A Sunny and Funny Tale: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Summer of ’69

Photo: courtesy Sony Pictures.

We are now just two months shy of the 25th anniversary of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, the intoxicating, landmark cinematic lightning bolt to the senses which knocked-out movie lovers everywhere during the fall of 1994.

Did audiences believe that 25 years later, nearly to the month, that the same writer-director would still be plastering goofy grins on audiences the same way? Probably not. I figured that guy, Quentin Tarantino would probably make one more movie—maybe two, but that would be it. I read in Premiere magazine that fall (the issue with Tom Cruise and Kirsten Dunst on the cover) that Tarantino wanted to be an actor and I thought, ‘Oh, ok. I guess he’s going to be an actor from now on.’

I’m glad I was wrong.

actor leonardio Dicaprio dancing in the movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) lives it up as a guest star on the variety series Hullabaloo in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Tarantino’s ninth feature, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood mostly takes place over two days in early 1969. Actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) has seen better days in his career. He’s aging in an industry where working in one’s ’40s is considered ‘old.’ Dalton, not a classically trained actor, is still very capable though. As an outlaw on the NBC series Bounty Law, He’s quick with a gun, knows how to handle a horse, and possesses a mischievous squint. He’s still game at the running and jumping roles, but his late-night boozing is starting to wear him down.

Propping him up along the way is his stunt double and long-time buddy, Clint Booth (a wonderful Brad Pitt). Clint drives Rick to work and drives him home each day and they hang out on weekends to share a joint, drink some beer and watch Rick’s scattered TV appearances. Booth is Dalton’s biggest cheerleader, happy enough to land whatever stunt job Rick manages to arrange for him considering he’s been all but blackballed from working due to suspicions Booth might have murdered his wife (Rebecca Gayheart) on a boat trip (possibly Tarantino’s allusion to the mysterious boat drowning of actress Natalie Wood in 1981).

Like Mel Gibson’s Martin Riggs in Lethal Weapon, Booth lives in a trailer home on the beach with his dog, Brandy which is fine with him. Dalton lives relatively better in a secluded home located on Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon, not far from the glorious movie star mansions in Bel Air.

One night when Booth is driving Dalton home, a couple pull up beside them on the same drive up to their homes: director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his wife, actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie)— both basking in the success of his recent hit, Rosemary’s Baby. Dalton figures living next door to Hollywood’s “it” couple of the moment, is not all in all a bad thing. Who knows where it could lead?

Leonardio DiCaprio and Brad Pitt and al Pacino in in the movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio and Al Pacino in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood

At the moment, though, his career is facing downwards. After a meeting with agent Marvin Schwarzs (Al Pacino), he sees that his only real chance of remaining employable and relevant is by making a few spaghetti westerns in Rome. Dalton decides he needs to accept a few jobs in Italy, working for directors such as Sergio Corbucci. He’s not fortunate enough to work with the granddaddy of spaghetti westerns, Sergio Leone).

There’s a parallel here in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, in that American actors were relocating to Italy to hang onto their fame by appearing in cheapo “I-talian” spaghetti westerns (not the high-end spaghetti westerns by the likes of Leone but the more slapdash, silly ones) while European talents were finding their way to America where major studios were handing them everything they want (money, homes, girls, drugs) on a gold platter.

In one terrific scene, we watch as Roman and Sharon head out to party at the Playboy mansion where one of the other guests—American screen icon Steve McQueen (Damien Lewis)—laments at how Tate had previously fallen for the short hairdresser, Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) and then fallen for the shorter-than-average Polanski. Tate dances the night away while McQueen marvels at the situation.

This period, of course, takes place at a time in film history where action stars such as McQueen were still very popular, but something else was happening: the nebbish, 5’6 likes of Woody Allen and Dustin Hoffman were getting screen time, and for some strange reason, audiences were responding to them. As were impish, balding, string beans such as Jack Nicholson and Robert Duvall. These actors weren’t riding into a western town with a pistol strapped to their side. They were riding into town on scooters with large helmets to protect them from accidents. They weren’t wild. They were cautious.

Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is a snapshot, a pinpoint in time where the year consisted of one last party before the gritty, dourness of the ’70s would come around. Some of this movie’s most eye-popping moments occur while Booth drives all through Los Angeles’s Sunset strip on his way home from Rick’s. Movie marquees stretch all down the long brightly lit streets mostly featuring wacky comedies starring the likes of Peter Sellers and Ann-Margret. One of these movies is the Dean Martin farce The Wrecking Crew which just happens to feature Sharon Tate.

Margot Robbie plays Sharon Tate in in the movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) poses in front of the poster of The Wrecking Crew in Once Upon a Time In Hollywood

If there has ever been a case of an actress portraying sunshine on film than this is it right here: Margot Robbie as Tate is sunshine. After The Wolf of Wall Street and I, Tonya audiences realize by now that Robbie is a great actress at playing forces of conflicted strength and vulnerability but what she does here is something tremendous; portraying innocence. It’s not a tremendously taxing role and as some new reports have mentioned, Tate is not given a lot of dialogue. Her story is kept separate from Rick and Cliff’s stories for pretty much the entire movie but Robbie does bring a great deal of tenderness to it. There’s a sweet moment where Tate is wandering around LA and walks into a little bookstore to pick up a copy of Tess of the d’Urbervilles which she tells the bookshop owner is a gift for her husband. Film lovers know of course that Polanski later made a film version of the novel in 1979, which he dedicated to Sharon. It’s these little touches that make Tarantino so good at what he does.

Meanwhile, Rick is called away on the set of TV western Lancer where he is starring opposite fellow actor James Stacey (Timothy Olyphant). At one point, Rick forgets his line, which leads to him beating himself up in his dressing room. It’s up to him to nail the next take or he’ll probably have blown it for good once word gets out. It’s a nice scene and marks a turning point in the story for Rick. Making it more fun is the two supporting actors (Olyphant and Luke Perry) who share this segment with DiCaprio.

DiCaprio is excellent in this role. It’s an interesting journey his Rick Dalton undergoes throughout the two days where most of the movie takes place. Dalton questions what his place in acting is at this point in his life. He’s at a place where he sees the change happening but he’s not ready to turn his back on it yet. Dalton has his moments of doubt, but through the constant support of Cliff (and a reaffirmation of his qualities as an actor by way of his eight-year-old co-star, Trudi Fraser played by a terrific Julia Butters), Rick realizes there’s more he can give.

During this same weekend, Cliff is doing his usual driving around when he spots a free-spirited young hitchhiker who simply goes by the name Pussycat (played by a wonderful Margaret Qualley of HBO’s The Leftovers). Cliff is entranced by the doe-eyed, bare-footed Pussycat and offers her a ride to her destination which happens to be the famed Spahn Movie Ranch commune—home to Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) and his “family” of aimless hippies. When Cliff arrives with Pussycat, he’s not given the warmest greeting. Cliff wants to check in on his old buddy George Spahn (Easy Rider himself Bruce Dern) but is blocked by George’s TV watching companion Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme (Dakota Fanning). When Cliff decides to leave, the leaving is not going to be easy.

Memembers of Charles Manson's family at Spahn Movie Ranch in in the movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Pussycat and “family” carefully watch as Cliff Booth invades their premises in Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood

This amazing sequence is the centerpiece of Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. Tarantino stages the vista like an epic Leone scene and the late evening sunset setting delivers a sense of impending danger for Cliff that’s pure cinematic suspense.

After a beat down by Cliff, Manson family member Charles “Tex” Watson (Austin Butler), watches him drive away not knowing that their paths will cross again.

Which they do…six months later.

Divulging any plot points at this point on would be an unforgivable disservice to audiences who have yet to see Tarantino’s dazzling and exhilarating tale. However, I think it’s more than safe to say that the third act of Tarantino’s movie is full of surprises, shocks, hilarity, suspense, terror, violence, and well, the unexpected.

This final act is going to inspire a lot of conversation and debate among its audience. Some will dig it, and others may very much need to turn away. I can say that this movie’s final 25 minutes or so (not counting end credits) do take place during the evening of August 8, 1969, a very pregnant Tate, Sebring, Abigail Folger, and Wojciech Frykowski do return to Cielo Drive late that night after dining out at El Coyote, there are some unwelcome intruders and there is shocking, sickening violence depicted. This violence comes at the audience fast and lasts a good ten minutes, and it’s very fair to say without spoiling any details, it’s violence audiences have not seen in a movie before—no matter how many movies they’ve seen. Be prepared.

Violence aside, this sequence is often hilarious, thrilling and suspenseful. You will watch it with your jaw open and mind practically frozen—guaranteed. In a movie full of wild and funny moments, the lead up to—let’s call it the “incident,”— is probably this movie’s funniest (I’m writing of course about the movie events and not the real-life events of that horrific, unforgettable night). Pitt and DiCaprio showcase some of the best work of their careers here and with a filmography that includes Fight Club and Wolf of Wall Street among others between them, that is saying something. DiCaprio displayed incredible comic skills in Wolf of Wall Street and there’s more of that here. Rick, dressed in his bathrobe, exposing his chest, sports a bushy mustache and chugs Margaritas straight from a blender container in the middle of the street. While his recent bride, Francesca (Lorenza Izzo), is dead asleep. The scene is a riot to witness. Pitt playing Cliff, tripping on an acid cigarette is just as entertaining and is a throwback to his terrific role as an insane anarchist in 12 Monkeys.

Charles Manson family walk up Cielo Drive in the movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Members of Charles Manson’s “family” make their way up to Cielo Drive on the night of August 8, 1969, for a night of violence in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood

Visually, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an absolute marvel. Legendary cinematographer Robert Richardson (JFK, Casino, Natural Born Killers, Kill Bill, Shutter Island) is never disappointing, and this might be one of his best efforts. His Los Angeles looks bright, flashy, colorful, alive, sunny, dreamy and glorious. It’s a stupendous work. The production design by Barbara Ling (particularly the Playboy mansion, the Sunset Strip, the Spahn Rance locations) is incredible, and the special effects are designed by none other than John Dykstra of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.

So, 25 years after Pulp Fiction, we have seven Tarantino movies in-between that one and this one. There has been talk from him that there may be one more movie at his helm and that will be it. Will it be an original idea with new characters, or will it showcase past characters or even relatives to previous characters? Will it focus on real-life events or individuals (such as Tate and Polanski) again or will it be his long talked about R-rated Star Trek meets Pulp Fiction/Western? We’re most likely a good three-four years before we find out.

Whatever it might be, right now we have nine movies by Tarantino and like Kubrick before him, he hasn’t ever made a bad one. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is his most upbeat and even whimsical story yet. With the world we live in now, we’re lucky to have it.

Written by Jason Sheppard

Entertainment reporter living at the end of very cold Canada. Proud owner of a diploma in journalism and just about every CD by John Williams ever released. Favorite directors are Spielberg, Scorsese, Kubrick, Tarantino, Fellini, Lynch and Fincher. Twin Peaks, Sopranos and Six Feet Under are the greatest TV dramas ever crafted and I love 90s sitcoms such as Spin City, Sports Night, Newsradio, Seinfeld and even that one with Deadpool working in the pizza place. Click linkies below to follow me.

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