Review: ‘Once Upon a Hollywood’ an affectionate satire

by Shera Bhala | 10/4/19 2:00am

Welcome to 1969 Hollywood. Retro buildings, vintage cars and neon signs line Hollywood Boulevard. Men dress in bell bottoms, patterned shirts and turtlenecks with blazers. Women wear miniskirts and vinyl, knee-high boots. Flower children don bohemian outfits of the counterculture movement. The Quentin Tarantino-directed movie “Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood” pictures these vintage scenes through rose-colored glasses. 

The all-star cast for this comedy-drama includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Al Pacino and Margot Robbie. DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, an amusing, self-deprecating “has-been” actor, typecast as a villain for Westerns. Rick Dalton’s stunt double, Cliff Booth, played by Pitt, offers him company and friendship. In return, Booth is able to glimpse into the glamorous houses of Beverly Hills. Robbie plays an innocent, beautiful Sharon Tate, a rising actress married to director — and later, fugitive ­— Roman Polanski. United again after acting together in “The Wolf of Wall Street,” DiCaprio and Robbie are cast as neighbors living in sprawling houses on Cielo Drive. Elsewhere in Los Angeles, the hippies of the Manson Family have taken up residence in the abandoned Western set of Spahn Ranch. 

Tarantino embeds historical allusions throughout the film and intertwines the stories of the Manson children, led by cult figure Charles Manson, with the lives of the celebrity leads. Dalton and Booth meet with a director who suggests acting in “Spaghetti Westerns” over drinks at Hollywood’s oldest restaurant, Musso & Frank Grill. As the pair drives away from the establishment that F. Scott Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe were known to frequent, news about the sentencing of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, is reported on the radio. Later that evening, Tate and Polanski attend an exclusive party at the Playboy Mansion in its golden days. 

As Dalton worries about his fading fame, a young girl from the Manson Family, who goes by “Pussycat,” momentarily entices Booth. The hippie, played by Margaret Qualley, hitchhikes in Dalton’s 1966 Cadillac DeVille. Booth is the de-facto driver of the car, due to Dalton’s troubles with driving under the influence. Pussycat proceeds to openly propose sex to Booth — who declines — and places her dirty feet on the vehicle’s dash. A scene involving feet is expected from Tarantino, whose movies often include scenes with the characters of pretty women’s feet, observed by male leads. Booth lives in a trailer behind Van Nuys Drive-In Theater, with his loyal pit bull. He is rumored to have murdered his wife aboard a boat, has anger issues that lead to a fight on “The Green Hornet” set with Bruce Lee and struggles to find work as a stuntman. Despite his violent tendencies, which later contribute to the climactic scene of the movie, he finds a best friend in Dalton. 

A chain smoker and professed alcoholic, Dalton spends his nights drinking cocktails and memorizing lines while floating in his luxurious pool. He aspires to befriend Tate and Polanski in hopes of revitalizing his career and image. Tate is depicted as the youthful paragon of sweet innocence. In a sadly morbid meta-take on Tate’s acting career, her character proudly watches a matinee showing Tate’s real performance in “The Wrecking Crew” with Dean Martin. The sweet angelic aura of Tate’s persona, in addition to her pregnant state, garners a protective sympathy for her character. Her depiction, like other female characters in Tarantino movies, could be criticized for its sexism, seeing that in most of her scenes she is barefoot and pregnant. However, her depiction also deserves praise for its intentionally innocent portrayal of Tate that feeds into her posthumous adoration. Regardless, one hopes that her real-life brutal murder does not come to fruition in the movie. 

The hope that Tate escapes a murderous fate is appeased through the ending of “Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood.” Manson, having made a previous visit to the home of Tate and Polanski, orders some of his followers to kill them. Tarantino offers the narrative that everyone wishes was real: the hippies do not attack Tate and Polanski and instead set their homicidal sights on Dalton and Booth. Booth’s aggressively loyal pit bull proceeds to kill and maim the Manson followers and the residents of Cielo Drive live happily ever after.

Tarantino’s affection for Hollywood and its celebrities is evident as he gently satirizes their lives. He softly mocks Dalton’s obsession with celebrity status in an ageist film industry. After Dalton forgets his lines while filming a scene for a Western, he returns to his trailer angrily scolding himself for his forgetfulness, stutter and alcoholism. His character is pathetic, yet entirely sympathetic and endearing. His redemption comes in improvising a line while filming, which earns him praise and causes his confidence to return. The fame of these characters seems utterly fleeting, which makes their portrayal all the more dazzling. 

“Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood” captures the spirit of the ’60s film industry in a polaroid of vintage glamour and liberating freedom. Glittering and exciting, Tarantino shares his nostalgia for the Hollywood of the past. This nostalgia is coupled with a wishful desire for a fairytale ending to match the title of the movie. Sliding on a pair of Tarantino’s rose-colored glasses, once upon a time in Hollywood the Manson Family did not kill a pregnant actress and her friends in a glamorous Beverly Hills house. 

Instead, the heroes of Hollywood defend themselves in a gory, yet humorous battle reminiscent of “Pulp Fiction.” Tarantino’s 1994 crime drama, his pièce de résistance, while far more violent and complex in its non-linear style, has a presence in the new film. Booth sics his pit bull on the invaders, a scene accompanied by bloody graphics comparable to the killings by hitmen Vincent Vega, played by John Travolta, and Jules Winnfield, portrayed by Samuel L. Jackson, to secure a mysterious, glowing briefcase for their gangster boss. The singular violent scene in “Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood” seems a bit forced and idealized, but it is also the result of charm, humor and a desire for a different ending. Dalton’s use of a flamethrower to torch a Manson member in his pool is crazy, horrifying and hilarious all at once.

Tarantino masterfully weaves history and fiction into a humorous, affectionate story of Hollywood. While a fairytale about Hollywood seems vacuous upon first glance, each character is utterly endearing, and their lives engrossing. The brilliance of Tarantino’s portrayal of 1969 Hollywood is in its dreamy, wild surface and its heartfelt melancholic depths. There is a world to be adored, yet sadly yearned for in his portrayal. To compare the nostalgic polaroid of “Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood” with a song, Post Malone’s newly- released song “Hollywood’s Bleeding” contains similar elements in a more negative, tragic way. He views life in Hollywood as a vapid, painful existence. This Hollywood is the very world Tarantino escapes from in “Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood,” while in search of a golden, or rose-colored, past. 

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