Mark Cira’s review published on Letterboxd:
The revisionist Western trilogy concludes on a sour note with Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, the final instalment in the "what if" canon of Tarantino's imaginative revisionist historical epics. With Django, it was: what if the slaves got their rightful revenge? In Hateful Eight, it was the tableau of primal showdown between the right side of history vs. the wrong side of history. *spoiler* no one really wins. And in Once Upon, Tarantino tears a page from Corbucci's film (yes, that Corbucci who directed the original Django) The Great Silence where it’s what if the villains finally get to win and the Western never died?
The Great Silence was directed the same year this film takes place. It gave birth to the rise of the anti-hero and was a rebuke to Leone's nameless heroes. Actually, it was a rebuke to EVERYTHING. No one let the villain win before Corbucci, or at least win like that. And so the 1970s were born and with that Once Upon.
Tarantino must be the most self-aware director ever, but he has fun in the artifice. Point in place, casting Al Pacino - one of the Italian-American actors who gave birth to the anti-heroes (see: The Godfather and Scarface) in the 70s - cast as the Producer who ushers DiCaprio's character into...finally getting his role as a hero. In fact, he's bespectacled with the same frames as a young Sergio Leone. It's all there. Tarantino writes it plain as day.
But the Western has had its day. Tarantino knows it, the audience knows it, and the medium knew it best. By the end of the 1960s, the Western had to make room for the weird cult-y, acid-inspired films (anyone catch The Illustrated Man advert on Pitt's radio?) that replaced them. Strange and daring films like Easy Rider and later Chinatown and Taxi Driver. Films that gave the finger to the Western and the heroes they provoked. Here we have Tarantino trying to resurrect a dead genre while simultaneously re-writing the history of the Manson slayings. He's essentially using the medium to enlist a kind of artistic resurrection, a sadistic grin widens over the face of the entire narrative to suggest: No good thing ever dies. Not Sharon Tate and especially not the fucking Western.
Here we have Rick Dalton as someone looking over the cliff of obscurity and Cliff looking to just reside in his continuum of obscurity. Rick truly could be the best villain Tarantino has ever written. He doesn't do his own stunts, he doesn't do his own driving, he doesn't even respect his craft enough to remember his lines. All he has is the gull to complain about the movies. When Marvin offers him a career in Rome, he scoffs at the idea. Eye-talians can't make Westerns.
Meanwhile, Cliff is scared of hippies, martial artists, and his own wife. Basically anyone who is a homogeneous caucasian male who poses no threat is OK in Cliff's eyes. The picture is clear. Cliff acts as defacto showman who got replaced by the sheer brilliance of the Kung-Fu stunts and the bad-assery that ensued with the cult films of the 1970s. Rick is kind of a zombie holding onto the precious American genre with dear life.
No one would have the balls to make these two guys likeable, let alone WIN, let alone take the narrative away from the person who the film is actually about: Sharon Tate. And that's the point. It's what Corbucci did, it's what Scorsese stole, it's what TV is built on today...you make the most unsympathetic characters into people you somehow feel for and want to win.
The critique that Sharon Tate is un-featured or that Margot Robbie is un-used is perhaps missing the over-arching theme that Tarantino is painfully and obviously trying to get across: the conspiratorial death of Sharon Tate was the symbolic DEATH of the 1960s. It was that which no one could believe or worse, wanted to believe. Of what little we see of her in the film is a reflection for Tate's actual persona in the history of cinema. She was more or less UNKNOWN before her untimely death. She had no major roles. She was only 26. And just getting her start. Her murder was the cause of her infamy.
But Tarantino decidely doesn't use Tate's "infamy" as garnered by her slaying as a means to propel the narrative, he uses the stagnation of two men who never got such glorious deaths, rather the opposite:
two older white guys who had a long-running career, now at the end of their ropes, and fading into obscurity. The film ain't a love letter to Tate and the nouveau Hollywood that was moving in next door, it's a sadistic celebration of the old Hollywood that refused to leave.
With that you get a sense of Tarantino's own refusal to leave the game, to make way for the "new blood." He wants to reside in the comforts of the genre he deconstructed and put back together so brilliantly throughout his career. In Tarantino's twisted fantasy, the Western didn't die. The Italians just got it started. So when Rick falls in love with an Italian in Rome, you can feel the desperate love affair as symbolic of the genre's deportation to Europe and Tarantino's own marriage to the genre.
Tarantino has never not made a Western. Every film he's made has the formula and contrivances you find in the genre.
But Once is not just a Western. It's Tarantino playing with form like never before. He's interluding quiet moments with revealing flashbacks that feel in sequence to the previous scene. He plays with time like it's puddy in his hands, a kind of formalist technique that suggests his own fear of proceeding into the future.
But at the same time, he's cutting bits out, he's jump cutting, he's using text overlays and split-screens, he's basically using the cutting techniques that Godard and such made commonplace during that era. He simultaneously fears the moment that ended his favourite genre and embraces it whole-heartedly.
He's even aware of his own downfalls as a director. When Rick is reading a pulp dime-store Western next to an articulate nine-year-old reading a big brilliant novel, he spells out to her the plot and the interiority of his character Easy Breezy's fear of death. It's literally Tarantino using the medium he adores (the pulp novel) in the hands of a character he adores (the Cowboy) to present exposition to his play-hostage (the audience) in a ham-fisted way. Thus, using DiCaprio's vulnerability as a vessel for his own insecurity as a writer. It's three-dimensional chess. We're getting Tarantino's fear of being an artist and his fear of the future...the little girl who knows more than he ever could.
Lines are drawn very heavy in the sand of this film. There's the old Hollywood and there's the new Hollywood. For example, the new wave of hippies that are peppered throughout Sunset Blvd are casted suitably with actors like Dakota Fanning and Lena Dunham. Or take the two posters that hang outside the Pantages theatre: Ice Station Zebra, the Sturges thriller and 2001: A Space Odyessy. I don't think there's been a better art directed distinction between two eras of cinema ever. Both came out in 1968 and when 2001 premiered at the Pantages in LA for the first time, they giggled throughout the introduction. It featured an identical intro to Ice Station Zebra. Titters turned into laughs. There were 24 walkouts, one of which was Rock Hudson who asked of 2001: "Will someone tell me what the hell this is about?"
The old system simply wasn't ready. And Tarantino firmly rests his feet in that cobwebbed system. While new directors pull ideas and references from the "canon" of cinema, usually post-1970. Tarantino always felt more comfortable or perhaps charmed by the old school tv and movies that came before that, before movies became films and before people like Kubrick demanded the medium a certain level of respect.
In fact, Tarantino doesn't grant much of the respect or cleanliness to any character. That's the brilliance of Tarantino. Cliff lives amidst his own filth feeding his dog slop, while Rick is always nursing hangovers and insulting Mexicans. Meanwhile the "cult" is a bunch of squatters that just watch TV like brainwashed zombies. When Cliff makes a visit to the Ranch, none of them can ever turn their head from episodes of The Monkees. Yet, Tarantino relishes in the kind of cultish fever that was born of both Television and Movies and the stand-off that ensues on the Ranch is purely the personification of TV vs. Movie. Or better yet - when the Western tried to resurrect itself through TV.
This tale of Hollywood is distinguished in that it's a capsule of time that finds a kind of bridge between genres and mediums. It was when Television was threatening to get "kicked out" for the Movies and when Movies were transforming. New genres were ascending upon the horizon beyond the the Western. There were now the biker films, the Cult films, the kitchen-sink horror films, the kung-fu films and...the art film. Once kind of wraps it all up in the typical brand of Tarantino.
Rick is a man constantly looking over to his neighbour to see what they got, what makes them tick, who they are. Cliff ascends onto the roof and takes off his shirt in a heroic attempt to fix Rick's TV antenna (a kind of weird sexy Tarantino-esque metaphor for television) in the hopes maybe Tate and the shaggy haired hippies see him. Both Rick and Sharon have posters of themselves littered across the walls. Everyone is kind of chasing some kind of recognition, no matter how trivial.
So you can take the drive up the Hills and find Rick and Sharon living side by side. The Western and the New Age as neighbours. Both enamoured with stealing the show. The revision of history doesn't matter. Who lives and who dies doesn't matter. They both live on a dead end. But they both live on in their own way.