It feels strange to refer to a Quentin Tarantino film as “nice” or “sweet”, but those are exactly the words that come to mind after watching Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood, his homage to the city of dreams that shaped his childhood. This is perhaps the first of his efforts not to have a plot and not to have a goal that its characters are working towards. Instead, it’s a slice of life film, that takes us on a documentary-like tour of Hollywood with TV actor, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double buddy, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).
The film perfectly captures the zeitgeist of Hollywood during the flower power years, following Dalton and Booth as they go about a typical workday, trying their best to survive in a tough, fast-changing industry. What makes the viewing experience extra-fun for the audience (especially if you’re a film buff or are familiar with that era) is recognizing the real-life personalities they cross paths with and real-life situations they are part of.
And through this integration of fictitious characters with real-life events, OUaTiH joins the club of Tarantino’s revisionist history films, along with Inglourious Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012). In the first two, QT creates events and people whose actions turn the tables on history’s villains – WW2 Nazis and a cruel plantation owner in 1850’s Mississippi respectively – leading to immensely crowd-pleasing endings. I won’t give away any spoilers for OUaTiH, but suffice to say that the audience walks out of the theater with a smile and feelings of nostalgia, wistfulness and contentment.
Tarantino has been meticulous in his recreation of late 1960’s Hollywood, driving around LA, location scouting for streets that still retain the look of that time. The production ‘rented’ the Hollywood Freeway for an hour so they could fill it with period-accurate cars to shoot a few minutes worth of Brad Pitt driving down the freeway. One brief scene in which Pitt drives past a drive-in theater required a period-accurate miniature of the set to be built (by none other than the legendary John Dykstra, who pioneered modern special effects with Star Wars). The film also contains trailers and snippets of the fictitious 1950’s western TV show Bounty Law that the character Rick Dalton used to be the star of…and these have been shot using actual 16mm B&W film. Overall, the movie looks gorgeous; Robert Richardson, who won 3 Oscars shooting films for Oliver Stone (JFK) and Martin Scorsese (The Aviator and Hugo) has now become Tarantino’s DP of choice, having lensed his last four films.
As has become de rigueur with movies these days, the soundtrack of the film is filled with songs from the era, mostly heard over the car radio, along with actual radio jingles from the time.
Both DiCaprio and Pitt are outstanding as the two Hollywood veterans Dalton and Booth, trying hard to escape the label of ‘has-beens’, score another pay-day and stay relevant. As with all Tarantino films, there are plenty of other scene-stealing performances, even from actors who are on screen for a few minutes:–
- Margot Robbie simultaneously evokes the star-power and the wide-eyed innocence of 26-year-old Sharon Tate, the actress who was the toast of Hollywood until her life was tragically cut short by members of Charles Manson’s ‘family’.
- Al Pacino appears as real-life film producer Marvin Schwarz, who tries to convince DiCaprio’s character to re-ignite his career by shooting ‘spaghetti westerns’ in Rome.
- Damian Lewis looks remarkably like Steve McQueen during a brief scene at a party at the Playboy Mansion.
- How extraordinary to see Nicholas Hammond, who played Friedrich von Trapp in The Sound of Music as a teenager, then played Spider-Man in the live action TV show of the late 70’s, appearing as seasoned director Sam Wanamaker who is directing DiCaprio’s character in an episode of the western TV show Lancer.
- On the sets of Lancer, we come across the precocious child actor (“not actress”) Trudi, played with supreme poise by 10-year-old Julia Butters
- And I got a lump in my throat, as Luke Perry’s character makes a short but dignified appearance as real-life actor Wayne Maunder, appearing in a key scene in Lancer. This was Perry’s last screen role before his death in March.
- 25-year-old Margaret Qualley, who made quite an impression as troubled teenager Jill Garvey in The Leftovers has a significant role here as Pussycat, one of the many members of Charles Manson’s ‘family’, living in squalid conditions on the Spahn Ranch. She is simultaneously playful, seductive and creepy. Surely, with the guidance of skilled talent reps, her career could hit the same heights as Kristen Stewart (who she actually shares the screen with in the new biopic Seberg).
- And last, but not least, how delightful to see the character of Bruce Lee (played by Michael Moh) on the sets of The Green Hornet – the show that first made him famous (and one that I used to watch as a kid) – in one of the most entertaining scenes in the movie.
- Also keep an eye out for a movie poster by Italian filmmaker Antonio Margheriti, a name that fans of Inglourious Basterds will instantly recognize, as it’s the false name that Brad Pitt’s character uses in a hilarious scene in that movie.
All these characters – both real and fictional – intersect during those fateful days of 1969. I am positive OUaTiH will pick up the SAG award for Outstanding Performance by an Ensemble in a Motion Picture.
In the afternoon of his career, a mellow Tarantino has given us a truly enjoyable character study spiced with moments of dramatic tension, slapstick humour and right at the end, his trademark over-the-top violence.