Summer of '69
I have been a Quentin Tarantino fanboy since Pulp Fiction was released in 1994. I've seen every one of his movies multiple times. The release of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction in the early 90s marked a transition for me to adult movies (I was in my early 20s at the time). So whenever a new QT film is released, I feel like it's my birthday.
When I heard about Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, my heart kinda jumped. I don't watch trailers, but I knew the timeframe (LA in the late 60s), and that Margot Robbie would play Sharon Tate. That meant Tarantino was going to address the Manson murders. As someone who is a little too interested in serial killer/true crime shows and podcasts, my adrenaline jumped to about a 12 on a 10-point scale.
I've seen Once Upon a Time in Hollywood twice now, once a digital projection, and the second time on 35mm. If you can find it in the latter format, go for it. Digital projection is too bright and clear for a cinema. 35mm adds the right amount of darkness/character. And for a film set in 1969, about the movie industry... yeah, it's spot on.
Before I get to the review, I've been surprised at the number of reactions I've seen on social media from people who have no idea about the Manson Family context. By the way, the film doesn't help on that score; neither the word Manson or Family is spoken. There are a handful of references to someone named Charlie, and he makes a very, very brief appearance on screen, but that's it. If you want context for the universe in which the film is set, the best place to hear about the Manson Family is Karina Longworth's podcast You Must Remember This. It's amazing in its details and scope. Here's a link: You Must Remember This
============== Approaching Spoiler Territory =================
The Manson Family set the boundaries of this movie, sort of like the sidelines on a football field. They are there, you see and interact with them, but only tangentially. The movie is about Leonardo DiCaprio's aging character actor, and his sidekick/stunt man/gopher Brad Pitt. They are bygones of a previous era. One of the major developments of late 60s Hollywood was the fall of the studio system. Actors were more and more on their own, independent contractors. Rick Dalton, former western TV star, is seeing his world turned upside down. The system is aging him out, relegating him to star in Italian Spaghetti Westerns-- like real-life actor Clint Eastwood, who belongs to the same generation as "Rick Dalton." You see Rick's conservative, pro-establishment attitudes vocalized every time he encounters one of those "damn hippies."
There are a couple of scenes in the movie that really touched me. One is a conversation between DiCaprio and his young co-star. They're talking during their lunch break about their approaches to acting. She maintains character at all times, demanding he refer to her by her TV name, rather than her own. She is professional in her approach. Rick is just going through the motions, hidden behind his outrageous costume. She is progressive in the way she understands herself; he is regressive, calling her petty little names, though not in a condescending way. Talking about the book he is reading, Rick sees himself; aging, moving toward irrelevance, pushed by uncontrollable forces into a future he doesn't want. He breaks down. She comforts him.
Brad Pitt's character, a long-time stunt man for Rick Dalton, is way past obscurity. He cannot get a job in the industry. He's reduced to driving Rick around, doing odd jobs for him, and boosting his ego at every chance. He lives alone in a trailer behind a drive in cinema with his dog. He eats mac and cheese from the blue box with a fork straight out of the pot. Driving around town, running errands for Rick, he begins flirting with the same hippie young woman who's hitching to and from an old TV western set on the outskirts of LA. He gives her a ride out there-- Spawn Ranch, where he and Rick once filmed series. He knows the owner, wants to check in. The entire scene at Spawn Ranch, around 10 minutes, is mesmerizing. He may be unsure about his future, but Cliff Booth is not approaching it with the same fear and grief as Rick Dalton.
Have you ever felt irrelevant? Like your best days are past? Sometimes I do. DiCaprio's performance in this movie is electric. Brad Pitt too. And Margot Robbie is full of joy and laughter.
================== Spoiler Territory =====================
The final ten minutes of the movie dramatically rewrites history in the same way as the end of Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds. That film asked the question, "What would the world look like if Hitler was assassinated before the end of WWII?" This film asks, "What would LA/California/the USA look like if the Manson family was destroyed before they could wreak their havoc?" In other words, Vietnam and social unrest were already causing turmoil in the society. Robert Kennedy was assassinated in California a year before Sharon Tate and the others. The murders of prominent figures in the super-wealthy/celebrity neighborhoods of LA led to even more panic. Ronald Reagan was Governor of California in 1969; Richard Nixon was President. The electorate had already moved to the right before the Manson Family unleashed its evil. Did their rampage and the subsequent fear it caused contribute to this movement to the right? If their violence never happened, would things have calmed down sooner?
I have no idea.
But for me that's the power of cinema. It inspires these questions. This isn't the best QT film; that will always be Pulp Fiction. That movie changed the culture. Once Upon a Time is not my favorite QT film. That's most likely Kill Bill. But it is such a love letter to Sharon Tate, who should have lived. It is a love letter to Old Hollywood, which should have continued. They drive all through old LA, past the neon marquees of one-screen cinemas. No shopping malls. No multi-plex cinemas. Margot Robbie goes to one of those cinemas, sits near the front, puts on giant glasses, and watches the actual Sharon Tate on film. The audience laughs every time she is on screen.
Most of the reviews of the movie focus on its nostalgia, and I guess mine has too. But for me, the movie looks forward, not backward. It's not a time machine to a fantasized, innocent past. It's an invitation to consider what our society might look like if we embraced innocence and joy instead of fear and violence. Next week will be the 50th anniversary of the real-life events of this film. Look at our society in 2019. Listen to the rhetoric. Are we powerless, resigned to a future we do not control? Or given the opportunity, like Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth, will we become actual heroes and allow what is good and beautiful in our society to continue?