Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Whenever the weather starts to heat up, I get an urge to revisit my favourite film of 2019: Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
Joan Didion once wrote that the 60s ended on August 9,1969, when five people were brutally murdered at Sharon Tate’s house by members of “the Family”, Charles Manson’s cult. In many ways, Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 hit, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, is a meditation on the events of that fateful night, the effects of which reverberated far beyond the gated Hollywood community where the murders took place. Again, Didion understood it best: ‘The tension broke that day. The paranoia was fulfilled.’
So, while Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is about the Tate-Lafayette murders, it’s more so an exploration of what Didion was talking about: tension and rising paranoia in an era that swallowed up people and industries whole. Indeed, the film chronicles a real transitional moment in Hollywood lore: the ending of one age and the beginning of a new one, as certain parts of Old Hollywood were broken, battered, forgotten, and replaced by a new generation of film stars and the proliferation of hippie culture. To capture this, the film follows Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an actor whose once successful TV career has led to a stint of unsteady guest star roles, and Rick’s loyal stuntman and friend Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), whose own job is becoming obsolete as Rick’s prospects dwindle. There’s a real power in choosing DiCaprio and Pitt, two of the biggest stars in Hollywood history, to portray two men who are grappling with an in industry that is moving on without them. This is further exemplified by rising star Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) and her husband Roman Polanski, who move next door to Rick. The film documents the tension between the worlds that these characters inhabit, until they collide, suddenly and violently, in the climax of the film.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is less outrageous than one might expect from Tarantino, and perhaps it’s because this is the work of a more mature filmmaker in the later stage of his career (the film is number nine of Tarantino’s promised ten). This isn’t to say that Tarantino has foregone his penchant for violence or his acclaimed cinematic flare. Rest assured, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood offers plenty of both, but it’s certainly the most sentimental he’s ever been. Indeed, while Tarantino often communicates nostalgia in his work through personal nods to beloved moments and things in cinematic and musical history, it’s never felt quite so earnest as it does here, as long stretches of the film are dedicated to recreating scenes from iconic but mostly forgotten spaghetti westerns and TV shows from his youth. The result is a film that represents a sort of innocence lost, and a reflection both on days gone and a future not yet realised.
As with many of Tarantino’s films, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood did not escape controversy, particularly in its portrayal of a young Sharon Tate, whose screen-time and dialogue are fairly limited. And while counting lines seems like a dangerous way to start measuring how powerful a character is, the film’s success opened up a familiar dialogue, which is perhaps explored best by Buzzfeed writer Alison Willman (read more here), who asks: ‘is Tarantino bad to—or for—women?’ Truly, there’s no easy way to answer this question, because he’s a writer and director who often demonstrates a real sophistication and emotional dedication to certain female characters, but who can be flip, fetishistic, and even hateful (particularly in his depiction of violence against women) at other times. As noted by Willman, Tarantino’s favourite themes, behaviours, and preferences, which were born early in his career, have remained largely intact; it’s our culture that has changed.
Controversy aside, the film is equal parts dazzling and disturbing, as any love letter to Hollywood from someone like Tarantino would be. He’s reviving certain 60s tropes as much as he’s reviving his memories of the period they belong to. The result is a film that both celebrates and commiserates a version of Hollywood that—despite our hopes—was probably always more a self-mythologising machine than a real place. It’s somewhere we’ve never been but long to return to, and for what it’s worth, Tarantino just about manages to take us there, breathing new life into an age-old dream.