Quentin Tarantino has claimed in recent interviews that he has one more film left in him. If that is the case (for we have heard such claims before from the likes of Steven Soderbergh), then that final fllm may turn out to be a palate cleanser of sorts and one that, I hope, brings his film career to an end with a bang (after all, he could still write and direct episodic television for any of the streaming services out there). His new, and possibly penultimate, film Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood is a mature, restrained summation of his themes, obsessions and stylistic tics. His penchant for grindhouse-style violence and historical revisionism, his novelistic time-defying structure, his love of film as both an art form and a cultural artifact and of the unsung talent that works on its periphery, and his love for the spoken and written word are all here. But that I-much-am-smarter-and-cleverer-than-thou attitude that marred and turned me off his last two films, Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight, is notably absent. For Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood, more than any of his past films, is deeply personal, a love letter to a culture and a way of seeing and making films that is no longer with us.
Tarantino has deliberately set Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood in1969. That year marked a turning point for pop culture, American politics and society: The Beatles recorded their last album together; Woodstock; the free Rolling Stones concert in Altamont, California that ended in multiple deaths and a near riot (vividly captured in Albert and David Maysles’ and Charlotte Zwerin’s stunning documentary Gimme Shelter a year later); the premiere of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the film that pretty much gave us the buddy film as we know it today; Easy Rider; and the murder of Sharon Tate, Roman Polanski’s wife, and four more people at the hands of the Charles Manson clan. A man landed on the moon that year and Nixon was elected president. It was the year that marked the beginning of the end for the counterculture as folks slowly began to realize that yes, there is a dark side to all that sex, drugs and rock and roll. Tarantino may have been six years old at the time, but he still remembers the sights and sounds of that era, of one radio station playing non-stop in the car, of movie theaters and palaces lining up one entire street. His film is suffused with a sense of melancholia, of things falling apart. But it is also one full of love for those who toiled in the margins of the culture and the industry and for the work they created and from which Tarantino derived much enjoyment as a kid, as a teen and as a video store clerk.
By casting Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as, respectively, actor Rick Dalton and his stuntman Cliff Booth, Tarantino is not only tipping his hat at George Roy Hill’s first collaboration with Robert Redford and Paul Newman but also to the genre they were so keen on reinventing: the western. Rick was the star of Bounty Law, a popular western TV show of the 50s, before he decided to call it quits and make his transition to films alongside his best friend and stuntman. The move came too little too late: Hollywood was undergoing one of its frequent transformations, going after the raw, hip talent of the Dennis Hoppers and Peter Fondas of the world while leaving so many like Rick and Cliff behind. Forced to guest-starring roles as the villain of the week in such series as Mannix and The FBI, Rick is approached by agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino, in a role I wish Tarantino had done more to flesh out) with an offer Rick initially refuses: to work in Italy alongside Sergio Corbucci (the second greatest director of spaghetti westerns after Sergio Leone). Rick is offered the role of the lead villain in the TV series Lancer (actually broadcast on CBS from 1968-1970 whose guest stars included Bruce Dern who has a small role in this film) under the stewardship of actor/director Sam Wanamaker (who was later responsible for the restoration of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London).
Cliff, on the other hand lives off whatever scraps fall from Rick’s plate while driving him around town from job to interview to job, running errands and fixing things around the house while reminiscing about past mistakes. While Rick can’t yet come to terms with the changes in the industry, Cliff has taken a more laissez-fare attitude: as long as he has enough to feed his dog and himself, he is fine. His path eventually crosses with those of the members of Manson’s cult who have taken over the Spahn Movie Ranch where Bounty Law was shot. The sequence is a true tour de force, as Tarantino briefly turns his dewy reminiscence into a tense, chilling moment as Cliff lets his instincts and suspicions take over (the sequence alone is worthy of study, so beautifully constructed it is). Cliff could be a distant cousin to Pitt’s Lt. Aldo Raine in Inglourious Basterds; they share the same sense of humor and Texan drawl. But Cliff is also a man that has a very low threshold for bullshit, who prefers to observe first before jumping into action.
This is not the first time that Tarantino intermingles fictional and real characters and events to create a parallel universe of sorts. A Tarantino-verse, if you will. But while that fusion had a tongue-in-cheek quality in films like Inglourious Basterds, here Tarantino uses that mix to create a poignant portrait of an era much like E.L. Doctorow did in his novels Ragtime and Billy Bathgate. As fictional constructs, Rick and Cliff stand for the hundreds of mostly anonymous character actors, stuntmen and behind-the-camera workers responsible for the sausages that came out of Hollywood’s entertainment factories, men and women who breathed the same air as the Bruce Lees and Steve McQueens of the world (who are uncannily brought to life by Mike Moh and Damian Lewis, respectively). And while adding the Manson family and Sharon Tate to the mix may be tantamount to throwing an incendiary device to the proceedings (especially when Tarantino has Tate and Polanski living next door to Rick’s mansion), they are part of a larger tapestry.
Sharon Tate is here portrayed as a symbol of all that was good and exciting and hopeful of that counterculture, that ray of sun that made everybody believe that everything was possible, even peace in the world until it was poisoned by one man and his coterie of groupies (Manson appears only once in the film). Tate is also the ultimate Hollywood dreamer: when she stops at a local movie theater showing the Matt Helm-vehicle The Wrecking Crew where she had a supporting role, we see in her eyes, as she watches herself on the screen, a little child amazed at the power her performance in this piece of escapism is having over the public around her. That scene is also Tarantino’s ode to the power film exerts over us if experienced in the right conditions, of its church-like qualities.
Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood is full of such tender, intimate moments. Robie’s radiant smile may sear itself in our consciousness, reminding us of a talent cut short. But, for my money, Rick’s conversation with a child actress in the set of Lancer about method acting and pulp westerns and the friendship they strike stands out as the centerpiece of the film: the past and the future of film and television, together, acknowledging that one can’t live without the other, that they are both part of the same continuum. That’s not to say that the film is not without its traditional Tarantino-esque digressions, stylistic ticks and edgy humor. But by letting his characters breathe, by tapping into their humanity, by taking his own sweet time in telling the story and by not letting his smartarseness get in the way, these digressions and flashbacks are far more humorous and to the point than in his last previous films.
The ending is as shocking and brutally violent as anything in Tarantino’s filmography…and as controversial and problematic. We now live in a spoilerphobic world which impedes any serious discussion of the art form Fine. But suffice it to say that while that Once Upon a Time in…Hollywood immerses us in an almost romantic vision of a time gone by, with this ending Tarantino indulges in some wish-fulfilling, a what-if of sorts that’s true to its fairy tale like title and one that deserves a deeper consideration in the days, weeks, months and years to come.