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Tarantino's Tinseltown Tale: Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood

Updated on September 28, 2019


Two friends have seen a lot of things in the decade they have worked together in the entertainment industry. That friendship began with a successful western series called Bounty Law, starring Rick Dalton and including stunts by his stuntman friend, Cliff Booth. Since the series ended, though, neither man has done work as well known. Cliff's most lucrative job has been as a personal assistant to Dalton. In Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood, Rick (Leonardo Di Caprio), listens to producer/agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) as Schwarz thinks the actor could be the right fit for a starring role in several films set to shoot in Italy. Rick still makes guest appearances on TV shows and has starred in some low budget movies, but Cliff has a notoriety in the industry, as many believe Cliff has gotten away with killing his wife. His greatest value to Rick is as a chauffeur, since a DUI conviction means Rick cannot drive. Dalton also has new neighbors in Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), a rising movie star, and her director husband, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), who's getting ready to work on his next picture in London.

The Tate-Polanski home soon gets a visitor in Charles Manson (Damon Herriman), an aspiring musician and screenwriter who did not realize the previous inhabitant, Terry Melcher (a record producer and the son of Doris Day) had moved. Tate's longtime friend, Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) lets Manson know the situation, and he leaves. Meanwhile, Rick has a hard time finding the right note filming a TV scene, but he takes a break and gets it right. When Schwarz sees what Rick has done on the set, he manages to get the actor the lead in a series of films from Italian director Sergio Corbucci. It's a welcome opportunity for the friends, especially Cliff, who's just had an encounter with a young woman named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) and her friends, who are a part of the Manson Family. When Pussycat needed a ride home, he takes her to the ranch of his old friend George Spahn (Bruce Dern), where much of Bounty Law was filmed. Now old and infirm, Cliff wants to visit George before going home, but is advised against it by Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning). Cliff persists and gets his visit, but that persistence angers the Family, who have become Spahn's caretakers. When they return from filming six months later, they have one more encounter with three Manson followers.


Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood, is an entertaining, but idealistic, portrayal of 1969 life on the West Coast. The same kind of idealism also presented itself in writer-director Quentin Tarantino's 2009 film, Inglourious Basterds, which is set during World War II. In both films, real people interact with fictional characters to create the screen story. Robbie's Tate, however, while not a lead player here, has a more prominent role than Hitler and his top officials had in Inglourious. Once Upon A Time also takes a look at the changing face of society and entertainment in 1969. The hippies, for example, grew in numbers, though the real hippies would have rejected Manson and his ways. The TV series Lancer also shows how the westerns were declining in popularity. That series lasted just two seasons, while longtime shows like Bonanza and Gunsmoke continued for several years after Lancer ceased production. Tarantino pays homage to the time and its various forms of media. I can imagine a young Tarantino embracing most of the music in the movie (except for one of the songs written by Manson himself) and being inspired by the TV and movies he watched. While the anachronisms are rife (and you can see some of them for yourself on the IMDb pages dedicated to this movie), Tarantino brings back the period with amazing detail. In addition to the slightly satisfying idealism, I found myself unimpressed with the film's epic length. At least this movie didn't feel as long as the self-indulgent The Hateful Eight.

DiCaprio and Pitt, both of whom have starred in other films from Tarantino, make a good pair of buddies who watch out for each other, even as work opportunities have become less ideal for the performers. Dalton still loves the spotlight, but he knows that nothing he's done more recently was as special as Bounty Law. This change of fortune has led Rick to rely more on drink as he collects paychecks. His legal troubles give Cliff a different role in Rick's life. Pitt is the more charming of the pair as Cliff, but he also shows he can be tough. I especially like scene where Cliff finds himself in encounter with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on a shoot where the two try and see who is the toughest. Cliff, like Rick, seeks a return to a higher profile, but he always appreciates that Rick has not forgotten him. Robbie is good in support as she captures the essence of Tate, a star enjoying an increased prominence on the big screen. She even poses for pictures for a couple of theater employees when she decides to take in a matinee of The Wrecking Crew. Pacino is fun as Schwarz, who shows Rick that at least one person still enjoys his acting. Kurt Russell narrates this film and appears briefly as a production assistant willing to give Cliff a chance to do stunt work. Tarantino can be heard in the end credits as a director working with Rick on a cigarette commercial.


Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood reminds two men that the industry may not love them the way it once did, but it still admires the work they do in front of the camera. When opportunity gives an actor the kind of role he wants to do again, he overcomes his issues to take another shot at work he can be excited about doing. The movie romanticizes men and women of action, and Tarantino reminds viewers, in a way, that good action heroes never go out of date. The times may change, and certain genres fall out of favor, but the box office and the Nielsen ratings show that people still have the same basic tastes. There will always be a place for a guy like Rick Dalton, but these days, he'd probably don a superhero outfit instead of cowboy garb.

On a scale of zero to four stars, I give Once Upon A Time...In Hollywood three stars. A long, loving look into the past.

Omce Upon A Time...In Hollywood trailer

© 2019 Pat Mills


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