Film review, by Claire Durrant and Jason Day, of Once Upon as Time in Hollywood, the drama directed by Quentin Tarantino about a fading TV star and his stunt double pal. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt.
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In the late 1960’s, washed up TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his long-suffering stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) face an uncertain future. Rick is offered a kiss-of-death ‘lifeline’ by producer Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) – to make westerns in Italy as a leading man which will net him money and keep him employed, but almost certainly herald his descent into obscurity (Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns contained similar title to this movie).
Dalton returns with a young, sexy Italian bride and his tail between his legs and accepts supporting roles on TV. At the same time, his neighbours Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his wife, actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) face increasing success and, prowling the hills of Hollywood, are Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) and his murderous acolytes.
A fine mist hovered over the City of the Waking Dead as we swung up over the Cahuenga Pass…Hirschfield leaned out and stared pensively at the myriad twinkling lights of Los Angeles…’I’d rather be embalmed here than any place I know’, he said slowly.From Westward Ha! (S.J. Perelman, 1948)
Chekhov’s gun is a concept that if a weapon is present in the first act of a story, it must be used by the third. Make that gun a flamethrower and you start to get an understanding of the farce and indulgence Tarantino exuberates in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
That being said, the film is also Tarantino’s most melancholic and poignant film. The golden age of Hollywood has come to an end, and with it Western TV star Rick Dalton’s career. Trying to stay relevant, Dalton reduces himself to playing the villain in a new series, and staring in Italian Spaghetti Westerns – a genre the actor considers to be the lowest point in the film industry.
The desperation to maintain fame whilst on a sinking career path is something that a lot of actors even today struggle with – ironic since Rick is played by the always memorable Leo DiCaprio. DiCaprio plays Rick with such raw emotions, from wistful and pensive to self hating and childlike tantrums. The scene where he breaks down from reading a pulp fiction western, seeing himself as the useless main character, is genuinely moving.
Where Rick leads his best friend, former stuntman (and potential wife murderer) Cliff Booth follows. Brad Pitt continues to ooze charm in to his roles and his portrayal of Booth further proves this. Cool, collected and charming – the complete opposite of Dalton – it’s impossible not to be captivated by his character.
I could happily watch scenes of Cliff driving through the pitch perfect design of late 60s Hollywood (largely thanks to the impressive skill of cinematographer Robert Richardson), or even longer scenes of him feeding and conversing with his beautiful dog.
It may be scenes like these however that some might find disappointing in this latest Tarantino flick. The director is not subtle when it comes to his admiration of westerns, and just like the similarly titled works of Sergio Leone, Once Upon a Time…allows moments where the narrative pace slows down, and it begins to focus on character rather than action.
The film is ultimately an character piece instead of a frequently dramatic, crude and violent cinematic fest that we’ve come to expect from Tarantino. In fact it is the violence during the third act that may be the most divisive scene!
A Quentin Tarantino film is never without its controversy. This time the issue stems from the inclusion of Sharon Tate, a woman who’s life is shrouded in tragedy in connection to the Charles Manson murders.
In the first two acts, the threat of Manson and his cult serves more as a historical backdrop rather than plot; Manson himself only appearing for approximately a minute. Cut to a heavily pregnant Tate in the final act with Tex along with other cult members driving to her door, and the audience starts to feel the dread of knowing what is to come.
Yet similar to Hitler in film film Inglorious Bastards, Tarantino rewrites history to strip away any power these despicable people claimed, and reduces them to idiotic, comedic fools. It’s a sickeningly satisfying scene to watch. I completely understand why some might take offence to the Sharon Tate subplot.
It is obvious that egotistical Hollywood loves films about Hollywood. In fact it’s usually a guaranteed way to get some award consideration. With The Hateful Eight underachieving, maybe Tarantino is ensuring his ninth film gets all the acclaimed recognition, and with a fantastic cast, detailed backgrounds and wonderful cinematography, it would be disastrous to see Tarantino, Pitt, DiCaprio, and the crew snubbed. Especially if rumours are true, his tenth film will see Tarantino fold up his directors chair afterwards.
As a mature Tarantino film, I think this is some of his best work, the editing isn’t as engaging as some of his other films, and the story can be a bit messy at times, but the passion Tarantino adds to this project shines through.
However, judging from the loud murmurs of disgust from people sitting in my cinema screening – I think I might be in the minority. Maybe I am easily swayed by the nostalgia of Tinseltown too.
I wasn’t too sure about this film.
I liked the acting, LOVED the writing (Tarantino movies are always based on interesting scripting), but I felt a bit bored by it, felt it needed some oomph. Then, something happened, that ‘big cinematic moment’ (in the words of screenwriter Andrew Davies) that really makes you appreciate what the film/TV programme is all about.
Well, for some people it might not have been this particular moment that was the most cinematic, but it made me sit up, take notice and slap my thigh in appreciation.
As Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s characters settle down to watch the 1960’s US TV series F.B.I. we cut away from them to watch the episode broadcast on DiCaprio’s TV, the character’s providing the commentary. And the cinema screen becomes a 1960’s TV set, complete with nobs and everything.
We are watching TV – the innovation that was a direct threat to cinema, that made that medium sit up and take notice of its place in the world, that would go on to change and influence the world and how we see it – in a cinema. Such a simple thing but, how clever!
Old style Hollywood, the movie moguls having ultimate, terrible control over all aspects of film production, creative and technical staff’s loves and lives, was on its way out in the late sixties.
Truth be told, the rot had set in years before but everyone carried on as if nothing was happening. Those last death throes of a crumbling regime are the surprising focus for Quentin Tarantino, enfant terrible of Hollywood, famed for his lavishly staged epics of ultra violence for what is, allegedly, his last ever movie as a director. And, for him, it is a very surprising outing.
He actually gives us three final movies in one: the decline of one man’s career, the nascent rise of a woman’s and the burgeoning, murderous antics of someone who can only just be described as a human.
Tarantino unsettles his audience – but in a totally different way to the way you think. We expect lots of guns, blood and brains sprayed on car windows but instead he concentrates on carefully crafted nods toward old Hollywood’s last gasps.
Dalton’s conversations with a serious and uber-professional child actress prove to be the only moments when he shows his softer, emotional side. Here, as we see throughout the film, the evolution of Hollywood. Dalton represents the old star system, when any script or movie was crafted around the looks, personality and public expectations of the leading actor. Dalton coasts through his career and life.
Trudi (Julia Butters) is the intellectual, committed, workhorse performer, the one who pours her body and soul into her character, the one who can adapt to any genre or setting, one who doesn’t cry when viewing figures start to take a downturn.
During the latter stages of Tate’s pregnancy, she dines out with her friends and questions why there is so much razzmatazz at a notorious porn theatre. “Dirty movies have premiere’s now?” They certainly do and mucky movies will, in only a few years time, start earning the mega-millions that traditional movies do and follow the same business and marketing patterns. The sparkle and glitz of Hollywood, we are told, will soon be mated with the filth of porn. Hollywood products will feature more permissive and salacious subjects and porn will become more lavish and polished.
I liked as well the references – and sounds! – of slop as Brad Pitt feeds his very well trained pitbull Brandy, the one real hero in the whole movie, who proves her worth during the final, terrifyingly violent moments. Pitt and Brandy eat the same shitty meals at the same time, hence Brandy’s training, as Pitt’s boil in the pan mac and cheese takes five minutes to cook, so she must wait patiently after he opens the can of chow, let’s it ooze it;s way and splat into her bowl before being covered with ‘dry crunchy bits’.
Later, when the Manson gang prepare to strike, the advertising tagline on the dog food can reads ‘Good Food For Mean Dogs’, just before they knock on the door armed to the teeth with knives and guns.
The other, remarkable things in this film are told in quiet scenes – quiet and telling for Tarantino, anyway.
Dalton is just as serious, but about remaining famous and it’s only at this point you see him really at the end of his tether, allowing DiCaprio to run the full gamut of meal emotions.
Of course, anyone who knows anything about DiCaprio knows that he really is acting a tour de force here – we know Leo is one of the finest film actors around. I’ve grown up with his movies and seen him develop as a performer, from his early years as a Dalton-esque matinee idol, through numerous blockbusters that saw him finally net an Oscar for The Revenant (2015) – and led to a well-earned four year hiatus – so his terrific turn here is no surprise.
His calculated smarm, bloodshot, hangover eyes, frequently snorting back his smoker’s/boozer’s phlegm to then gob it out on the ground, outburts of screeching, violent anger, everything is thoroughly convincing. Watching and admiring him makes up for the longueurs and periods of dull in this No Cinema for Old Men flick.
Pitt has less to do as the ‘pretty’ stuntman, merely required to point his face at the camera, but after 56 years, it’s still the loveliest male face to look at.
Impressive, as ever, is Robbie as the doomed, talented Sharon Tate whose horrific murder shook the elite to the core (she was eight and a half month’s pregnant at the time) but is only hinted at here. If you know the backstory, you’ll join Tarantino’s dots together and see that the frenzied blood-letting in Rick Dalton’s house was akin to the terror wreaked by Manson’s “family” at the house next door.
Way down the cast list is another I’ve grown up, for much longer, but he achieved much less success than DiCaprio. Luke Perry plays another TV bit-part actor who, like Dalton, may well have been more famous years ago. It’s a brief performance, only a minute or so, but touching and gentle. It was also a farewell on screen, for this was his last acting role before his untimely death from a stroke at the age of 52 in February this year.
Weighing in at a hefty 2 hours and 41 minutes, if this turns out to be the final as director for Quentin Tarantino, it seems he wants to take his audience with him.
Cast & credits
Director: Quentin Tarantino. 2hr 41 mins/161mins. Bona Film Group/Columbia Pictures/Heyday Films/Sony Pictures Entertainment/Visiona Romantica. (18)
Producers: David Heyman, Shannon McIntosh, Quentin Tarantino.
Writer: Quentin Tarantino.
Camera: Robert Richardson.
Sets: Barbara Ling.
Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Julia Butters, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Mike Moh, Luke Perry, Damian Lewis, Al Pacino.