Quentin Tarantino’s “ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD”
A movie review by Dennis D. McDonald
Tarantino brilliantly elevates a story about people making chintzy weekly 1960s TV series to a work of cinematic art. He does this not by taking the easy route of trivializing or satirizing those producing that era’s weekly junk TV (which my family and I thoroughly enjoyed watching) but by elevating the career concerns of those making that era’s weekly junk TV to universal recognizability.
It helps that the movie employs two of today’s most bankable and competent stars, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt.
DiCaprio skillfully bounces back and forth between portraying a hack weekly western TV actor on a career downslope and his character’s real and painful realization about what’s happening to him. Who hasn’t experienced midlife crisis as the dreams of youth are shattered?
Brad Pitt plays DiCaprio’s “friend for hire” who, while always being introduced as DiCaprio’s stunt double, is really DiCaprio’s driver, caretaker, general factotum—and best friend. Pitt is also trying to get his own stunt career restarted but has his own demons to confront. Emotionally, though, he’s way ahead of DiCaprio in accepting the reality of his own fading career hopes.
That’s a lot to deal with in one movie but Tarantino successfully layers two more major cinematic elements.
The first is Hollywood in 1969 and its transformation by the growing television industry. Somehow Tarantino manages to objectively combine the phony glamour of the business with views of the actual grunt work that kept it going. We are treated to glimpses of real stars like Steve McQueen and Bruce Lee who do come across as real. But they are just part of the background. The real focus of Tarantino’s 1969 Hollywood is how the movie and TV business infuse the town with ubiquitous period music, movie posters, movie marquees, and occasional TV views of what else is going on in the outside world.
Having lived through the 1960s I can honestly say that sounds and images from that era do not automatically bring back fond memories and I think that’s a point the Tarantino is making despite the occasional lightness of his beautifully photographed views.
The second cinematic element is the interweaving of the story with the Manson murders. Admittedly I was initially reluctant to see the film since I had no desire to witness a tawdry recreated carnage sequence which I feared from having seen Tarantino’s last couple of films. But Tarantino’s handling of the Manson subplot is brilliant and imaginative.
DiCaprio’s TV actor owns a house in the Hollywood Hills next-door to two new rental tenants: Roman Polansky and eventually-to-be-murdered pregnant Sharon Tate. We follow Sharon (played wonderfully by Margot Robbie) as she comes to Hollywood and is entranced with her rising stardom. The scenes of her seeking out her movies playing in local theaters are honestly touching as she displays no trace of the professional angst that DiCaprio’s character is experiencing. She is enthusiastically “on the way up” and we can’t help but be touched by her innocent enthusiasm at seeing how audience members laugh at her onscreen antics.
Meanwhile, a connection is made between the Manson “family” at the Spahn Ranch and Brad Pitts character. This takes place via a tense and dramatic extended sequence that allows Pitt to demonstrate some of the superb acting chops that, given the right director and script, we have learned he is capable of demonstrating.
That Tarantino is able to bring all these elements together to constitute a dramatic and coherent whole is, in my opinion, a cinematic miracle. This is the work of a mature artist who has wisely selected and knows how to manage all the right resources to tell an entertaining and engrossing tale.
Will there be Academy Award nominations? I couldn’t care less about that. But I do know that as of August 1, 2019 this is the best film I’ve seen so far this year.
Review copyright 2019 by Dennis D. McDonald