Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is easily Quentin Tarantino’s most personal film, for good and for ill, writes MacDara Conroy
If there’s only one thing that can be said about Quentin Tarantino’s latest, it’s that the film makes very clear, in almost every aspect, it’s a fantasy. It’s right there in the title — Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (insert ellipsis as you please) — which telegraphs that everything depicted within is a fairy tale. And as the ballad of washed-up former star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his best friend, stunt double and right-hand man Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) meanders through the hills and backlots of the dream factory, one should be under no illusions as to the kind of story being told.
For one, this is very much not a film about the Manson Family murders. What it is is a story of the friendship between two Tinseltown has-beens that happens to take place in an alternate history of 1969, on the cusp of change in the entertainment business (the end of the Golden Age) and society (the end of the hippie dream), and weaves them into that lurid tapestry if only for the sake of pointing out how little Manson and his ‘family’ — and the ill-fated Sharon Tate herself — actually matter to proceedings.
That’s not to say our leading men have lives beyond the screen, however, or even this story. Rick and Cliff are idealised cyphers — the typical rugged tough guys of 1950s film and TV now whiskey-tanned, sun-leathered and trading on former glories. They’re merely representative of the themes and morals Tarantino wants to work through, and at times it’s hard to know whether to take them seriously. The director treads a line between genuine emotion and parody of such sentiments, and the results can be frustrating.
Less so, perhaps, is reconciling with the notion that even the real names here are idealised — interpretations of media portrayals rather than representative of the actual people. The spectre of Manson looms over the story, but we only see the man himself fleetingly; a more accurate representation of his part in the real-life horrors wrought than the mythology would lead you to believe. More abstracted still is the widely criticised depiction of Bruce Lee as an egotistical braggart, in the reminiscence of an unreliable narrator.
Margot Robbie’s Sharon Tate gets few lines and little to do other than flight about bathed in golden light. But then, what does the average person know of her other than she was married to Roman Polanski and she was murdered by hippie cultists? Tarantino credits her with a little more, showing an ingenue at ease with Hollywood’s elite but also someone amazed at her achievements, however meagre in the big picture. She’s maybe the most genuine character here and she leaves a stronger impression than her lines, and her place in the story, suggest.
Redemption is a significant theme, in Tarantino’s first feature outside of the Weinstein purview. Rick struggles to redeem himself in the eyes of his professional peers, if he ever had the chops to begin with, while Cliff struggles to live down rumours surrounding his late wife’s fate in a blackly comic nod to the demise of Natalie Wood. The theme also extends beyond the story to the film’s casting: one of the bigger bit players is Emile Hirsch, who was convicted of assault after strangling Daniele Bernfeld, a Paramount Pictures executive, during the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. Only four years on and he’s sidled back into pictures as if it never happened.
You can make up your own mind how you feel about that. It’s certainly easy to read it as typical of Tarantino the provocateur, the deliberate act of an enfant terrible who would rather double down and die on his chosen hill than bow to others’ criticisms. In a way, he almost pre-empts that by ensuring his fetishes are on full display, not just his sexual peccadilloes but his obsessions with the aesthetic, the art and the business of making movies — not to mention absolutely ludicrous grindhouse violence. It all adds up to what’s easily his most personal film, for good and for ill.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood opens nationwide on Wednesday August 14th