15 August 2019

Mike Catto reviews Quentin Tarantino's latest feature Once Upon a Hollywood.


Once Upon a Hollywood

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD     Director Quentin Tarantino         Cert.18     161 minutes

When Sergio Leone first used the Italian phrase C’era una volta in the title of his 1968 Once Upon A Time In The West, it was a kind of disclaimer. When a reader or listener encountered that in an Italian folk tale, it was understood that what followed was not meant to be accurate. Despite Once Upon A Time… having become almost hackneyed in film titles, Tarantino was right to use it. He knew that Leone mythologised his subjects; he knows that he too has constantly mythologised in his eight previous movies…and since Hollywood mythologises itself as much as it does its plots, we must recognise that the next 161 minutes are going to be QT’s personal take on Tinseltown and not a drama documentary.

What we get is typically brash “Look at clever ol’ me” Tarantino, but it offers something really rather unique. It’s a mix of Pop Art’s love of kitsch ‘kultur’ and overblown Baroque iconography. A celebration of Hollywood bling and vices, it’s also a eulogy, a valediction for the last year, 1969, when Hollywood actually meant the film industry. The fact is, the decline in the studio hegemony started earlier, but such matters are largely irrelevant in this film. The action takes place over just three days in 1969: two in February to set the scene and introduce the main characters, fictional and historical, and then one night in August, culminating in the Manson Family’s murder spree.

Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a fading TV star – and knows it. His best (only?) friend is his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Via them we travel through a gloriously OTT recreation of LA; we meet the movers, the shakers, the non-movers and the shaken. Handily (plotwise), Dalton’s next door neighbours are Roman Polanski and his wife Sharon Tate. Equally co-incidentally, both Dalton and Booth are familiar with a ranch in the hills where Rick’s now-cancelled series Bounty Law was shot. George Spahn’s ranch is now home to one Charles Manson and his cult…

Yes, an awful lot is thrown into both the plot and the look of the film. The recipe for a Tarantino film contains too many ingredients and spiced seasonings. Yet it works this time more often than not. DiCaprio gives nuance to a character who lacks it. One scene where Dalton is praised by an 8 year old co-performer is extremely moving, so praise to Leo, the wee girl and writer/director QT. Brad Pitt reins in his usual schtick and the real joy, the heart of this sometimes heartless film is Margot Robbie as the luckless Sharon Tate. Not as big a role as that of her male co-stars, but her performance, often with little or no dialogue, brings Tate out of the shadows.

Add in sterling performances from big stars in small parts (Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen…); a wide and expertly crafted range of colours and tones – from Day-Glo to graded greys – from DOP Robert Richardson; superb production design, and you have a mature film, even if the numerous in-jokes still make it seem like the Kandy-Kolored dream of an Uber-Nerd. Be warned, the finale is very bloody, unsettling and will reinforce either your praise or your condemnation of the whole thing.