Whenever a new Quentin Tarantino film is upon us, there’s a certain amount of anticipation in the build-up, with all of his films unmistakably ‘Tarantino-esque’. Having spent the best part of 20 years bringing genre cinema to the masses, Tarantino returns to our screens with a more humble, nuanced approach to his craft, (albeit with sentimentalities for the Western). With Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, he writes a love letter to a bygone and highly influential era on the cinephile.
Set in 1969 over the course of two days (three if you count the time jump), OUATIH follows Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a successful television actor who left to pursue a career in film that never quite panned out. Desperate to reclaim his status as a leading man, Dalton is forced to take roles that have typecast him as the bad guy in TV Westerns. Chaperoned by his stunt-double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), after a number of DUIs, they meander around Hollywood form job to job looking, hoping for that big break. This is one of three stories – we also get to spend more intimate time with Booth. Having been ostracised from the industry (told in a brilliant flashback scene involving Bruce Lee) he spends his time driving Dalton to his next job, fixing his antenna at his luxurious pad and picking up a hitchhiker who happens to be part of the infamous Manson family.
Our third story centres on actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) – married to director Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) who also happens to be Dalton’s neighbour – who basks in her high-profile Hollywood lifestyle. When these three intertwined strands finally come together you may find yourself asking if the whopping 161 minute runtime was entirely warranted for what essentially amounts to a set-up for the hilariously subversive fist-punch-in-the-air ending. Having time to digest, I’m inclined to say ‘yes!’
If this all sounds rather mundane it’s because…well, it’s meant to be. Hollywood’s Golden Age is all but over as we are dropped into the purgatory of that era, a highly authentically realised 1969. Dalton’s declining career is juxtaposed with attitudes towards formulaic filmmaking and what it actually means to be a leading star. It’s a time when Hollywood itself is in transition; it’s not sure what it is or how to adjust to ever-changing audience expectations. DiCaprio naturally revels in his role, playing a functional alcoholic with heart yet able to rouse huge laughs during his most heartfelt moments.
On the opposite end of the spectrum you have Tate who literally has the world at her feet. Despite not having a huge amount of screen time (or lines for that matter) Robbie delivers a naïve and endearing performance, oblivious to the horrors to come. Robbie’s role has been heavily criticised for that reason, yet it fits into this new Hollywood aesthetic perfectly – a younger generation with everything to live for, and all the boredom that goes with it. If Dalton and Tate represent old and new school Hollywood, Booth represents the everyman. Easily the most relatable character – a cool-as-fuck Brad Pitt who comes across as a perfect mix of Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford, he cuts through all the Hollywood bullshit like a pro yet remains a devoted companion to Dalton. Pitt hasn’t been this cool since playing Tyler Durden in Fight Club – everyone needs a Cliff Booth in their life. As with many a Tarantino picture, there are a plethora of big names appearing in cameos. At times these feel unnecessary, but it’s always good to see the likes of Al Pacino, Kurt Russel and Bruce Dern share the same billing.
Although not essential, it does help if you have a base knowledge of that era and the Manson family murders in particular, which assisted in the changing landscape of the film industry at that time. It helps you to understand an era that has been lovingly recreated and to a degree, emulated in many of Tarantino’s previous works.
The main question on your lips might be: does OUATIH rank up there with Tarantino’s best work? The short answer is ‘no’, however this is a different kind of Tarantino. It’s an insightful and self-assured film that isn’t afraid to undercut all the glitz and glamour of Hollywood in 1969 with the stark reality behind its scenes. That’s not to say that this far removed from a typical Tarantino film – there are echoes of his previous work (Dalton & Booth driving around tinsel town reminded me of Jules and Vincent from Pulp Fiction) and the wit, charm and seamless dialogue that we’ve come to expect, even if it is embedded within long drawn-out scenes. If you have the patience you will be rewarded with an immersive film that draws you right into the thick of Dalton and Co’s current state. Of course, it also helps when your two leads are as likeable as DiCaprio and Pitt.