Quentin Tarantino has wound his way through multiple movie genres, always giving them a twist that manages to subvert the form, even as his love for genre movies shines through. He started with the crime dramas Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, then ran through 1970s blacksploitation films, kung fu revenge flicks, cheap drive-in action double features, Italian war flicks, the antebellum south, and westerns. For his newest film, Once Upon A Time…in Hollywood, Tarantino has chosen to do a behind the scenes movie drama, though once again in his own immutable style.
There have been some great flicks made about making flicks. The granddaddy would be the first version of A Star Is Born, and in the 1950s Kirk Douglas starred in two of the very best, The Bad and the Beautiful and Two Weeks In Another Town. The best musical in my opinion, Singing in The Rain, looks at the switch from silent to talking pictures. The best modern example would be The Player, and recently the Cohen Brothers brought their particular sensibilities to the genre with Hail Caesar.
Tarantino has gone back 50 years to ground his film in the details of a pivotal year for the movies, 1969. It was questionable if the film industry would survive as it lost the entertainment war with television. The studios merged or found corporations to purchase them, and most of them made peace with the enemy and moved into TV production. The trend of the 60s was to separate films from television by making them bigger, but not necessarily better. However, the seeds of the 1970s renaissance for the movies started to sprout in ’69. The unconventional western Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was the box office winner that year, raking in over $100 million – twice the gross of the number two film, The Love Bug. Other major successes were Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider, presaging the move to more adult themes and independent flicks. The year also saw the release of the titular godfather of Tarantino’s film, Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time in the West. Within a couple of years the young Turks of Hollywood – Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, and others – would make the movies bigger and better than ever.
The central focus of Hollywood is Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an actor who made an early splash on TV in a series called “Bounty Law,” jumped to the movies, but who is now fading fast. He’s taking guest shots on shows like “The FBI” and even the cringe-worthy music show, “Hullabaloo.” Rick’s companion and driver is Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who is also his personal stuntman. The first two-thirds of the movie takes place over two days in February as Rick prepares to do a guest shot on a Western. He also takes a meeting with an agent (Al Pacino) who recommends he leave Hollywood before he’s completely washed up and follow Clint Eastwood into Spaghetti Westerns.
While Rick prepares and then shoots his guest shot, Cliff handles several errands for Rick. Cliff’s career trajectory has matched his mentor’s, partially due to being blackballed because of an incident with Bruce Lee on the set of “The Green Hornet.” He lives in a trailer with his pit bull Brandy behind the Reseda Drive-In in the San Fernando Valley, much farther downhill than Rick’s home in the Hollywood Hills. However, Rick’s place pales in comparison to the gated house next door that’s been taken over by Roman Polanski, who’d just had a huge success with Rosemary’s Baby. Also in residence is Polanski’s wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and their houseguest, celebrity hairstylist Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch). While Rick’s shooting his guest slot, we see Sharon living her life, from attending a party at the Playboy Mansion to stopping in at a theater to watch her own performance in the Dean Martin film, The Wrecking Crew, that was released just over a month earlier. But as Cliff does one job for Rick – fixing the TV antenna at his house – he sees a bearded hippie checking out the house next door: Charles Manson, looking for Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys who’d previously owned the house.
Six months later, in early August, was when the Tate-LoBianco murders took place, which marked the end of the Age of Aquarius for the 1960s. Tarantino weaves the Manson family into the narrative by having Cliff give a hitchhiker named Pussycat (a small but diamond-sharp performance by Margaret Qualley) a ride to the old Western movie scene where Cliff had worked many times, Spahn Ranch. Dakota Fanning is creepily effective as Squeaky Fromme (who’d eventually have her own claim to infamy apart from the Family) and the sequence at the ranch is goosebumps good.
As anyone who’s seen Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds knows, he can be telling a historical story then slip into alternate history. It’s best to simply go with the flow. But with Hollywood, Tarantino takes a person who’s known now almost solely for how she died and breathes life and vitality into her. Robbie is marvelous in as Tate, sweet and delightful, and Tarantino extensively researched the character, including interviewing several of her surviving friends. It’s balanced well by DiCaprio, especially when he’s intimidated by a child actor who’s methodical in her approach to the craft. The impetus of the plot, though, lies with Pitt, who never lets you catch him acting.
Tarantino’s reputation allows him to fill the screen with an outrageous number of fine actors in character roles, including Timothy Oliphant, Bruce Dern, and Damian Lewis. One fun piece of casting is Nicholas Hammond as producer Sam Wanamaker. Hammond had played Friedrich in The Sound of Music when he was 15, then was a mainstay on TV in the 1970s and 80s, including as TV’s first live-action Spider-Man (1977-79). He moved to Australia in the 1990s and continues to work there. Hollywood also features Luke Perry’s final film appearance, as the star of the western series where DiCaprio’s a guest actor.
Clocking in at almost two and three-quarter hours, Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood isn’t exactly brief, but it’s never slow, and for a cinema lover and someone well-acquainted with 1960s TV and movies it’s a feast of memories. Tarantino was 6 years old in 1969, and living in Torrance, California. But he handles the material and period details with such aplomb you’d swear he had to have lived it as an adult. And, in a sense, he did, the same way all of us can – at the movies.