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.

Today is the 50th anniversary of the Tate murders. This isn't a movie about them. In fact, in this fable, they never happened. But the Hollywood machine still demands sacrifice.

The debt is typically paid through the soul-sucking work of acting on movie sets. Aching and repetitive, Tarantino's outlook into the career of Rick Dalton is thespianism as bitter, unfulfilling work, and aging as an inevitable crucible. The progression of time is never so harsh as it is towards those whose careers are predicated on staying young. An aging Dicaprio reflects this in real life, too, despite being one of the last remaining true movie stars. He’s chubbier now, no longer boyish, and even kinda grizzled. Hanging out in the frozen wilderness will do that to you. The memes ended when he won an Oscar for that movie, but I’ve always thought Leo was best in comic roles - unhinged, pathetic, and yowling Leo manages to capture a rare balance between bonkers and deeply pitiful. There’s plenty of that in Rick Dalton, whether on set or in his trailer, a working-man on the way out - raging fodder for the cannon.

Being middle-aged sucks, but being dead is worse. Margot Robbie is Sharon Tate in this movie as myth rather than character. She is a specter of HOLLYWOOD - the geographical location, the imagined realm its ethos exists in, and this film itself. Robbie is Tate as unbridled and joyous: when dancing, when buying a book, when watching herself on the big screen. Movie theater as church is extended further to cinema as shrine; preservation of lost souls, celluloid as eternally affecting. The audience reactions are ephemeral, but pure; their enjoyment is the distinct opposite to the way the experience of acting is shown elsewhere in the movie. It is the contribution of actors that satiates the violent beast of culture. Paragons of martyrdom; and self-loathing.

Brad Pitt is the third point of the triangle. He plays a man that murdered his wife and got away with it. He favors fantastical retellings over the droll realities of his real day-to-day. His Cliff is a journeyman, too old to be a hippie, but intrigued by their loose and lazy lifestyle. By contrast, his obsession with authoritative discipline (evidenced by his ultra-obedient pitbull) and pride in being a Task Man plant him squarely in a different generation. The best section of the movie is centered around his venture out to the Spahn Movie Ranch on his day off. Cliff picks up a young hippie hitchhiker, and deposits her at the former set of Bounty Law. Here, runaway teens are cloistered in dank and dirty holdings under the tutelage of Charles Manson (a name which is never spoken), and Lena Dunham, to really emphasize the point. This section is funny and tense, an ebb and flow about boundary-testing and viewer expectation.

Elsewhere, misery compounds for Rick Dalton as he learns of his new fate as the perpetual heavy. He imagines things will only get worse, and becomes resigned to his fate. There’s a great vignette where he delivers a gut-wrenching monologue that might as well have been in a made-up language in how effectively it conveys emotion. I don’t remember any of the lines Rick Dalton’s characters say; they’re usually just generic talky -sourced epithets and commands- but his performances are electric. Cartoonish, bona fide, and character-centric. Tarantino reminisces on this bygone era with nostalgia, already out of style before Manson came to town.

ONCE UPON A TIME...IN HOLLYWOOD concerns a few days in sweltering California, split in half by a 6-month time jump. There’s a lot of lengthy hang-out sessions. I probably could have watched 2 more hours of it, or even a full miniseries. Its misadventures in the vapid, Hollywood scene built largely around characters aching for fulfillment is nothing new, but the tilt here is refreshingly mature. Celebrity parties are polluted by spiteful gossip, acting is far from glamorous, and the terrifying ideology of the Manson family is practiced by disillusioned teenagers. There have been plenty of uncharitable reads about this movie in the discourse. I think it’s really good.

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