Once Upon a Time in Hollywood takes the murder of actress Sharon Tate in 1969 as a jumping-off point. Set at social and cultural watershed moment, when the golden age of Hollywood was rapidly giving way to a new and altogether different brand of storytelling, the movie contains subject matter tailor-made for writer and director Quentin Tarantino. Both the script and the set design are packed with pop culture references, and the soundtrack, a 1969 hit parade, is relentlessly on the nose. Every frame is lovingly crafted and beautifully shot by cinematographer Robert Richardson. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a wild thrill ride, packed with excellent performances.
Both Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio are at the top of their game. They share terrific chemistry, and their bromance forms the heart of the movie. DiCaprio plays Rick Dalton, a faded TV Western star who still nurses ambitions as a serious actor. Pitt is Cliff Booth, Rick’s longtime stunt double and affable right-hand man, now reduced to a driver since work has dried up. The pair of them spend a lot of time tooling around Hollywood in Rick’s enormous Cadillac. They are relics of the old guard, and the hippies wandering the streets of Hollywood seem to belong to an entirely different era, ushering in the counter-culture.
The story begins on February 9, 1969 (six months to the day before members of the Charles Manson cult went on their infamous killing spree). The geography of the greater Los Angeles metropolis practically forms its own subplot. Landmarks such as the Cinerama Dome, Chinese Theatre, and the 100-year old Musso & Frank’s restaurant parade across the screen like an extended product placement for Hollywood itself.
One particularly lovely sequence shows a series of neon signs flickering on against the gathering dusk. It calls to mind the famous saying – usually attributed to Tate’s husband Roman Polanski, appropriately enough – that Los Angeles is the most beautiful city in the world, as long as it’s seen at night and from a distance.
Rick’s address is the now-notorious Cielo Drive, in a sprawling hillside house crammed with cowboy movie memorabilia. His new next-door neighbours, Polanski and Tate, have the kind of modern Hollywood sheen and sophistication that he can only admire from afar.
Cliff lives in Van Nuys, deep in suburbia, in a caravan next to a drive-in cinema, and shares lonely meals with his devoted dog Brandy (macaroni from a box for Cliff; rat-flavoured dog food from a can for Brandy).
Bent on reviving his career, Rick is excited to be cast as the guest villain in the Western series Lancer. “I’m the heavy,” he earnestly tells talent agent Marvin Schwarz (a slick turn by Al Pacino), and then visibly deflates as Schwarz explains that losing an onscreen fight to the good guy is only the first step in a long, slow decline. According to Schwarz, Rick’s best bet is to pack up his Hollywood life and head to Rome to make spaghetti Westerns; he does, eventually, follow this advice, and returns with an Italian starlet bride and a new hairdo that ushers in the 1970s.
Rick’s on-set encounter with a precocious eight-year-old method actor (Julia Butters) triggers a crisis of confidence. Up to this point, DiCaprio plays Rick as a bundle of nervous energy under a veneer of actorly charm, which gives way to a devastating mix of bluster and vulnerability.
Cliff, meanwhile, picks up a hitchhiker named Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), a skinny, long-legged hippie woman in the tiniest of crochet halter tops. She persuades him to drive her to Spahn Ranch, which he remembers as the site of many film and TV shootings, now transformed into a ghost town colonised by Manson and his devotees. Here the cinematography enters classic horror movie territory, as Cliff enters the dilapidated house, then looks back to see the hippies gathering menacingly under the looming rocks, vacant eyes fixed on him.
Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate is an effortlessly glamorous ray of sunshine, whose loud snoring only makes her more endearing. She makes the most of her limited screen time. In a bravura set piece, Tate, dressed in immaculate white gogo boots and mini-skirt, passes a cinema showing one of her films (1969’s The Wrecking Crew), and decides on a whim to go inside. We see unfiltered delight and surprise playing over her face, as she gradually takes in the fact that she’s really watching herself on the big screen. In fact, Robbie and the audience are watching clips of the real Tate, adding one more poignant layer of movie magic.
Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) and Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), the two most iconic real-life characters, appear only in brief glimpses, but a slew of other famous names make appearances. An oddly-cast Damian Lewis as Steve McQueen pops up to deliver some gratuitous exposition. Rick’s TV episode is directed by Communist sympathiser Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond), who would go on to rebuild Shakespeare’s Globe in London the following year. Back at the ranch, we encounter Bruce Dern as the decrepit owner turned willing hostage George Spahn, and Dakota Fanning as the cold-blooded Squeaky Fromme, Manson’s assassin-in-chief.
For all its twists, turns and meanders, the plot is deceptively slight. At 161 minutes, the pacing is uneven and occasionally indulgent, particularly when it veers into self-referential territory (Rick’s filmography bears an uncanny resemblance to Tarantino’s).
Once Upon A Time in Hollywood has an undeniable nasty streak. Tarantino has a sickening gift for making the most brutal violence seem enthrallingly cool, and it is on full display here.
Perhaps even more disturbing is the almost-subtle undercurrent of good old American racism that runs through the film. Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) makes an appearance as a snarky striver in a sequence with Cliff. It’s admittedly a very funny scene, but has more than a whiff of early Hollywood caricatures of devious Orientals. There are also a series of cheap jokes and throwaway lines about Mexicans that might charitably be interpreted as commentary on the ingrained attitudes of the times if they didn’t roll past so quickly and casually.
And yet, it’s all tremendously fun.
The plot takes a hard left turn as it enters its rip-roaring final chapter – without giving anything away, it’s a trick Tarantino has pulled off before – and concludes on a final note that, bloodbath notwithstanding, almost delivers on the fairytale ending promised by the title.