By Ryan Keating-Lambert
Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an unabashedly glorious study of the washed-up actor. Both DiCaprio and Pitt are equally intriguing and lovable, but as expected, the events of the Tate murders, and those surrounding it, are relegated mere background noise… but Qualley’s ‘Pussycat’ is fantastic.
Tired western star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) struggle for new roles at the end of Hollywood’s Golden Age, while Dalton’s new neighbour Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her career are just beginning…
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is certainly one of the slowest Tarantino films in recent years and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We spend majority of the time with Dalton and Booth as they make their rounds of some of Hollywood’s most gloriously golden film studios and stars of the late ’60s.
DiCaprio is of course, phenomenal as Dalton, an alcoholic western television star who spends his days having outstanding nervous breakdowns both on and off set, as his stuntman buddy and driver Booth tries to keep him in check.
Although the film boasts a lot of characters based on real-life Hollywood figures like Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski, Steve McQueen and Bruce Lee… Dalton is entirely fictional although Tarantino did supposedly base him on a combination of ‘handsome but rugged’ actors like George Maharis, Edd Byrnes, Tab Hunter and Vince Edwards.
There’s no denying that the guy is an fascinating and worthy addition to the Tarantino collection of great characters, but Pitt’s Booth is equally if not more fascinating. Living the simple life in a beat-up trailer with his pooch, Booth lives hand to mouth with a wrinkled smirk and a rough and tumble back story that captures the attention of many, including Tarantino regular Kurt Russell (who also narrates the story) as action movie director ‘Randy’ who’s reluctant to give Booth a job as an on-set stuntman, and the one and only Bruce Lee, played beautifully by Mike Moh.
Lee’s representation as a kind of arrogant pretty boy in the film has of course ran into some controversy with the media and Lee’s family… Tarantino stands by the character and his arrogance, and so do I. I mean, why not? The guy probably was arrogant! It’s probably one of the most hilarious moments in the film and in no way disrespects the actor and his craft.
There are just so many characters in this film that cross paths with either Dalton or Booth. Some of them wholly forgettable like Timothy Olyphant as Lancer star actor James Stacy – that whole part of the film, although a clear tribute to westerns and their loyal stars, feels a little too pushy and distracting.
But then there’s Margaret Qualley (The Leftovers) as the deranged flower child and Manson Family member ‘Pussycat’ that leaps off the screen with frenetic energy and in-your-face sexuality. She’s intriguing but terrifying. A flawless embodiment of the Manson Spahn Ranch (rebuilt especially for the film), not to mention that entire period of Hollywood history. She really made this film for me. Also, she’s Andy MacDowell’s daughter!
I was originally sold on the idea of Tarantino returning to a Pulp Fiction format with a series of interconnected stories, but it still feels like a Dalton story – I get that, but personally… I wanted more from the Family. I wanted more from Manson… and I wanted more from Tate.
Margot Robbie makes a great Sharon Tate and floats effortlessly from scene to scene. Even if her screen time is rather short (longer than the original Cannes cut mind you), she dazzles in the cinema scene where she shamelessly watches her latest film The Wrecking Crew (real footage by the way) and curiously observes the reactions of the audience.
The references are are obviously aplenty in this film. It never feels like overload though. The countless nods to films, actors and songs of the ’60s and beyond feel worthy, realistic and compliment Tarantino’s story rather than smother it in nostalgic bullshit. Let me put it this way – I didn’t feel like I was watching an episode of Stranger Things and that’s definitely a good thing!
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a beautiful character driven tribute to old-time movie heroes, as well as the grand and bloody finale of Hollywood’s Golden Age. It’s enjoyable and engaging throughout… for the most part. Don’t let the real-life events of the Tate murders put you off this film either… It treats the subject matter with grace and dignity and everything comes out feeling very… well, Tarantino.q