Quentin Tarantino has been paying homage to Hollywood since his first film, Reservoir Dogs in 1992.
Once Upon A Time in Hollywood comes full circle to his homage – taking place in Hollywood, with Hollywood stars, and with a real Hollywood ending.
This has been the most accessible Tarantino for me. Once Upon a Time…blends real action and characters with Hollywood pastiches and characters that blur into one.
This is, by far, one of Tarantino’s most stylish films. It’s hard to believe he hasn’t made a film in this era before. Hollywood easily adapts into it and for those born in the last century, the film lulls them into a sense of security by its familiarity in TV shows, actors, and locations. It’s beautifully shot and beautifully viewed on 35mm. The costumes, from the moustaches to the fashions sported by Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate to the Austin Powers-styled Roman Polanski, are also a visual feast.
Tarantino’s attention to detail is a treat for Hollywood aficionados, especially focusing on the 60s and 70s. Set in 1969, he has totally redressed Hollywood Boulevard, recreating a Taco Bell and Der Weinerschnitzel in Long Beach to the era. He also takes advantage of Hollywood’s Musso and Frank Grill, Casa Vega and the Westwood movie theatres, Fox Village Theater, and the Bruin. The Playboy Mansion (known as the Playboy Mansion West) in Holmby Park is a great showcase for the film’s characters, and this is why Tarantino chose to use it, but it was slightly ahead of its time as Hugh Hefner only purchased it in 1971. The realism extends to murals painted on current buildings, advertising signs on bus stops, and movie posters recreated by a designer from the 60s.
The film revolves around a fading actor Rick Dalton played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and his stunt double Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt. They riff off each other perfectly and seem to be having fun with the roles each other has been cast in. All the actors seem to be enjoying the casting. Al Pacino, for a change, moves away from the caricature of himself that he so often plays of late and is a Hollywood player trying to broker a deal to take DiCaprio to Italy and star in spaghetti westerns. Tarantino has always been a fan of these and has been known to credit the spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in the West as the movie that made him want to be a filmmaker – saying it was the movie that showed him how a director does what he does and how a director can control a movie through his camera.
Parallel to Dalton and Booth are the Polanski/Tate party – played by Polish actor Rafal Zawierucha and Margot Robbie, they are enjoying life, the 60s, the restaurants, the culture, the people. Robbie is stunningly beautiful and seems to embody everything hopeful and bright in the Age of Aquarius in Hollywood. Much of her acting is without dialogue but we follow her anywhere and are rooting for her to escape her fate and keep hope alive. Alongside this action is the building up of the Manson compound and his acolytes. Australian actor Damon Harriman plays Manson. It’s a small role but he is truly menacing and crazy in his short scenes. Tarantino loves Australians – he cast John Jarrett in Django Unchained (which Tarantino based on the Italian spaghetti Western, Django, directed by Sergio Corbucci, who was named by Pacino in Once Upon a Time…as the “second-best director of spaghetti westerns”, presumably after Sergio Leone).
Tarantino’s film references endlessly fold back on themselves like Escher staircases. There are lots of in-jokes and the film is laugh out loud funny. When distanced from Tarantino’s films I remember the violence but tend to forget the humour. But in a full cinema where the humour is appreciated, it’s easy to notice just how much there is.
Again, the soundtrack is a wonderful escort through the action – it’s incredibly perfect in part and when I hear one of my favourite Rolling Stones songs played near the end I’m momentarily distracted by its perfect placement. For those in the know, there are even songs by Terry Melcher (Doris Day’s son who previously lived in the Polanski/Tate home) and Charles Manson. It’s long been considered Melcher and friends were the original Manson targets owing to a music deal gone wrong. It’s a great standalone soundtrack.
Once Upon a Time…is definitely not Tarantino’s most violent film – there’s a lot of competition here – but it’s very realistic with sharp sound effects for the violent scenes. Cracking of skulls, breaking of bones, squelching etc.
Tarantino’s universe of actors is once again in view – Brad Pitt, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Leonardo DiCaprio. The film is also peppered with second-generation Hollywood stars including Kevin Smith’s daughter Harley Quinn Smith, Andie McDowall’s daughter Margaret Qualley, Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman’s daughter Maya Hawke, and Demi Moore and Bruce Willis’s daughter Rumer Willis.
Luke Perry’s cameo became his last role, Lena Dunham has an appearance, Damian Lewis appears as Steve McQueen, and former Sound of Music star Nicholas Hammond plays director Sam Wanamaker. However, Hammond was more likely cast by Tarantino because he was the first actor to play Spiderman on TV in the late 70s. Tarantino often chooses his favourite stars from the past to resurrect their careers – like Travolta, Pam Grier, David Carradine, Don Johnson, Kurt Russell.
There are clever links to the previous movies. Pitt reads a Silver Age Nick Fury and the Howlin’ Commandos comic, comics play a role with Tarantino to give nods to other stars of his films, just like John Travolta as Vincent Vega in Pulp Fiction who is reading a Modesty Blaise comic when he is shot on the loo. Apple cigarettes are smoked, and they have now been featured in Pulp Fiction, From Dusk Till Dawn, Four Rooms, Kill Bill: Volume 1, Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight.
It’s a film for fans, and a wet dream for film buffs, but it is also the one possibly with the widest appeal of all his films.