Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019). A modern fairy tale.

Tarantino’s 9th Film.

  • Director: Quentin Tarantino
  • Rating: R
  • Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie
  • Screenplay: Quentin Tarantino
  • Running Time: 161 Minutes
  • Premiered: July 28, 2015 (US Premier)

Synopsis: A faded television actor and his stunt double strive to achieve fame and success in the film industry during the final years of Hollywood’s Golden Age in 1969 Los Angeles. (From IMDb)

I love movies. Everything about the process fascinates me.

The storytelling, the acting, the characters, the directing, and the cinematography all have to meld together just right to make movie magic. Bad movies and amazing movies require the same process of creation, but the margins between failure and success relies on all the components working perfectly.  If only one part of the movie process breaks down, the whole film goes from Oscar worthy to Lifetime prime time showing.

It takes just as much effort to make a bad film as it does to make a good one. 

Quentin Tarantino loves film making. You can see it in the meticulousness of his films. Each shot comes across as a love letter to cinema. Now a lot of times the attention to detail gets lost in the story, no one can ever claim that Tarantino shies away from violence. All the gore and violence can hide the excellent camera work behind each shot.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood strays away from Tarantino’s usual fare and reserves the violence for when you least expect it to appear.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood revolves around the fading career of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).

In 1959, ten years before the main narrative, Dalton starred in a successful television show called Bounty Law. In 1969, no one seems to care about the career of a faded 1950s Western star. Floundering around, Dalton feels even more adrift once the hotshot director Roman Polanski and his young wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) move in next door. Literally new Hollywood moving in on “Old” Hollywood. Cliff feels the sting as well since his salary depends upon Dalton working. In this new decade, Cliff functions more as an all around handyman, chauffeur, and best friend than stunt double.

In 1969, Dalton lives in a Hollywood he no longer recognizes. Due to a series of bad decisions, Dalton left Bounty Law after three seasons to pursue a movie career. This transition did not work out and Dalton has struggled to find his place ever since. Unlike today, television stars rarely worked in movies and film stars almost never appeared on television in the 1960s.

A successful television show is the closest thing to a steady paycheck that actors come close to attaining. Giving up a stable television paycheck to pursue movie glory requires a lot of gumption and luck. Sadly, Dalton possesses loads of gumption but little luck. He and Cliff spend most of the 1960s drifting on the fringes as Dalton carves out a sad career playing the guest “heavy” on a string of television shows.

The movie feels like a series of vignettes about Hollywood in the 1969 versus a tight narrative. Dalton’s career in the film heavily mirrors Clint Eastwood’s trajectory. They both starred in successful western themed television shows, struggled to break into the mainstream movie world, and found redemption in Italy starring in popular spaghetti westerns.

Hollywood today does not resemble the Hollywood of 1969. Tarantino presents a reverential, rose colored, fairy tale view of Hollywood on the verge of the 1970s. Indeed, I finished the movie wishing the world presented in the film actually existed. The bad guys get what they deserve and the good guy rides off into the sunset on his horse ready to fight another day. Or in Dalton’s case gets invited over by Sharon and Roman. Almost the same thing.

I contend that Cliff Booth represents the heart of the film. He sticks by Dalton through thick and thin, is willing to do anything for his friend, and works hard to stay out of trouble. Cliff comes from a troubled background, served in the military, and may have murdered his wife (this is Tarantino after all). Yet he is fiercely loyal and sticks around to help Dalton survive a rough patch in their mutual careers. You cannot buy that kind of loyalty. Cliff sticks around because of friendship and mutual respect, not money. Plus Brad Pitt still looks amazing. You go man.

Rick Dalton survives alcoholism, depression, and terrible bit parts on sad television shows. If anything, his arc shows the downsides of fame. He hits the crest of an amazing wave of success that soon crashes down on him. Falling into despair, he loses touch with his work ethic until he meets a young child actress who reignites his passion for the craft. Fame alters reality and makes it hard to function when you go from dizzying success to working as a bit player. But Dalton perseveres and sees a resurgence once he puts his pride behind him and embraces Italian cinema.

Sharon Tate, the wife of Roman Polanski, actually existed. She was an American actress and model during the 1960s. During her short career, she played several small roles on television before appearing in films. She regularly appeared in fashion magazines as a model and cover girl. After receiving positive reviews for her acting, Tate became one of Hollywood’s most promising newcomers of the 1960s and seemed verged for stardom in the 1970s.

Tragically, on August 9, 1969, Tate and four others were murdered by members of the Manson Family at her home. At the time of her death, she was eight-and-a-half months pregnant. Margot Robbie floats through this film like an ethereal vision. Tarantino treats Tate almost reverentially and presents her in the best light possible. But he also does not gloss over some of her person problems. I think Tarantino treated Tate quite well and honored her memory.

Tate serves as the direct comparison to Dalton, the shining star illuminating the falling meteor.

Charles Manson and his “family” briefly appear in the film. The actors do an excellent job capturing the creepiness and unnerving dedication of cult followers bent on evil. However, this film does not actually focus on Manson and his evil gang. Tarantino pulls them in more as a representation of the darkness that exists on the fringes of Hollywood. In this fairy tale, Manson is the villain but exists in the shadows until exploding into focus in the third act.

For a Tarantino narrative, the climax comes surprisingly late into the film. He treats Dalton and Cliff like old friends and gives them time to introduce themselves to the audience. When the payoff comes, it is short and gory in true Tarantino fashion.

As a fan of old movies, I really enjoyed this. Could the narrative have benefited from some tighter editing? Yes. But I thoroughly enjoyed the rambling, seemingly randomness of the story. Tarantino is not my favorite director but I appreciate the artistry of his films and he almost always comes up with something original. I recommend the film, but it is not for everyone.