The past has always been important in Quentin Tarantino’s work, but it’s never had as much pull as it does in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood.
Tarantino has made period movies, of course: The Hateful Eight, Inglourious Basterds, and Django Unchained. And even his “contemporary” ones seem to take place in a time out of time—something like the present, but a present barely removed from the 1970s, especially in terms of costume design and soundtrack choices. Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood puts us a bit earlier than that—1969, to be exact—and is all about the recent past that is soon to be wiped away: television shows that followed established programming schedules, studio production systems that favored reliable genres, and male-dominated social structures that kept everyone in line. In the 1970s, all of that would start to change. Certainly things don’t look the same today.
One of Hollywood’s first images is that of a blurred line of female flower children walking down a Los Angeles street. Eerily singing, as if to announce their arrival, they filter out into the city, trying to hitch rides and scrounging in dumpsters for food. They’re garbage fairies—sprites of a sort, not here to sprinkle dust on Hollywood as a blessing of approval, but to usher in something new.
Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) aren’t so sure about that. A fading TV star now struggling to stay relevant, Rick grimaces and spits when he sees the “dirty hippies” around town. Cliff—Rick’s longtime stunt double and driver—is more bemused. After picking up one of the hitchhikers (a puckish Margaret Qualley), he turns down her sexual proposition because of her age, leading to a generational squabble. She thinks he’s being square, but he’s old enough to know that there’s no such thing as free love.
This becomes clear when Cliff drops her off at the ranch where she lives with a bunch of other girls and Charlie—yes, Charles Manson. Damon Herriman appears only briefly in the film as Manson—he’s a grin and two black eyes—but he haunts the proceedings by proxy, always felt behind the girls’ flitting presence. In Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, youth is a menace—not just a challenge to the status quo, but a mortal threat, a reminder that your life is nearing its end.
It might seem a stretch to loosely tie two fictional fringe figures to the Manson Family, but Tarantino manages it fairly well. He also brings in Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate, whose connection to the Family was, tragically, more direct. (In Hollywood’s fictional universe, Sharon lives next door to Rick.) And then there is the fact that the film is wallpapered with 1960s pop songs constantly emanating from car radios, which creates a shared aural landscape. Rick and Sharon’s husband, Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), may never meet, but they’re linked by the fact that they listen to the same local radio ads.
In Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, youth is a menace.
Robbie gets equal time in the opening credit-sequence (a jazzy, Jackie Brown-style airport montage) and has a few nice moments later on when Sharon slips into a theater to watch herself in the Dean Martin vehicle The Wrecking Crew. But Hollywood mostly belongs to its men. One of the joys of the movie is how wholeheartedly DiCaprio and Pitt embrace the idea of playing golden gods whose shine has begun to fade, something signified by the sun-kissed creases along their eyes. Pitt settles into his usual sense of ease with an extra softness—while hinting that, if things took a certain turn, Cliff could reveal himself to be one of Tarantino’s seductive sadists. As for DiCaprio, he makes Rick another Tarantino type—the sad sack—who gets a passing but sweet moment of redemption. After botching a guest turn on a new TV Western, Rick violently upbraids himself in his trailer (even threatening suicide in the mirror), then returns to the set to deliver a line reading that his 8-year-old costar calls “the best acting I’ve ever seen in my life.” It’s not that great, really, but the important thing is that Rick was present in that moment—focused, invested. He mattered.
The underlying melancholy of Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is due to the fact that Rick might not matter much longer. DiCaprio squeezes out some impressive tears in the aforementioned scene, but my favorite moment of his might be an early one where he responds to a brutally honest assessment of the state of his career with a heavy sigh (an amusing Al Pacino delivers the hard truth as a producer). It can’t be an accident that a film like this is Tarantino’s 9th and—according to his own decree—penultimate effort. If we’re to believe him, the sun is setting on Tarantino’s time too. Perhaps that’s why Hollywood is his most reflective and ruminative work since Jackie Brown. Like that film, it’s less interested in gleeful provocation and more content with mature observation. There’s a reason so much time in Hollywood is given to characters cruising down the street with their windows rolled down and a singular song on the radio; this is a film made by someone who’s lived long enough to understand how much such fleeting moments matter. Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood is a twilight film in more ways than one.
Not that Tarantino is going to go gentle into that good night. The movie climaxes with the Hollywood murders committed by members of the Manson Family in August of 1969. I won’t give away the details, except to say that Tarantino indulges in some alternative history (as he did in Basterds) and in some outrageous violence (as he has in … everything?) It’s interesting to note who lives and who dies in this telling of the tragedy. Music is playing during these moments, of course, but Tarantino might as well have used a recitation of Dylan Thomas’ famous words: “Old age should burn and rave at close of day…” Rick and Cliff’s time may be coming to an end, but you better believe they’re going to rage against the dying of the light, in a spectacularly Tarantinoesque way.