Once Upon a Time in Hollywood movie cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood movie director: Quentin Tarantino
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood movie rating: 4 stars
What are movies for than to hold the promise of an alternative ending? And who else to give movies that power than their self-declared fanboy, Quentin Tarantino, dipping into the ‘60s sunshine to recreate a golden period?
This is Hollywood of cigars-cigarettes-cognac vintage, unapologetically lighting up and gulping down, unshackled by 20th-century political correctness or middle-class moralities. As well as unexpected to give a dime about politics knocking on its doors, in more ways than one, in the form of Vietnam War or Communism’s spectre.
This is Hollywood where bad men could hold small girls tight, Roman Polanski be just a harmless little Pole with an acclaimed film like Rosemary’s Baby behind him, and Playboy Mansion strut playboy bunnies.
This is Hollywood with Mrs Robinson playing on the radio, Mohammad Ali still Cassius Clay, Bruce Lee giving martial arts lessons to a new actor, FBI still covered in glory, and a glorious Sharon Tate having the first taste of seeing herself on screen — and of having the audience laugh and hurt with her.
And then there is Tarantino’s Hollywood-within-Hollywood, where TV occupies a large mind space but never be centrestage, where stars shine, fade but heartbreakingly linger on, where stuntmen embody the resolute, square heroes as Hollywood once imagined them to be, and where the long, long legs of the women who embody the dreams it dreams often stand on aching, blistered, well-shod, unseen feet.
Unlike Tarantino’s other films, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not about anger or revenge, but this underlying affection. This time it’s really not about the references he strews about again, or the big names that come and go in cameos (TV star Luke Perry, who died shortly after filming this movie; Bruce Dern; Kurt Russell; Lena Dunham; Al Pacino), it’s the care with which he unspools his story over a sometimes-indulgent 164 minutes.
Some of that length has to do with episodes that seem pointless, unleavened by any of his characteristically weighty, witty, meaning-of-life dialogue. There are long sequences to establish background stories of the characters, which are little but Tarantino showing off all he knows about 1969. There is the persistent problem of the portrayal of women in his film, who again have things done to them than driving their own fate. Nowhere is this more jarring than when Pitt’s Cliff gives a ride to one Charlie Manson acolyte to the ranch they are holed up in, where the women — looking all the same — round up on him like angry banshees, while summoning the few men among them when actual help is needed. And just having a character turn down an underage girl really won’t wash that Polanski taint.
But, that very scene at the ranch, shot like a duel in a regular Western — with only women this time on one side — also establishes Tarantino’s craft. Against the knowledge of what we know about Sharon Tate and the Manson cult, against the knowledge that the day she would be killed brutally is just six months away, against the knowledge that Cliff’s boss Rick is Sharon’s next-door neighbour, the menace oozed by that scene hangs over the rest of the film, building up to a riotous, up-ending finale. Full marks to cinematographer Robert Richardson.
Much of the attention has been focused on Robbie not getting enough lines in the role of Sharon, on whom this whole film hangs. However, if Sharon is meant to stand in for what Hollywood imagines as its “innocence”, and the rest of the world as a reminder of the shadows hiding in its underbelly, Robbie is just right. A blonde perfection, surrounded by friends, on the brink of fame, married to a Hollywood darling, she is the girl who that brief summer seemed untouchable.
Pitt and DiCaprio are excellent too, both together and apart, complete opposites and complementary of each other. The fact that the former’s chiselled, well-kept self is the stunt double of the wasting, moaning latter, cannot be a coincidence. What is Pitt’s Cliff if not DiCaprio’s Rick on screen? What is Rick if not Cliff off it? Do the two halves complete that whole? Though they are the best of friends, there are few scenes actually between the two of them. And if you have seen DiCaprio in this role of an anguished man before, it is tinged with both vulnerability and hope this time. Pitt, on the other hand, really taps into the star that he is, to bring alive a man who can gatecrash Hollywood parties sporting a Hawaiian shirt.
Tarantino’s craft lies, of course, in spotting that stardust — whether it is in two people talking across a table, in a girl and a boy on an evening in war-torn Paris, in a Nazi officer holding forth on the delights of cream and apple strudel, in the neon signs of Los Angeles markers that come on here marking yet another starry night, and especially in rewriting a real Hollywood story.
Doesn’t the title say it all? It’s Tarantino’s ode to Sergio Leone and his spaghetti westerns. It also hints at fairytales of another kind — the ones dreamt of, scripted, and turned alive in this city of dreams. And we can all do with a fairytale.