After spending a week discussing some smaller movies that would normally slip through the cracks of a summer focused on big boisterous blockbusters, we get to transition today to one of the true outliers of modern Hollywood. A director who makes movies that should be incredibly niche, but that open like blockbusters, and whose incredibly strange personal life and general attitude seems to make him always on the chopping block of celebrities getting ready to be cancelled by an industry obsessed with outrage. That’s right folks, we have a new film from America’s favorite foot fetishist, Quentin Tarantino. And it’s one that I’ve been excited about for quite a long time. I’m a huge Tarantino fan, and after the incredibly weird experience that was the Hateful Eight, I’ve been incredibly curious to see what he’d cook up as his next film. So, when I heard it was to be a strange film set in Hollywood in the 1960’s featuring two stars he’s gotten terrific performances out of in the past, I was very much on board. But, when I learned that it would at least tangentially involve the Manson Family killings, specifically the Sharon Tate murder, I got a little cautious. There were so many ways that Tarantino could have crossed lines with subject matter like that, when actual plot descriptions and trailers finally started coming out, I was able to breathe a sign of relief. It seemed like a more fun, breezy Tarantino, giving me the vibe of something more light-hearted and goofy than I’d expect from him, an almost Coen Brothersesque numbskull affair. Which, also ended up being incorrect. Because I don’t think I ever could have guessed that this film would end up the way that it did, and I’m very thankful to have gotten surprised by this very special film.
As always, I talk spoilers here on Puzzled Pagan Presents, so if you don’t want to read how the movie plays out, maybe skip this one.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood primarily follows the lives of two men, Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth. Rick is a fading television star once known as the tough lead on a Western TV show and who now just primarily gets by making guest spots on other shows as villains, and Cliff is his best friend and stunt double, although now more of a personal assistant. Rick is thrown into existential panic when he has a meeting with a producer named Marvin Schwarz who wants Cliff to come make Spaghetti Westerns with him, predicting that his career is on a rapidly declining trajectory. Cliff does his best to keep Rick from tailspinning into dread, which is made all the more difficult by the realization that Rick’s new nextdoor neighbors are Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate, both of whose careers are on major upswings. But, Rick puts that aside and gets ready for his next role as a villain on a new Western show, which Cliff will unfortunately be unable to work with him on because of some bad blood between Cliff and the stunt coordinators after he once injured Bruce Lee. There’s also a rumor that Cliff murdered his ex-wife, which has never been substantiated, but has kept him from work. So, instead, while Rick is working Cliff just drives around Los Angeles, eventually coming across a young hippie girl who convinces him to give her a lift to the old ranch that she and her friends are living on. Cliff agrees, since he used to film on the Spahn Ranch back in the day, but pretty quickly gets a bad feeling regarding the people living there, and their leader Charlie.
Meanwhile, Rick is putting in some career best work on his guest spot, primarily thanks to a conversation he has with a young girl on set who has dreams of becoming a great actor. But, regardless of what a good time Rick had on the set, he still decides to take Marvin Schwarz up on his offer when he calls again, sending him and Cliff to Italy for six months where they end up making several films, and Rick even gets married to an Italian actress. The trio return to Hollywood, and it becomes understood that Cliff and Rick are going to part ways, that their employee relationship has reached its end, but first they’re going to celebrate with a night of drinking, and in Cliff’s case an LSD laced cigarette. However, this turns out to be the worst possible night for this, because it just so happens that things have escalated on Spahn ranch to the point that Charles Manson has sent four of his followers to kill anyone inside Sharon Tate’s house, which he’s mistaking for the home of an enemy of his. However, when the Manson Family members get to the neighborhood they’re instead accosted by a drunk Rick, who yells at them and gets them so mad they decide to kill him instead. So, they race into his home, and find an incredibly high Cliff waiting, who makes short work of the cultists. He kills all three of them, with a little help from a bewildered Rick, and is pretty injured in the process. Cliff then heads to the hospital, and Rick is invited into the Tate household for a drink, after they get worried about the commotion next door.
Like I said earlier, this movie wasn’t at all what I expected it to be. I had kind of been bracing myself for a movie that revolved around a couple of dirtbags who were on the lookout for a way back into the world of fame somehow using the Tate murders to their own gain. What I wasn’t expecting was a strangely subdued, kind of rambling story about two best friends just trying to make it in the world. The film is massive and sprawling, covering quite a few ideas and jumping between characters and setpiece in an almost Robert Altman fashion, just living in the world of 1969 Hollywood that Tarantino has so lovingly recreated for us, all while the dread of the Manson Murders hangs over us. We know its coming, and as the film goes on it become more and more ominous, all to be wrapped up in Tarantino’s now trademarked alternate-history fashion. It’s a shockingly human film, full of insecurities and people just trying to make the best of the situations they’re in, all while chasing their dreams. And everyone in it is absolutely stellar. Margot Robbie has surprisingly little to do withe the actual plot, but I found her fascinating as Sharon Tate, a character who says little but reveals quite a lot about herself through Robbie’s sheer talent, giving us a person who is most a home when performing for others. Brad Pitt is wonderful as Cliff, giving us a performance nowhere near as campy as Aldo Raines, but still really funny in a tragic sort of way. He’s just an immensely loyal person who wants the best for his friend. He’s content with his strange, scandal ridden life, and just seems to want people to be as content as he is. But it’s Leonardo DiCaprio who steals the show, putting in what I legitimately think may be his finest performance of all time. Rick Dalton becomes such a shockingly deep character, and the scene where Rick breaks down in front of the method actor girl is honestly enough for me to consider him for an Oscar for this role.
And it’s that scene that really gets into why this movie works so well for me. It’s Rick telling this little girl, full of talent and promise who is ready for a fulfilling life as an actor, about a book he’s reading. And, while describing the plot of the book he starts to realize some awful truths about himself, things that have been swirling in his head since his conversation with Schwarz. His career is potentially over. He had his fun, but the times have passed him by. He’s passed his prime, and he’s obsolete. People don’t want Rick Dalton anymore, at least in the way that he’s always been, and the realization that the public is tired of him is an absolutely crushing one. He’s forced to recognize the fact that what he does may not matter, that people will forget him, and that his work will not have meant anything. His life will have been forgotten, even though he briefly was on top of the world. And that’s one of the saddest things a person can reckon with. Rick Dalton lived the life he wanted, had what seemed like a perfect career, and still is about to end up in rock bottom, getting beaten up by Batman and Robin as one final humiliation. All until a simple twist of fate. His life becomes intertwined with one of the most famous events in history, now forever changed, and he may find a new way out. We have no idea what happens to Rick Dalton, if he manages to stave off the end of his career or not. When I first left the theater, hearing that reference to the Batman show seemed like a fun joke, seeing that Rick had dodged his fate. But, now I’m not so sure. Yeah, he maybe got his foot in the Tate/Polanski door, but because of what Cliff did he’s no longer attached to a famous moment in history, so maybe he’s just marching toward the inevitable at that point, forever journeying toward obsolescence.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino and released by Sony Pictures Releasing, 2019.
Categories: Reel Talk