of Gunsmoke and Bonanza, when the western drama was a staple of prime time tv. But he is now a faded star  and neurotic alcoholic who has appeared in a couple of B-grade movies and regularly guest stars as the villain on episodic tv series. His only real friend is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), his long-time stunt double. Rick lives on Cielo Drive in the Hollywood Hills. Moving in next door is actress Sharon Tate (played by Australia’s Margot Robbie) and her husband Polish film director Roman Polanski, riding high following the success of his Rosemary’s Baby. Rick has hopes that he may be cast in Polanski’s next production.

In the meantime, he is thrown a lifeline by producer Marvin Scwharz (Al Pacino), a producer of spaghetti westerns, who offers him a role in a new western to be shot in Italy. Rick’s career trajectory should mirror that of the likes of Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson, whose fortunes changed after appearing in a few spaghetti westerns.

But Rick and Cliff both cross paths with the infamous Manson clan, which changes the course of history. Cliff has a rather violent encounter with some of Manson’s acolytes at the infamous Spahn ranch, a disused former film set for many western movies, which had become a hideout for the notorious cult.

Tarantino’s script follows a non-linear structure and is typically laced with lots of great film references and in-jokes, plenty of black humour, insights into the inner workings of Hollywood, and pop culture references that belie his influences. There is also a great soundtrack of classic songs evocative of the era. Tarantino has also authentically recreated Los Angeles of the era with some great retro production design from Barbara Ling (Batman And Robin, etc), with the cars, costumes, signage and shop frontages all evocative of the time. Robert Richardson’s cinematography is also steeped in a nostalgic palette that sets the tone, and he uses glorious black and white to recreate the old-style television series and commercials.

The film is populated by plenty of real-life names from that time as well, people like Steve McQueen, Bruce Lee, Connie Stevens, and director Sam Wanamaker. Manson himself is played by Australian actor Damon Herriman.

Di Caprio and Pitt, appearing together for the first time, build up a great rapport. The friendship between the two is loosely inspired by the real-life friendship between Burt Reynolds and his long-time stunt man and director Hal Needham. But it is also reminiscent of the chemistry between Robert Redford and Paul Newman in the classic Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid.

Di Caprio delivers another solid performance and brings a hint of vulnerability to his Dalton, who is slowly aware that fame is a fickle thing and he is fading into irrelevance as age and the changing nature of the business is catching up with him. In one of his best performances for quite some time,  Pitt oozes charm and charisma and brings a more dangerous edge to his performance as Booth. Robbie is good as the ill-fated Sharon Tate in a largely quiet and restrained performance although she gets a couple of great moments such as the scene in which she ventures into a cinema and watches herself in the Matt Helm spy adventure The Wrecking Crew starring Dean Martin as a low rent Bond-type. Tarantino also uses some effective digital trickery to effectively place Di Caprio’s character into the McQueen classic The Great Escape and an episode of popular tv series The F.B.I., replacing guest star Burt Reynolds with Dalton.  

The ensemble cast also includes brief appearances from Tarantino regulars like Kurt Russell (who also serves as a narrator to fill in the gaps), Zoe Bell, and Michael Madsen, as well as Bruce Dern, Damian Lewis, Mike Moh, the late Luke Perry, Timothy Olyphant, Emile Hirsch, and Nicholas Hammond.

Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood is not Tarantino’s best film but it is his most personal. This is an ambitious undertaking and a lot of fun and very entertaining as it delivers some minor pleasures. The film runs for a massive 160 minutes and is a little slow in the beginning. It takes its time to really get going. As is expected in a Tarantino film there are a couple of moments of gory and graphic violence here. However, there are many moments of self-indulgence and oh so clever dialogue that seems artificial. The film also has its share of detractors.

★★★★

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