© Colombia Pictures / Bona Film Group
Finally, some three-to-four months after it was released in America and Europe, I’ve managed in Sri Lanka to catch up with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the new film – or as it’s more portentously known, the ninth film – directed by Quentin Tarantino. Before I offer my thoughts on the latest of Mr Tarantino’s opuses, which is set in Los Angeles in 1969, I should warn you that spoilers lie ahead.
I felt some trepidation when I sat down to watch Once Upon a Time because I’ve had mixed feelings about Tarantino’s output in the 21st century. Parts – but certainly not all – of the Kill Bill movies (2003 and 2004) worked for me. I found the first half of Deathproof (2007) tedious. While I generally had a good time with Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012), both had serious lapses in logic that annoyed me. In fact, I’ve only unreservedly enjoyed his previous movie, The Hateful Eight (2015), perhaps because it was restricted to one setting, had a relatively small cast and seemed more like a stage play, which actually suited Tarantino’s style. (While he frequently gets dumped on for being shallow and interested only in trashy movies, Tarantino is really very literary. He delights in dialogue, writes reams of it for his characters and isn’t afraid to give the actors playing those characters inordinate amounts of time to speak it, long after most other directors would have cut away.)
Once Upon a Time is the antithesis of The Hateful Eight. It sprawls across Hollywood, Los Angeles and beyond and has a cast of thousands – well, hundreds, anyway. But it worked for me. Not only is it an exhilarating piece of cinema, but it also takes a dark and dispiriting topic and, through the magic of movies, manages to fashion something touching and even uplifting out of it.
As you’d expect from a Tarantino film set in Hollywood, Once Upon a Time is loaded with references to famous people – Joseph Cotton, Patty Duke, Ann-Margaret, Jim Morrison, George Pepard, Telly Savalas, John Sturges and Brian Wilson to name a very few. But for me the most interesting name-check is that of celebrated science fiction and fantasy author Ray Bradbury. (Bradbury’s 1951 short-story collection The Illustrated Man was made into an anthology movie in 1969, which in Once Upon a Time is heard being advertised on a car radio.) Significantly, Bradbury wrote a story in 1965 called The Kilimanjaro Device, about a man who goes off in a time machine to find Ernest Hemmingway before he commits suicide and to rescue him from that sad fate. Once Upon a Time is basically Tarantino’s Kilimanjaro Device. It’s a means by which he travels back in time, searches out someone who came to a tragic and premature end and tries to save them. But though his mission is a serious one, he also has a lot of fun along the way.
Fun especially comes from the double-act at the movie’s heart, the characters of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth played respectively by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. Rick is a supposed tough-guy actor whose career reached its peak in the 1950s when he played the hero of a TV western series called Bounty Law. Since then, he’s been steadily descending the slope on the far side of that peak, taking guest-slots as villain-of-the-week in other stars’ TV shows, a downward trajectory aided by the fact that he’s a pisshead and something of a narcissistic, self-pitying arsehole. Meanwhile, Cliff is a Hollywood stuntman who’s somehow ended up working for Rick as his driver (Rick was busted for drunk driving), minder, handyman and general dogsbody. Cliff is the yang to Rick’s yin, being easy-going, amiable and effortlessly cool. For example, he’s tolerant of and holds his own among the teenaged hippies who’ve become a feature of LA in the past year or so – whereas the prematurely grumpy-old-mannish Rick just hates them. Actually, such is Cliff’s magnetism that he could have become a star like, or indeed bigger, than Rick, but Tarantino inserts a disturbing piece of backstory explaining why Cliff is persona non grata at the Hollywood studios.
I’ve been indifferent to the acting abilities of DiCaprio and Pitt in the past, but they’re both terrific here. Despite, or possibly because of, his character’s arsehole-ery, DiCaprio manages to make Rick entertaining and even endearing. Mind you, nothing makes me feel so depressingly old and past it as seeing a film in which the brat from 1997’s Titanic plays a character who’s constantly moaning about being old and past it. As Cliff, Pitt not only is likeable but invests the character with a surprising vulnerability. At the film’s climax, we worry about him when he stares danger in the face with his laid-back nonchalance, while the effects of an acid-dipped cigarette he’s just smoked start to kick in.
© Colombia Pictures
As you might expect from someone so famously addicted to pop culture, Tarantino goes to town in depicting the late-1960s Hollywood milieu that Rick and Cliff inhabit: the music, fashions, hairstyles, cars, building facades, neon signs and, of course, movies. You could probably watch Once Upon a Time a dozen times and still not catch all the films seen on posters, hoardings and cinema-fronts or mentioned in radio ads and conversations, but here are a few I picked up: Valley of the Dolls (1967), Ice Station Zebra (1968), Romeo and Juliet (1968), The Night They Raided Minsky’s (1968), Lady in Cement (1968) and Krakatoa, East of Java (1969). Plus we get to see parts of 1968’s The Wrecking Crew, one in a series of 1960s cash-ins on the James Bond craze that featured Dean Martin as a secret agent called Matt Helm. The Matt Helm movies were set in a cool, groovy, youth-orientated 1960s world in which the middle-aged Dean Martin, try as he might, couldn’t help but look out of his depth – which makes him resemble Rick and Cliff, two slightly over-the-hill blokes trying to survive in a world that’s gone youth-crazy.
Then there are the imaginary 1960s movies that Rick supposedly appears in. We see him torching Nazi officers with a flamethrower (“Anybody order fried sauerkraut?”) in the credibly 1960s-esque World War II actioner 14 Fists of McCluskey. Later, he jets off to Italy at the behest of his agent (played by Al Pacino) and stars in some fabricated spaghetti westerns like Nebraska Jim (directed by the real-life Sergio Corbucci) and fabricated Euro-spy epics like Operazione Dyn-o-mite (directed by the equally real-life Antonio Margheriti.) Rick’s Italian career-move, of course, was one that another star of another old TV western series, Clint Eastwood – Rowdy Yates in Rawhide from 1958 to 1966 – had profitably made earlier in the decade.
© Renato Casaro / From wiki.tarantino.info
And then there’s the cinematic fusion of the real and imaginary, such as when a lachrymose Rick imagines himself starring in a certain, much-loved 1960s war movie. Apparently, he was in with a shout of getting the lead role when, for a time, Steve McQueen wasn’t interested.
Though Once Upon a Time is a cinephile’s dream, I like the fact that it doesn’t forget the larger and less glamorous culture underpinning Hollywood’s moviemaking one – television, which offers performers and crewmembers employment when they aren’t making films. Indeed, Rick is primarily a TV star rather than a cinematic one and we see much more of him on TV sets than on film ones. Television helps pay the rent for folk who are both on the way down, like Rick, and on the way up, like Bruce Lee, who starred in the 1966-67 show The Green Hornet and who’s depicted in a flashback meeting and falling out with Cliff. Lee’s family were upset about his portrayal in Once Upon a Time, which suggests he was an arrogant dickwad. However, later, we do glimpse him behaving graciously with an actress whom he’s training in the martial arts.
Something that surely reinforces Rick’s inferiority complex about being a second-rate TV star rather than a first-rate film star is the fact that his new next-door neighbours on Cielo Drive in Los Angeles’ Benedict Canyon are prestigious up-and-coming movie director Roman Polanski – fresh from making 1968’s Rosemary’s Baby – and his wife, glamorous up-and-coming movie star Sharon Tate. And it’s here that Once Upon a Time gets its injection of darkness: for we know that in the real world on August 8th, 1969, while Polanski was overseas, Tate and her houseguests were brutally murdered by some followers of crazed hippy-cult leader Charles Manson. At least, that’s what happened in reality. With Rick and Cliff on the scene, blundering into events unknowingly, the script of Once Upon a Time diverges somewhat from the proper historical script of 1969. This is, after all, Tarantino’s Kilimanjaro Device.
Manson and his disciples don’t get much screen time. Manson, played by Damon Herriman, turns up in one short scene and his followers are only in the limelight during an unsettling and claustrophobic sequence set at the Spahn Movie Ranch, which was their hangout at the time and which, as its name indicates, was officially used as a film set, mainly for westerns. And a few of them obviously feature in the film’s last, brutal 20 minutes. Manson and co have received much attention in popular culture in the last half-century and, in some misguided quarters, have acquired a morbid retro-cool. So it’s good that in Once Upon a Time they’re portrayed as a pack of pathetic but dangerous psychos / losers who deserve no empathy whatever.
It’s also a relief that Roman Polanski, whom time has proven to be a Grade A creep and who’s played here by Rafal Zawierucha, gets little screen time too. When we see him briefly, he’s togged out in a silly, velvety, frilly outfit that makes him look like Austen Powers.
With Sharon Tate, played by Margot Robbie, Tarantino has been criticised for having her do and say little of consequence. She watches one of her own movies, she buys a book for her husband – in a bit of cinematic foreshadowing, it’s Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Ubervilles (1891) – she hangs out with her friends, she becomes pregnant and shows off the nursery she’s prepared for the little ‘un, she’s kooky and charming, and that’s it. Which I think is Tarantino’s point. She doesn’t have to be or do anything outstanding. He just wants to show her as an attractive, talented human being. That’s the way she should be remembered, not as a tragic footnote to the horrible business of the Manson murders.
Also earning Tarantino criticism for Once Upon a Time is his being, well, Tarantino-esque. The film is long (two hours, 40 minutes) and shows his usual disregard for the rules of restrained filmmaking. Show, don’t tell? No, Tarantino tells everything, through voiceovers, exposition, montages, flashbacks, fantasy sequences that illustrate what characters are thinking. Be economical and cut all extraneous fat from the plot? To hell with that – there are loads of scenes here, of people walking and driving and talking, talking, talking, that do nothing to propel the story forward and that any other director would have saved for the ‘extras’ on the DVD release.
But to be honest, I don’t care. Firstly, while making this film, Tarantino got a lot of toys to play with – he had fake retro-facades fitted over the businesses along Hollywood Boulevard to make it look like 1969 and had a section of the Hollywood Freeway closed off so that he could populate it with vintage automobiles – and I don’t blame him for taking time to show off those toys. Secondly, we only see the guy once every four years. And when the portal finally opens again, so to speak, I don’t mind stepping through it and spending the most of three hours exploring the newest part of the Quentin-verse. Especially not when it’s as textured, fascinating and generally stunning as this.
That said, after the film had finished and I found myself back in the real world, as opposed to Tarantino’s world, I felt a certain melancholia when I remembered it’d all been pretend. Which was also how I used to feel as a kid after I’d finished reading the latest book by Ray Bradbury.
© Octavio Terol / From wiki.tarantino.info