“Once Upon A Time in
Hollywood” (Rated C)
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie
It’s important to not beat around the bush here, and to state this upfront: Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood” is good! It is quite entertaining, beautifully directed, well-produced, and exceptionally acted.
It’s also pretty darned weird and bizarre! But one would expect nothing less from Tarantino, right?
More of the important stuff: by all accounts this is a fictional tale occurring simultaneously with some very real and dark moments in Hollywood history. So, think “Ben-Hur” – a fictional story playing out concurrently with the events surrounding the life of Jesus Christ.
In keeping with the Tarantino weirdness, however, his newest film falls in line with what many have branded his recurring “alternate history” and “revenge fantasy” themes. And so, things happen to those real-life characters in his movies that didn’t quite happen to them in reality.
For example – and at the risk of committing blasphemy – one could imagine that if Tarantino were to remake and direct “Ben-Hur”, Jesus Christ would blast himself off the cross, and with the help of Judah Ben-Hur, hunt down and blowup all the Romans and anyone who called for his crucifixion.
We’ve seen his “revenge fantasy” style in “Django Unchained”, in which
ex-slaves commit violent acts against evil slave owners. And we have “Inglourious Basterds” which presents both a “revenge fantasy” and “alternate history” in which Jewish soldiers commit violent acts against the Nazis, and eventually kill Hitler.
“Once Upon A Time in Hollywood” falls into the same category as the latter. But it’s important to know which part is fiction, and which part is reality. In fact, it would be foolish to walk into a theater and not know a few basics.
Consider this not a spoiler, but rather, critical information for anyone watching the film: the parallel storyline here involves psychotic cult-leader Charles Manson and the Manson Family, the serial-killing band of hippie lunatics who seemed to worship him and do his evil bidding in the late 1960s and early ‘70s.
The Manson disciples are best known for the brutal murders of actress and model Sharon Tate and her friends in 1969. Tate was eight-and-a-half months pregnant.
Without that information, this movie will make little sense at all. And you will especially not be able to grasp its very surprising ending.
Now with that out of the way, “Once Upon A Time in Hollywood” is an homage to old Hollywood, but specifically Hollywood at a period of transition – as the Golden Age was drawing to a close in the 1960s, and the sleaziness and smut of the 1970s was dawning. Television was firmly entrenched by then, having already dramatically altered the entertainment industry forever.
In this changed world of 1969, we meet TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). They make their way around an industry they hardly recognize anymore.
And moving parallel to their world, and living next door to Rick, the stunningly beautiful up-and-coming actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), newly married to film director and actor (and future Oscar-winning international sex-pervert fugitive) Roman Polanski, fresh off his groundbreaking horror masterpiece “Rosemary’s Baby”. The popular couple run in all the right Hollywood circles – something Rick desperately craves.
So, Rick and Cliff are made up characters, and Sharon and Roman are very real. Like Ben-Hur to Jesus. Got it?
Tarantino is clearly a nostalgic lover of history. And anyone who considers themselves the same will immensely enjoy this film. However, at times, especially as we hop back and forth between the various storylines, you may question what’s the purpose or point of it all. And you may wonder where it’s all heading.
But the journey is at least exhilarating and refreshing. The cast plays a major part in enhancing this experience. DiCaprio is simply amazing! He is arguably the greatest actor alive today, excelling at comedy and high drama. He delivers another fine performance. But it’s by no means, his best ever – further highlighting his amazing abilities.
Pitt also is fantastic here. The film is primarily about DiCaprio’s Rick, but one could argue that Pitt and his stunt man Cliff are the real stars of the picture. This could even be his best performance to-date. In any event, the DiCaprio/Pitt pairing presents a dynamic duo.
Unfortunately, the wonderful Margot Robbie gets lost in the shuffle. She has barely anything to do but walk around and look pretty as Sharon Tate. Robbie has made a career of effectively stealing scenes and whole pictures with her exuberant performances. But she’s completely wasted here.
The rest of the cast is stellar, though, particularly young 10-year old Julia Butters, who like Robbie, is already making a career out of scene-stealing on TV’s “American Housewife”.
And then, there is that ending! That “alternate history/revenge fantasy” ending.
First of all, it is unspeakably violent. Shockingly violent! Watching all of Tarantino’s notoriously violent films back-to-back might prepare you for it. Might!
But beyond that, it’s very strange. What’s worked with the previously mentioned Tarantino films is that most of us know a bit about the horrors of slavery, or can at least imagine that it wouldn’t be very nice to be enslaved by someone. And the world will never allow anyone to forget the atrocities of Hitler and the Nazis. Getting revenge on these folks is something a healthy number of us could get behind.
But some 50 years later, while many know about Charlie Manson and the freaks who followed him, a good many more do not know anything about them. And even fewer know about the tragic story of Sharon Tate, which has become even more obscure with the passage of time. For them, this ending will make absolutely no sense.
For those who do know the true story, you may still question the relevance and Tarantino’s need to highlight this. Exactly what is he trying to say?
There are already theories, and I’m sure there will be many more of these to come for years.
But the most important thing of all though is that the polarizing conclusion takes nothing away from the fact that this is a breathtakingly enjoyable break from all the sequels, reboots, remakes and live-action (Disney) remakes we’ve been made to feast on this summer.
• Dwight Strachan is the host/producer of “Morning Blend” on Guardian Radio and station manager. He is a television producer and writer, and an avid TV history and film buff. Email email@example.com and follow him on twitter @morningblend969.