The dusty, romantic fairytale of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood stands out in the filmography of Quentin Tarantino as his most complete feature film, a culmination of his directorial efforts that crafts a methodical analysis of contemporary America at the turn of the 1970s. Ditching the crutch of provocative violence and pulpy genre stories, the director digs into the archives of his obsessive mind to tell a definitive story of personal and cultural change.
A fragile product of the ‘70s LA showbiz economy, the film follows Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double (Brad Pitt) during Hollywood’s ‘Golden Age’ of the late 1960s. Taking minor roles in fleeting TV series, as Dalton rises in industry prominence on the glitzy streets of Hollywood, poison seeps into the hotbed of the LA hills, as the murderous, real-life Manson family plan a violent act that would forever change the identity of modern America.
Unbeknownst to her, it is the real-life figure of Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) who stands at the centre of this swirling cauldron of ill-fate. Sweet, innocent and exuberant, she is the echo of Dalton’s past, making her first steps into the industry as the princess of Quentin Tarantino’s tragic fairytale, with her story taking place under the wistful glow of the setting sun of Hollywood’s golden age.
Spinning a web that fuses fantasy and reality, Tarantino encases his intricate narrative inside a universe of his own and not one that involves trivial references back to his previous movies, one that instead feels born from his own passion for the silver screen.
At the heart of the story, despite her lack of screentime, is the seldom-seen Sharon Tate, a narrative timebomb whose fate is foreknown before she even appears, with every gut-wrenching scene feeding into Tarantino’s loving crafted obituary. The lynchpin momentarily holding the destiny of Hollywood and modern America in the balance, Tate is an innocent force stuck in between Rick Dalton’s aspiration of the American Dream and Charles Manson’s yearning for the exact opposite.
Tate’s real-life murder is common knowledge, killed at the hands of the crazed Manson cult, with her infamous death seen as a major turning point in Hollywood ideals. Occurring in the backdrop of the ongoing, controversial Vietnam war, and mere years before the Watergate scandal that would force insecurity onto the nation, Tate’s tragic murder marked a cornerstone moment for the national zeitgeist as the widely-published horrors of contemporary reality began to impact the lives of everyday citizens.
Approaching her death in 1969 with the same sense of cultural importance, Tarantino places Tate in the eye of the storm of his sprawling narrative tornado that would inevitably consume the actress and the innocence of Hollywood stardom with it. Much like the nature of the director’s glittering filmography, however, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood is a fantasy, titled much like a fairytale as it rewrites history to the director’s own romantic likeness.
Denied the glory of the American dream in real life, Tarantino finally gives Tate the Hollywood ending she deserved during the climax of the film when history is rewritten and the actor survives her imminent murder. It’s an oddly melancholic moment that demonstrates the filmmaker’s true cinematic mastery, as Tate becomes the central figure of a fictional reality that cries with the eternal ‘what if’ of possibility.
For a filmmaker who has long been criticised for his bulging cinematic ego, the beauty of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is too rarely discussed, with the passionate imagination of the director feeling like a yearning love letter to a Tinseltown fantasy long since buried.