“Hey! You’re Rick fucking Dalton. Don’t you forget it.” – Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood Review

One-Upon-A-Time-In-Hollywood

Deconstructing Quentin Tarantino’s 9th film is a tremendously difficult task to unpack.  Like Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) buying himself a cigarette dipped in acid, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood functions as a strange, fairy-tale dream, serving as a nostalgic love letter to Hollywood.

Besides his impending retirement, you get the sense that Tarantino has been slowly building to this moment, and it’s unnerving from the outset at how different this film is. The classic Tarantino-isms remain intact; the foot fetishes, his pop-culture obsessions, his jukebox curation for soundtracks, the indulgent dialogues, and the vengeful and violent retributions.  Like a pop star on a grand world tour, his signatures are wheeled out as if he was playing his greatest hits.  But it’s also a film that’s less concerned with the stylised motifs that have defined him for a generation.  Instead of gangsters, elaborate heists or revenge missions, it’s a hangout movie with actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his stunt double friend Cliff Booth – a throwback to the sprinkled goodness of Robert Redford and Paul Newman as a partnership.  At times, it’s a grounded, melancholic and inward-looking exploration of Hollywood during its golden age, set against the disturbing, backdrop of one of America’s most shocking crimes – the murder of Sharon Tate along with her unborn son, her ex Jay Sebring, and her two friends, Wojciech Frykowski, and Abigail Folger.

Now usually alarm bells would start ringing – Tarantino doing a film that incorporates Charles Manson (played by Damon Herriman) and his cult family.  That should have been a huge NOPE considering the track record.  But in comparison to his previous films, it’s his least exploitive and probably his most accessible film to date.

But it’s fair to say that this film was made for film enthusiasts in mind.  Now, that’s not to be disrespectful to general audiences or create any unintentional rift, but Tarantino’s passionate affinity for culture troves is on full display here, right down to the title, inspired by Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time…in the West.  From Rick Dalton’s introduction in a classic TV advert for Bounty Law, followed by all the interwoven homage to Westerns, the neon signs of Los Angeles to its 35mm presentation (if you were lucky enough to see it in that format), it’s like unearthing a time capsule.  And if you have prior knowledge of the events that subtly envelopes it (including Cliff’s background story surrounding his wife, drawing grim similarities with the mysterious death of West Side Story and Rebel Without a Cause actress Natalie Wood), then it helps expand on some of the expected (and unexpected) choices.

Throughout its age of innocence, Tarantino handles its etched moment as an omnipresent character – it’s there in the background, like an evil shadow waiting to pounce.  Considering how divided the nation was through political assassinations, the Vietnam War, an unpopular President and its subsequent protests, Tarantino deploys a ‘rose-tinted effect’ on the film, that lingers in its lush and beautiful cinematography by Robert Richardson that’s near immune from the environmental realities.  For the first half of the film, you enjoy its warm, sun-kissed gaze.

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Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), the person at the centre of that tragedy, doesn’t get many lines.  In some quarters, some would easily say she’s underused or wasted.  On one hand, I do agree with that, but for someone who’s primarily remembered for the extremity of her death, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is respectful to her memory, focusing on her youthful, carefree and down to earth spirit.  However subtle it is, Robbie’s performance portrays her with a simple guise – a human being.  As a rising star within the Hollywood circle filled with swinging parties at the Playboy mansion, a movie director husband, summed up by the overtures of Deep Purple’s Hush, it’s a depiction where the world is at her feet, cleverly juxtaposing with Rick Dalton and his falling stardom.  It’s all kept in check where Robbie’s Tate enjoys watching The Wrecking Crew on the big screen where her real-life counterpart is born again in all of her film glory.

Tate’s appearance is a symbol of change in 1969.  There’s a good comparison to be made with the Coen Brothers’ Hail Caesar.  In a God-like fashion, both films show the fragility of the Hollywood system during cultural transformation where both its leads struggle to hold everything together as they figure out their place in the industry.  Set earlier in the timeline, the Coen Brothers construct it with Josh Brolin’s Mannix who fights the infiltration of communism at the studio and celebrity indiscretions from his leading actors.  Rick in Tarantino’s latest is defined by his self-worth and relevancy in a generation now defined by those “God-damn hippies” he suggests.  Gone are the clean-cut cowboys from Bounty Law to the unrecognisable, big Zapata moustache for his appearance on Lancer.

When you put it into context, Tarantino brings up the conversation that highlights Hollywood’s reliance on short-term perceptions.  Rick lives next door to the “hottest new director” in a throwaway supporting line about ‘living in LA’.  Al Pacino’s Marvin Schwarz gives him the weighted option – fly out to Italy for an Italian Western directed by the second-best director (the first we assume is Sergio Leone) where you can be the leading star or spend the rest of your career being ‘the heavy’, going from pilot season to season where you can easily be typecast and replaceable.

It’s hard not to feel empathetic – there’s a touch of Douglas Fairbanks in Rick’s character, an actor who struggled to make the transition from the silent era to the talkies.  Rick has done nothing wrong, and yet the world has decided the clock is ticking on his career.  His self-doubts are wrapped in his excessive smoking and drinking and nervous stammer when in conversation.  Even when he does make the effort to rehearse his lines, he forgets them in frustration.  But as the Lancer scenes demonstrate, Rick is a good actor.  Like anything, he needed the right vehicle (or moment) to prove that and change his fortunes.

That’s why Cliff becomes an integral part of his story.  Some would say Cliff is the ‘idealised’ version of Rick’s persona and definition of male masculinity.  Cliff is the muscle, the ‘man with no name’ with all of that personal ambiguity of an anti-hero and a confident, loyal swagger who can carry Rick’s load (so to speak).  While he doesn’t have anything to gain, intently comfortable with just hanging out with Rick and whatever is left of his ageing stardom, he doesn’t have the same fears that fuels Rick.  He’s the reassurance to Rick’s lack of confidence.

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Because of that dynamic, it makes the Pitt and DiCaprio partnership delightfully entertaining in Tarantino’s character-driven centrepiece.  They both have a natural magnetism for the period that acknowledges their parallels with stardom and their adaptability within an industry that often finds it re-inventing itself.  They don’t spend a great deal of time together on screen (as dictated by their separate plot paths), and some of their exploits are thinly portrayed.  However, soul-searching might be a bit of a stretch, but they are lost souls (or cowboys as Tarantino infers), navigating the change where Westerns were on their way out and their futures uncertain.

Bruce Lee: “My hands are registered as lethal weapons. We get into a fight, I accidentally kill you, I go to jail.”

 

Cliff Booth: “Anybody accidentally kills anybody in a fight, they go to jail. It’s called manslaughter.”

However admirable Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood’s intentions in its blurred reality of fact and fiction, it’s not without its issues, summed up by the inclusion of Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) in a scene that should have been left on the cutting room floor.

Of course, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is not a Bruce Lee story – it’s a cameo inclusion amongst Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) and Tarantino regulars in Michael Madsen and Bruce Dern.  As the moment comes from Cliff’s perception, I accept it’s an exaggerated tale that favours the storyteller.  I could lean at the possibility of Tarantino wanting to take a stab at demystifying legends.  But I also know that this is not Tarantino’s first rodeo at indulging in a revisionist fantasy as experienced in Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained.  Trust me, if you want a history lesson, Tarantino is probably the last individual you want to consult from – he makes the films he wants to make, which is arguably his greatest appeal.  The film even plays with revisionism when Trudi (Julia Butters), a young method actress on Lancer reads a book about Walt Disney.  But Tarantino lazily presents Bruce Lee as a punchline joke that does the real-life star a disservice.

While Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood lauds itself over the glory days as seen through Western eyes, Lee’s misrepresented depiction is an uncomfortable reminder of stereotypes that Hollywood was comfortable in exploiting.  If black actors were continually cast as slaves, ‘jive-talking’ pimps, hustlers or gangsters, then Asian roles were caricatures, either comedically (including the slant eyes), kung-fu parodied, sidekicks, servants or the worst-case scenario where Asian roles were played by high profile white actors.  Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is a prime example.  John Wayne playing Genghis Khan in The Conqueror.  Even the much-applauded scene where Sharon Tate is sitting amongst a joyous, reactionary crowd of The Wrecking Crew screening has her character defeating Nancy Kwan’s Wen Yu-Rang.

Honestly, it’s not about whether Lee wins the fight or not with Cliff (the match ends in a draw, but you can easily interpret it as manly Cliff ‘teaching’ Lee and his foreign ego a lesson) but in Tarantino’s visual comprehension, it’s the boastful, one-dimensional arrogance that doesn’t sit well.

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Selective as that may be as uneasy products of their time, but it’s easy to forget amongst the hullaballoo that these were the sort of battles Lee himself was fighting to eradicate.  Often cast in minor or sidekick roles, it’s easy to forget that the odds were stacked against Lee as he tried to progress through the Hollywood system, most notably if you fast forward to the 70s and the TV show Kung Fu – a concept idea set in the Wild West in which he pitched with a starring role for himself.  The idea was allegedly ‘re-tooled’ by Warner Bros., claiming they had a similar idea in the works with David Carradine as the lead.  While his idea eventually saw the light of day in the Justin Lin directed Warrior, by Lee’s admission, the studio saw hiring an Asian man as its lead a risky move and overlooked for the role.

But it’s also easy to forget that through Lee’s perceived arrogance (which was confidence he could back up – ever seen him do THAT one-inch punch?), is a man who was a philosopher, educator and teacher, someone who re-invented and revolutionised the mechanisms of martial arts that we see today.  He respected Muhammad Ali (or Cassius Clay as named in the film), even incorporating some of his trademark moves in The Way of the Dragon.  Teaching celebrities became a natural extension of his beliefs, passing on the knowledge to Steve McQueen, Kareem Abdul-Jabar, James Coburn, Dan Inosanto and briefly Sharon Tate (in which he served as ‘karate advisor’ on The Wrecking Crew which Tarantino recreates in a memory sequence).

The only shared comfort that emits from Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood’s blended subtext is its faint echo that Lee’s journey shares with Rick Dalton – they eventually left the realities of Hollywood to create films in another country to find success and recognition.

But as complicated it is to mentally digest that separation reality between fact and fiction (leaving me torn because of it), ultimately, Tarantino deploys an unnecessary oversight that oversimplifies Lee’s credentials, taking his on-screen superheroism and signature expressions and bending them to a will he saw fit.  And instead of celebrating the inclusion of a legendary star in a film that respectfully immortalises Sharon Tate and shows kindness to Roman Polanksi, the least it could do is show Bruce Lee the man, instead of Bruce Lee and the endless case of borrowed-isms and imitations.

Does the moment take away from its overall nostalgic premise? No, because it is a short scene.  Was there a better way of illustrating Cliff’s violent foreshadowing?  Absolutely. But like an ill-advised and jarring insertion of himself in Django Unchained, this demonstrates the best and worst of Tarantino.

And ‘best and worst’ is an accurate summary for Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.  For every great scene like Rick’s breakdown in his trailer, Cliff’s stunt-like scenic drive through Los Angeles or Sharon dancing to music with all of her innocent vigour, there are long, disjointed, loosely structured and meandering periods that doesn’t justify its near, three-hour runtime.  After a much contained first half, it slowly loses momentum, starting around the introduction of Spahn ranch which dragged unnecessarily.  Humour is a ‘hit and miss’ scenario, struggling to hit its mark.  Its violent third act can leave you conflicted in its excessiveness.  And as much as we’ve grown accustomed to that staple Tarantino formula, it’s not helped by the fact that narration (voiced by Kurt Russell) with all of the typical, quippy remarks you’ve come to expect, can simultaneously be incredibly detrimental in breaking up the impending tension in its rushed third act.

Maybe that was the point.  As aimless, messy and pretentiously indulgent in its direction, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood tries to understand what Hollywood means when it’s all said and done.  Hollywood can change in an instance.  After Easy Rider, it was the new wave emergence of auteurs; Scorsese, Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, Kubrick, Friedkin and Altman to name a few – directors who changed the Hollywood landscape into a cultural behemoth.  We’ve based our movie consciousness on those directors as signs of our youth and growth, acknowledging that movies in that era became more experimental, groundbreaking, visceral and graphic – an antithesis response and subsequent rejection of the studio system. Tarantino is a modern equivalence, one of the few directors remaining who can command a self-generated hype in an era now being re-defined by franchises and content-led spectacles.  Based on that line of thinking, what Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood accomplishes is a breath of fresh air.

Perhaps like Rick and Cliff, the Ying and Yang side of Tarantino’s brain, Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is a self-reflective question based on his cinematic contributions, hence why it’s always existentially wrestling with its ideals and pop culture romanticism, fighting hard not to fit into any simplified genre box. It doesn’t make it quintessential Tarantino (Jackie Brown remains my favourite).  The concept alone is worth the mental hurdle. But I didn’t fall ‘head over heels’ in love with it. It’s a mid-tier Tarantino at best where it promises so much, but barely pulls itself together when it needs it most.

Hate it? No, but as polarising and challenging it was, the film does have its merits which could potentially grow with repeated viewings.  But like anything with Tarantino, you have to prepare for the unexpected.  But even then, somehow that’s not enough to make this rewardingly worthwhile.

Author: Kelechi Ehenulo

Kelechi Ehenulo is the creator and writer of Confessions From A Geek Mind, an analytical film and TV blog. As a freelance film critic, her work can be found on Set The Tape - an independent pop culture website, VultureHound Magazine and podcasts such as The X-Cast, Close Encounters of the Film Kind, The Movie Palace Pod and The Tales We Tell podcast. She thinks Batman: The Animated Series is the best cartoon ever (and that is not up for debate) and loves science-fiction, LEGO and Tottenham Hotspur.

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