[SPOILER ALERT: This post contains spoilers]
Quentin Tarantino’s latest film “Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” is at the same time a love letter to Hollywood, Los Angeles, Film and TV of the 1960’s, and a very misguided twist on the-still shocking 50 years later-Sharon Tate murders in August 1969. Although I’m not a huge fan of Tarantino myself I can say that it is a joy to watch when he shows off his exceptional filmmaking and writing skills. At 2 hours and 45 minutes, however, the master may have bit off more than he could chew.
The three stories that run parallel to each other for most of the film are so well written that I believe each could stand on their own. The first story, that of fading Western TV star Rick Dalton played by Leonardo Dicaprio and his stunt double/driver/assistant Cliff Booth played by Brad Pitt is so good it’s a wonder what took so long to get these 2 guys together in the same movie. While it may be hard to believe that Leo could pull off playing a washed up TV actor on the wrong side of 40 who nobody wants to hire, he does it in spades. Rick Dalton is an insecure, alcoholic clown and yet Leo gives him such heart and depth that for almost 3 hours I was not only captivated by him but also pulling for him. Brad Pitt also finds himself in an unfamiliar role that he nails, maybe better than Leo does with Dalton. Cliff Booth is a stuntman who was Dalton’s stunt double on his hit TV series “Bounty Law” but now operates as Dalton’s lacky, doing odd jobs for him and driving him to auditions. While driving around Hollywood he picks up a young hippie girl who takes him to the Manson family commune at Spahn Ranch. This scene is outstanding. Tarantino uses a beautiful wide angle shot of Booth’s point of view of the decrepit, decaying former western TV lot. We follow Booth as he meets and interacts with the Manson family members. Dakota Fanning is excellent as “Squeaky” Fromme, who has a very short and hostile encounter with Booth. By using the audiences knowledge of the history of the Manson family, Tarantino is able to create so much tension in the scene that you’re not sure if he’s going to make it out of this place alive.
Much criticism has been hurled at Tarantino for his portrayal of Sharon Tate which I believe is unwarranted. While he does have a history of objectifying women I don’t see that in the performance of Margot Robbie. Robbie, with more than enough beauty to match Tate, floats through the film like an angel. She is shown dancing at parties, enjoying her mansion at 10050 Cielo Drive, giving a hitchhiker a ride, pretty much being the beautiful soul she was known to be. Probably the most beautiful moment in the film regarding Tate is when she goes to a theater to see herself on the big screen in the Dean Martin action film, “The Wrecking Crew.” Tate sits in the dark theater and is filled with joy and genuine pride when the audience responds to her performance.
Of all of the villains in Tarantino’s movies, his Manson family may be the scariest, probably because they were real people. While Charles Manson is portrayed in a very short, unremarkable scene, it is the “Manson girls” at the Ranch and in the dumpsters of Hollywood who really steal the show. As mentioned earlier, the scene where Cliff Booth goes to the Ranch is an excellent introduction and portrayal of just how lost and deranged these people were. The empty, blank stares, the open hostility of Dakota Fanning, and the aggressiveness of “Tex” Watson are downright scary. But where the writer/director gets the Manson family behavior correct, he also drops the ball when it comes to their most famous act. No one, and I mean no one wants to see the murder of Sharon Tate recreated in a Hollywood film even someone with a lust for violence like Tarantino but the way he “rewrites” history and turns it into a total farce that doesn’t even include the house or the occupants at 10050 Cielo Drive does a disservice to the victim’s memory.
“Once Upon A Time In Hollywood” is an homage to the Hollywood of the 1960’s and with the brilliance of Tarantino’s attention to detail, one can feel like they are walking down Hollywood Boulevard, getting a table at El Coyote, being in the middle of a Wild West shootout on the backlot of a major studio. They can also have their fairy tale ending, even if that’s all it is.