Once upon a time in Hollywood (2019)

once upon a time in hollywood

One-line review: Tarantino’s epic Hollywood fairytale.

The film is highly rewatchable, to begin with, but reading Tarantino’s swashbuckling novel makes you go back to it countless times. All those nuances that you took for granted as great acting, like Leonardo Dicaprio’s spitting and stuttering or Brad Pitt’s zen-like demeanor, now have a back story to them. Suddenly the possibilities of discoveries in the already dogeared film are endless.  If that’s not the mark of an epic movie, what is? 

The film’s idea took shape in Tarantino’s mind over a decade ago when he saw an actor and his longtime stuntman chatting on a set. Their heydays were over, but it was evident they shared a deep bond and a long history. This friendship would be the premise of his film, which he would then set in 1969, when Hollywood was at its peak, not knowing that tragedy in the form of Sharon Tate’s murder lurked around the corner, changing it forever. The film is a fairytale, so it only highlights the glamor and glitz of LA. It is the LA a seven-year-old Tarantino saw from the back seat of his stepdad, pianist Curt Zastoupil’s car. Zastoupil clearly was a significant and positive influence in young Tarantino’s life until his mother divorced. Tarantino adorably pays tribute to the late Zastoupil in his book by giving him an outsized part.  

Now, back to the film. Once upon a time is a buddy picture between Rick Dalton (Di Caprio), an alcoholic, a fading, and therefore insecure actor. He is desperately trying to stay relevant in a Hollywood that is quickly moving away from his forte: Westerns and films relying on macho good looks. Obviously, his downfall also spells doom for his longtime stuntman and buddy Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Booth is already finding it difficult to get work after getting into a fight with Bruce Lee (a brilliant Mike Moh) and is relegated to being Dalton’s handyman who also drives him around. Dalton’s next-door neighbors, on the other hand, are the toast of the town, Polanskis. Mrs. Polanski, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), is living her dream professionally and personally. She spends her days attending parties at the Playboy mansion, hanging out with friends, watching movies, in other words, an Instagrammable life.

The film introduces us to the three leads by dwelling on a day in each of their lives. Rick is shooting a Western; he’s the bad guy but with a fatter part than the lead (as per the book). An ordinary day in an actor’s life, but Rick is transformed by the end, both physically and emotionally. Director Sam Wannamaker (a spot on flamboyant Nick Hammond) is determined to make him unrecognizable with a mustache and a hippie jacket, much to the egoistic and fragile Dalton’s chagrin. Plus, there’s no one he hates more than the f’in hippies. And then he gets a masterclass in the craft of acting from eight-year-old costar Trudy (a future Meryl Streep, Julia Butters). If things couldn’t get worse, Rick forgets his lines, has a Travis Bickle style meltdown in his dressing room, but eventually gives a knockout performance surprising even himself. Cliff Booth’s (Pitt) day starts uneventfully with a rooftop repair of Rick’s TV antenna. But giving a ride to hitchhiker hippie girl Pussycat ( an unreally good Margaret Qualey) to Spahn Ranch leads to some eerie encounters with the Manson gang living there. We sense the sinister undercurrents beneath the free-spirited vibe of the commune. Sharon spends her day running errands in downtown LA and ends up impulsively deciding to watch her own film with an audience, soaking up their laughs and applause for her scenes. Tarantino points out Tate is forever defined by her gory death, and he wanted to show the world her joyous life filled with promise.

The climax is a fast forward in their lives, Rick, after starring in some spaghetti Westerns is now a married man, and can no longer afford to keep Cliff when he returns to America. The two buddies decide to spend their last night together in LA getting drunk. And then the mayhem ensues, Tarantisque style. There’s plenty of blood and gore topped off with dollops of creative liberties, all leading to a satisfying finish.

Tarantino weaves a complicated plot, including throwing in a full-blown Western within the film. Clearly, it would take an army of five-star generals to make his vision a reality and beyond. Starting with production designer Barabara Ling and set decorator Nancy Haigh (they deservedly won the Oscar for production design), who brought 1969 LA back to life including the minutest details. Tarantino even wanted the newspapers and flyers on the streets to be from that period. As Tarantino says, the audience would never see these details, but he knows. It reminded me of another famous perfectionist Steve Jobs, who grew up with his carpenter father’s work ethic, that although no one would see the imperfect back of a piece of furniture, he, the creator, would know. Tarantino even made the impossible shutting down of Hollywood Blvd happen. One has to commend the courage of the authorities for their long-sighted vision about the worth of the film in immortalizing Hollywood to overlook the inconvenience it caused the public during the shoot. Long-time collaborator, cinematographer Robert Richardson, talks about the challenges of the long crane shots, and the pace required to shoot all those driving scenes. Car aficionado comedian Bill Burr, a fan of the film, notes that Cliff drives a dangerous car that tends to flip when it makes abrupt turns, exactly the shots Tarantino uses in the movie.  

But eventually, it’s the trusted battalion of actors who bring home the film victorious. It is an entire platoon, but each one of them shines, even those with ten-second parts like Rebecca Gayheart, who plays Cliff’s wife, manages to convey her whole life story in the blink of an eye. Even Booth’s trusted pitbull Brandy (played by three dogs) won the prestigious Dog at Cannes (the book sheds light on how Cliff came to own Brandy). Di Caprio plays his insecure and not too bright actor, so sincerely, it’s ridiculously funny. Brad Pitt’s cool as a cucumber exterior with extreme violence lurking right beneath the surface is a perfect foil to Di Caprio’s emotional yet good-natured bloke. Pitt deservedly won the Oscar for the best supporting actor; when you watch the film the first time, it’s Pitt’s sheer presence that you remember when the credits roll. Tarantino says when he watches Pitt from the viewfinder it’s like watching a real movie, and a good one, such is his charisma. The film’s luminous presence is the stunning Margot Robbie; she worked with a movement coach to give her that butterfly-like gait. Critics have made a big deal of how few lines Robbie has compared to the male leads, but it’s a buddy film, and without Margot, it would be two slices of delicious bread without any filling. Bruce Dern as Spahn, a chilling Dakota Fanning as Squeaky (she apparently scared Tarantino out of his wits during the reading), the smooth Olyphant, the suave Luke Wilson (this was his last film), hippie girl Mikie Madison who snorts like a pig as she embarks to kill some piggies, the list is endless. 

Once upon a time in Hollywood is a labor of love, and to quote Paul Thomas Anderson, a film made by an expert about the thing he knows and loves best: Hollywood. QT says his famous tenth and last film will be an epilogue to this epic.   

Why watch it? So you can keep rewatching it.     

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