Spoilers might require stunt doubles.
First of all, it’s not real. One would think it goes without saying due to the title, but I had to see it with my own eyes. The film in question is not depicting Hollywood as it was, but rather Hollywood as one’s man nostalgic, embellished take with a generous amount use of dramatic license. Tarantino’s Hollywood is a work of fiction that captures a lot of the visuals and the feel that we’ll identify with watched with pink-tinted glasses. The lots, the sets and the streets of Los Angeles are meta on top of meta as we depict tinseltown past its golden age and into the last of the sixties.
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is written and directed by Quentin Tarantino. It’s authentic-looking as Hollywood circa 1968 made by Hollywood circa 2019. The fashion style, the streets, the cars, the buildings are just close enough to historical accuracy while the characters are all based on ideas of people, even if some of the people have both the likeness and names of true individuals. The ones we follow might as well have existed.
Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the star of a television show that has ended, keeping himself in business with guest star roles in other shows and just starting to realize that his career as a lead actor might be fading. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is his stunt double turned chauffeur and personal assistant, driving him to the studios and fixing stuff around his house with no real plans for the future. Finally, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) is a particular interpretation based on Sharon’s likeness and story, but not necessarily the same person. We are visiting the Tarantino-verse after all.
The events and dates portrayed have a subtle ominous tone as they grow closer to the historical event of the killings on Cielo Drive by the Manson family that include Sharon Tate’s murder. This is however not the focus of the film. What we get is a rather entertaining account of Dalton’s struggles in the industry to stay relevant, and Sharon’s idyllic life of socializing with her friends and walking around Hollywood. There’s not much of a consequence to these events. Or rather, I should say, what happens later on does not necessarily relate to them.
Sharon does get to briefly see someone (Damon Herriman) that the credits identify as Charles Manson. That one felt just eerie and strange. Only Cliff seems to have an initial run-in with the eerie group staying at Spahn Ranch when he picks up a hippie hitchhiker named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley). What happens next, and what becomes of the actual events in question in this retelling is played up as accidental but I’d rather not spoil all the details. This doesn’t turn out the way you think.
Depending on how you feel, the movie is highly enjoyable to watch. It’s really Tarantino using Hollywood as a canvas where he can use his storytelling and dialog skills to the fullest while giving us nostalgic late sixties Hollywood eye candy backdrops. Arguably, Cliff is closest to being the centrepiece of the film as he always seems to have the upper hand. This is first portrayed when he ends up in a quasi-friendly bout with Bruce Lee (Michael Moh). I was dreading this scene, but you’re not watching Lee. You’re watching Tarantino using a movie icon like Lee, inaccurately portrayed as boastful, played up to make Cliff look good. The fight doesn’t really get resolved (Bruce gets one bout, Cliff the other and then they get interrupted) but it’s a bit hilarious and that’s what it’s supposed to be.
Cliff is mostly the badass of the film throughout, somehow making all the right decisions without a care in the world. I would argue that it’s DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton who is more entertaining to watch as he gets emotional, works himself into an anxious frenzy but finally manages to do what he thinks must be done. The fact that things work their way for both Cliff and Rick is a bit of fantasy fulfillment. It’s done for the audience’s benefit. There are no explicit gags or jokes, yet the comedy moments are there.
Arguably, the role of Sharon Tate in this movie is without consequence. We’re expecting the gruesome events of August 8, 1969 to unfold. However, Tarantino deviates these events as well as the outcome. Whether that’s in poor taste or justified, is up for debate. As it happens in the film, Sharon is rather uninvolved to the point of almost having no arc to her story. Margot Robbie’s portrayal of her is playful and innocent but that’s it. The scenario is a What If situation where the conclusion leaves her as a side character.
Highly recommended with just a couple of reservations. Character depictions here are all made for entertainment purposes. The bottom line is Quentin Tarantino using Hollywood to depict Hollywood and tell us a tale of his own making. Visual depictions are nostalgic and brilliant while character depictions are portrayed to entertain without really being historically accurate. However, they’re still done dramatically accurate to entertain throughout. It’s impossible to say if the director had more fun making it than you will have watching it, but it’s definitely something you can enjoy.
That will do for now.