Ever since his directorial debut with Reservoir Dogs (1992), Quentin Tarantino has made a point of casting actors that were successful but whose marketability has waned over time only to be marginalized by Hollywood. Once leading men, they became character actors or starred in B-movies. He doesn’t care about what’s trendy and has sought out these forgotten actors with the belief that they can be great again if given the right material – think of John Travolta in Pulp Fiction (1994) or Robert Forster in Jackie Brown (1997) or David Carradine in the Kill Bill films. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) is the culmination of Tarantino’s fascination with these kinds of actors as its two protagonists are an actor and his stunt double who have been pushed to the margins with one trying to get back into Hollywood’s good graces while the other has made peace with his lot in life. The irony is that Tarantino has cast two of the biggest movie stars in the world in these roles – Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. The relationship between these two characters lies at the heart of the film – a sprawling, yet intimate epic set in Los Angeles at the end of the 1960s with multiple storylines whose end result is a love letter to that time and place.
Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) is a journeyman actor at a crossroads. His agent (Al Pacino) lays it out for him. He can continue doing guest spots as the villain on television shows like The F.B.I. or he can go to Italy and make westerns where he’ll be the hero, just like he was on the popular T.V. western Bounty Law. Rick isn’t convinced and we follow him and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Pitt) over the course of two days (with a third day six months later) as he takes stock of his life and career. The film follows three tracks – Rick and Cliff, up-and-coming actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and, to a lesser degree, Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) follower Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) – as they occasionally intersect in all kinds of expected and unexpected ways. Once Upon a Time follows the trajectories of Rick, Cliff and Sharon with the former’s on the decline while the latter’s is taking off. All three are at crucial points in their respective lives and careers with the three days depicted in the film proving to be incredibly pivotal.
What I liked about this film is that you get to live with these characters. Like Jackie Brown, Tarantino’s best film up to this point, he takes the time to get know these characters by showing bits of business, like devoting a scene to Cliff feeding his dog (while the theme to the T.V. show Mannix plays in the background no less). Does it move the narrative forward? No, but it does provide us with insight into how he lives. This is a film rich in character behavior and it makes for a much more rewarding experience.
Leonardo DiCaprio turns in another fantastic performance as an actor with a fragile ego looking at the possible tail end of his career. Rick is created in the mold of Tab Hunter, Ty Hardin or Vince Edwards – actors that were heartthrobs in Classical Hollywood but were unable to adapt to the winds of change of the ‘60s when their kind of leading man changed to the likes of Peter Fonda and Michael Sarrazin. He must make a serious choice about what to do and fortunately for him Cliff is there to give him a boost when he needs it. The always-reliable stunt double acts as a cheerleader. DiCaprio brings his customary intensity but also shows a refreshing capacity for comedy, like when Rick has a meltdown in his trailer after he’s unable to remember lines in a scene, or surprising vulnerability, like when he breaks down in front of a child actor (Julia Butters) on the set of his latest T.V. guest spot.
Over the years, Brad Pitt has grown into his looks and has become increasingly comfortable in his own body and this has made him a better actor. He knows he has nothing to prove to anyone but himself and it is this assurance in his own abilities that results in one of his strongest performances to date. Cliff’s laconic self-confidence sets the tone for the entire film and provides a welcome counterpoint to Rick’s panicked uncertainty. This is Pitt’s most relaxed, confident performance since Killing Them Softly (2012) and one that allows to him inhabit a fully-realized character who certainly has his share of regrets but has made peace with his past.
We get to see Sharon Tate live and breathe again as she hobnobs with hip Hollywood elite like Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) and popular musicians like Michelle Phillips (Rebecca Rittenhouse) and Mama Cass (Rachel Redleaf) at the Playboy Mansion in one scene. Margot Robbie delivers a vivid portrayal of the young actress and the best example of this is when, on a whim, Sharon goes into a theater showing The Wrecking Crew (1968) where she appeared along with Dean Martin and Elke Sommer. Tarantino stages a wonderful meta moment of Robbie playing Sharon watching the real Sharon on the big screen, basking in the audience’s enjoyment of the movie. While she may not have as much screen time as DiCaprio or Pitt (the film is ultimately about their characters), Tarantino weaves her in and out of the film for the entire running time so that there are echoes of her presence even when she isn’t on-screen.
For fans of esoteric pop culture, it is a real thrill to see Tarantino pay homage to ‘60s era T.V. by showing clips from Rick’s claim to fame, Bounty Law, which was patterned closely after Wanted Dead or Alive, however, unlike Steve McQueen breaking out from that show into high profile film roles, Rick continued playing characters on the small screen, missing out on that crucial part of a lifetime. Tarantino playfully intersects his characters with iconic historical figures, like Cliff’s amusing encounter with a cocky Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of The Green Hornet. For once, the filmmaker isn’t shamelessly ripping off other films and T.V. shows and passing them off as his own but instead referencing them directly or in the background of scenes.
Tarantino has made his first hang out movie. For the first half we are just following Rick and Cliff around as they drive through L.A. listening to music. Remember that? Ah, the simple days of driving around with your friends just enjoying each other’s company and listening to tunes on the radio or tape deck. Once Upon a Time captures that vibe beautifully. After the orchestral score for The Hateful Eight (2015), Tarantino returns to the mixed tape approach with 60 musical cues! What a soundtrack he has assembled for this film – perhaps his best – with local radio station KHJ acting as a Greek chorus of sorts with deep cuts from the likes of Paul Revere and the Raiders, Vanilla Fudge, and The Box Tops.
Tarantino and his production crew meticulously and lovingly recreate late ‘60s era L.A., immersing us in the sights and sounds of the downtown to the hills of the infamous Cielo Drive. Billboard advertisements on buildings and the sides of buses are on display prominently while also buried in the background of scenes. Long defunct movie palaces like the Pussycat Theater and the Aquarius Theatre are brought back to life, all of it adding to the rich tapestry of the film.
From its vintage Columbia Pictures logo to the KHJ Batman radio promo that bookend the film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino’s loving tribute to Sharon Tate, to Los Angeles and to making movies with the friendship between Rick and Cliff at its center. They have a bit of Burt Reynolds-Hal Needham thing going on and their rapport gives the film its unexpected heart. Tarantino has crafted the most substantial relationship between two characters since Jackie and Max in Jackie Brown. As Rick edges towards obsolescence is the filmmaker using him as a mouthpiece to convey his own thoughts about impending retirement from filmmaking? Perhaps. I like to think that of the many things Once Upon a Time is about it’s a tribute to the forgotten actors from a bygone era – people like George Maharis and Edd Byrnes – that are only remembered by a select number of devoted film fans if they are remembered at all. Tarantino’s film argues that their stories are worth telling, too.