Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★

On June 28th, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, visited the city of Sarajevo, a hotbed of Serbian nationalist activity, and on all days to visit, it just so happened to be the day commemorating the Serbian victory at the Battle of Kosovo, a point of national pride. The Serbian nationalist group the Black Hand plotted to assassinate the Archduke in an act of revolution as he toured the city in an open-top motorcade. The first attempt on his life was a misthrown bomb that injured several bystanders, yet after reaching his first stop, the Archduke vowed not to abandon the city and instead changed their route to visit the hospital where those wounded in the bombing were being treated. In the confusion and tension of the moment, however, no one informed the driver of the new plan, resulting in him taking a turn down the wrong street; someone called out to the driver to stop as he was going the wrong way, but as the driver applied the brakes to stop the car, it was right near where nationalist Gavrilo Princip stood, who delivered two fatal shots that took the lives of the Archduke, his wife, and brought about the deaths of millions more as the igniting action that began the First World War. An act that relied on a thousand coincidences, any small change to what happened could have altered the course of history and might have prevented the great tragedy that followed. Though the past can’t be changed, it’s a powerful story, one that captures the imagination in its unimpressiveness, how it was no grand, complex plot nor a well-trained squad that brought this about, but just a mangy grab of teenagers who by means of brute force, managed a crime that reverberated across the world. Not the only time in history for such an event to play out, for it is this kind of world-shattering event not of perfectly laid plans but of pure coincidences and dumb luck that a different momentous event would play out, that of Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Hollywood, 1969--the people are hip, the smoking is prolific, and feet are uncovered and shoved directly in your face, at least that’s the way Tarantino’s mind has them. In his 9th and supposedly penultimate film, Tarantino brings to life his vision of old Hollywood, an era of dashing Western leads and WWII revenge flicks. Clearly an inspiration for much of his own work, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is the chance for this famed and successful director to give his thanks to the moviemakers that came before him, but rather than focus on the most exciting and glamorous of characters, this story takes view of those that history may not remember: there’s Leonardo DiCaprio as Rick Dalton, a nearly-washed up old Western star trying to regain his footing, and by his side is Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth, his former stunt double and current personal driver after Cliff got one too many DUIs. The other major player is the real-life Sharon Tate, played by the enchanting Margot Robbie, who goes about an ordinary day just a few months before her infamous murder at the hands of the Manson family. In an unexpected but appreciated decision, though, this movie is no sensationalized lead up to those murders or conspiracy about how it took place; instead, it is nearly the opposite approach, showing these characters going about their everyday lives on set, in ordinary home duties, and just enjoying themselves in life. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood makes no promises in its story, assuredly jumping from one storyline to the next across a few days in Hollywood, not just in location but time too as it jumps into character’s memories and let those play out in the same placid manner. Steadily paced and never acquiescing, these seemingly disparate strings come together, and like in the film Nashville, characters collide, coincidences lead to major consequences, and the smallest of decisions lead to outcomes in even greater magnitudes.

Easily Tarantino's most sophisticated and sober movie to date, besides a few sequences it’s almost unrecognizable from the rest of his filmography. Gone is the over the top violence, the heavy banter, and the sleek production that distinguished his past work, and in their place is nearly the inverse that’s just as dazzling in its implementation. Scenes are much more simple, like Rick reminiscing about his old B-movies and TV shows with a casting agent, all while interspersing scenes of Rick in these fake stories and sometimes interpolated into real ones as well. Though not much happens plot-wise, the editing of all these moments together gives these sequences an air of prestige, and for the people involved, no matter how small they seem in the larger structure, their presence can seem like the most important thing in the world. Even within the shuffling hurrying of Hollywood, these scenes take their time, letting the moments play out, giving the audience a chance to breathe, and letting eyes wander across the screen. With many sequences of no dialogue, it’s an opportunity to let the images of this energetically hued era speak for themselves--in moments when smoke swirls about a light-streaked room, the nervous, swimming blue eyes of DiCaprio’s Rick contrast with the rumpled, deep-set face of Pitt’s Cliff. Two friends with different pleasures, dreams, and fears, Rick struggles with his new acting gigs, and in this meta-performance of an actor struggling to act well and developing his character, DiCaprio gives a deep and complex portrayal with shades of ego, embarrassment, and triumph, all with a bit of a golden age twang. Meanwhile, Sharon Tate goes around with the opposite problem of convincing people of her true glasses-wearing, book-reading self. Mostly remembered for her looks, Robbie’s performance is the chance to see the woman behind the gloss and magazine covers and to see someone who smiled at the movies as much as the rest of us. Rounding it all out is working man Cliff Booth whose easy-going, working man style is a portrait of the working ecosystem behind the camera, at times facing displacement and often the ones having to deal with the sick individuals that the glitz and glamor shun. Somehow, through it all, Cliff manages to keep a smile on his face, maybe through movie magic, maybe because those who work in Hollywood have truly found their passion, even in the most routine of jobs.

Above all else, Tarantino creates a world in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, one that isn’t necessarily based in truth but one that he feels how it should be. It’s a love letter to Hollywood and that old Hollywood magic. In each of these unique points of the story, what Tarantino hopes the audience takes away is that there’s no greater joy than that of pleasing an audience. He wants to put you in the same seat as these moviemakers, deliberately doing so by keeping only diegetic sounds and music and following these characters' views and memories to immerse you right into their motivators, hesitations, and most importantly, how momentary choices can shape everyone’s lives. Just like life, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood meanders in tone, but the one consistent is time; every year, new talent pops up not only to displace the old but to also disprove their ideas and work. Having that thought in mind and nearing his own end, this film is a reflection of Tarantino’s age and moving out of his golden age, wondering if he’s still welcomed in Hollywood. Whatever the future holds, however, movies will always have stories to tell, and while unable to change the past, can provide what we as audiences truly want and give that sense of resolution that our inconsequential lives fail to provide. That's why we keep returning to the movies.

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