Friday 23 August 2019

REVIEW: Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood

Tarantino's ninth, and supposedly penultimate, film is a love letter to the heyday of Hollywood and the strain of actor that once made its films and series such a great success. It's his latest exploration of America's dark history, and features many of the elements we've come to expect from him. There's a cast of favourite faces, historical revisionism, nostalgic Americana, a spectacular soundtrack, long scenes of dialogue, non-linear story elements, graphic violence (although less than usual) and lingering shots of female feet (even more than usual, not that I'm complaining).

As much as Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood is typical Tarantino in many respects, there's a unique feel to the film when seen in his career. In spite of being announced as his take on the Manson murders, Once Upon a Time is, surprisingly, quite the feelgood film, ultimately quite uplifting. In reality, it's not the Manson film that many were expecting. The Family cult and the build-up to the infamous murder of Sharon Tate and her houseguests are treated as part of the scenery of 1969, vital to the story but not actually what it's about. Charles Manson himself, played by Damon Herriman, appears only briefly, although his presence is felt throughout the lengthy Spahn Ranch sequence.

Equally, Sharon Tate is an underserved character, for all of her screentime. Margot Robbie is magnetically beautiful onscreen, but is given remarkably little to say or do, something that's not gone unnoticed by critics. There's a single scene in which she shines, where Robbie watches the real Tate at the cinema, revelling in the audience's reactions to her character. While there's a sense of trying to remind audiences that Tate was more than her death, she serves primarily to represent the glamorous, desirable side of Hollywood that so many wish to be part of, not least the film's hero. Like the Manson family, Tate is part of the landscape.

The real story is that of Rick Dalton, Leonardo DiCaprio's ageing movie star, and to a lesser extent, his faithful friend and stuntman Cliff Booth, played by a deeply tanned Brad Pitt. Although inspired on a variety of actors from the period, Dalton is predominantly based on Burt Reynolds, who famously has a close relationship with his stuntman Hal Needham. DiCaprio is exceptional as Dalton, once the star of Gunsmoke-esque Western series Bounty Law, an actor who's becoming more and more aware that he is long past his prime and that his fame is fading fast. Struggling with alcoholism and depression, we see Dalton go from the worst lows of his career to brief highs, all the while knowing that his era is over.

A generous use of classic TV and film footage helps complete the illusion, with material tweaked and twisted so that DiCaprio can appear in classic films - be it a fantasy version of The Great Escape where Dalton won out over Steve McQueen or altered versions of TV episodes that cast Dalton in new, fictionalised versions. The occasional minor anachronism doesn't seem to matter, when we're watching what's clearly a diversion from reality - seemingly the same one as seen in Inglourious Basterds, which Tarantino references in most metatextual moment in the film.

Pitt's performance as ex-stuntman Booth is just as impressive. A laconic, almost impossibly laid back characterisation hides an individual who is incredibly dangerous. One troubling element is the revelation that Booth probably murdered his wife and got away with it - based on the dubious circumstances of Natalie Wood's death while in the company of Robert Wagner - and yet he is never called on it by anyone outside of one TV set scene. By the end of the film, we never know if this man - who is capable of extreme violence - is actually guilty of the crime, or how we should feel about either him or Dalton if it's true.

The film is packed with recreations of real stars, be it Damien Lewis's brilliant turn as Steve McQueen or Luke Perry playing Wayne Maunder, who both died during the period of post-production. While not always entirely flattering, the portrayals of real life individuals are at least respectful - with the exception of Bruce Lee, with Mike Moh forced to play him as a complete prick, something that has drawn a lot of criticism from Lee's family.

There lies the difficulty of making a film like this. I'm often uncertain just how acceptable it should be to make films of events that happened so recently. A number of the people portrayed, or loosely adapted, in Once Upon a Time are still alive, although a surprising number of them died off during production, and the families of those deceased are still here. How Tate's family must feel seeing her recreated onscreen, yet again, is hard to imagine. As with so many people who lived in just-about living memory of the core audience, there's an element of distance. They're people whose lives, and deaths, have become mythic, part of a seemingly long lost time that, really, wasn't that long ago at all.


Throughout the film, the home of Tate, husband Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and ex-lover and friend Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch) serves to represent the big leagues of Hollywood, just out of Dalton's grasp. He dreams of meeting Tate and Polanski and being invited to their parties with the A-listers, while he's floating in the pool next door. In reality, of course, this would have made him a neighbour to one of the most notorious murders in modern history. As with Inglourious Basterds, however, the violent climax is where the film's events diverge sharply with history, after a chance meeting with Dalton persuades Tex (Austin Butler), Sadie (Mikey Madison) and Katie (Madisen Beaty) to take on his house instead. 

What results is an astonishing display of violence, which has a greater impact due to the largely bloodless run of the film so far. It's not as if a film that, however tangentially, explores the Manson murders could be unviolent, but it really is a excessive display in true Tarantino style. The extremes of violence perpetrated against the two women, in particular, is hard to stomach, however evil they were. 

It brings the film to a crescendo that almost derails it from its generally uplifting tone, yet a final scene salvages it with the promise of a more positive outcome for both Dalton and Tate. Tarantino has his sights set on a Star Trek film, something I'm deeply dubious about, for although he shows here that he has a perfect eye for the late 60s American TV, he is also seemingly incapable of ending a movie without a grotesque display of violence, something which simply has no place in Trek. Nonetheless, Once Upon a Time shows that he can, for the most part, tone down his excesses and focus on telling what is, at heart, a love letter to a lost era of entertainment and a poignant character piece.

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