**** 70MM SPOILERS!****
Imagine if Jack and Rose had somehow saved the Titanic. Or if Kevin Costner’s Jim Garrison managed to stop Oswald before he shot JFK. What if Marvel’s Captain America put Hitler behind bars and prematurely ended World War 2? If any of these scenarios are too much to imagine, let alone enjoy, then I’m not entirely sure Quentin Tarantino’s latest grand myth, “Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood” is your pack of Red Apples.
“Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood” (2019) chronicles a six-month span in the year 1969. This was the cusp between the studio system of old Hollywood giving way to the new filmmaking mavericks such as Roman Polanski (“Rosemary’s Baby”) and Dennis Hopper (“Easy Rider”). At the core of the movie are two buddies; fading 1950s TV cowboy star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his easygoing, loyal stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt, who seems to be having as much fun as the audience). In some ways, it’s almost a love story of two old and loyal friends who’d near literally take a bullet for each other (well, Cliff would take one for Rick, anyway…).
Rick is a frightfully insecure alcoholic desperate for a comeback vehicle, while Cliff is virtually un-hirable because of a true/untrue rumor that he killed his wife (shades of Robert Blake). As with many unprovable Hollywood myths, the fate of Cliff’s wife is left entirely for the viewer to decide. While the vain Rick struggles with his inner demons on a daily basis, the more relaxed Cliff takes whatever comes his way, preferring to live his life one day to the next. Both actors give performances that might very well put them on Oscar’s radar for next year, especially DiCaprio (it takes a very good actor to play a struggling, mediocre actor).
Rick’s real-life neighbor in the now infamous Cielo Drive in the L.A. hills is none other than rising star, young newlywed, and mother-to-be Sharon Tate (an ethereal Margot Robbie). As seen in “Once…”, Tate is portrayed as more of an ideal than a fully realized character… a fantasy conglomerate of beauty, sunniness and youthful energy.
While Robbie doesn’t quite look like the real-life Sharon Tate (a point made matter-of-factly as she watches one of Tate’s movies), she more than captures Tate’s pre-Farrah Fawcett style of California exuberance. Tate and her Polish wunderkind husband, director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) live next door to Rick on Cielo Drive, where they are ascending directly opposite of Rick’s descent.
Cliff, Rick and Sharon represent the three tiers of celebrity. Rising star Sharon lives in the fleeting, gilded comfort of mainstream films while bitter Rick is a faded TV cowboy in an age of declining westerns. Meanwhile stuntman Cliff lives at the periphery of it all, residing in a trailer behind a drive-in theater with his loyal dog. Brad Pitt’s Cliff is a 20th century urbanized version of the straight-shooter cowboys that his pal Rick plays on TV. Cliff is like a Tarantino reimagining of Lee Majors’ “The Fall Guy”… just as comfortable punching out a$$holes in real life as he would in front of a camera.
Thrown into the trajectories of these three are the infamous Manson ‘family’ of lethal hippies, led by pint-size conman Charles Manson (a cameo by Damon Herriman). We meet some of the Manson family too, including fictitious ‘Pussycat’ (Margaret Qualley) and the real-life rest, including Gypsy (Lena Dunham), Linda Kasabian (Maya Hawke), dimwitted Klem (James Landry Hebert), hilariously-hard-to-kill Sadie (Mikey Madison), none-too-bright Tex (Austin Butler) and Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning), who would, in the real world, take a shot at president Gerald Ford six years later.
Knowledge of what is supposed to happen later fills the audience with dread, especially for those who read (nee: devoured) attorney Vincent Bugliosi’s real-life account of “Helter Skelter” back in the 1970s. This is where writer/director Quentin Tarantino pulls his biggest and most fanciful bait-and-switch; Rick and Cliff are not Jack & Rose-like observers to a historically inevitable tragedy… Rick and Cliff are are active participants. Tarantino deliberately places fictional interlopers Rick and Cliff in this specific time and place in order to shake things up a bit.
Turns out that Cliff once worked on the infamous “Spahn Movie Ranch” (the Manson family hideout) as a stuntman for Rick’s TV old western show. He arrives at the ranch to drop off the hitchhiking Pussycat, and wants to say ‘hi’ to his old pal George Spahn (it’s true that the blind and infirm Spahn was ‘taken care of’ by the Manson family in exchange for using his movie ranch as a de facto commune). Classic Tarantino tension arises (much like the standoff between Ringo and Jules in “Pulp Fiction”) when the affable but tough-as-hell Cliff meets resistance to his seeing his ‘old friend’ George (Bruce Dern, in a hilarious cameo). Highlights include a violent confrontation with permanently spaced family member Klem (“Fix it!”).
There is another historical run-in scene that has little bearing on the rest of the film, but has caused a lot of ire with martial arts mavens. It sees a somewhat arrogant Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) challenging a smirking, disbelieving Cliff to a fight. Cliff, of course, somehow manages to kick Lee’s ass. It’s like seeing a rusty old Plymouth V8 ram into a shiny new Porsche. Yes, it’s utterly improbable, but given that Cliff is a work of fiction it doesn’t really matter. It’s not that different than a nubile Jennifer Connelly encountering a lustfully leering W.C. Fields at the South Seas Club in “The Rocketeer” (1991). It’s not meant to disrespect Lee (whom Tarantino idolizes, as evidenced by the various Lee homages in “Kill Bill Part 1”), but rather Tarantino affectionately taking some of the piss out of his late idol, nothing more. Yes, the Bruce Lee scene could’ve just as easily been deleted, but it adds to the texture and flavor of this no-holds-barred collision of 1969 Hollywood reality and fantasy.
The final collision between real-life and fiction doesn’t take place at the Tate-Polanski home, but at Rick’s house next door. With houseguest Cliff and his loyal dog dishing out some hilariously gruesome and oddly karmic pre-payback to the would-be Manson murderers. The most violent of the Manson girls (Sadie) meets a particularly nasty and comically over-the-top fate when a suddenly heroic Rick joins in the melee.
Yes, the climax of the movie is completely ridiculous, and would probably send real-life crime historians into a conniption fit. If one is looking for a by-the-book docudrama of the Manson murders, they’d be better off with the gritty 1976 TV-docudrama “Helter Skelter.” 43 years later, “Helter Skelter” is still the gold standard of Manson stories. Steve Railsback’s portrayal of Charles Manson is downright chilling. There have been other retellings of the Manson murders since then, but none quite as authentic and no-nonsense as 1976’s “Helter Skelter.” Highly recommended.
Tarantino’s film (still shot on Kodak film stock by longtime Tarantino-Oliver Stone director of photography Robert Richardson) feels like a series of Hollywood tall tales told by an aging celebrity to a table of interested listeners. Tales of “that time I kissed Marilyn Monroe,” or “that time I accidentally punched out John Wayne.” Yes, we know that such stories are most likely bulls#!t, but it doesn’t matter because they’re wildly entertaining …. with both the listener and the storyteller enjoying themselves. And Quentin Tarantino is a master storyteller. His movies are permeated with rich characters, suspense and wildly over-the-top black comedy.
At 2 hours and 45 minutes, “Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood” is like a day spent listening to (and enjoying) a never-ending supply of grandiose tall tales of working in ’the industry.’
By the end of it, that day spent hearing those tall tales doesn’t feel wasted by a second.