Quentin Tarantino makes my heart race. Every film is overflowing with visual and aural references to the movie industry and the era that he venerates - the necessity of staying alert to barely hidden signs/symbols can be gleefully exhausting. ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD is about blurred boundaries - how the brutality and bloodshed spewing out of TV boxes and Movie Theaters intersects with and abets real-life drama. Tarantino also targets personal and intimate concerns, mindful of the aging process - particularly in the airless Hollywood environment of illusion and make-believe, celebrating the fantasy of eternal youth and beauty. Tarantino’s work is known for being excessively violent - but that violence is often interrupted by a rivulet of dialogue hovering over the action - words that can make you burst out laughing - while you gasp and suck in your breath with repulsion witnessing through half-shut eyes some hard-hitting body pummeling.
The director, Quentin Tarantino is one of a kind - and kind he often is not. But the latest film in his “historical revision trilogy” ( INGLORIOUS BASTARDS, DJANGO UNCHAINED) and now ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD has a sweetness that permeates through the oft feeling of menace and exhilaration running through the 1960’s decade which experienced Viet Nam, Apollo 11 - putting a man on the Moon, the Stonewall riots, Woodstock and the focus of Tarantino’s latest twisting of historical fact into digestible pop-culture fables - the Manson Murders.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton an increasingly insecure TV star floundering in “feature” movies, who spends most of his days with his loyal doppelganger, stunt-man, chauffeur, and best friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt - better than ever) speeding along with music blaring, curving around the Hollywood Hills from Dalton’s plush home to his acting job on the location set - driving cars that are as shiny and handsome as the two leading men. The loquacious Di Caprio exhibiting an occasional hesitant stutter, is pitted against the literally strong, silent Booth who is an authentic, confident macho hero - a man with a “past” - devoted to Dalton who is in the midst of an existential crisis spurred on by a meeting with a sleazy agent (Al Pacino) who utters some callous truths, making Dalton realize that “time” and “hard living” is taking its toll on his celebrity and a career move to Rome is advisable. This gives Tarantino an opportunity to pay homage to “spaghetti-western” directors like Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci.
Tarantino who never lacks for humor and irony, weaves into the film a particularly emotional moment exposing Rick Dalton who is recovering from a drunken, chain-smoking night, croaking and hacking - sitting with a book next to a precocious 8 year old “method actor” quietly rehearsing her lines for a scene they will be doing together (a wonderful Julia Butters.) The contrast could not be more evident. Their conversation and the subsequent filming of that scene is powerfully poignant, revealing to Rick Dalton the possibilities of “greatness” as an actor. Leonardo DiCaprio’s potency as a cinematic “idol” also prevails.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD spotlights a Tarantino fairy-tale event where historical facts are altered and subverted. Living right next door to Rick Dalton in the film are Roman Polanski, his wife Sharon Tate and her ex-lover Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch.) The actual vicious mass murder of Tate, Sebring and two friends on the night of August 8-9th,1969 is emblematic of the 60’s era: of hippiedom, cult living, gurus, drugs - all crystallized into the person of Charles Manson with his band of mainly middle-class female followers who serve as a blueprint from which to pivot true life into myth. Interwoven throughout the film are glimpses of the Manson “women” - presences that flicker in and out of our awareness, hitchhiking, dumpster diving, etc. their youthful, lithe bodies enjoying one another’s company like fresh sprites on the horizon - just barely in our view.
Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) in what will be a classic movie moment to be remembered picks up a 17 year old cult hitchhiker and drives her to the Manson compound - a directorial flash of brilliance as Tarantino plays with the pictorial barrenness of the locale and the theater audience’s knowing-what-we-know, creating an intensity that is palpable involving a striking cameo scene with Bruce Dern.
Quentin Tarantino conveys the innocence and child-like joy of beautiful B-movie actress Sharon Tate (a lovely Margo Robbie,) wife of Polish director Roman Polanski in scenes with Sharon spending leisure time attending her own movie, delighting in the audience response to her comedic performance. We view Sharon at home in her large mansion - oblivious to all but her own unrestrained grace and sexuality - booming up the music volume, gyrating uninhibitedly - enchanting to behold - as her body twists and turns like the plot of this film.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD needs to be seen more than once. I have to go back so I can reflect on all the complexities of the conceptual “games” Tarantino plays with the viewer and what they are viewing. Humor and tenderness intertwine to soften any knock-out blow that the film delivers. This is a passionate love letter to movie actors, writers, directors, stuntmen, makeup personnel, movie houses, movie drive-in theaters, movie sets, movie genres (like the Western), movie marquees, movie posters and any and all ephemera associated with the profession.