Movie Review : Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood (2019)
Star Wars and comic books have changed our relationship to movies. It has largely stopped being a personal relationship between a director and his audience. It’s now more of a business transaction between corporations and the built-in fandom of whatever they’re trying to adapt. There are a couple rebels still making films the old fashioned way and perhaps the most popular of them is Quentin Tarantino. His new movie Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood came out to the usual fanfare and controversy two weeks ago and made a pretty damn strong argument for being old fashioned.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood tells the story of fading actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who are trying to stay relevant in 1969 Hollywood. Rick’s new neighbors Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) are the new “it” couple in town, but seem to exist in a parallel universe Rick doesn’t have access to anymore. Their paths will finally cross on the fateful day Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) wanders to 10050 Cielo Drive. The rest is history…. or something like that.
I’m going to try and review this movie without spoiling it, but it’s going to be difficult since it can’t be taken out of its historical context and that there’s a huge fucking twist at the end.
Despite how it has been marketed, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is not really a film about the Manson Murders. It’s Quentin Tarantino’s love letter to 1960s cinema, a time he portrays to be boundless and innocent. The known actors with cameos in the movie all interpret forgotten actors of the era that he still cares about: Damian Lewis is Steve McQueen (OK, this one’s not totally forgotten), the late Luke Perry is Wayne Maunder, Timothy Olyphant is James Stacy, etc. So, it’s a quite personal movie about events that aren’t personal at all.
It’s what I like to call a dreamscape: the 1960s Hollywood that still exists inside Quentin Tarantino’s mind. Hold that thought, it’s important.
But the Manson murders are important in Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood because they were a cornerstone event for America in 1969. They marked a change of era in collective consciousness. A loss of innocence. The people who were supposed to change the world (hippies) had committed a terrible crime against an icon of desire and success for common Americans. It changed everything for said common Americans, but Hollywood also. The Manson murders kicked off a darker, more tortured and introspective decade of cinema.
So, that brings me to what Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is trying to do… and does quite successfully in my opinion: regain a sense of control over this unspeakable tragedy. Challenge the almost mystical power of Charles Manson over American consciousness with the power of cinema. Because Quentin Tarantino really believes in that. And it doesn’t matter what your opinion of how Tarantino actually deals with it on screen is, because he makes it clear that it happens within the confines of his own mind. I mean, the movie is called Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood.
If it doesn’t make it clear that we’re operating within the realm of fantasy here, I don’t know what will. I’m sure you got some fucked up stuff going on in your own mind too.
This is (I believe) why Sharon Tate barely talks in the movie. Tarantino has been plenty criticized for it, but it makes sense within the parameters he set for himself. He doesn’t take liberties with her identity and uses her as a symbol of America/Hollywood’s innocence. And it works. The movie is not about her. I know how it sounds, but if you’ve seen Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, you know exactly what I’m talking about. She’s not portrayed to be stupid or mindless. She’s young, successful and carefree. There’s a beautiful scene where she watches her own movie in a theater and realizes her impact to people. It talked as much as any dialogue line.
I really liked Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. Better than most of what Quentin Tarantino has done in his career, to be honest. It’s violent, crass and indulgent, but in a more controlled way. He’s not a large studio and doesn’t try to please the largest amount of people possible. What happen on screen is the byproduct of what’s going on in his own head and what you want to do with it is up to you. But whatever you might think about the guy, if he keeps cranking movies like Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, we’re going to keep talking about him for a long time because it was thoroughly good.