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Happily Ever After in Tinseltown

Leonardo DiCaprio
Leonardo DiCaprio
Columbia Pictures
 161 Minutes
Rated: R
Directed ByQuentin Tarantino
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt
Once upon a Time in Hollywood Poster

The legendary director Howard Hawks once said that a good movie has three great scenes and no bad ones. I thought about that quite a bit while watching Quentin Tarantino’s ode to Tinseltown, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood. Sure enough, there’s a great scene in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s washed-up TV star Rick Dalton bonds with a juvenile actress on the set of a TV show. And then there’s another when Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate goes to a theater playing the forgettable Dean Martin spy film, The Wrecking Crew, in which Tate co-starred. Robbie is mesmerized by the image of Tate on the screen, and we are mesmerized by the image of Robbie on the screen. Later, there’s another great scene in which Rick Dalton’s stuntman buddy Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt, goes to the Spahn Ranch, the hangout of a modern-day bunch of Western outlaws, the Manson Family. That scene is creepier than anything in Ari Aster’s overhyped Midsommar. When all is said and done, and nearly three hours of screen time have flown by, I realized that Hawks was right: Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is Tarantino’s best work since Pulp Fiction.


Once Upon a Time,,, in Hollywood is primarily the story of a bromance between two fading Hollywood figures. Rick Dalton was once the star of a hit TV series called Bounty Law, but his career now consists of occasional B-war movies and guest-star villain roles on TV series. As Rick’s would-be agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) points out, having the series hero get the best of Rick reinforces in the audience’s mind that Rick is a loser. Cliff Booth was Rick’s stunt double when the going was good, but his tendency to get into fights has made him persona non grata on the set any more. So, Rick keeps Cliff around as his chauffeur, general gofer, and drinking buddy. In contrast with Rick’s slow downward descent, his next-door neighbor Sharon Tate is on the way up, a fact of which he is well aware.


The bulk of Once Upon a Time takes place over a weekend in February 1969. Rick has a guest-star role on the pilot of a TV series called Lancer while Cliff gives a ride to a teenage hitchhiker named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), who lives with the rest of the Manson Family at the Spahn ranch. Cliff becomes worried that the elderly owner of the ranch, George Spahn (Bruce Dern), may have been the victim of foul play and insists on seeing the by-now-senile George. In the meantime, Rick finally gets his act together after some disastrous rehearsals. He delivers a solid performance on the set of the TV episode, reinforcing his faith in himself as an actor.


Of course, the movie doesn’t end in February 1969. Instead, the last half hour takes place on August 8, the night when several Manson Family members brutally murdered Tate and several of her friends. Tarantino wasn’t interested in doing a docudrama recreation of the killings as they occurred, so he pulled back and showed how the evening transpired from the perspective of Rick and Cliff next door. In fact, in a clever bit of mixing reality and fantasy, a drunken Rick comes out of his house to confront one of the Manson killers, Tex Watson (Austin Butler), whose car is making a lot of noise as it putters through the neighborhood.


In terms of plot, more takes place in the movie’s fateful last half hour than in the far-less-structured first two hours. But Quentin Tarantino isn’t really interested in telling a traditional story here; in fact, he could have done so in less than half the time. He is, instead, recreating a time, a mood, and a way of life. In doing so, he immerses the audience in a different era.


I was a teenager and already a big movie fan when the Manson murders occurred, and I was stunned repeatedly by the attention to detail Tarantino shows over and over in this movie. Over and over I recognized films like the aforementioned Wrecking Crew or the Lancer TV series or nearly forgotten minor actors like Wayne Maunder and Sam Wanamaker. But Quentin Tarantino doesn’t just drop names or play clips from now-obscure TV shows. He weaves all these references into the plot and winds up involving the audience and getting them invested emotionally. The lengthy sequence on the Lancer set culminates in Leonardo DiCaprio, not Rick Dalton, providing an acting lesson. Is there a point to the movie, other than to indulge those looking for a trip down Memory Lane? Well, the contrast between Rick Dalton and Sharon Tate is clear, one going up and the other going down. But, ironically, even as he struggles to get guest star gigs on TV, Dalton finds that everyone around him still remembers him from Bounty Law (even members of the Manson Family). Down is not forgotten in Hollywood, where there’s always a Rick Dalton and a Sharon Tate.


From a technical standpoint, Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is nearly flawless. The production design is amazingly detailed (this film should win the Oscar in this category), and the costuming deserves a nomination as well. The large ensemble cast is excellent, even though several only have one scene. Brad Pitt outdoes Leonardo DiCaprio by delivering one of his most easily assured performances ever (I suspect the studio will push him for Best Supporting Actor.) But while the period detail is fantastic, Quentin Tarantino is willing to play games with historical timelines when it suits him. Lancer had already been on TV for a year before Rick Dalton shot what was supposedly the pilot episode. Similarly, other films featured on billboards and marquees just weren’t playing during that period. And the Playboy Mansion, where Sharon Tate parties with the Mama Cass, wasn’t bought by Hugh Hefner until 1971. I’m sure Tarantino knew all this but decided to twist the facts to play to his personal preferences.


Quentin Tarantino was all of six years old when the events portrayed in this movie occurred. But he became a fan of these films in his youth (much as I came to like films from the 40s and 50s I never saw onscreen). This movie represents the culmination of his love affair with cinema. But he’s also made his most accessible film in years as well.  Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood conspicuously lacks the long rambling monologues that mark almost all Tarantino movies contain. Instead, his characters say what they need to quickly, allowing the film’s snappy pace to continue.


I’m not going to spoil the movie’s ending, even though most people already know it by now. For someone who has seen other Tarantino films, it should come as no surprise, but it should also not spoil the enjoyment of the movie. In fact, he provides an ending that matches the tone and theme of the film perfectly. Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood contains a tremendous number of in references, so fans of that era in Hollywood may well appreciate the film move than younger viewers do. However, great film making is great film making, no matter what the period in which it’s set. This is a movie that is excellent now and only stands to improve in the public eye over time.

In this clip, Leonardo DiCaprio asks Kurt Russell to give Brad Pitt a job.

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