Once Upon A Time… in Hollywood (dir. Quentin Tarantino, 2019) – Star Rick Dalton and his stunt double Cliff Booth navigate the final years of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
Quentin Tarantino pays tribute to the golden decade of Hollywood with excessive enthusiasm, spinning a contemplative and poignant fairy tale out of tragic history.
Years following the end of Bounty Law, actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is now struggling with his alcoholism and fading Hollywood career. He spends most days on the road with his longtime stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), whose reputation, too, grants him little luck in the business.
This is their story, as much as it is of their neighbours. Living next door to the pair is successful director-actor couple, Roman Polanski and Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie). In 1969, how their lives may intertwine invites dread of what is to come, as history pages would show.
But as with Quentin Tarantino’s filmography, things are not always as they seem. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood reveals itself to be an intricately designed puzzle, of which pieces of fact and fiction are assembled in calculated moves. Even if Tate’s involvement makes it evident that the Manson murders would be the centrepiece, the big question is ‘how’.
Tarantino takes his time to get there. Much of its 160-minute run time is spent on his love letter to films, Westerns in particular. He enjoys indulging in obscure references and fleshing out Dalton’s career with film-in-film segments, few of which would put Stolz der Nation to shame (Sorry Eli Roth, but DiCaprio wielding a flamethrower is something I never knew I wanted). Not forgetting cameos that pack into the minutes and the already long list of stars.
When Cliff Booth does eventually meet the Manson family, the encounter is well worth the wait. The gripping scene begins with tense suspicion and ends in curt violence. Their fictional brawl gives a taste of Booth’s own instability, pitting a rumoured killer against the to-be murderers. There is no better prelude to Tarantino’s trademarked stand-off, feeding his growing appetite for rage-driven revenge fantasy.
It is a familiar place Tarantino heads to. Recent films has seen him had his fun beating down the devils in history. Nazis and slavers have all received their deserved comeuppance on screen, suffering grandiose violence that befit their crimes. Now, his revisionist history is about to do the same for the murder cult. Only this time, he comes uncomfortably close to a horrific real-life tragedy, much fresher in the minds of the public.
Method however holds up amidst the madness of his master plan. Sensationalism appears far from his goal. In an emotive scene, Sharon Tate watches herself in The Wrecking Crew, coming to savour her achievements and the enjoyment of the audiences around her. Remembering the rising star as more than a victim, he pays respectful homage to her personality and forgotten works in what little we see of her.
Despite the understandable controversy of fictionalising her very real person, her inclusion was a rewarding storytelling decision. With her plot line comes a striking realisation of how circumstance can redefine people, as the re-written third act did for her and even the fictional Rick Dalton. Fiction can remake history, just as it can, us.
And so as it is in reality and film, history unfolds differently from every perspective. In Quentin Tarantino’s altered past, he preserves fantasies of not just Tate’s fate, but a Hollywood age long gone. Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood is his fairy tale, made bleak by our knowledge of what did happen and cannot be changed. That in mind, Tate’s parting words to the screen come to mean much more, just as the title card leaves a poignant note in its wake.