This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.
Gregor’s review published on Letterboxd:
This review may contain spoilers.
I got the chance to watch Once Upon A Time . . . In Hollywood in 70mm at the Music Box which was awesome, although I’m less sure about how I feel re: the actual movie itself. I had fun and [mostly] enjoyed the experience of watching it. AND YET,,,I don’t think I liked it. I have a lot of questions, actually. Like “why is this movie so nostalgic?” and “what exactly is Tarantino afraid of?” and “ who gets to enjoy the future this movie imagines?” So let’s get into it!
Straight up I didn’t think I was going to like the movie going in. All I knew was 1.) it stars Leo DiCaprio (as aging Western actor, Rick) and Brad Pitt (as Rick’s stuntman, Cliff), 2.) “fading Hollywood star worries about his career in the 60s” and 3.) it’s Tarantino’s supposed ‘mid-life crisis’ of a movie. I don’t want to sound like I dismissed this one before I even saw it, but I went in thinking it wasn’t going to be “for me,” if that makes sense. And you know what? I was right! Once Upon A Time feels like this spectacularly macho, white, self-indulgent and self-referential parody of itself that’s still entirely celebratory of the kind of guy who can kill his wife and get away with it as well as the industry that enabled (and enables) that sort of behavior. Even the moments that you could argue are incisive still feel palpably affectionate. The movie’s love for film and storytelling is intertwined with nostalgia for an era that wasn’t kind to most people. I haven’t seen every Tarantino movie (oops!) but of the ones I have seen, I often experience this nagging feeling that I’m not actually in on the joke even when I’m laughing and having fun. Once Upon A Time was chock full of that feeling for me.
All that being said, I can’t seem to bring myself to definitively say “I disliked it.” Maybe it’s indecision or maybe it’s because I just feel neutral about it or maybe it’s because, like I said, I was kind of enchanted while watching.
And here’s where I really start getting confused about the movie. I think the movie is ultimately optimistic at heart and that mainly came through for me with Sharon Tate’s character. A scene that sticks out (feet aside) is the one of Sharon Tate in a local theater watching her own movie. Her unbridled joy at seeing people having fun watching her work was just, nice. On a bug brain level, it’s just fun to bring other people joy through your work. Pretty much every other moment with Sharon just feels like flavor though. Her murder looms over the entire movie and every scene she’s in, but it seems like the movie only ever spends time with her to remind the audience of the steadily approaching End Of An Era as opposed to actually being concerned for her. In this way, the humanity of her in the theater seems entirely incidental to her overall designation as simply, a Symbol of the era. We don’t hear her speak much, nor does she ever really do anything. She’s appears as an event, a historical moment. Which feels icky, but it’s entirely in line with what the movie is concerned about.
Which leads me to the ending. Spoilers ahoy! I sincerely do not know what to do with the future and alternate timeline Tarantino imagines in the aftermath of the explosive last 20 or so minutes (I did in fact lose my mind during the entire sequence.) The Mansonites get absolutely wrecked (bye), Sharon lives (yay!), and the era continues. Is the ending just imagining “what if the good ol’ days never ended” or “what if we never have to grow up?” That seems too easy (and too boring). The last scene of the movie is Sharon excitedly inviting Rick up to her place for drinks, and Rick tearily accepting that offer. The gates [to her house] open up in front of a wide-eyed Rick as he shambles up the driveway and into Sharon’s embrace. Is the movie, for all it’s bluster and posturing of “hippie” as a slur, conceding that the younger generation and ‘New Hollywood’ isn’t all that bad? That there’s potential and hope, and even room for guys like Rick and Cliff there? Is Tarantino expressing his wish that instead of “aging out” and becoming obsolete (which, by the way, is an insane thing for a white dude to worry about but I digress), that the New And Young Generation will be reverent of history, and instead of brutally usurping what came before, they’ll invite the old in?
But if that’s the case…what? I can get anxiety about growing older and being left behind but in what timeline have white men lost their grip on Hollywood? Who is getting usurped that isn’t a grotesque predator? What’s being bulldozed that’s not a limiting and restrictive structure? Outside of new voices growing through the concrete and teens online going “actually I don’t like Tarantino,” where is this fear of annihilation coming from? And that aside, just who is this imagined future for, coming from a movie celebratory of a specific industry and the specific people that make Hollywood such a hostile, violent place for everyone who 1.) is not a white dude or 2.) hasn’t inherited the right to be there? “hey he’s just afraid of growing old” BUT WHY IN THIS SPECIFIC CONTEXT
Everyone’s already pointed out that it’s tongue-in-cheek and fitting to cast Leo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt as aging, fading Hollywood figures, but the irony is insane considering they’re definitely not “fading.” They’re two of the biggest contemporary actors who were handpicked by a frequent collaborator to star in a highly anticipated, mainstream feature film. Rick and Cliff and Leo and Brad are fine, have been fine, and will always be fine. I’m not even going to get into Pitt, but Cliff’s whole “wife killer” thing (which is about as much weight that’s given to the whole ordeal) is a neat nod to murky but open Hollywood secrets (s/o to Natalie Wood?) Similarly, I guess casting Emile Hirsch in this is also a uh, meta nod to that too? Who knows!
I’m not saying Tarantino / the movie are nostalgic for a time where predators could freely roam around in the sunshine wearing psychedelic robes, but it’s nostalgic for an era that enabled that while also choosing to render said predator, for example. And it’s not even as if in Our Timeline, we even need to be nostalgic for that. (lol @ the Venice Film Festival for letting Polanski back in)
I guess the fear here is that your time in Hollywood could come to an end at someone else’s hand, which, I guess, is terrifying for people who have never had to worry about access and gate keeping. Maybe it’s particularly spooky for someone who enjoys fame, celebrity, and wielding an inordinate power over people and an industry, who associates with those who do the same. Frankly I’d love to live in the timeline of Once Upon A Time, where apparently me and the other youths out here have the power to bulldoze over a very white, male, and insular industry just like That.
Maybe the issue is that I’m a known hater of period pieces (drag me) who also just doesn’t care about the 60’s, or the Golden Age Of Hollywood. A lot of people and reviewers really do identify with this nostalgia though, which is fine and I’m glad but the thing that makes me raise my eyebrows is the suggestion that cinema had Peaked back then. To me, film is as vibrant and exciting as it ever has been. I’m not industry or anything so I don’t have that perspective, but it seems to me that people are building new and better things both in and around and completely outside Hollywood [TM]. Like I said earlier, I’m not entirely sure what Tarantino is wistful about, and why it’s so blatantly tangled up with some Gross Nonsense.
As a film devoid of any context or people it hasn’t chosen to swaddle itself in, it’s a cool movie. Tarantino has the luxury of having his work read without the baggage of historical context (the racism is just flavor, c’mon!) and his own place in the industry. Or at least that’s the impression I get when I see it described as a dreamy fairy tale, simply the product of a grand auteur’s imagination. Oddly enough, I told my friend that Once Upon A Time, out of all of his movies, probably had the highest chance of being a hit for me since I love weird, self-indulgent stuff. It can be an eccentric, ambitious, grand passion project that exists purely within the scope of Tarantino’s vision, if you want it to. That’s a decision you can make, but it’s not one I want to. This movie isn’t for me, and on top of that, I don’t think it’s treading particularly new imaginative ground. And that’s fine, I guess. I just want to hear someone else telling this kind of story.
And for making it this far, here was my intended Pithy One Liner Review: did Tarantino just make this movie so he could have his OC beat Bruce Lee in a fight