Directed by: Quentin Tarantino
Written by: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Julia Butters, Austin Butler, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Luke Perry, Damien Lewis and Al Pacino
Early on in Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film, Once Upon … in Hollywood, talent agent Marvin Schwarz, played by Al Pacino, tells over-the-hill actor Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) that the villains and ‘heavies’ he is currently cast as are only there to be bested by the hero. He warns that if he keeps playing these characters his stock in Hollywood will plummet and he will only be thought of as the whipping-boy by the general public.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is set in 1969. 50 years later Marvin Schwarz’s sentiments couldn’t be further from the truth. When one thinks of Batman, one immediately thinks of Heath Ledger’s Joker. Josh Brolin’s Thanos is arguably the stand-out character of the Marvel film series. In Tarantino’s own films, it is Christoph Waltz winning Oscars for playing Col. Hans Landa in Inglorious Basterds (2009) and let us not forget the recent phenomenon of glorifying actual, real-life villains, most predominantly Ted Bundy.
Schwarz’s dated attitude toward screen-acting is one of the many facets that make Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood a film about transition, most ostensibly the transition between Old Hollywood and New Wave American Cinema, the changing of the guard. However, this is a Tarantino fantasy and could be classed as the final instalment of a trilogy of alternate history films, along with the aforementioned Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained (2012). As obviously as the title suggests, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is a fairy-tale in which the colliding forces of the Old and New Hollywood find harmony and join forces against a common enemy, the ‘fucking hippies’.
Optimism seeps through this film. Although Rick Dalton is succumbing to alcoholism and self-pity, one never fears that redemption isn’t around the corner. There is a scene, one of the best in the film, where Dalton proves Schwarz wrong and goes full Calvin Candie. On account of this, there is a surprising lack of tension or risk in the film. Audiences, who know Tarantino’s filmography, know that he can be a master at building tension, the opening scene of Inglorious Basterds being case in point. One quickly realises that this is not Tarantino’s raison d’etre, despite the sinister lore of The Manson Family looming large on the narrative.
This realisation reaches an apex in a scene where Cliff Booth (Pitt), Dalton’s stunt double and general ‘gofer’ finds himself on the Spahn Ranch, the settlement of the notorious hippie cult. Tarantino builds tension and deliberately alleviates it into comedic set-piece. Once Upon A Time… In Hollywood is one of his most overtly comedic works in a screen-writing career coloured with black humour and silver-tongued wit. Nobody gave Dakota Fanning the memo however; she is terrifying as Squeaky Fromme in this sequence. Fanning is one of the most talented actresses in film today.
Pitt’s Cliff Booth is the perfect balance to DiCaprio’s angst ridden Rick Dalton. His Zen attitude toward life makes him easily the coolest character in the film. DiCaprio and Pitt are pivotal to the success of this film because in many ways it is a buddy flick. We follow these two characters through two (and a half) days of their life, meandering conversations and scenes rely on their charisma. Tarantino may be making a meta-critical point here. The film spends a lot of time lamenting the loss of star power in Hollywood, yet the two leads of the film are living proof that framework is not entirely dead. It is entirely questionable whether the reception of this film would have been as good if Tarantino chose to cast out of left-field.
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is the product of a director who is fanatical about the industry and has an insane amount of creative control over his productions. Making films like this is clearly a cathartic experience for Tarantino. For a man whose psyche is so ingrained in cinema perhaps it is actually like re-writing history. Lucky enough for us, it also happens to be thoroughly entertaining.