Once Upon a Time in Hollywood Poster
Film & Television

Film Review: Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is a wonderful, nostalgia-tinged homage to 60’s Hollywood. Quentin Tarantino’s ninth installment definitely gives us a film industry seen through star-studded and rose-tinted glasses. Yet, it manages to be aptly unsettling at the same time.

Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood: The Synopsis

At the core of this homage to 60’s Hollywood, Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is an exploration of a vibrant friendship between actor Rick Dalton and stunt double Cliff Booth.

DiCaprio plays the worse for wear TV Western star faced with a downward-facing career. His TV show ‘Bounty Law’ has been cancelled, and he’s now unable to pick up the villain roles he really wants. While he goes through this painful realisation of his changing fortunes, his stunt double and personal assistant Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt, has his own career hanging in the balance. He supports Rick as his best (and only) friend, bringing his worrying past and a comfortable nature around violence with him. With one living in a mansion and the other in a trailer, Rick and Cliff’s respective living arrangements are very different. However, one thing connects them: they’re both scared of being left behind as the Hollywood machine trundles on.

With a mansion next door to the Polanski-Tate residency, Rick finds himself close to, but unable to reach, the new heights of success he desperately needs. In contrast to the world of Hollywood, we start to see that the Manson family followers are brewing in Spahn Ranch. In our first instance of this, there is the unsettling performance of Margaret Qualley, who plays the seductive Manson family member Pussycat. Cliff Booth drives her to the ranch and is really unsettled by the vibe, making a swift exit. How will Tarantino present the fear and horror that strikes LA when the two worlds collide? However, this is a question that the film does not really explore until the end. So what is this film’s main deal?

Once upon a time in hollywood brad pitt leonardo dicaprio
The budding bromance: Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio starring in Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood. Credit: SONY / Andrew Cooper.

The Hollywood of dreams, if only you continue to make it

With Once Upon a Time… therefore, the emphasis lies with the 60’s Hollywood of a film buff’s imagination. With nods to Sergio Leone, The Great Escape and Bruce Lee, film buffs will especially enjoy the wide array of references. Al Pacino wonderfully plays Rick’s agent Marvin Schwartz, who tries to push Rick to star in spaghetti westerns. This is, of course, a nod to Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone.

By choosing 1969 specifically, Tarantino has utilized the changing spaces of the film industry in LA to explore the anxiety and personal experiences of its personnel. With this approach, the day-to-day lives of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth take us through the motions. Through their respective characters, Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt’s brilliant chemistry and own efforts adds real depth to their fortunes and struggles. DiCaprio’s Rick is always on the edge of flipping out or crying. As an observer of his own deteriorating career, DiCaprio brilliantly navigates between the spheres of comedy and tragedy through his acting endevours. His encounter with dedicated child actor played by Julia Butters is definitely a highlight. Through one of the film’s strongest moments, you start to realise the impact the lack of success is having on Rick.

In contrast, Clint is a wary man at ease with violence, with an alleged past that further damages his career chances. He has fallen out of favour with filmmakers and wonders if he’ll be Rick’s forever chauffeur. Yet, the stunt double is so likeable and provides some of the film’s funniest moments. Also, the companionship that his beloved dog Brandy provides adds more warmth.

The place of Sharon Tate and the Manson Murders in the film

Margot Robbie - Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood.

As Manson’s most famous victim, the actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) follows along on her own narrative lines. She wistfully goes about her life as if nothing is happening around her. Considering the historical narrative, there has been criticism over the lack of importance of Tate and Robbie’s role.

However, there is one scene with Tate that is genuinely mesmerising and warm. Here, she wanders into a cinema and decides to watch back-to-back screenings of the films of the real Tate. Watching her films, including her comic role in The Wrecking Crew, Margot Robbie has her best moments here. Here, she comes alive in her candid performance. She shines in her reactions, both to her scenes and at the sound of the audience’s laughter. Even though we are watching the film with knowledge of the real Sharon Tate’s tragic death, here, we are captivated by the beauty of the star’s demeanor. This adds poignancy to the story without actually covering that section of the historical narrative.

And this brings us to the world that Tarantino has chosen to present in Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood. By transforming four blocks of Hollywood Boulevard, designing vintage storefronts and using approximately 2000 classic cars, the film is a vibrant representation of Tarantino’s cinematic imagination. He has chosen this approach rather than a hard-hitting look at its less desirable aspects. This means that Tarantino’s approach, in seemingly pushing the Manson murders to the side, is founded. After all, it’s part of the backdrop of a bigger force of the film: a Hollywood friendship. That said, I think it’s important that you know about the real story of Sharon Tate and the Manson murders before watching the film. Otherwise, you cannot appreciate its place in the film.

The 60’s in all its glory: the music, the outfits, the chill

With a soundtrack hailing the names of Deep Purple, Simon & Garfunkel and Bob Seger, the sounds of Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth’s careers are given an authentic, sunny and groovy feel. The music particularly works great as a soundtrack for plenty of drives around 60’s LA. With the sheer amount of driving in the film, it seems like a commercial for the ’66 Cadillac Coupe de Ville. Yet, this addition to certainly does aid to that laid-back sixties aesthetic wonderfully, along with ALL the wonderful outfits. The laid-back feel to the film has even extended to its narrative structure. Rather than providing a stream of conventional plot elements, the film is a collection of anecdotes seen through Tarantino’s star-studded lenses. Well, that is the case apart from the film’s end.

In conclusion…

Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is a bit like marmite. If you prefer a conventional plot and a fast-moving action film, then it’s not for you. However, if you appreciate attention to detail, the Hollywood homages that complement the wonderful acting, then it’s brilliant.

Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is out now. Click here for more film and TV reviews.

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