We risk enjoying “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood”
because Hollywood IS (at its best) fantasy!
It’s a good movie when you are still thinking about it days later. So it is with Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, set in 1969. The title plays on Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West released the previous year, the one that turned the noble Henry Fonda into a cruel, kid-killing anti-hero.
Rick Dalton, the title character played by Leonardo di Caprio, is a relic of the cowboy TV show craze of the late 1950s early 1960s (say, Hugh O’Brien). Although his show is called “Bounty Law” — a takeoff on Wanted Dead or Alive, whose Steve McQueen is depicted by a dead-ringer of an actor. Turns out he once vied for the attentions of the tragically fated Sharon Tate.
Tarantino’s movie is laugh out-loud in places. Dalton rides into one “Bounty Law” episode with a stiff draped over a horse. Can’t remember Josh Randall ever dispatching his quarry.
The series is canceled after Rick makes hubristic demands; now his career is reduced to playing guest villain-of-the-week on other stars’ TV shows. Brad Pitt plays his best friend and former stunt double Cliff who, it is rumored (like Robert Wagner), killed his wife aboard a yacht.
Once Upon a Time … is set against that other big 50-year anniversary — after the pride of the Moon landing and the groovy peace and love of Woodstock — that anniversary being the horrible Sharon Tate murders on August 9. (“I am here to do the devil’s work,” announces the intruder. In real life, the young starlet begged the Manson family members to spare her unborn child. Her last words were, “Mother … mother.”)
The fictional Rick Dalton lives just down the road, as it happens. Audience dread ramps up as we spend time with the radiant Ms. Tate. Blaska Policy Werkes doesn’t do spoilers but suffice to say it’s Tarantino so there is plenty of violence but also his trademark revenge fantasies.
If you remember the 1960s …
It’s fun catching all the cultural references. When Cliff (Brad Pitt) smokes his first LSD-laced cigarette, he purrs “And away we go!” That was Jackie Gleason’s signature start to his weekly TV variety show in the ‘60s.
Paul Revere and the Raiders are prominent in the sound track. Turns out they were produced by Terry Melcher (son of Doris Day), who lived at 10050 Cielo Drive with his girlfriend, Candice Bergen. Melcher had considered taking on another song writer, Charles Manson, before backing out. Manson, history records, went looking for Melcher at that address only to be told he had moved out. Instead, Sharon Tate is standing in the doorway.
Almost everyone appears in this 2½-hour movie, including Al Pacino as Marvin Schwarz, “expertly chewing the scenery like he just came off a hunger strike,” according to this reviewer:
Schwarz “brings us up to speed on Rick Dalton’s filmography, lavishing special praise on the action epic “The 14 Fists of McCluskey.” (No one invents names like Tarantino.)”
Another laugh-out loud. (Flashback scene from that fictitious movie: Rick immolates a coven of Nazis yelling, “How about some fried sauerkraut!” It recalls Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds. Schwarz wants Rick to do Italian westerns.
“Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood” is certain to be nominated best movie. Rooting for Brad Pitt as best actor and — for best supporting — young Margaret Qualley as “Pussycat,” the sexpot Manson family hitchhiker who brought Cliff to Spahn Movie Ranch. (The young actress is the daughter of Andie McDowell.)
Would Huckeberry Finn be published today?
It is our practice to turn to the movie review website Metacritic AFTER watching a film, when we’ve had a chance to form our own impression. The website ranks critical reviews of each theater release to arrive at an aggregate score. Our movie scored a very respectable 84 out of 100. On that scale, the review in The New Yorker was evaluated at only 40 points. What did we miss?
(We may be philistines, but we believe Back to the Future and Groundhog Day, for two, are classics ranking with The Third Man and Chinatown — the latter, of course, directed by Roman Polanski.)
The New Yorker seems to have enjoyed the Tarantino fantasy, too, until it “woke” up.
Tarantino himself, with deft directorial technique, delivers — thanks to a stunt or a special effect: when Cliff, preparing to repair Rick’s TV antenna, strips to the waist, straps on a tool belt, and, dispensing with a ladder, leaps from the driveway to the roof in a few easy bounds.
Tarantino does not only create such moments— his movie is a loving dramatization of the power of certain kinds of actors, in conjunction with writer-directors and, above all, an entire system of production, to deliver them. “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood” is a paean to the recently lost age of the loudly lamented mid-range drama for adults which is just such a movie itself.
Tarantino is delivering what he considers to be a cinematic gift horse, a popular film with real artistic ambitions — and his movie’s very theme is the fruitless, counter-productive, and even misguided energy that would be wasted looking in the horse’s mouth.
So far, so good. But then The New Yorker virtue signals like a race and gender major behind home plate.
The identity-politics geiger counter ticked
Here, Tarantino’s obsessions intersect with modern critical sensibility — and vulnerability.) Tarantino has a history of seeming to enjoy planting racial slurs in the mouths of his characters, and “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood” is no different.
Well, yes, Cliff makes some mildly disparaging ethnic references. (“Here, put on these sun glasses. You don’t want the Mexicans to see you cry.”) And anti-feminism:
The movie’s most prominent female character, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), is given even less substance; she is depicted as an ingenuous Barbie doll who ditzily admires herself onscreen.
In “Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood,” Tarantino reserves the glory moments of actorly allure, swagger, and charisma for male actors: when Tate blithely admires herself, it’s for the role of the “klutz” who falls on her ass for Dean Martin’s amusement and titillation.
Pilgrim, this WAS 1969! Nixon was President! Ted Kennedy was shagging campaign workers! (Chappaquiddick: July 19, 1969.) You might just as well have kvetched that Cliff and Rick SMOKE CIGARETTES! ON SCREEN! Despoiling young children who might take up vaping as a gateway drug to Trump rallies and tiki torches!
Blaska at the Movies end credits: It’s a buddy movie, for Chrissakes! Huck and Jim floating down Santa Monica Boulevard! Talk about fruitless, counter-productive, and misguided energy looking in the gift horse’s mouth. What a horse’s ass.