Synopsis: In 1969 Hollywood, two friends, an actor and a stuntman, try to stay employed. Meanwhile, a gang of sociopaths lurk around the rich and famous.
Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film had its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May, and ushered in its wide release with a July Hollywood premiere. This is just in time for it to be added to the Fall syllabi of any Quentin Tarantino course, such as Quentin Tarantino: Geek from the Valley or Genius Auteur?
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood features Leonardo DiCaprio as actor Rick Dalton and Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth, a stuntman. The two are long-time buddies, going back to when Rick was the lead in a television Western and Cliff was his stunt double. As the 60’s draw to a close, both have seen their opportunities thin. Rick books guest roles on series TV while most of Clint’s work is being Rick’s driver.
Like Redford and Newman before them, Pitt & DiCaprio exhibit major movie star wattage together. Their performances should pique Oscar’s interest. Lucky us that we get to watch them onscreen. In QT’s latest, their vastly different anti-hero characters are on a collision course with violence.
Margot Robbie has less screen time as real life actress Sharon Tate, a rising star married to director Roman Polanski. Without much dialogue, most of the time she is smiling and/or dancing. But Tarantino reportedly consulted with the actress’ sister, who had high praise for Robbie’s performance. In the movie, Tate and her husband are renting in the tony Hollywood Hills, in a house next door to Rick Dalton. Sometimes Rick sees the diminutive Polanski and the glamorous Tate zipping up their driveway in a convertible.
QT’s timeline begins less than a year before her murder. For those unfamiliar with the case, sociopath Charles Manson led a cult of miscreants who lived on the outskirts of Los Angeles at a defunct ‘Western town’ filming site. In the summer of 1969, they would brutally murder a heavily pregnant Sharon Tate and others at two different houses.
There’s a lot to unwrap for film analysts and QT aficionados. First, full disclosure: I am not a Quentin Tarantino fan. To my mind, his gifts as a director can’t override his stunted perspectives of the human condition and his glamorization of violence. Characters are soulless and vicious. Or righteous and vicious. Now, onto some QT tropes…
Violence Well, it wouldn’t be a QT film without violence, would it? It’s his calling card. Thankfully, the audience can get through a couple of hours before the worst of it kicks in. I’m all for murderers and rapists getting their just deserts, but QT gets positively gleeful over meting out vicious punishments. It’s like he’s telling us that we can feel free to enjoy the violence because it’s bad people getting sliced, diced, immolated and blown away. And he’s an equal opportunity guy; the women get savaged as much as the men. QT, in the vernacular of the time, some people don’t dig violence as entertainment. Classroom discussion topic: If Tarantino traveled back to the Old West lionized in Mid-century America, would he relish being in the crowd at public hangings?
Feetsies QT’s foot love is well-known. In “Once…Hollywood” the cameras linger on nubile female feet. Forget Margot Robbie’s gorgeous face! He rushes right to her feet. When her character walks to a matinee of her movie “The Wrecking Crew,” we are treated to the sight of her in a turtleneck, mini and grooviest of all, knee high white boots. Even better (for QT), once she’s seated at the theater she hoists her BARE feet on the back of the seat in front of her. Our starlet’s foot soles are kinda dirty. “So dirty,” drools Quentin.
More gratuitous foot shots of a pretty young yippie’s feet when she hitches a ride from Brad Pitt’s stuntman. Her feet are tantalizingly (to QT) pressed against the windshield. “Teasing,” drools Quentin.
We don’t get to see any bare male feet. Why would he withhold footage of sexy, male bare feet? Instead, the men’s feet are chastely hidden in cowboy boots (Leo) or moccasins (Brad). And I think I may now have a thing for men in moccasins. Damn you, Quentin! Classroom discussion topic: Should the MPAA include descriptors in a film’s rating specifically related to foot nudity and/or violence perpetrated with or against feet?
QT Trademark Soundtrack The “Once…Hollywood” music is era specific and, more importantly, QT specific. So, yeah, some kinda cool stuff and plenty of revived deadweight. You won’t hear the best of the late 60’s, so no Beatles or Jimi Hendrix. How I wished for some of LA’s finest: “Hello, I Love You” by the Doors or Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” But top marks go to QT for his use of the Rolling Stones’ “Out of Time.” So if Martin Scorsese didn’t have plans to see this movie, he will now. Classroom discussion topic: Could all of Tarantino’s soundtrack’s –past, present and future– be playing in his head simultaneously?
Students of QT have lots of material to cover in his roster of Bad Guys (or Women) vs. Not So Bad Guys (or Women). First, the not so bad guys…
Sure, Leo’s actor is self-involved and self-pitying. And you suspect he might make a Faustian deal for a career revival. But he tries to be a good friend to Brad’s stuntman. And when he gets a break playing a supporting role on a new Western, he makes friends (uncreepily) with a child actor named Trudi.
Brad Pitt’s stuntman may have killed his wife. And he seems to like doling out asskickings. (Speaking of which, I’d like to know what QT has against the late martial artist/actor Bruce Lee. In one scene, Brad’s character has a job working on a Bruce Lee show and sort of goads the actor into a fight. Bruce Lee comes off as an arrogant pr#$k.) However, our anti-hero tries to keep out of trouble. And he’s really good to his darling dog, Ruby. Shout out to the obviously smart Sayuri who plays Ruby; the super cute Staffie has a ginormous blockhead and big, warm gaze. She and Brad/Cliff enjoy their time together whether they are visiting Leo/Rick or chilling at the trailer they share that borders a drive-in. (Woo-hoo, free movies!)
Bad Guys Ugh, I hate all the sadistic bad guys and women in QT’s films. In “Once…Hollywood” the sadists are Charles Manson and his followers, who are mostly women. They dumpster dive and malinger in town, then hitchhike to the environs where they live at Spahn Ranch.
One day Brad’s character crosses paths with them when he pick up one of them –a pretty yippie, played by a very good Margaret Qualley– and drives her out to their lair. After introductions, they array around him like vacant-eyed demons. Dakota Fanning is one of them and she’s just as evil as she was as Jane in the Twilight series. Lena Dunham is there too, not looking at all out of place. Her character seems even more horrible than her character in “Girls.”
“Once…Hollywood” is worth seeing even if you don’t plan on making an examination of the oeuvre of Quentin Tarantino. Be prepared for a fair amount of audience participation. When I saw the film: whoops of approval when Brad doffs his shirt up on a roof, looking somehow both weathered and fit in the California sun. (Yay! for movie stars.) And during a scene of explosive, protracted violence the audience shouted and laughed. (Boo! to the laughing.)
There is (sort of) a plot beyond his usual tropes. We get to know late 60s Hollywood and Brad & Leo’s characters as they tool around LA. And QT has something to say about something Hollywood lost…or broship…or something. Students of Tarantino’s work can figure it out.