At The Movies - Tarantino Shows Maturity And Mastery In Latest Film
By Jordan Bosch
“A love letter to 1960’s Hollywood” is the phrase being touted about Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, a mosaic of a movie about the entertainment industry at the end of that decade.
I don’t know if that phrase is entirely accurate though.
Sure, it presents a mostly romanticized image of Tinseltown itself, but the lives entwined within it are a little more turbulent, a little more fascinating. While it doesn’t delve into the recesses of that world and focuses almost exclusively on wealthy stars, it’s not a celebration as such.
I would characterize it more as a meditation on an idea of the Hollywood of fifty years ago, not too dissimilar perhaps from its spiritual precursor Once Upon a Time in America.
Tarantino is a film nerd to a fault, and a very particular kind of film nerd too; so in titling his tenth and possibly final movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, he’s consciously evoking Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America, both very underrated in their respective genres of spaghetti western and gangster drama.
Of course those films don’t have Tarantino’s trademark quirky dialogue or volume of violence, but then neither does this one.
Don’t get me wrong, the dialogue is still sharp, but it doesn’t feel like Tarantino’s trying to show off or look smart with it. And though the movie is violent, apart from one erratic sequence in the climax, it’s very restrained. Tarantino isn’t relying so much on his old tricks and the result is, for lack of a better word, his most mature film.
Anchoring this wistful tableau is Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton, once the star of a popular TV Western called Bounty Law, which he gave up for a floundering film career and now does typecast guest spots as villains on TV westerns and procedurals.
He’s one of dozens of successful but insecure and alcoholic male characters who’ve dominated media over the years (DiCaprio played another variation of this type in The Wolf of Wall Street), though there’s a shadow of charisma there and a palpable pathos in him being a relic of a former era who doesn’t fit in in the changing cultural landscape.
The movie is set in 1969 after all, at the dawn of the counterculture movement and in the immediate anticipation of the New Hollywood period.
The changing times is a major if subtle theme of the film; the older characters look down on the hippies who in turn are resentful of them.
It’s not hard to see the metaphors to current Hollywood and Tarantino’s place in it, giving Dalton a more meaningful significance.
More is expected of actors like him, though he’s hesitant to take real risks, like going to Italy and making spaghetti westerns on the advice of his agent (Al Pacino).
He prefers to wait for opportunities in the annual pilot season. One such pilot, which Tarantino devotes a lot of focus to, is Lancer, where Dalton is cast as its inaugural baddie, and most of which is shot through the lens of the actual show rather than from the more conventional perspective of the production crew. There’s a discernible contrast between the style of this show and the similarly showcased Bounty Law, visually emphasizing the radical evolution of the western in less than a decade.
This is the kind of thing that interests Tarantino, who floods the movie with 60’s pop culture ephemera, referencing obscure television shows, movies, songs, art, and even ads to create a fully developed environment, one his characters seem only a small part of. And he illustrates this best through a subplot that hasn’t much of a plot at all.
While dwelling on the lives and individual stories of Dalton and his loyal stunt double and friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), in a manner not unlike Pulp Fiction, though presented linearly, he’ll occasionally shift focus to Dalton’s Cielo Drive neighbour Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and it’s in these diversions where the film is most refreshingly distinct.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood obviously features some real people as characters.
There are scenes with James Stacy (Timothy Olyphant) and a confrontation with Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), and a strangely cast cameo of Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen, but if the film can be called a love letter to anything it’s to Sharon Tate.
Tate of course is famous not so much for her acting (often overlooked due to her sex symbol status) as for her murder, and Tarantino feels there’s an injustice in that.
And so the movie presents us with a series of simple and poignant glimpses into her world, meant to de-victimize her and emphasize her love of life -listening to records, going to parties, not saying much (and the movie wisely keeps her then marriage to Roman Polanski in the margins), but channelling a charming and contented soul.
Consider a scene where she goes to a matinee of The Wrecking Crew and as she watches herself on the screen, she mimes to the choreography, and reflects on her training. When one action moment earns an applause from the audience it’s the sweetest thing in the world to see how happy it makes her. She may well be the most honestly sympathetic character Tarantino’s ever written, owing to both an elegiac presentation and a beautiful performance by Robbie.
Of course with the context of Tate and 1969, the film inevitably touches on the Manson cult.
In doing so there’s a particular curious focus placed on their attitude towards violence in the media, directly acknowledging it as an influence at one point.
For a filmmaker whose movies are famously bloody to recognize this feels like a rare bit of self-awareness.
The films’ relationship to violence is refreshingly nuanced. The ambiguous Booth is unable to find work due to an acquitted murder charge that has blacklisted his name, and there’s an uncomfortable veneer associated with him at numerous points, despite being otherwise relatively decent.
And yet old habits die hard, Tarantino can’t quite condemn violence in media -it’s in playing a violent character that is ultimately more fulfilling for Dalton as an actor.
Many of the cultists are played by the children of Hollywood figures: Margaret Qualley, Maya Hawke, Rumer Willis, Harley Quinn Smith, even Lena Dunham, symbolically characterizing these young rebels as the product of the system they decry. And the climax returns to the directors’ creatively glorifying roots (though with a touch of welcome irony).
However it is a conversation Tarantino is having, asking us to consider the effects of violence in media, with perhaps the tang of self-reflection.
I don’t think Tarantino has made a more sincere film than Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
There’s way more heart in it than his last several movies, and he doesn’t use his signatures as a crutch (though there’s still plenty of foot shots). It’s gorgeously photographed with rich artistry and cinematography, smartly written and funny, terrifically performed, even by the standards of established talents DiCaprio, Pitt, and especially Robbie, and features some of the best fake movie posters I’ve ever seen.
Most of all, it earns its title as an encompassing portrait of a time and place through the lens of a few individuals existing therein. A captivating odyssey and the culmination of a colourful film career.