Once upon a time in Hollywood, featuring an all star-cast of Leonardo Di Caprio, Brad Pitt, Al Pacino etc…, is Quentin Tarantino’s most satisfying and most personal film since Pulp Fiction. He has gone beyond his quirky Tarantinoisms to craft a technically competent, mature film that expands his range as a filmmaker
(Mild spoilers included)
Once upon a time in Hollywood(OUATIH from now on), Quentin Tarantino’s 9th feature film, comes at a time when i was all set to give up on Tarantino. As an admirer of the Tarantino aesthetic , i had started feeling that he has regressed majorly as an artist in his last couple of films. He looked happy to being confined to the cocoon of his stylistic and thematic fetishes that, in time, had become overblown and overly self-indulgent. I didn’t like Django Unchained all that much – A bloated, overcooked potpourri of Tarantinoisms and revisionist history with some great moments here and there, and downright hated The Hateful Eight : an utterly self-indulgent and self important film that moved at an excruciating pace, and came across as the ultimate vanity project. But with OUATIH, Tarantino has not only redeemed himself in my eyes, but has also made the most satisfying film since Pulp Fiction. Though its not an all-round, path-breaking cinematic exercise as Pulp Fiction, but in many ways , its a much better film than that. Gone is the self conscious, self winking – i am too clever for you – nods and the heavily ‘constructed’ , rehearsed, stilted feeling of the entire enterprise. In place of that , there is an exquisite smoothness and spontaneity to the proceedings , where the scenes just flows from one into the next. The film is as dense as any film , may be even more , than anything Tarantino has made till now, but unlike the earlier cases, he doesn’t stop the narrative to either showcase his cleverness or to shove ideas down the viewers throats. He pauses here and there to ponder a bit about whatever seems profound in that moment, and then just get on with narration. It is very much a classic Tarantino movie ; everything we come to expect from the Post-modern movie master is here : the self reflection, the referencing of his favorite movies, a truckload of songs from that era, the snappy punchlines, the dark humor, revisionist history and the obsession with the female anatomy – Bare feet\legs and asses of women takes center stage in many a lovingly composed frame of the movie. But the great thing here is that, even as he has held on to these familiar Tarantinoisms , he has managed to take it to a very different place than before.
The film tells the story of fading TV star Rick Dalton(Leonardo DiCaprio) and his Stunt double cum close friend, Cliff Booth(Brad Pitt). The film is set in in the months of February and August of the year 1969 – when Hollywood was undergoing radical changes. The old Hollywood was dying, and a new, young & hip Hollywood; fueled by sex, drugs and Rock & Roll was taking over . Though the basic theme of the film deals with the real life ‘Sharon Tate‘ murders committed by Charlie Manson and his ‘family’ in the August of 1969 , and the film features an array of real characters- like Steve McQueen , Bruce Lee , Roman Polanski etc.- both the plot and characters of OUATIH , as in all Tarantino’s movies, are based on the movies and movie characters from that period, rather than actual people. Its a ‘movie‘ movie in the truest sense , with the additional benefit that the film is set in the film industry of the time, which enables Tarantino; the ultimate movie geek and movie insider, to unleash himself with a series of lovable references and inside jokes.
Tarantino opens OUATIH with the ‘Film within a film’ conceit : with Black & White images of a fictional TV series called Bounty Law starring Rick Dalton. Then he cuts to an on-location TV interview – still in B&W and the small screen ratio – of the series featuring both Rick and Cliff , where the host questions them about the function of a stunt double. Their answer is that Cliff’s main job is to ‘carry Rick’s load‘. This term is going to carry multiple meanings through the course of the film , as we find, in scene after scene , Rick depending on Cliff for every single thing including , literally , carrying his luggage . Post this interview, the images turn to color and the screen widens to the anamorphic movie format. This narrative device: of starting with a purely fictional series and then slowly closing the gap with reality – stage by stage – sets up the world of the film- in which reality, fiction and fantasy coexist and are mutually interchangeable. Cut to the credit sequence, we see Cliff driving Rick from the studio to his house. Tarantino frames the two superstars with their backs to the screen and superimposes the name of Di Caprio on Pitt and vice versa; A simple cinematic technique pointing out that, from behind, both are the same person: this is were the double comes in for a star – either when photographed from behind or in a long shot. Rick’s driving license has been cancelled due to too many traffic violations: a result of his unstable emotional state, and so now Cliff has been driving him around town. Rick, who has been a top TV star for almost a decade now, is facing a crisis in his career . His star is slowly fading and his attempts at graduating to becoming a big screen star – like Steve McQueen – has not been successful. He is now forced to take on guest spots in random serials- where he’s forced to play the ‘heavy’- to keep himself going. Due to these uncertainties in his career , his personal life has been in turmoil .
Cliff, on the other hand, has his own problems. Ever since his wife’s death, he has been out of work- due to a rumor that Cliff had murdered his wife. And in one case when Rick lobbied hard to get him some work, he got into a fight with Bruce Lee – then starring in the series The Green Hornet, and was thrown out permanently from the lot. Since then, he has been hanging on to the coattails of Rick for his survival. But unlike Rick, Cliff is a cool customer and doesn’t seem unruly worried about his future. But beneath that cool , golden god veneer of Cliff does lurk a violent, reckless guy; Most evident in the scene where we see him drive off after dropping Rick at his residence at Cielo drive. After leaving Rick, Cliff gets into his car and drives to his home, which is near the Van Nuys drive-in. And Tarantino’s camera follows him all the way until he reaches his trailer. We see Cliff driving through the peak-hour traffic in the city at a very high speed; changing lanes and maneuvering the traffic- with the urgency, smoothness and dexterity of a race car driver. Once he reaches his trailer , he prepares an elaborate meal for his pet Rottweiler, Brandy . He makes sure that his dog eats better than him, and Brandy , in turn , is fiercely loyal to Cliff and he wouldn’t move until Cliff gives him the go ahead with his trademark ‘Tch Tch’ sound. In time, we would come to realize that Brandy is to Cliff, what Cliff is to Rick.
So it is on these these two fictional characters- who are slowly turning into abject losers in their life and career- that Tarantino is depending on to rewrite a piece of Hollywood history, Though Sharon Tate(Margot Robbie) is a pivotal figure in the proceedings , She appears sporadically and is portrayed less as a character and more as an abstract symbol for the new flower power generation emerging in the 60s. This is very much a ‘guy movie’ in the tradition of the best (and my favorite) Tarantino films like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction and Inglorious Basterds . His attempt here is to create his ultimate ‘hangout’ movie , where the audience would love to hangout with the two protagonists; though both are troubled individuals , the scenes featuring Rick and Cliff together are great fun and any audience member would like to be riding along with them in Rick’s car or hanging out with them in Rick’s modest apartment: drinking beer and watching his TV series, while Cliff provides a running commentary on what’s happening on the screen- like the director’s commentaries that are available today on DVDs .
So it begs the questions: Why are the Charlie Manson murders a pivotal subject matter in the film?; why the depiction of real life characters like McQueen and Bruce Lee? . On One level, this is a continuation of Tarantino’s obsession with rewriting history ; as he did with Nazis and slavery in his previous cinematic outings; and in the fairy-tale world of 60’s Hollywood, he finds the Manson family to be the equivalent of the Nazis. This is unequivocally stated in a pivotal scene in the film where Rick incinerates one of the Manson girls by the same flame-thrower that he used to blow up a bunch of Nazis in the TV series The 14 Fists of McClusky. Obviously, the characters of Rick and Cliff are based on TV star turned movie superstar Burt Reynolds and his friend and longtime stunt double (turned stunt coordinator turned film director) Hal Needham– who directed Reynolds in such films as Smokey and the Bandit and Hooper. Reynolds starred in Sergio Corbucci’s Spaghetti Western Navajo Joe. Here Rick makes a Corbucci film called Nebraska Jim. But as already mentioned, Tarantino’s plots and characters are also based on other movies. Apart from the obvious influence of Sergio Leone’s Once upon a time in the West – which was released around 1968-69 , the film also draws heavily from the three biggest hits of 1969: Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid, Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider. All of them are buddy movies and acted as major game-changers in ushering in the ‘New Hollywood’. Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid was also a wistful film, where the the two lead protagonists were becoming obsolete in a rapidly changing world. The clumsy, over the hill, western star Rick is almost a splitting image of Butch Cassidy(played by Paul Newman), while Cliff resembles the cool, gunslinger Sundance Kid (played by Robert Redford). And as writer William Goldman did in that film- which s to take the real life characters of Butch and Sundance and some events from their life to fashion a mostly fictional narrative about the death of the old west- Tarantino does the same here with Rick and Cliff and old Hollywood. Cliff – who is described in the film as “more than a brother, but less than a wife” to Rick – riding on the coattails of Rick is also reminiscent of the relationship between “Ratso” Rizzo. (Dustin Hoffman) and the amateur Gigolo(Jon Voight) in Midnight Cowboy – the first X rated film to win a best picture Oscar. Finally , there is Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider – the movie that completely symbolizes the New Hollywood, which was again about two guys going on a journey of their life- Rick even calls a Manson family member “Dennis Hopper” in a scene. One of the famous scenes in the film has Jack Nicholson unleashing his acting prowess while smoking a joint. OUATIH also has a pivotal scene where Cliff smokes an Acid-Dipped Cigarette. The drugged out state of Cliff at the end of the film also references the ending of another Leone film ,Once upon a time in America , where we find Robert De Niro’s character Noodles smoking opium and it is indicated that the entire film has been his drug induced dream.
Though the most discussed and the most controversial scenes in the film has been its climax; which drastically rewrites history, For me , the most important segment, and What i consider the heart of the movie, comes about an hour into the film. It’s a flawlessly inter cut sequence consisting of events occurring in parallel where all the three principal characters – Rick, Cliff and Sharon Tate- are having a life altering moment. Rick has landed the role as the villain in the new series called Lancer . But driven by personal demons and alcohol, he is finding it hard to play the scenes and repeatedly fumbles his lines. But his confidence levels get a boost after he has a conversation with an eight year old actress Trudi Fraser (Juia Butters), who shames him into giving his best with her own professionalism and concentration to her performance. After having a breakdown in his trailer, Rick returns to the set and delivers a powerful performance, much to the delight of everyone including himself . Meanwhile, Tate goes for a walk and decides to stop at a movie theater to watch herself in The Wrecking Crew; which has her cast opposite Dean Martin. She is overwhelmed by the response of the audience around her to her performance, and like Rick , walks out of the theater with a renewed appreciation for her talents as a performer. And running parallel to all this is the Scene where Cliff visits the infamous Manson Ranch: While driving Rick’s car, Cliff picks up a young hitchhiker, “Pussycat”. He drops her off at Spahn Ranch, where Cliff once filmed Bounty Law. Cliff is suspicious of the large number of hippies(the Manson Family members) living on the property and suspects they are taking advantage of the owner, George Spahn-whom Cliff knew well . Cliff insists on checking on Spahn despite objections from “Squeaky” Fromme(Dakota Fanning).
On a side note: I have always looked at Tarantino as an auteur who is a writer first and then a director .His directorial skills always seem to be at the service of his writing. But the Manson Ranch sequence is a tour de force of Tarantino’s film-making skills and is perhaps the best ‘directed’ scene in his career. Usually, his best scenes are structured around his dialogue. But here he, eschews dialogue for a purely cinematic exercise to build tension; with the camera moves, editing and eerie sound design . The entire scene plays out like a tense sequence from a horror film, where , at every moment, we fear for Cliff’s life. The finale of this scene is pure gold. On his way out of the ranch- after cliff has had his chat with Spahn who dismisses his fears that the hippies are taking him for a ride- Cliff has an altercation with a Manson family member named “Clem” Grogan, who has slashed the front tire of Rick’s car; cliff beats Clem and forces him to change the tire. One of the girls on the ranch, named ‘Sundance’ , rides out to fetch the super cowboy ‘Tex’ Watson . But by the time Tex could come to the rescue , Cliff gets the Tire repaired and ride away unharmed. Tarantino’s camera stays with Tex as he is riding all the way back to the ranch; just like he did in an earlier scene where we see Cliff riding home, and very similar to the scene in the TV series Lancer, where we see Timothy Olyphant as Lancer arriving in town to confront the villain played by Rick. Tarantino follows Tex without inter-cutting with what’s happening between Cliff and Clem. This builds up suspense , making the final pay-off- of Cliff’s escape- work spectacularly. And Brad Pitt’s performance is absolutely superb. Though billed second to Di Caprio, Pitt is the real star of the show here. It’s been a long time since he got to play such a character that is so perfect for his physicality and talent, and he runs with it.
This lengthy sequence – involving the experiences of the three principals – emphasizes two important themes of the film: the pain and pleasure of creativity, and shining a light on the little guys in Hollywood. Sharon Tate is an actress who is known primarily for two reasons: for being Roman Polanski’s wife and for being murdered by the Manson gang, which has nothing to do with her skills as an artist . Her appearances have mainly been in some TV serials and some B movies like Valley of the Dolls and Fearless Vampire killers. But by inter-cutting Rick’s struggle to get his scenes right on the sets of Lancer with the audience reaction to Sharon’s performance in the theater, Tarantino conveys that whether it’s a big, prestige picture or a small B western , whether its a big movie star\actor or a small-timer , the effort that the creative talent puts into the work is the same. We see their struggle, their suffering and their insecurities and then we see the final result of it all up there on screen and the pleasure they derive from the audience applause to their work. It’s one of the most brilliant and brilliantly economical depiction of the entire creative process of cinema that has ever been put on screen. It also establishes a connection between Rick and Sharon . Though they belong to two different generations , they are sort of representatives of the same working class: people whose work will never find the level of appreciation of a McQueen. Perhaps, the portrayal of Steve McQueen and Bruce Lee in the film must also be taken in this context. Tarantino is out to build up the small guys and to cut the big guys down to size. McQueen, who is an epitome of cool on screen , is seen totally stoned at a party at the playboy mansion , making some observations about the convoluted relationship dynamics of the guests at the party, while Lee , who is considered the epitome of physical strength and Martial artistry, becomes the director’s vehicle for showcasing the skills of the out-of-work, super-stuntman Cliff Booth. And by placing Cliff in jeopardy at the Manson Ranch and showing how he handles it, Tarantino manages to convey Cliff’s character and attitude, without ever showing him doubling for Rick in the entire film. The scenes also showcases the three type of women that were existing in Hollywood at that time: Trudy Fraser, a ‘Jodie Foster’ style young method prodigy who is absolutely serious about her work; Sharon Tate, The new ‘it’ girl; and the wild and wanton Manson girls who were willing to blindly follow a weirdo like Charlie Manson.
The final fairy-tale aspect of the film comes across as a Guys’ fantasy for me. Though Tarantino genuinely likes Sharon Tate and is angry about whatever happened to her, his focus here is again on the guys. By the end of the film, it’s obvious that Rick and Cliff are going to be splitting up , as Rick can’t afford to keep Cliff on his payroll anymore. But the ultra-violent showdown and rewriting of history at the end allows Cliff, one last time, to do for Rick in real life what he has been doing for him in front of the camera throughout his career. His daredevil acts also ensuring a meeting between Rick and Sharon, something that Rick has been thirsting for all along. Perhaps now, Rick may be able to ingratiate himself into the Polanski gang and who knows? he might be able to make the transition to movies after all. And if he does , then he would definitely be carrying Cliff along with him , thus making sure that their partnership and friendship remains not just intact , but flourish – as it did with Reynolds and Needham. So the fantasy, at least for me, that the film is peddling is in relation to the guys and their never-ending brotherhood. As much as Tarantino uses the power of movies to right historical wrongs- sending people to their deaths before their time, or bringing people back to life- this film is very much a yearning to go back in time to the great ‘bromance’ and undying professional partnerships between men that flourished on and off screen. As Rick says to Cliff at the end “You’re a good friend,” . and Cliff retorts. “I try”- forever the cool cowboy shrugging off any suggestion that he’s a hero; who just did what a good friend and professional partner ought to be doing. This is the kind of unapologetic macho bonding that Tarantino is celebrating and fantasizing through the movie. (It’s also interesting to note that the last line- “I try”- that Cliff speaks in the film is also the first line he speaks in the film).
Add to that the deep analysis of the creative process involved in making movies, and millions of references to TV shows, films, actors and props of that period that only he could come up with, and this makes it Tarantino’s most personal film, not to mention the fact that this is probably his penultimate movie, which resonates very closely with the “End of an era” theme of the film. By his own admission, Tarantino may have just one more film in him. But even otherwise, time is running out for him. The current social climate- with its penchant for rabid political correctness and Wokeness, etc etc , would make it impossible for him to continue making movies his way. And who wants to watch a Tarantino film that’s not a Tarantino film. Also, seeing all the critical reactions to the film- starting with a stupid question asked by an esteemed newspaper critic at Cannes regarding the number of lines that Margot Robbie has as Sharon Tate (and Tarantino’s , rightfully, dismissive reaction to it)- is any indication, then Tarantino might be better off quitting even before that. But I am very interested in seeing what he does next- knowing that it’s his final film. Hope he stays far away from the dreaded Star Trek movie that he has been rumored to be doing; last thing i want him to be doing is a Sci-Fi movie of a done to death IP. As one of the most pre-eminent masters of modern cinema , i want him to go out in a blaze of glory by doing something drastically original. He is the only one capable of making these original, mid range. adult dramas anymore and hopefully he would make one as his last. Perhaps that 1930s gangster epic that he has been teasing us with for a long time . I am a big fan of that period as well as gangster movies, and it would be a fitting end to his career that started out with reinventing the gangster picture with Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction.