Quentin Tarantino’s 9th movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (OUaTiH) is somewhat of an homage to the 1960s Hollywood movie industry, and can in that sense already be seen as a controversial movie. The fact that Tarantino takes on the Manson family as his subject matter strengthens that notion.
Critics have differing opinions on that subject and Tarantino’s creative choices in regards to the outcome of the movie, but let’s get into that later. First, I would like to list all the key points as to why I found this movie to be highly enjoyable and very well made.
The individual performances.
OUaTiH is a movie about actors, acting, and the complex, somewhat magical and somewhat brutal realities of Hollywood. So when a large portion of the movie is dedicated to just that, I don’t think anyone should be surprise about that. Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of the aging actor Rick Dalton is phenomenal. Dalton is concerned about slipping into the typecast of villain instead of the hero he was once considered, but simultaneously enjoys and acts the crap out of every scene he gets. The fact that Rick beats himself up about forgetting lines on one single occasion, and proudly takes credit for a gestural detail he added to the script – although it only takes up a second in the film and might even be cut for all we know – are a testimony to his love for the craft. That existential portion does nothing for the narrative of the movie, but to establish Dalton’s core as to who he is and what his wishes and dreams are about, but Leo milks every one of those scenes to the last drop.
While Rick Dalton is a pretty transparent character, it gets more mysterious in regards to his stunt double, Cliff Booth, who appears to be an altogether relaxed dude without serious ambitions but with a fierce loyalty to his friend. Cliff has somewhat of a cool dad aura, giving underage hippie girls a lift in his cool car (yes, it does seem like his life has the sepia filter turned on permanently) and partaking in light drug consumption, but refusing advances by underage females, and generally looking out for the people in a good guy manner for. However, Cliff has a mysterious dark side to him, and in this sense the body is left unburied, which makes Cliff a seriously interesting character.
Also: his dog.
Added to this mix is Sharon Tate, really just appearing here and there, observing her own budding movie career, strugging or being driven around town in a happy-go-lucky manner, being sweet and excited for things to come. Because the supposed climax of the story – spoiler – is her murder, the sense of looming danger makes for a great suspense arc, since Tate graces the screen rather sparingly, just hinting at what is about to happen.
In addition there is a plethora of stellar performances to be mentioned: young Julia Butters on set with Leo, Al Pacino’s short entrance as a Hollywood producer, Austin Butler’s sinister portrayal of Tex Watson, Dakota Fanning…. the list goes on and on. Most of the scenes of this movie, viewed as individual units of really good acting, can carry themselves.
I’m not sure if Tarantino is mocking himself by having Margaret Qualley’s rather unconventional-looking feet up on Cliff’s car’s window. It’s probably a gimmick.
Apart from that, the camera movements, the colours, the outfits, and the general aesthetical choices are so well-excecuted, one could turn the volume off and still enjoy this movie. Cliff driving around town, for example is such an LA-type scene, it absolutely belongs in this movie, as does Sharon’s short dancing appearance at a Hollywood party. There are a lot of small visual elements that absolutely need to be there, and Tarantino has considered all of them.
The example of Rick Dalton acting the heck out of every one of his scenes goes to show how this movie is not only externally well-excecuted, but makes it a priority to go into the heads of the characters as well, while it could have been to run 20 minutes shorter and not get so much into that. I prefer and comment the choices that were made in this regard.
And by that I don’t mean the reality of what actually happened to the real life counterparts, because that has obviously been twisted significantly. And since Tarantino has a habit of doing that, it does not bother me in the last. By realness I mean bringing all sides of the characters onto the screen, showing violence, fear, uglyness, chauvinism – what goes on behind the scenes, not just the glitz and glamour of everything. Already the idea of portraying an actor and his stunt double gives the notion that the dynamic is going to be between the facade and the inner workings behind that facade, which is exactly the case.
Also, the expected murder not happening might be considered anticlimactic – but there is nothing anticlimactic to the brutal murders that do take place.
I’m not going to go into the details of the Manson Murders, or if Tarantino’s vision is to be interpreted as a political message, an opinion about Hollywood in general, or just a more visually pleasing ending to suit the narrative. That’s for you to decide, and I’d love to chat about that in the comment section.
I thoroughly enjoyed this movie in every possible sense, and would highly recommend it.