Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

It’s a day later and I’m still processing this film. My initial thoughts sitting in the theater as the credits rolled were that this was a really good movie but not one of Tarantino’s greats. But as I’ve mulled over it (I can’t get it out of my head), I truly think this is one of his best films. 

As far as the way the film was shot: beautiful. The warm tones bring you back to that old movie feel, and the many flashbacks and parallel stories are classic Tarantino and done fantastically as always. As far as the acting: DiCaprio and Pitt are marvelous and Robbie is just so lovable and graceful here as Tate. It isn’t DiCaprio’s most flashy role, but perhaps one of his rawest; it would be easy to overlook how well he does here. Pitt, as I’ve heard many others say, was pretty much born to play this role; he’s just cool. Robbie draws you in and charms you as Tate; she doesn’t say a lot, but she doesn’t need to. 

It is the content of the film that has my mind captivated. I’m really trying to grasp why this film is growing on me so much. This is probably going to be a long one. I don’t expect you to read all of this, but I need to get it out. So here goes...

One thing that I didn’t think was gripping at first but find it more gripping on reflection is the constant noise of pop culture. I had heard takes about how this looked back on times where we all watched and listened the same things and talked about them with longing. I found it hard to buy because I think we do still watch and listen to a lot of the same things. That’s why things are “trending.” But the more I think about it, the more I realize it’s not so much that they were watching the same things as it was that they were watching the same things at the same times every week. It creates not just a shared space of information and content but a shared space of time and schedule. Everyone was watching The FBI at the same time. It creates this sort of TV space where everyone from washed up actors to Hollywood producers to suburbia families to hippie cults occupied this fantastical world that they all could relate to in some way. I guess it’s just a bit more tangible than pop culture is today. This can also be felt any time you see someone dialing a radio to their station or trying to set the needle down on the track they want on a record or feeding film into a projector at home. There was a bit more tangible there and a bit more effort to enjoy it. There’s something to that that Tarantino gets but many like me who grew up in a technological boom find it a bit harder to grasp. At least I can remember the days of dial up internet. That was a pain but worth the effort. More recent generations might find this film less relatable in this way. 

You feel the creepiness of the Mansons from the minute you see the hitchhiking, dumpster-diving hippies strolling down the road and singing. We are obviously supposed to be both creeped out by them and intrigued by them at the same time (just as Cliff seems to be).

One minor take away from the movie is the importance of friendship. Tarantino has always been good at letting us hang out with characters, but there was something different about hanging out with Rick and Cliff. As an adult, especially a married adult with a kid, it is hard to have these moments with a friend that knows all your mess and shares your interests and inside jokes. These moments with Cliff and Rick made me long for this. I appreciated that about the film. 

Another minor takeaway is asking the question of how you will deal with the end of your career. You can compare the attitude of Rick and Cliff. Rick is frantic and anxious, feeling like he is losing himself. Cliff is calm and collected, taking on his new stage in life. Perhaps this is something Tarantino is asking himself and is inviting us to contemplate with him?

But I want to get to what I think all of this culminates in, what the overall feel or goal of the movie is. As we ride and walk through the LA streets with the characters, join them on their sets, watch pieces of their movies, and see them just hanging out in their LA homes we begin to feel the love of movies and old actors and old Hollywood that Tarantino has. We really start to ache and long for it with him. There are a couple of reasons for this. 

For one, we see the passion of the aging Rick Dalton, and we feel for him. We want so bad for him to succeed again. We feel  the melancholy as he tells the little girl actor about his book and the frustration with him in his trailer. Whenever that same girl tells him that was the best acting she’s ever seen, you feel the joy and pride with him. 

Secondly, we feel this love as we watch Tate stroll down the LA streets and happen upon a new film showing that she stars in. You feel her love for her work as she sits watching in that theater and the pure joy she gets out of others enjoying her performance. She is this young lovable actress that there is nothing to dislike about!

So, you have this aging, passionate actor put in a parallel story with this young passionate actress. You love both of them! You know Rick’s career can’t last forever. That’s the nature of life. But you have hope in this new actress. And thus enters the fantasy. 

With a title like Once Upon a Time ... In Hollywood, we get a subtle (or not so subtle, really) suggestion that we are entering a fairy tale. Tarantino with this ending, creates a fairy tale, happily ever after moment that was stolen from us. This is what I really love about the film. The reality is that was lost Sharon Tate and the hope and potential that she represented. In this film, Tarantino punishes the devilish hippies that stole Tate and all she represented from us, and gives us the happy ending, not that we deserve, but that we need. I would argue that this is the first movie where Tarantino gives us a happy ending. He’s given us satisfying endings with revisionist history stories like in Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained before. But I don’t know if I could call them happy. With this film, I left with this odd feeling of happiness. And I loved it. 

We may have ended the movie with what is likely the death of Rick’s career. But we got the beginning of Tate’s career that we never were able to see. And along with that, literal new life in her baby, new friendship, and hope. I love the way the movie ended. The reality is that the killers climbed the walls to the right of the gate on the way to their heinous murders. But Tarantino allows us to climb that same wall and see new life and hope. 

Perhaps with Tarantino seeing the end of his career in sight, he hopes to inspire those coming up behind him to keep making movies that bring us that old Hollywood feel that he gets so much joy from?

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