If ever there is a filmmaker likely to polarise audiences and critics, Quentin Tarantino is the man. Always more interested in making films that appeal to his own tastes than catering to mainstream expectations, this latest effort is Tarantino’s most self-indulgent release yet and might just be his most divisive as well. Whilst the film has drawn positive notices from many critics, there are those who have decried the absence of plot, the lengthy running time and even the lack of dialogue afforded Australia’s Margot Robbie as actress-on-the-rise and Manson Family murder victim Sharon Tate, but none of these really hold up under scrutiny though as the film is a lovingly realised celebration of Hollywood at a very particular time in history (1969 to be precise); an ode to a bygone era that Tarantino and his production team have recreated in exquisite detail. Tarantino is an unapologetic film nerd and never has that been more fully realised on screen that it is here, with the filmmaker relishing the opportunity to put his own spin on Hollywood history.
For much of its 160 minutes, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood simply offers up a look into the daily grind of actor-on-the-wane Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double/driver/BFF Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Nothing much happens and that, perhaps, is the point Tarantino is making. With his career seemingly on a downward spiral, Dalton is wracked with self-doubt as he finds himself confined to bit parts that are a far cry from his heady days as a leading man. Such is the state of his career, producer/publicist Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) suggests that he should head to Italy to pursue opportunities in spaghetti westerns; an idea that, initially at least, Dalton refuses to consider. Meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum is Tate, a young actress on the cusp of fame who still possesses a naïve sense of wonder about the world she now inhabits. We also meet the maleficent Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) and his crew, the members of which are played by the likes of Lena Dunham and Dakota Fanning, who are ensconced on the Spahn Ranch, a faux-western town that featured in many a Hollywood production.
It is when the film jumps nine months into the future that these three worlds come together as a car load of Manson’s followers descend on Dalton’s home (which is next door to the house that Tate shares with husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha). Needless to say, Tarantino takes liberties with the events of that infamous night and presents an ending that, given the violence that precedes it, will no doubt leave some people feeling a little underwhelmed. Only Tarantino could construct something that would allow him to incorporate all the craziest ideas percolating in his head. After all, who else would dare to deliver a scene in which a young woman is torched by a flamethrower while half submerged in a swimming pool? In addition to the principal players, the film is stacked with recognisable faces in roles of varying size and scope. Kurt Russell, Scoot McNairy, Clifton Collins Jnr and Michael Madsen all feature, while others taking on real-life characters include Damien Lewis (Steve McQueen), Bruce Dern (George Spahn), Timothy Olyphant (James Stacy), Emile Hirsch (Jay Sebring), Mike Moh (Bruce Lee), Dreama Walker (Connie Stevens) and the late Luke Perry (Wayne Maunder). Whilst Tarantino has taken liberties in his rendering of all these people, it is his representation of Lee that has attracted most scrutiny and it is easy to understand why because the legendary martial artist is reduced to a boastful buffoon whose skills are no match for Pitt’s aging stuntman; a scene that requires a considerable suspension of disbelief (even more so than the aforementioned flamethrower moment).
Whilst the film is a celebration of the past, Tarantino still has an eye to the future, casting a bunch of young second-generation performers in various minor roles, including Rumer Willis, Harley Quinn Smith, Margaret Qualley and Maya Hawke (the breakout star in season three of Stranger Things), although 10-year-old Julia Butters emerges as perhaps the best of the supporting players as Dalton’s precocious co-star in an episode of the TV western series Lancer. Although not much seems to happen, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is fascinating in its mythologising of this period in Hollywood’s history and there seems little doubt that even the fictional characters are thinly-veiled references to real life people and events. For example, the friendship between Dalton and Booth seems inspired by the the relationship between Burt Reynolds and Hal Needham, who worked together on several films, while the ongoing mystery around the fate of Booth’s wife (which is never explained) harks to the tragic death of Natalie Wood. However, the way in which Cliff refuses to be drawn on the matter (despite the cost to his career), along with his refusal to have sex with an underage girl (a commentary on Polanski’s sexual assault perhaps) and his rather violent but selfless defence of his friends home, it is he, and not Dalton, who emerges as the hero of the piece. With Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Tarantino (who also wrote the screenplay) has again proven himself to be both confident and competent in bringing his unique visions to screen. Few filmmakers are afforded such freedom and fewer still can execute their ideas so consistently well.