Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood ★★★★

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

This review may contain spoilers.

I think the key scene here is the sequence where Dalton recounts almost being cast in THE GREAT ESCAPE which the film intercuts with FORREST GUMP style footage of DiCaprio digitally inserted into the McQueen role, playfully tweaking Germany officers before marching off to solitary. Taken on its own terms, it’s a terrible scene: laying bare the vast charisma gulf between McQueen, in arguably his most iconic role, and DiCaprio (if nothing else OUaTiH establishes that Leo is the better actor but Brad is unquestionably the better movie star). Also the way the film clumsily inserts the scenes* into an exchange between DiCaprio and Olyphant doesn’t initially register as fantasy as opposed to expositional even though we recognize that Rick Dalton wasn’t the one doing bike jumps through the German countryside. But as part of the tapestry of the film it works as a Rosetta Stone. It's a sideways universe that can’t exist alongside one that did, lovingly recreated by Tarantino at considerable cost with an eye to geeky verisimilitude, meant to bestow value and dignity onto a fictional character who, had he actually existed, would have been relegated to the dustbin of time (like the TV shows, films and music choices sprinkled throughout the film). It telegraphs the reimagined events of August 9th on Cielo Drive and speaks to an overall kindness of the film. The sweetest fate Tarantino can envision for Sharon Tate is to deny her of infamy so that she too may disappear to the constant march of pop culture (like the long forgotten THE WRECKING CREW, the film Tate costarred in that we see her take in during a matinee) instead of becoming an enduring symbol of lost innocence and the death of the 60’s.

That that kindness extends primarily to two white, middle-aged alcoholic has-beens who are casually racist, resentful towards the counterculture and one of whom probably killed his wife is “problematic” by the boring contemporary standards of fictional characters having to mirror the values of woke Twitter but the film seems to be saying that men like this are dinosaurs (there’s even a fan theory out there that Rick and Cliff are meant to be handsome stand-ins for Tarantino and his longtime benefactor/protector Harvey Weinstein). If the film isn’t making the argument for guys like this, it is viewing them with unabashed nostalgia, drilling down into their day-to-day existence on an almost granular level, finding pleasures in hanging out in front of the TV, listening to the radio while driving around town running errands (credit to David Ehrlich who aptly compared the film to GTA after its Cannes premiere) and admiring the sort of weathered “man’s man” who goes toe to toe with the Manson family… twice! The film isn’t a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-like take on a historical event but rather another Tarantino reclamation project where, rather than an obscure character actor or fading movie star getting a belated return to the spotlight it’s an entire type of Hollywood castoff, personified by a TV cowboy and his dutiful stuntman/drinking buddy. Tarantino grants Rick and Cliff one last moment to revel in the sun, reminding us of why we idolized guys like this once upon a time, with the survival of Tate, Sebring and company treated as a happy accident (collateral salvation). I don’t have any thoughts as to the morality of all this but I did enjoy the better part of three hours spent in the company of characters who existed in the time we refer to when we say “it was a different time.” That the film is currently being criticized for being too gleefully violent towards the people who would go on to stab a pregnant woman sixteen times is only amplifying the film’s point.

*For the record I’m not one of those people who thinks that Tarantino’s work has suffered from the death of his longtime editor Sally Menke ten years ago but I will say this film’s nesting doll approach to flashbacks lacks clarity and there are overall pacing issues to the film that don’t speak well of her permanent replacement, Fred Raskin.