Just before the Cannes Film Festival screening of his much anticipated Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, Quentin Tarantino capitalized on the 2019 directorial trend of asking press to refrain from spoilers in their coverage of the film. It’s a fair request, albeit one that dredges up plenty of debate regarding spectatorship, psychology, sociology, professional ethics, and the personal and communal purposes of art. However, it’s partially misleading. Once Upon a Time isn’t that kind of movie. It’s not Avengers: Endgame or even Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite — whose directors also pleaded for spoiler-less literature — in which there are plenty of plot twists to indulge around every corner. Plot details don’t hang over your head and draw bated breath in Tarantino’s ninth film (or 10th, or 11th, depending on how you look at his filmography).
Once Upon a Time is a wonderfully languorous story and one we all know quite well — thanks to a lingering familiarity constructed by bounteous references as foreshadowed by its title, a nod to Sergio Leone’s own two Once Upon a Time films — despite never having met two of its three main characters before. Potential spoilers don’t boil up until the final 30 minutes, if even that, and while the payoff of those last moments is magnificent, there’s a near infinite pool of things to say about the other two-plus hours. In fact, it’s the overarching lack of plot-driven narrative that makes its approach to its 1969 Los Angeles setting such a charming masterstroke. It’s the kind of film you soak in, like a hot bath emanating aromatic eucalyptus or lavender, your mind wandering toward sheer gratitude and appreciation as it seeps into your pores. In other words, it’s unlike most Tarantino films.
Where we might have expected the writer-director to concoct a supremely violent, hyper-sexualized, wild-n-out acid trip through the era of flower children, mid-century modern Hollywood glam, and all the accompanying sex, drugs, and drama, Tarantino gives us a light, loving, nostalgic glimpse into the time and place that’s shaped him most. And he does it all through the leisurely story of comradery between two buddies plus the dead yet spiritually undying culture of ’60s Hollywood, the glorification of the bewildering Spaghetti Western (or, as one of the main characters puts it, “Eye-talian western”), and the memorializing of a devastatingly lost talent.
The two buddies are Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), fictional names that belong among film history’s greatest. The former is an aging Western TV star, known most prominently for his starring role on the hit (fictional) show Bounty Law. His attempt at a movie career hasn’t gone the way he’d hoped and has consequently landed him in the realm of Spaghetti Westerns, scenes of which occupy a significant portion of the film, making itself feel as much of a Western as it is a 1969 period piece. Rick is passionate about his career, but he’s an alcoholic who hasn’t been delivering on set the way he once was. Yes, that’s because of the whiskey sours, but the liquor is because of the self-pity because of the debilitating shame because of the waning career because of the self-deprecating binge-drinking, and the cycle repeats.
Rick is loosely based on Burt Reynolds (who was supposed to be in the film as the real-life blind and bedridden ranch owner George Spahn, but when the actor died suddenly last fall was replaced by Bruce Dern), yet he is undoubtedly his own character due to DiCaprio’s interpretation of the exceptionally resourceful script. He lends a soft stutter, a tendency toward self-reflexiveness (which is not necessarily always disparaging), a gleaming inner drive for relevancy, an openness toward unconventional wisdom, and other such chops to Rick’s mold. He and Cliff are both so true to the time, you’ll want to Google their names just to make sure they weren’t real.
Cliff, who is loosely based on Hal Needham, is a nearly involuntarily retired stuntman who embodies a rather zen outlook on life. He’s reckless enough to kill his wife in the middle of an argument and careless enough to look for work afterwards like nothing happened. He’s poised enough to kick Bruce Lee’s (Mike Moh) ass impromptu in front of a crowd and blithely self-assured enough to wreck a producer’s car in the process, promptly losing his job as a result. In 2019, he’d be considered a very sticky character. But as problematic as he might be, he’s designed to reflect, and he’s far from vacuous. He’s a sharp-witted, prudent, and loyal friend, not to mention a mighty fine caretaker of his sweet rottweiler Brandy, a heroine in her own right.
When we meet Cliff, he’s going on two or three years of devotedly stunting for Rick, whose constant pleading to producers to give the guy work is proving less and less successful with every gig. But because the two struck up a bromance while originally working together, Rick pays Cliff to double as his driver and his Beverly Crest housesitter when he’s on set. Seeing as Rick’s neighbors are famed filmmaker Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his actress wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), the extravagance of the neighborhood is a welcome change from Cliff’s garbage pile of a trailer home in Van Nuys. Needless to say, he doesn’t complain nor even deny the bull-headed behavior that landed him in this position.
The third lead of Once Upon a Time is Sharon Tate, whose primarily stand-alone story is so affectionately crafted by Tarantino and even more redolently portrayed by Robbie that it’s deserving of its own two-hour and 39-minute runtime. Robbie radiates with the pure essence of Tate carved into a history that cannot forget her. She personifies a gushing adoration for life and a rare innocence that will compel you to weep longingly for the career that never was. Every time she speaks, smiles, dances, or gracefully tilts her head, sublimity sets in and you wish you could remain in that moment forever, just as Tarantino does.
It’s true that Once Upon a Time is Tarantino’s effusive 35mm love letter to ’60s LA, but his depiction of Tate as a sincere, enthusiastic charmer wrapped in the free-loving happy-go-lucky culture that defined her might be the most fulsome aspect of the whole film. Eight years into her rising career, she’s not entitled, but she’s not shy or afraid either. She’s reasonable, amiable, and joyous, elated at the new reality of being in films that make people laugh and cheer. A large portion of Tate’s time on screen is spent in a movie theater during a matinee screening of her own film, The Wrecking Crew. It’s such a simple concept, but her genuine glee and spirited involvement in the theater works wonders.
For those unfamiliar with the history of Tate and Polanski, the Manson Family murders, and the death of that glorious free love era on the fateful night of August 8th, it would be best to familiarize yourself before heading in, whether through a quick wiki briefing or with Karina Longworth’s riveting and researched 12-part “Charles Manson’s Hollywood” season of her You Must Remember This podcast. It isn’t essential, but it will decidedly bolster your appreciation of what takes place on screen, especially in the rousing climax.
Because outside of that climax, Once Upon a Time is oddly subtle and keenly referential. From the retro Columbia Pictures production card to the little-known pseudonym for Savage Gringo, “Nebraska Jim,” the film is overflowing with nods to Tarantino’s favorite Italian Western films, directors, actors, and styles, his most adored hippie presences and cultural tidbits, and his utmost adoration for the time period. He uses real icons like Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) to lightly inform us of Hollywood history. The film’s soundtrack includes songs from the likes of Los Bravos, Simon & Garfunkel, and The Mamas and the Papas.
Tarantino also messes around with his own fake iterations of references that would’ve fit well into the era, the slew of Rick Dalton films (including Kill Me Now Ringo, Said the Gringo and Operazione Dyn-o-mite!) being the most obvious and fantastic example, complete with fully fleshed out posters and film-within-the-film snippets. When you consider Tarantino’s career in references, it should come as no surprise that a Spaghetti Western actor that lives in the Hollywood Hills and a kickass, off-kilter stuntman are his subjects. But that doesn’t curb the candor of the unpredictably smooth nature of the film to spend more time gazing at Pitt’s still-rockin’ physique or hovering over Rick’s touching conversations with an 8-year-old savant than it does indulging in female nudity or grotesque violence.
And along with its unexpectedly calm pace, halcyon tone, and unhurried narrative development, Once Upon a Time packs several more surprises. Like the fact that after all that insanely high-profile casting news, the first-billed actors after Pitt, DiCaprio, and Robbie are Margaret Qualley and Emile Hirsch, the former of whom is in the rosiest, most lascivious, aphrodisiacal, and comfortable role of her career. Qualley was born to play a Manson Family hippie, this one aptly named “Pussycat.” Her teasing chemistry with Cliff is a blast, and you don’t have to worry about it being another case of a man 30 years a teenager’s elder taking advantage of her. Each time she bites her lip — and boy does she do a lot of lip-biting — or gives a flirtatious wave, you melt a tiny bit more.
While we’re on the topic of melting, what sweeter cords than Kurt Russell’s could have been chosen for the role of a well-to-do producer and the narrator of this film? And what smokier, more gravelly intonations than Al Pacino’s could’ve been chosen for a weathered Hollywood executive like Marvin Schwarzs, who frankly corrects Rick on the pronunciation of his last name (“It’s ‘Shwars,’ not ‘Schwartz’)? Does it sound laugh-out-loud funny on paper? No. But that’s the magic of Once Upon a Time and its deep bench of fun, fleeting characters (Lena Dunham, Scoot McNairy, Austin Butler, Michael Madsen, Clifton Collins Jr., Timothy Olyphant, and Dakota Fanning, to name a few). It lavishes you with its charm, casting a spell that makes the most minuscule comedic moments a riot and the general era-specific pleasantries an absolute delight, resulting in that brand of laughter that reflects inner happiness more than it does comedy.
After all, this isn’t simply a comedy, drama, thriller, buddy movie, period piece, or any other limiting genre descriptor. Tarantino calls it his personal “memory piece.” Sure, it entices comparison to his past work — his collaborations with master cinematographer Robbie Richardson, Pitt, DiCaprio, Dern, Russell, and others, his lengthy dialogue-heavy screenplays, his ambitious moods, etc. Hell, it even references his past work, most excitedly a scene in which one of Rick’s movie clips involves him torching a room of Nazi generals. And, as Tarantino has done himself, it will be compared to Pulp Fiction, but that alignment is merely structural. The two couldn’t be more tonally and thematically disparate.
Obviously, it has plenty of Tarantino’s chops, but they’re complemented by several new slants from the aging auteur, like an abundance of sweeping, angular bird’s-eye shots that arch over houses and streets, commentary on the woes of aging and concomitant insignificance, the peripheral use of the concept of an alternate cinematic universe, and a pervasive reserved, congenial vibe. Don’t go in hoping Once Upon a Time will blow you away. It’s not a mind-blowing movie, but that doesn’t make it any less marvelous. It’s evocative, playful, cheery, caring and kind towards the past that it approaches and the many, many characters within, all of whom are historical figures or seem to be based on them.
Go in knowing that Tarantino has probably been happy-crying for the past five-plus years while writing, directing, and producing the doting film solely because it meant he had every excuse to be in it himself. It’s as if he were memorializing the death of his dearest loved one, not making another “Tarantino film.” Go in asking yourself, “What if that era had never ended? What if that awful, murderous night, which ultimately encapsulated the culture’s deepest flaws, hadn’t crushed that balmy social heritage that still sends so many into a dreamy fit of nostalgia regardless of whether they lived it or not? What if we had found a way to presently thrive in its tranquil ethos?” It’s clear that Tarantino would rather live in a world in which we had.