'Once Upon a Time in Hollywood'


There’s a lot to unpack in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. It’s another Quentin Tarantino alternate universe fantasy. It’s a celebration of ‘60s Hollywood. It’s a commentary on acting, on fame, on the Western.

It’s also a 161-minute movie that never feels too long, starring an endless string of familiar faces, and features the pairing of two of this generation’s biggest stars as a suitably iconic duo. It’s not without flaws, subjective or otherwise, but its ambition is evident from the first second and the amount of brilliance within is impossible to deny. At the very least, it is a film that will spark a thousand conversations.

Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a soon-to-be washed-up actor who is reduced to making guest shots on TV shows. Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) is his stuntman-turned-assistant with a sordid past and a penchant for violence. As they traverse through a Hollywood that is increasingly leaving them behind, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) is on her own path to becoming a starlet of some acclaim. Yet the threat of Charles Manson and his devotees looms throughout, as we prepare ourselves for the horrors they’re about to unleash on Los Angeles.

The list of glorified cameos as is as impressive as some casts: Al Pacino, Scoot McNairy, Dakota Fanning, Damian Lewis, Clifton Collins Jr., Lena Dunham, Michael Madsen. They don’t all have much to do, but obviously the lure of Tarantino is strong enough for that not to matter. And, as expected, DiCaprio and Pitt are both terrific. Leo gets the biggest stage, including loads of recreated ‘60s footage and a scenery-chewing bit on the set of a TV Western that functions as his shining moment and also proof that Dalton has real chops buried under all the fear.

But Pitt’s who we’re supposed to relate to, despite the fact that he probably murdered his wife and certainly smashes a woman’s face into various objects during the movie’s finale. It’s hard to tell where Tarantino is going there; is he trying to pit Pitt’s charms against the bad shit Cliff is capable of? Or are these violent scenes meant to be dreamlike and farcical, a reminder that none of this is real? Either way, Pitt radiates massive charm and serves as the perfect complement to Leo’s anxiety-fueled former star.

Of course, it wouldn’t be a Tarantino movie without controversy: did Robbie as Tate get short shrift? Was Mike Moh’s performance as Bruce Lee an homage or a mockery? Did admitted assaulter Emile Hirsch need to be cast as Tate friend Jay Sebring, a role pretty much any short white actor could’ve played?

For starters, no, this movie absolutely did not require the presence of Hirsch. And I will say that, upon second viewing, it was a little odd to hear the audience cracking up as Moh replicated Lee’s famous fighting yells. But I also suspect they had no real knowledge of Lee and probably assumed the admittedly odd noises were meant as a joke. It’s hard to argue with Lee’s actual daughter if she had issues with his portrayal; it seems that, despite Tarantino’s love of kung fu, he decided to deploy Lee just to get Pitt’s Booth over as a genuine badass. It’s a fun scene, but I can understand why some eyebrows might’ve been raised.

As for Tate, I’m surprised by the responses to how she was depicted. Yes, Tarantino often has a problem writing female characters. And yes, Robbie has a distinct lack of lines. But to focus on that element is to ignore everything else: Robbie does so much in her scenes — most of which feature only her — with her face, her emotions, her aura, her demeanor. Everything about her radiates happiness and warmth, which serves as the perfect setup to the horrors you expect will follow. You can’t bash Tarantino the writer for giving her dialogue-less sequences while also acknowledging Tarantino the director for creating a world where she is the glaring and brilliant emotional center.

That said, I do understand another larger criticism of the film. On paper, it is wonderful that a pregnant Sharon Tate and her innocent friends were not murdered by psychotic hippies. But what does this alternate universe mean to Tarantino? Does he wish the ‘60s would’ve gone on forever? For all of that era’s charms, it was decidedly unkind to women and people of color, the latter being almost entirely left out of this film. I am pretty certain he doesn’t care about any of that, at least not in the context of his story: focusing on two (white) movie stars as his leads and eventual saviors makes sense. But beyond the impassioned debate, it also feels like an unanswered question: when Rick Dalton walks into Sharon Tate’s house, what happens next? Is this a better world? And why should we ultimately care? 

In Inglourious Basterds, we wanted Adolf Hitler to suffer. In Django Unchained, we wanted Django and Broomhilda to destroy their captors and be free. But in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the stakes are much more personal and lower. It’s to Tarantino’s immense credit that we get so invested anyway, but I don’t fault anyone for walking out of the theater a little uncertain. Very few directors could’ve crafted such an enticing amalgamation of ol’ time Hollywood, the inner workings of an actor, and the Westerns that dominated the day; I also don’t think anyone could’ve stuck the landing, QT included.

Drama, ReviewsSteve Cimino