Outrageous and frequently bonkers, Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film is a solid and sentimental throwback to a bygone era.
⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood immediately calls to mind Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). It also suggests a fairy tale, which usually involves a bodacious hero, a poor old distressed damsel, a castle and a big baddie. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is very much like a fairy tale, except the big baddie is seldom seen, the damsel doesn’t know she’s in distress and the heroes are a couple of clueless fading TV stars. It’s a long, meandering dream, the kind of pompous brilliance only Quentin Tarantino could get away with. It’s not his finest, but it might be his most affectionate.
It’s the spring of 1969. Hippie culture is an infestation. The old westerns of the ’40s and ’50s are a dying breed. Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), once the hero of the hit western Bounty Law, is afraid his career is over. His trusty stunt double, Cliff Booth, hangs around him like a valet, boxing coach and BFF rolled into a hunky Brad Pitt package.
The first half of Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood seems to go nowhere. We follow Rick as he attempts to revitalise his career. We are invited into Cliff’s dirty trailer, where his dog Brandy waits eagerly to be fed. Elsewhere, Sharon Tate, who lives next door to Rick, is living life and inhabiting the body of Margot Robbie very comfortably.
Just when their stories seem to be leading nowhere, Cliff picks up a lithe young hippie by the road and drives her to Spahn Ranch, where westerns used to be filmed. Now desolate and dusty, it’s populated by an eerie clan of youngsters who lurch about the grounds like zombies. Here, Tarantino relies on his audience’s pre-existing knowledge on 1969 Californian history, where names like Sharon Tate, Spahn Ranch and Squeaky should quickly surface horrible and gruesome images. The loose storytelling of earlier is swiftly tightened and given focus. Suddenly, the film has a trajectory.
Which leads me to Sharon Tate. She doesn’t appear very much in the movie, despite receiving hefty marketing. Her appearance here, as far as I can gather, is to let us know how undeserving of death she was. She was a promising actor, mysteriously gorgeous with a canny knack for comedy, and was eight-and-a-half months pregnant when she and her four friends were murdered. She was a harmless victim of senseless violence. In Once Upon a Time, she is given one of the best scenes – a simple excursion to the cinema to watch one of her own movies, The Wrecking Crew (1969), where she’s cheerfully content to hear the audience laughing whenever she does something funny on screen. She seems happy just to be alive.
It’s moments like this that elevate Once Upon a Time above its own distractions. It’s a loving tribute to Sharon Tate, and to the westerns that surrounded Hollywood for years. Is the movie too long? The first half can certainly feel so. But thankfully Rick and Cliff are great fun to watch, and DiCaprio’s performance is perhaps the best of his career.
Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood is available in Australian cinemas from August 15
Image courtesy of Sony Pictures