Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – Film Review
A fairytale about Hollywood would be the most apt summary about Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and I could probably leave it just there for this film review. But that would exclude describing the stylish cinematography, and it is very impressive, as well as the other Tarantinoesque elements. I will try to avoid revealing any major spoilers but there might be the occasional accidental reveal and so do bear with me!
Having heard Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, aka OUATIH to those social media followers, described as being similar to Jackie Brown in tone, my interest was piqued, especially after not watching Django Unchained and The Hateful Eight. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood will certainly draw you in to its compelling, sun-drenched love letter to Hollywood and its homage to westerns with a dissection of the film industry in the 1960s. It is absolutely a film d’auteur, given that Tarantino was born in 1963, and there are, of course, references to his back catalogue of films. As expected within a Tarantino film, there is a lot of navel gazing, plus feet gazing, of which there are several scenes, violence and exposure to some of the ‘isms’ such as sexism, racism and fetishism. Plus, it is a very long film, too long in some scenes, but is essentially delivered in three main acts.
As with most Tarantino films, its reputation precedes itself and so there was a lot of advance buzz surrounding Once Upon a Time in Hollywood not only because of the unveiling of its stellar cast but due to the controversy over ‘that’ Bruce Lee parody, the fact that there are only a few words uttered by Margot Robbie in her scenes, the Polanski references etc. So, despite its portrayal of the seemingly innocent golden years of 1960s filmmaking and the liberal years of the hippies there are some sinister undertones and the presence of the Manson Family’s cult followers, who haunt each act, also hints at this.
Despite this background, we are lured into the hypnotic world of Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Cliff Booth played by Brad Pitt with the very slow pacing of the first two acts, which also gives us time to marvel at Tarantino’s technical skills, the film is also shot on 35mm. Yes, the film is that indulgent!
Rick and Cliff, as Rick’s stuntman, navigate their way through Hollywood, from television roles in Bounty Law, with Rick contemplating his current life as a ‘has-been’ actor. Al Pacino delivers a brilliant monologue about the residual roles for Rick now that he is no longer in his prime and offers him an alternative in films. There is another notable speech from a precocious child actor, who reminded me somewhat of Hailee Steinfield in True Grit, about the pursuit of perfection by actors. Perhaps this is a reference to Tarantino’s own quest for perfection as this film is very much about him and his nostalgia. Rick is envious about the rising careers of his new neighbours, Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski and is prone to many a breakdown, as a result, in what must be one of Leo’s best roles to date. There is an amusing scene highlighting one of such breakdowns as Rick talks to himself in a mirror in his trailer. The camera angles reflecting the mirror, at that stage, are impressive!
Reminiscent of La La Land in some respects, we are presented with behind the scenes views of the acting world with mise-en-abîmes, as Rick rehearses, punctuated by a gloriously melodious soundtrack. I will certainly be seeking a copy of that relaxing soundtrack once it is available! As California Dreamin’ played, Brad Pitt is cruising around LA in a lengthy scene, I was in a very mellow mood by then absorbing those 1960s images and admiring the mesmerising aerial views and close-up shots of the Cinerama Dome and iconic diners, all skilfully re-created from that era. There were moments however where I felt that such scenes could have been less indulgent and shortened!
Margot Robbie is joyous to watch as she smiles, laughs and dances, to titillate the audience, and as Sharon Tate she revels in the moments where her character indulges herself to a matinee performance of her own film basking in the audience’s response. Cleverly, we are watching the real Sharon Tate on the cinema screen in the film, such is Tarantino’s fairytale of recent history and it also requires us to suspend our disbelief. The film is set is 1969 and Sharon Tate’s star was rising at such point and so Once Upon a Time in Hollywood celebrates this. Unfortunately, the character is underused and is reduced to little dialogue within those scenes.
Other scenes of women are not quite as flattering, with scenes of women snoring and an unshaven armpit shown! However, that fixation on their feet remains and the feet are quite often unclean, whatever that may represent for Tarantino, but it is not a pleasant sight to watch! Sometimes, the camera’s focus, after the fragmentation of the women’s bodies, is shifted from the feet to a woman’s hair blowing in the wind which reminded me of several scenes from the Kill Bill films.
Basically, there is not a lot that happens in the film plotwise despite some suspenseful moments with Cliff on the Spahn Movie Ranch meeting the Manson Family. However, there is so much attention to detail by Tarantino that we can almost forgive the lack of storytelling. Tarantino, being a skilled craftsman, even replicates the style of editing from the 1960s and in one scene there is a reference to Rick’s hair length and the editing at such point suggests a break in continuity as his hairstyle changes between frames, which is likely to be deliberate as nothing occurs by chance in a Tarantino film!
However, given that the protagonist Rick is a faded actor, it is likely that his fears are also Tarantino’s fears manifesting themselves in the film. In other Tarantino films, the director himself quite often makes a cameo but in its absence there may be that question of his relevance and the passing of time too for his own career. Indeed, as this is the ninth and penultimate Tarantino film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood seems to project that message of a shelf life when Rick remarks on the ending of a 9 year friendship, being his bromance with Cliff, and the start of a new era which may be indicative of the future change to the current relationship between Tarantino and his faithful audiences, once he retires.
Once Upon a Time in Hollywood also contains references to the changing practices in the film industry with scenes illustrating the older man and younger woman power dynamics however, the concept of the age of consent is mentioned in one instance. This highlights a marked difference to the sexist practices that have been revealed by actors from that era. Equally, the film touches upon the historic practice of actors promoting cigarette brands and we can knowingly note such transformation of the film industry since the 1960s for the better. There is, however, the shadow of the #MeToo movement lingering over the film as it is the first to be produced with a new studio following the collapse of the Weinstein production company.
Indeed, the film itself does change tack in that third and final act as the rhythm and pace increases, providing more humorous scenes, but also ramps up the violence, which is, disturbingly, largely directed towards women. The camera had lingered on the sign to Cielo Drive in an earlier scene as a foreshadowing to the real-life events on that fateful night in the summer of 1969 where the Manson Family murdered Sharon Tate.
Some may therefore find that finale satisfying, it struck me as resembling the Kill Bill films with the level of gore, and the audience actually cheered in the sold-out screening that I attended! You may be cheering too by the end, given there is more action, and it will appeal to those fans of Tarantino’s pseudo horror, blood splattered filmmaking style. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is not for everyone despite its moments of brilliance and homages. However, for me, it is also tinged with a great deal of sadness, given the Sharon Tate subject matter and as it was the last film starring Luke Perry, of Beverly Hills 90210 fame, before his untimely death earlier this year.
Ultimately, Tarantino fans are being rewarded for their loyalty by this film and indeed anyone that appreciates captivating cinematography and westerns! As Tarantino’s penultimate film, before supposedly retiring, I would recommend watching it only on that basis especially if you have a spare three hours at your disposal! The film is a glorious watch but, as referenced above, is not without its issues!