Director Quentin Tarantino has entertained audiences as well as polarized them since bursting onto the scene with Reservoir Dogs in 1992. His work has mixed and matched a range of genres that show the man’s love for movies and movie history. So how does he fare when he jumps in a time machine and recreate 1969 Hollywood? It is here that Tarantino crafts a historical fairy tale with “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.”
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” stars Academy Award winners Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth respectively. Rick is an aging television who starred on the series “Bounty Law” and Cliff is his longtime friend and stunt double. The film focuses on the two men as they navigate the changing landscape of the entertainment industry. Simultaneously, a young actress whose career is on the rise arrives named Sharon Tate, played by Academy Award nominee Margot Robbie. Lastly, in the background creeping its way to the forefront is a cult with a powerful following that may play an integral role in shaping events to come.
My initial reaction to “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” is that it felt like the nexus of Tarantino’s career. Everything that made the man who he is cinematically, from the dialogue to the references, the music choices and yes even the violence seemed to meld to a perfection where no one of these elements overtook the others. It feels like Tarantino’s most humane and mature film. 1997’s Jackie Brown would also fit into those categories, but part of that I attribute to it being an adaptation. There is a thoughtfulness and dare I say, sweetness that permeates the film. This is due to the strength of the three lead performers and their characters. First let’s look at Rick and Cliff.
The crux of the story is Rick’s path to recapturing his former stardom. He senses his entertainment mortality where he wants an opportunity but isn’t keen on just any opportunity. Once he finally takes on a job, we witness his struggles and insecurities and take joy in once things begin to turn up for him. DiCaprio’s performance is outstanding as a man who is uncertain of his future. Then there is Cliff. Cliff’s present and future are tied to Rick as he is Rick’s gofer and driver. He is a character I’m sure folks will deep dive into in subsequent writings. Cliff also has issue with getting work, but that could be due to the possibility that he may or may not be a criminal who got away with something with nary a consequence. There is an ambiguity that Tarantino plays with Cliff’s character that leaves it up to you. Pitt is so charismatic in the role and presents Cliff where you might or might not actually be able to trust what he says. I love when the interpretation is left to us. As far as Rick and Cliff’s relationship, it is described in the film as more than a brother, but less than a wife. Tarantino presents a very mature friendship between two men where they speak on their highs and lows and there is a level of openness that I don’t believe we are used to in a Tarantino film.
Then there is the third part of this trifecta, Sharon Tate. The story of Sharon Tate is well known as she was tragically murdered by members of the Manson Family in 1969. This has made Sharon a tragic character and at times it takes away from the potential she possessed and would never get to share with the world.
The moment the film was announced along with its subject matter, there was concern over how Tarantino would handle the events on screen. Another issue arose when the question of Margot Robbie’s screen time was brought up. I won’t speak on the handling of the historical events due to spoiler potential, however even though Robbie may not get the screen time as equal to DiCaprio and Pitt, her impact might be the strongest in the entire film. It was one of the most expressive and physical cases of acting I’ve seen. There is a scene about halfway through where we basically spend the day with Sharon while she is out. She spends the day surrounded by people and you know what? It worked. We know what the history is, but I felt Tarantino did something special with Margot Robbie and that was to give Sharon her story back. For the duration of the film, I felt close to Sharon. I felt I got to know her dreams and ambitions and not see her through the lens of infamy. It’s a touching performance. If Rick and Cliff are the fading past, Sharon is the light leading the way for the new generation of superstar.
“Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” instantly made a spot in the top 3 of Quentin Tarantino films for me. It’s a patient and reflective piece. You do not have to be an actor to relate to its themes. Time passes, and things will change for us all, but that doesn’t mean it has to be the end. There is still an opportunity, there is always still time.