There is a different aura around Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. There is the sense of a film maker continuing to season, to look back, not just at his own legacy but that of cinema itself in the last half century.
The title almost says it all. Not just a nod and wink to the king of QT’s beloved Spaghetti Westerns, Sergio Leone, and his epic Once Upon a Time in the West, but rather acknowledgement that Tarantino has crafted a Hollywood fable and, as a result, what has to be the most sweet-natured picture he has ever given us. Gone are the loud, vituperative gangsters or assassins, war heroes or slave traders, replaced by the most sensitive of all warriors: the actor.
Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an ageing lead, on the verge of going to seed, aware that he has one last shot at true stardom beyond B-pictures and TV shows, and despite holding a fragile ego he is tempered by a lack of rage. He may be selfish but he doesn’t treat anyone horribly. Dalton is sad, melancholy and frustrated at himself, fearful of his own dying light, but the worst he can lose here is the lead in a Sergio Corbucci Western.
Moreover, Dalton may play cowboys in back lot Western TV shows, but he is shadowed by his own personal, private, real-life cowboy in Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), a weathered stuntman who has remained with Rick, partly out of friendship, partly one suspects out of loneliness, partly out of being able to coast on the facile lifestyle of the rich and famous of the Hollywood hills, but Cliff is no opportunistic rake exploiting his wealthy friend. He is a man at one with his lot, despite a checkered and mysterious past trailing him, and Pitt portrays him with an easy, sun-dappled, West Coast charisma which glows off his cool features.
Rick and Cliff’s dynamic has no vitriol, no point of conflict, no underlying issue of jealousy or unresolved tension, it is simply a friendship born of experience. They are almost two ronin, warriors without masters, seeking their place in a rapidly changing world. Where Tarantino would once have smart-mouthed righteousness, now there is melancholic retrospection.
As Tarantino approaches his last two of his much vaunted—-and technically inaccurate—ten films, is Once Upon a Time in Hollywood the sign of a filmmaker taking stock, looking back, and sensing the end of his journey?
Perhaps. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, like all of Tarantino’s movies, is coded and encoded with layer upon layer of knowledge, cultural reference points, inversion of formula and format breaking stylistics. It just all feel far more measured and relaxed this time around.
While naturally, as always, Tarantino is influenced by a legion of pop culture documents and concepts, Hollywood feels like a film uniquely tailored to QT’s own personal obsessions. You wonder if some of it could be impenetrable to common or garden audiences to a degree his other pictures were not. Everyone has some understanding of WW2 for Inglorious Basterds or kung-fu movies with Kill Bill, but how many audience members truly understand late-1960’s TV production or the work of Sergio Corbucci and it’s relevance to the period?
The key to this film, of course, is the intersection of fiction and reality with the Manson Family, but even those details are growing hazier as the years go by. Particularly to non-American audiences, the details of what Charles Manson did, who Sharon Tate was, how Roman Polanski fits into the puzzle, and just how this possibly connects to B-movie filmmaking at the end of the 60’s could be alienating.
Tarantino assumes you will go into Hollywood with a certain level of understanding about these aspects. His fable is designed for fans of history, of film, of 60’s Americana, and how all of these points fused together in a unique way, with the Manson Family’s savagery a dark capper on a counter-cultural revolution which made love, couldn’t prevent war, and became consumed in a haze of substances and lost dreams.
Hollywood at this point itself was consumed by change; Dalton describes Polanski as “the hottest director in town, maybe the world” following his huge success with Rosemary’s Baby as a Polish cinematic ingenue who, via a British film industry excursion, picked up a stunning American wife in actor Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and made a home for himself in the exorbitant Hollywood Hills of mansions, pools, sunshine and groves.
Polanski, who features in Hollywood only in passing as a non-speaking character, is one of the many symbolic aspects of Tarantino’s story, and his elegy to an era on the cusp of oblivion. Ironically given QT made his name through the punky, early-90’s Miramax indie rebellion, he eulogises the world of studios and lot pictures that came before the New Hollywood rebels of Coppola, Altman, Scorsese, Bogdanovich etc… who transformed American cinema into the 1970’s. Polanski, though an immigrant, represents a new filmmaking and cultural popularity. The age of the director, not the actor.
This could also explain why Tarantino refuses to embody Tate as more than a symbol of virtue, of innocence, of hope that Hollywood may create and not destroy. Sharon serves as the polarity of Dalton – on her way up, on his way down – and Robbie plays her with a charming naïveté overlaid with constant dread. Again – Tarantino assumes our knowledge that Sharon Tate suffers a horrific fate at the hands of these counter-cultural maniacs, these rebels deep inside the drug-fuelled abyss. To understand the journey fully, we need to know the ending.
At which point QT subverts everything. He provides a catharsis America has never truly experienced. Rick and Cliff become the heroes they play act in their stories, albeit unwittingly and in the most garish, comic-book of circumstances. In a film that casually plays inside reality, weaving real life figures of the era like Polanski, Tate or Bruce Lee into the narrative, Hollywood’s denouement surprises us by doing the one thing, oddly, we shouldn’t be surprised Tarantino does – alters reality. Much like he did with Inglorious Basterds, he projects the hyper-real and changes history for his own purposes. Reality becomes fiction. Fiction cements itself as fable.
And a film that is draped in an existential pallor, a dread at what these likeable yet lost characters will likely face, transforms into a rousing, bloody and utterly ‘Tarantino’ conclusion. It’s akin to Jackie Brown suddenly turning into Pulp Fiction. It’s Tarantino enjoying middle-age, hanging out with his seasoned Western star and cool stuntman in a world of Corbucci and The F.B.I., only to suddenly recapture his youth, tap into a bit of the old ultra-violence. So says Kurt Russell’s omnipresent narrator: “When you come to the end of the line, with a buddy who is more than a brother and a little less than a wife, getting blind drunk together is really the only way to say farewell.” By that point, you’ll simply laugh out loud at the audacity and bravura of something probably only Tarantino could get away with.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, like every Tarantino film, will polarise, and polarise hard. You wouldn’t have it any other way and, likely, nor would he. Rarely, however, does a film embrace such a niche corner of cultural history, of cinematic legacy, and pull all of the strings together and retain a directorial style all its own. It is, easily, Quentin Tarantino’s most unexpectedly relaxed, melancholic and in many ways hopeful movie.
It suggests a filmmaker bidding goodbye to a lost era, goodbye to his own youthful origins, and goodbye to the kind of cinema he loves yet nobody else truly, anymore, makes.