Quentin Tarantino has managed to live up to his stellar reputation with his latest effort, a complex, riveting, darkly comical story that might be simply described as a film about Hollywood at a specific point in history—although it takes in a great deal more. Something of a departure from the typical, action-packed Tarantino storyline, it deals with well known actual events, both from movie history and from Los Angeles of the late 1960s, but with a deft combination of fact, fiction, and wild hyperbole, making it clear from the outset this is not an attempt to accurately chronicle recent history, but a brilliant remaking, mythologising, and embellishment of history. The title itself gives fair warning: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a loosely fact-based, or fact-inspired, fairy tale.
The central plot follows moderately successful actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and a vaguely defined associate—friend, personal assistant, chauffeur, amateur analyst—his former stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), as they struggle to sustain failing film careers, remain solvent, and ward off discouragement. Both are fascinating, complex characters that go well beyond their identities within the Hollywood system; their ambiguous, constantly adapting relationship adds another layer. The film follows the pair through fluctuating professional success and multiple genres, from conventional TV western to spaghetti western, martial arts movie to cigarette commercial, their adventures perfectly paralleling the artistic and commercial developments of 1960s Hollywood. Their path is far from straightforward, taking strange and entertaining detours into unexpected areas, with Al Pacino as Dalton’s agent providing a funny, cynical glimpse into the commercial side of acting; or Cliff Booth’s nasty confrontation with an extremely unflattering version of martial arts film star Bruce Lee. There is not a predictable moment in the entire film, and the background facts necessary to the story’s later development are provided without giving anything away.
At one point, Booth encounters a group of shabbily dressed hippie girls on the streets of Los Angeles, catching the eye of one of them; he then encounters her on other occasions while driving through the city. When the film’s secondary plot unfolds, introducing Dalton’s next door neighbours as director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his wife, actress Sharon Tate (Margo Robbie), the significance of the street girls gradually and menacingly becomes clear. They are members of the now-infamous Manson Family, which famously murdered Sharon Tate and four others in 1969, under instructions from their deranged cult leader, Charles Manson. Hints of coming danger fade in and out as the parallel storylines continue to slowly move toward one another, Tarantino maintaining the suspense admirably and giving nothing away about when the characters might meet or precisely what to expect. The potential for horror is built gradually and with great subtlety, and includes highly creative and unexpected scenes, including characteristic scenes of violence which are at once grim and jovial, in the Tarantino manner.
One of the first things that catch the eye is the painstaking care taken to replicate Los Angeles of the era. In some interesting meta choices, even the movie itself is sometimes made to conform to 1960s framework; this is seen in the very first image that appears onscreen—the studio logo from Columbia Pictures is the one the company used in the 1960s—and the very first scene, a black and white clip from the lead character’s mid-1960s television western, Bounty Law, which is presented in a way that both replicates programmes of the kind, complete with clean-cut heroes and constant gunfights, and stops a hair’s breadth from parody. From the beginning, we are all but engulfed by lifelike, late-‘60s culture, not only in the expected set and costume design, which is accurate to the smallest detail, but also in everything seen and heard, however minor a background detail, from product labels and radio advertising, to the fleeting popularity of paisley on luggage and an outmoded ice tray design. Even the driving scenes are sometimes filmed in the manner of older film, the passing, possibly green-screened landscape seen through a windshield via a camera fixed to the rear seat. In fact, much of what we see is a homage to the defunct, including the television and movies being made and the management of the film industry; and the theme of dying or declining greatness runs throughout the film, whether it is an actor’s career that is declining, a style, or a world view—but unobtrusively and with humour. The theme goes deeper, the two main plot lines representing the decline from what has been described as the golden age of Hollywood, and what was often described as the fall from the idealism on the late 1960s, and its youth movement promoting peace and love, represented most glaringly by the Manson Family, an apparently peaceful, idyllic hippie commune which shocked the community with its ritualistic mass murder.
Much of the developing story deals with filmmaking, or uses film as either background or metaphor. A charming scene in which rising actress Sharon Tate goes to a local cinema to attend her own latest film, and is innocently delighted at being recognised by the usher, and at hearing the audience react to her performance, has slightly ominous overtones due to the viewer’s awareness of her fate. Meanwhile, stuntman Cliff Booth, who has a reputation as a disruptive element on a film set, manages to get work on a martial arts film. Typically, he is unimpressed with the boastful star, Bruce Lee (action film star and martial artist Mike Moh), whose portrayal, in a hilariously over-the-top manner, as affected and grandiose has caused outrage from the late Bruce Lee’s friends and colleagues. We are given our first taste of Tarantino-esque violence in Booth’s equally over-the-top confrontation with Lee, after which the stuntman finds himself once more unemployed. It is through Booth that the Manson Family, who have so far only appeared briefly and on the fringes of the story, make their first real appearance, in one of the most bizarre, tense, unpredictable scenes I the film.
Rick Dalton’s exploits are less strange and action-packed, but rich and intense in their own way. The actor swings from depression at his dwindling appeal in Hollywood, to cautious optimism at being cast in an upcoming spaghetti western; then from crushing anxiety over flaws in his performance, to a genuine breakthrough in which he discovers new wellsprings of talent and a recovered love of his craft, in what may be DiCaprio’s best performance to date. He finds new forms of support from his formerly mistrusted Italian director, and from an oddly respectful professional relationship with the precocious, hyper-confident child actress he works with in the film (tiny acting prodigy Julia Butters). Returning to Hollywood after a series of satisfying ‘outsider’ movies, and reconnecting with Cliff Booth, is presented as a sort of last hurrah before the slow decline they both unconsciously accept, their own and the film industry’s; and this is the catalyst for all the threads of the film to finally come together, giving ominous hints but no clear idea of exactly where things are headed. As for the final act: at the premiere at Cannes, Tarantino begged the audience and press to avoid publishing material which would spoil the film’s conclusion, so I will only say it was a wild, intense, and distinctively Tarantino-like surprise ending.
The actual film defies full description, and contains far more than the three parallel storylines described, including encounters with neo-Nazis, film industry negotiations in Hollywood restaurants and bars, and a pure 1960s scene in the Playboy Mansion. Every moment is packed with action, subtext, and background; using standard tools such as flashbacks and cutaways in entirely novel ways to add depth to every scene. It is almost too full, offering a completely engrossing main event, but also more references, half-hidden meaning, and clues than can easily be taken in during a single viewing.
The soundtrack is carefully chosen, as usual for a Tarantino project, colouring every scene with the best or most widely played, and sometimes slightly lesser known, examples of mainstream late-‘60s pop music, including a performance of minor hit The Green Door by DiCaprio himself. The cast, beyond the letter-perfect main characters, includes an array of major film stars, some appearing briefly as local celebrities (Damien Lewis as Steve McQueen, Rumer Willis as actress Joanna Pettet), some in extremely small roles (including Al Pacino; Dakota Fanning as Manson cult murderer Squeaky Fromme; Bruce Dern in a minor but interesting part as a former film set owner in a peculiar and worrying relationship with the Manson Family; and various members of film royalty in tiny or non-speaking roles, including Uma Thurman’s daughter Maya Hawke, and filmmaker Kevin Smith’s daughter, Harley Quinn Smith). Tarantino gets the most out of everyone, eliciting a distinctly poignant, creepy, threatening, or wistful performance from even the most minor character.
There are too many Hollywood and film references to easily spot; a serious film buff would have trouble keeping track of them all but would enjoy the effort, as much as Tarantino clearly enjoyed including them. One is worth mentioning: the title, according to Tarantino, is meant as a tribute to Sergio Leone, who perfected the genre that came to be known as spaghetti westerns, and whose own films included Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America. Leone and his films are referenced, unnamed, in key scenes. That phrase, once upon a time, is also perfect in the way it conjures the mix of real life and fantasy or myth which is so much a part of this film, and for that matter, of mid-20th century Hollywood itself.