Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019) Director: Quentin Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino’s latest self-conscious, historically revisionist, and ultra violent film is somewhat different from his other recent notables like Django Unchained or The Hateful Eight. It stars: Leonardo Dicaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch and others. This is Tarantino’s ninth film (he once said he will likely make a total ten films and then retire).
The first half of the movie is about Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a washed up 1950s Western film star from an old series called Bounty Law. He is an alcoholic as well as a vain emotional wreck who lives in the Hollywood hills next to Roman Polanski. Dalton spends much of his time alongside his stunt double and alter ego, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a true cowboy and former veteran who lives in a trailer on the outskirts of town by the drive-in movie theater. He is rumored to have murdered his wife in a boating accident, and thus he has trouble finding work. Dalton finally gets them both a job as the villain in an upcoming Western, and here the plot shifts to Booth who gets kicked off the set after beating up Bruce Lee in a particularly hilarious scene. Booth picks up a hitchhiking hippie and takes her back to the ranch where she and her hippie friends are squatting (though Booth remembers it as an old set for Dalton’s former show Bounty Law). In a tense scene, Booth confronts the owner who is feeble and forgetful in the backroom. Booth then returns to his car and beats up a hippie who has deflated his tire. These hippies are secretly members of Charles Manson’s cult-like “family.” Meanwhile, Dalton’s performance in the new movie is a success and he finds work in Sergio Corbucci Spaghetti Westerns in Italy (clearly based on Sergio Leone). Booth joins him in Italy and is featured in several films. They return home and Dalton brings with him a new wife and claims he no longer needs Booth’s services. While at Dalton’s house, Booth smokes an acid-laced cigarette he received from the hippie a long time ago. That night, the members of the Manson crew descend on the Hollywood Hills intending to murder Sharon Tate at Roman Polanski’s house, however after Dalton comes out and yells at them, the Manson kids decide to murder him instead.
The film closes with a funny but disturbing scene of caricatured grotesque violence as Booth orders his dog to attack the intruders. Booth fights another one of the Manson kids, and then another one is put to death by a flamethrower brandished by Dalton in his swimming pool (an old prop used in one of Dalton’s movies). The ordeal leads Dalton to become friends with his neighbors, Polanski and Tate. Thus, in this revisionist narrative, Sharon Tate was never killed by the Manson group. With the magic of old Hollywood, anything is possible.
Tarantino’s latest is unusual. I was fascinated by the relationship between the fragile mess-of-an-actor, Rick Dalton, as well as his stronger all-American stunt double alter-ego and protector, Cliff Booth. It is sort of an odd quixotic yet mutually dependent relationship. However, at the end of the film I was left asking myself, why such a long backstory to both characters? What is the point? In the end, the film concludes as if some form of a fable, or perhaps even an ode to a time gone by, when anything was possible in old Hollywood. It is the product of a maturing, and more reflective Tarantino, despite his many challenges. Perhaps Tarantino will one day be remembered as one of the great directors. Or perhaps he will be remembered as a sugar-addicted kid in a candy store, as his films are so often brazenly filled with such exorbitant gratuity (not to mention his shady relationship with disgraced former Hollywood strong-arm producer Harvey Weinstein). At any rate, as I’ve grown older I’ve become less and less enamored with Tarantino’s films. The teenage boy in me thinks they are fun, but the adult in me wants to roll his eyes just a bit.