Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is a sentimental, Linklater-esque nostalgia dream tinged at the edges with a brooding darkness. These are all qualities absorbed through observation rather than any dictated narration, with the sun-bleached scene established through images of characters driving peacefully through Los Angeles, listening to the radio and watching whatever’s currently playing on television.
It’s a film about twilight, the beginning of the end in a tv actor’s career, the final days of a young actress’ life, the end of a certain type of Hollywood and the end of an era. Joan Didion once said, “Many people I know in Los Angeles believe that the Sixties ended abruptly on August 9, 1969” with the Manson murders on Cielo Dr.
The film is ostensibly about the Manson murders, though seen through the eyes of two fictional characters, one who lives next door to the future crime scene. Early in the film when tv cowboy Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) ride home, the camera cranes up and to the right, racking focus so that we get a close up on the street sign.
So almost from the beginning then we are made to remember (if we didn’t already) what’s on the horizon. It’s a darkness that in a way seems inseparable from the sweet nostalgia of the film as a whole, possibly just because the 60’s were such a tumultuous, exciting decade. The Moon Landing, the Beatles, Summer of Love, Woodstock, the assassinations of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the Vietnam War and then finally the Manson Family.
Knowing how Tarantino rewrote history in Inglourious Basterds it’s easy to expect we might have some similar revenge caper here with Rick and Cliff, on the outskirts of an industry that rejects them, somehow getting involved with the Manson Family. They will but not until the very end, at least outside of one tense sequence that ultimately yields no consequences in which Cliff finds his way to Spahn Ranch where the Family lives.
Much of the film is similarly devoid of consequences, at least as far as plot goes. The whole thing really does remind me of a Richard Linklater film, most notably Dazed and Confused. We follow these characters around, as well the hopeful Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and see Hollywood through their eyes.
Though we do hear on the radio about the Robert Kennedy assassination and there are a few allusions to the Vietnam War, the focus is most definitely on Hollywood in this time period. By watching the way the industry is changing, through the arc of Rick Dalton, we get a sense of how the world is changing at large.
Since Rick’s tv show Bounty Law was cancelled he finds himself playing the “heavy” on a series of tv shows, there to be beaten by the new hotshot series lead. An aging producer (Al Pacino) tells him how the system works, how it identifies him as disposable and thus uses him to be knocked down by the new hotshot actors until he can disappear. The producer offers him an alternative, to come work in Italy making Spaghetti Westerns (like those with Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone).
While there will be a time jump after Rick does indeed spend six months in Italy churning out four films, we mostly just track an average day in his life as he memorizes lines for a turn on a new pilot, struggles to say sober on set and then ultimately triumphs leading to a hilarious and moving scene in which a young girl compliments his acting.
The rest of the story alternates between Cliff, as he runs errands for Rick and gets in a fight with Bruce Lee, and Sharon Tate. Cliff lives willingly on the outskirts of town, in a trailer behind a drive in theatre in Van Nuys. He seems content with his lot in life, even as things don’t always go his way, though his charming contentedness is undercut by rumors about a tumultuous past personal life.
For Tate, she gets to be more free than the rest, which is all the more unnerving considering in what direction we know this story is building. She’s wide-eyed, cheerful and still charmed by the glamour of Los Angeles. Between her, Cliff and Rick the story seems to cover an entire arc of Hollywood fame, from the beginning to the descent and then finally, hopefully, to peace from within even as you’re expelled by the system.
It’s an oddly sweet, funny account of what it might’ve felt like to live through all of this, in a sense in a bubble as all the darkness looms around them but doesn’t make itself known until the very end. Maybe that darkness is the manifestation of a certain more subtle, but ever present melancholy that comes with… moving on?
When you look back on any moment in your life part of the nostalgia appeal comes from knowing that it’s over, a chapter closed. The Manson murders, while still the inevitable conclusion of all of this, ends the film just as Didion says it ended the 60s. It makes some sense that such an event would be the culmination of this story, even if the plot doesn’t actively work towards it scene by scene.
Instead it comes a bit out of nowhere, teased only through images and characters with whom we are familiar before they ever step into frame. It’s sudden to the characters but anticipated to us, and the power of the film is that we are afforded a perspective different from these characters, that we can appreciate the things they can’t, even marvel at those things which they take for granted or actively loathe.
It’s like that line in Dazed and Confused in which one character surmises about the ‘every other decade’ theory. She reasons that the 50s were awful, the 60s were radical, the 70s “obviously” sucked, and so the 80s will probably be awesome. To the audience it’s a moment to laugh with and at these characters, to appreciate their perspective and also how wrong they are (unless you think the 80s were wonderful).
And the same forces are at play here, for us to find the characters, their hopes and fears and their physical environment charming, simply because it no longer exists, at least not in this form.
And this being a sensational big budget Hollywood film perhaps it never existed. This, like with anything well-lit, framed and projected onto a large screen, is outlandish and dreamlike. It’s a time and place we want to inhabit, but it is also a bubble, even if it did feel like this to be inside of it.
This is made clear by the way the film ends, thankfully not with a strict recreation of the Manson murders but something much more palatable (even if violent) and wish-fulfilling. It’s the expected release inherent to a Tarantino film, with the sudden eruption of almost cartoonish violence and action pulled straight from a B movie.
Because of the way he again rewrites history and saves Sharon Tate and the others who were killed, it’s all the more sentimental, as if he’s taking a rock and jamming it into a door swinging shut, propping it open for just a little longer. Had this event not happened, had these people been saved, then maybe this moment in time might have existed for just a little while longer.
Up Next: Alita: Battle Angel (2019), Pokemon Detective Pikachu (2019), Pet Sematary (2019)