“It’s official, ol’ buddy. I’m a has-been”. When newly-cancelled TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) confesses this feeling to his pal and stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), you can almost hear Quentin Tarantino speaking those words. His latest slice of wit, Once Upon A Time In Hollywood (Ellipsis… optional), deals with such feelings in a way that many detractors would have thought long out of the writer/director’s reach. His warmest and most accessible film, Jackie Brown, is over 20 years old now, but age appears to have brought out the sentimental side in ol’ QT once more.
Whether bringing World War II to an early fiery end in Inglourious Basterds, or killing slave owners with giddy abandon in Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s stylish and sarcastic reimaginings of history have offered both catharsis, and questions about their validity. Does looking at history with wagging tongue firmly in cheek cheapen the events in question? This had to be at the forefront of the writer/director’s mind when making his latest film. After all, he’s dealing with events that have happened in his lifetime, and some of the key players are still alive. Fortunately, QT has an ace up his sleeve: a healthy dose of self-reflection. There can be little argument that OUATIH is Tarantino’s most ambitious film to date, thematically speaking. Once content to work at the level of faithful homage and basic ideals of dispatching evildoers, Tarantino now grapples with the denizens of Hollywood itself, its misbegotten aging stars, its naively-led women and its bloodlusting underbelly. Tarantino still has caché to spare, but as a director accused of leery race-driven indulgence, and a beneficiary of the patronage of Harvey Weinstein, QT feels a need to touch on the innocence lost in the rough and tumble of Hollywood, and the careers that can slowly bleed out, or that can be cut off on a bloody-minded whim.
It’s nothing new for a Tarantino film to draw attention to the films its homaging/ripping off, but Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is at once both elegiac and starstruck. The bloody death of Sharon Tate and friends at her and Roman Polanski’s Los Angeles home in August 1969 closed and locked the door on a decade that bent and warped American ideals out of all proportion. After political assassinations, foreign war and racial strife, it brought a further chill to see that even rich, white famous folks could also die at the hands of warped assassins. LA is home to so many of the films that seared themselves on Tarantino’s brain. However, for the first time, the references and steals serve to say something more about those films and, perhaps more crucially, the man homaging them. Critics and fans have attempted to dissect Tarantino’s very psyche since Reservoir Dogs exploded onto screen 27 years ago. Now, Tarantino takes that task upon himself. There’s a lot of QT in the main characters here, riddled as they are with doubts, regrets and wrinkles.
First among the regretful LA denizens is DiCaprio’s Dalton, a former matinee idol turned TV cowboy, reduced to guest spots on The FBI and Mannix. Despite a wealthy well-appointed life, Dalton finds himself regretting his slide into relative obscurity. It’s even harder when his new next-door neighbour is hotshot young director Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha) and his wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). It’s hard to imagine someone as self-aware as Tarantino being reduced to Dalton’s bald self-pity. Hence, we are also introduced to Pitt’s Booth as a counterbalance. Booth lives a much less grand life, but is a constant and close friend to Dalton (“A buddy who is a more than a brother and a little less than a wife”). He’s also still a working stuntman, with the abs and bruises to prove it. Tarantino is doubtlessly full of both Dalton’s doubts and Booth’s aged laxity. The casting here is crucial. DiCaprio still has those boyish good looks, but the hints of age and his cagey public persona fit all too well on Dalton, watching time go by without him. His days of flambéing Nazis with a flamethrower onscreen are over; with this pointed nod to the aforementioned Basterds, Tarantino acknowledges his own glory days are slipping by. Pulp Fiction is 25 years old. His latest film stars the children of his earlier work’s collaborators (Rumer Willis (daughter of Bruce) and Maya Hawke (daughter of Uma Thurman) have small roles). Pitt’s Booth offers an optimistic riposte, albeit one tinged with its own mysteries and controversies. There as aspects of the characters and the film as a whole that some audiences might find troublesome, but it suggests a maturation on Tarantino’s part that he intends to provoke with something other than postmodernistic flashes of violence. DiCaprio’s perma-worried scowl and Pitt’s acid-dipped exuberance help the film over rough ground, and the two are absolutely electric together.
While Dalton and Booth mull over their career choices (including offers from spaghetti western directors, more TV cowboy work, and fighting with Bruce Lee, played by an uncanny Mike Moh), a young woman goes to see the Dean Martin spy comedy The Wrecking Crew in LA’s Village Theatre. She watches one of the supporting actresses fall backwards over some suitcases to widespread laughs. The actress in The Wrecking Crew is Sharon Tate. The woman watching in the crowd is also Tate. However, the two look dissimilar enough to remind us we’re watching a fiction based on fact. In the role of Tate, Robbie brings an effervescence that transcends Tate’s death, and drives home Tarantino’s ultimate point. The optimism of the 60s, personified in Tate and yearned for by Booth and Dalton, is constantly brushing up against the cynical, bloody-minded new. Booth frequently encounters members of the Manson family cult, offering guilt-free sex and mind expansion while also instilling a fear of the inevitable. Then again, is it inevitable? This being Tarantino, you will be held rapt to see if the Polanski household at 10050 Cielo Drive does get its uninvited house guests once again. But there will be plenty there besides to keep you in place over its generous runtime.
There is little in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood’s direction that isn’t traditional Tarantino; shots of gaudy movie posters, dance numbers and women’s feet are all firmly in place. The dialogue is as arch as ever, but also comes tinged with sadness, regret and even a little resent. When Dalton encounters a young actress (Julia Butters) on his latest movie set, both her precociousness and his self-pity elicit eye rolls and empathy. In both its length and proclivity for self-reflection, the chatter in OUATIH encourages a relaxed mood, inviting the audience to hang out with these characters before the denouement (Whatever your feelings on the film’s final act, you will definitely need to prepare for it). With emotion in spades and an unhurried character-driven pace, Tarantino finds himself back on Jackie Brown territory and form. Once Upon A Time In Hollywood is his finest film since Pam Grier and Robert Forster shared one of cinema’s greatest kisses, and a reminder of the bite that old dogs can pack; not as vicious, but still mightily effective in taking down its targets. Hollywood and Tate are dead; long live Hollywood!