By Popular Demand, This Review Contains No Spoilers
First things first: Wikipedia’s plot synopsis for the wild, wooly, wistful Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is wrong. Sharon Tate and Bruce Lee do not attack the Manson Family in a “shoot-out/kung-fu showdown.” And Brad Pitt’s character Cliff Booth doesn’t single-handedly kill Charles Manson. Was this climax taken from an early draft of the script? Or was it the work of a trolling prankster? The site has since replaced those spoiled spoilers, but the fact that they even existed for a few weeks is proof of Quentin Tarantino’s white-knuckled grip on film-buff imaginations. Could that really be the ending? Dude killed off Hitler in Inglourious Basterds. Why not?
ONCE UPON A TIME…IN HOLLYWOOD ★★★★(4/5 stars)
Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Written by: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley
Running time: 161 min
Right before Once Upon a Time debuted at Cannes in May, fest director Thierry Fremaux took the unprecedented step of reading out a disclaimer from the stage imploring audience members not to reveal the ending of Quentin Tarantino’s latest opus. So, okay, fine, don’t worry. My lips are sealed.
Then again, Tarantino himself already declared that the movie concludes on the fateful night of August 8, 1969. That’s when three demented followers of cult leader Charles Manson famously broke into 10050 Cielo Drive and killed five people, including Roman Polanski’s pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). So they clearly figure into the story, right?
Sure, although that’s a misdirect. The big heads on the film’s poster are the real subjects, fading actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Rick was the once-headlining star of NBC-TV’s Bounty Law, a popular small-screen oater in the late ’50s and early ’60s. But after leaving the show to do a couple of mildly successful movies, the western Tanner and violent WWII picture The Fourteen Fists of McClusky, his career stumbled.
Now he lives in a purgatory of guest shots playing the heavy on episodic TV shows like Land of the Giants, The Green Hornet, and The F.B.I. And after a sobering encounter with colorful producer Marvin Schwartz (Al Pacino, in full hymie mode), he knows the best gig he can book is a spaghetti western. Except that he doesn’t want to do any of those Eye-talian movies.
“It’s official, old buddy. I’m a has-been,” says Rick to Cliff as they wait for their car outside of old-school watering hole Musso & Frank. “Don’t cry in front of the Mexicans,” Cliff replies, looking at the valets. Cliff has no prospects, but that’s ok. He lives in a trailer behind a Van Nuys drive-in and has a pit bull named Brandy. He can’t get any stunt work, but he can still be a gopher for Rick. That’s life.
The only thing that cheers up Rick is seeing mod newlyweds Polanski and Tate drive through the gated entrance of the house next door. “He’s lived there a month now. Holy shit!” says Rick, star-struck at seeing the hot-shot director behind hip hit Rosemary’s Baby. Being neighbors with the “in” auteur lifts Rick’s doldrums. “Who knows what could happen?”
Dum-da-dum-dum. Tarantino teases out suspense zingers like this throughout his 161-minute salute to the Hollywood of his childhood. And he needs to, because this too-cool-for-school exercise in nostalgia is really just an unabashedly loving and generous-to-a-fault celebration of the keep-at-it working actor.
In a way it’s a summary statement for Tarantino’s lifelong ethos: there are gems in pop culture’s refuse. He’s the guy who single-handedly revived John Travolta’s moribund career with Pulp Fiction. Who showcased forgotten Blaxploitation queen Pam Grier and washed-up B-lister Robert Forrester in Jackie Brown. Who guided obscure Austrian thesp Christoph Waltz to two Oscar wins, for Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. A failed actor, Tarantino loves actors. Loves them.
So we literally watch Sharon Tate watch herself in the forgettable Dean Martin vehicle The Wrecking Crew. And we literally watch Rick Dalton watch himself on ABC. See, they’re normal, insecure people who are just as dazzled as we are by their fame and fortune. Fun for us, right? Right.
That’s why we have Once Upon a Time, a handsomely mounted, fitfully engaging, fundamentally shambolic bromance between two friends bonded by their journeyman experiences in show business. Yes, Polanski is here, plus Manson, as well as Bruce Lee and even Steve McQueen. And a raft of familiar faces also pop up in the Manson Family, including Lena Dunham, Dakota Fanning, and Margaret Qualley. But everyone’s screen time is severely limited. Folks, this is the Leo and Brad show. Alone or together, they’re in almost every frame of the movie.
And, just as Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America are elegiac, so too is Tarantino’s latest. There’s a romantic/tragic flavor here that’s been missing since Jackie Brown, a world-weary exploration of professional irrelevance. It’s the director’s most naggingly anxious film, maybe because the villain itself is time. Rick is deathly afraid of career oblivion, and turns to alcohol for comfort. Cliff is more zen, with a roll-with-it attitude that belies parkour-level agility and a killer right hook. Both know their days are numbered.
Tarantino has devoted his life to turning film-geek obsessions and marginalized entertainments into mainstream pleasures. That revenge-of-the-nerds alchemy has fed a string of revenge stories, but the pop bric-a-brac that defines Once Upon a Time has no such impulsive teeth. More often than not, his movies are about the downtrodden seeking retribution. What’s different here is that the dynamic is fundamentally fatalistic. How do you seek vengeance against an indifferent world?
Most of all, Once Upon a Time is a memento mori. The days of communing in movie theaters and tuning into appointment television are over. The monoculture is dead. How apt that Manson’s hippie dread haunts the air. “We kill the people who taught us to kill,” says a Family acolyte, justifying their violence in the Hollywood Hills by pinning it on the entertainment industry. There’s an ourobouros quality to how Tarantino processes his own cinematic blood lust. It’s confessional yet celebratory, in a last-hurrah sort of way.
Once Upon a Time uses a multiple homicide to anchor and amplify a melancholy look at a film industry in crisis. The movie is impeccably crafted, sweetly sentimental, effusively emotional. And it also uses Tinseltown’s power of reinvention to point towards renewal. Is that just? Depends how you look at it. There’s definitely a Hollywood ending, but it’s the kind only Tarantino could write.