Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was exactly what the title tells you it is: a Hollywood fairy tale. It’s a tale from the mind of a man who’s clearly enamored by a fantasy version of what Hollywood and pop culture was back then, before the Manson murders destroyed the beautiful illusion. The Summer of 1969 didn’t have to be that way. Woodstock was a week away from showing that world that while hippies were messy and poor planners, darn it they could make a difficult weekend filled with peace and love. Sharon Tate was becoming a central figure in a bright movement of younger actors who were less hostile towards the hippy culture than their older counterparts. But in a single night, with one horrific tragedy, Charles Manson and his “family” ruined it all. Granted, anyone who’s seen a Tarantino movie wouldn’t think he is that concerned about peace and love, yet Once Upon a Time in Hollywood suggested he’d at least take the trade-off for more years of an idealized Hollywood.
Once Upon a Time was also a fantasy where the good guys beat the bad guys, even though the good guys aren’t all that good either. The central protagonist Rick Dalton was a loser. Relying on his past successes, drowning in alcohol, using his closest friend for everything from driving to fixing his house, he wasn’t exactly the person to root for, yet DiCaprio successfully makes him a sympathetic character I rooted for anyway. I might go as far as to say that this was the best acting I think DiCaprio has ever done. He seemed to really get the character and fold into it. Instead of thinking the whole time, “yeah, this is Leo acting,” I was thinking, “woah, I don’t just see this as Leo acting.” Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth wasn’t quite as convincing, and the fact that he never really got his comeuppance for perceiving Bruce Lee in such a light wasn’t satisfying. Ok, I guess being a gofer for a washed up TV star and eventually being stabbed in the leg was comeuppance in some way. I definitely was rooting more for his dog than him during the final fight.
If you are going into this movie expecting a bloodbath like most of Tarantino’s oeuvre, you will be sorely disappointed. But I personally was able to embrace and truly enjoy this slower, more deliberate pace. Instead of rushing from scene to scene, we were left watching these characters go through a variety ups and downs, cringing at the more awkward moments and cheering as they overcame obstacles. One of my favorites was when Tate tried to get a free ticket to her movie by the ticket booth attendant (which was a surprise cameo by the hilarious Kate Berlant).
There were nagging issues that did keep me from fully embracing this film. The main one was the portrayal of women throughout the film. Margot Robbie, considered a co-star as Sharon Tate, has her first significant speaking lines one hour into Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, and one or two great-if-minor scenes. Her rising stardom being juxtaposed with Dalton’s faltering felt reminiscent of A Star is Born, minus the love drama and singing (thankfully).
Every time the camera cut to a woman, it was usually done so lustfully it’d make adult film directors blush. Margaret Qualley’s character was particularly objectified, even more by the camera than Cliff Booth, which was particularly awkward when this woman we were being encouraged to ogle disclosed she was underage (the actress, of course, is not). Child star Trudi Fraser (played by Julia Butters) made up for a lot of these misgivings, and her scenes with DiCaprio were some of the funniest and most heartwarming.
While we’re on the subject of inclusive casting, non-white people have a role that’s accurate to the time probably, but considering this whole thing is a fantasy, Tarantino could have done better. Bruce Lee is caricatured, all the Latino characters are derisively called “Mexicans”, and I don’t think there isn’t a line said by a Black man or woman. He did avoid putting a single n-word in the script, so there’s that.
I get it, the crux of this whole movie is that it’s the telling of one (white) man’s Hollywood fairy tale from the mind of Tarantino (who has a number of strikes against him in the cultural awareness category). I didn’t expect some “woke” take on ‘60s Westerns. I just wondered if some of those parts of the story needed to be told at all.
I also continue to struggle with the decision to revisit that night in a fictional capacity. Especially one that watered down the Manson Family as some clumsy morons. Manson’s goal with killing those people wasn’t to destroy Hollywood, it was to enslave Black people after creating a cataclysmic race war. Turning them into clowns can whitewash the truly sinister history of the cult and how he even almost became part of the Southern California music scene in spite of it.
So, surprise surprise, Quentin Tarantino made another great movie that I felt weird about liking as much as I did. Throw it on the pile. While it doesn’t touch the cultural relevance or overall quality of Pulp Fiction, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is further proof that Tarantino knows exactly what he wants to do and how to make it come to life, and leaves it up to you to choose whether or not you want to go for the ride with him.