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Movie Review: Once Upon a Time In Hollywood

'Once Upon a Time In Hollywood' is a love letter to Hollywood and Sharon Tate

Once Upon a Time In Hollywood
Directed by Quentin Tarantino
In Theatres

Once Upon a Time In Hollywood is amazing and wonderful and extraordinary. When the camera pulled up on the last shot and the credits started to roll, I was crying like a baby. It's a delicious stew made up of all of Quentin Tarantino's obsessions and fetishes - pop culture and Hollywood and revisionist history and feet and 60s television. It's film as mid-life crisis. It's nostalgia as untrustworthy narrator. Once Upon a Time is like the concluding chapter of a life of art. If he actually does retire after his next film, that film will be epilogue.

Mr Guillermo del Toro tweeted that Once Upon a Time is "a tale of a time that probably never was, but still feels like a memory" and that is probably the best way to describe this movie. It's a fantasy set in a moment at the end of the 60s, when shadows were falling over the hippies and the counter culture movement, a time when Hollywood found itself out of touch with its own industry. It's a fantasy with one barefoot in fiction, the other barefoot dipping its toes in reality.

Mr. Tarantino and I are roughly the same age, he's a couple of years older or so. But in his movie I see the way I remember the psychopaths that made up the Manson Family. I see the way I remember Hollywood's transition to a more creative and free era. And I see the way I remember Sharon Tate, the actress who could have, should have been Everything. I don't actually have any memories of any of this. And I think that Mr. Tarantino is in the same place. It's more like memories of other people's memories. I never saw Valley of the Dolls or The Wrecking Crew or Easy Rider in a theatre. I wasn't part of the conversation about the dark side of the hippie era. I wasn't there when actors like Burt Reynolds found themselves on the downside curve of once thriving careers. But I was in the room when these conversations were taking place, playing with my Tinkertoys.

Anyway, you're asking, what is Once Upon a Time about? Let me tell you, gentle reader. 

Once Upon a Time is about the friendship between actor Rick Dalton, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, and stuntman Cliff Booth, played by Brad Pitt. Rick Dalton was a television star who finds his career on a downwards spiral after classic Hollywood looks have gone out of style. He finds himself only able to get TV guest spots as the heavy, being offered the lead in Italian Westerns. Cliff Booth is Dalton's stunt man, driver, support group, handyman, and best friend. Together they drink their way across Los Angeles in 1969, sounding off about hippies and Mexicans and actors and such. Dalton does the acting and the self-flagellation, Booth fixes TV antennas and flirts with hippie chicks. It's kind of like the relationship that I've always imagined Burt Reynolds had with his stuntman, Hal Needham. At its core, Once Upon a Time is the platonic love story of these two men. Misters DiCaprio and Pitt have a nice, easy chemistry, like they've been these friends for decades. It's a chemistry that is rarely seen. Like Redford and Newman. Or Pitt and Clooney. 

Once Upon a Time is also a love letter to Sharon Tate. For the first time since August 9th, 1969 Sharon Tate isn't just solely the victim of unimaginable horror. She is full of life, dancing at the Playboy Mansion, charming everyone she meets, laughing and smiling and full of life. She goes to an afternoon showing of The Wrecking Crew, a Dean Martin film she co-starred in, and giggles and smiles at the audience's reactions to her performance. This is the Sharon Tate that is left out of out of the stories about August 9th, 1969. Sitting incognito in a dark theatre behind giant glasses and revelling in the joy she brings to people. Giving rides to hippie chick hitchhikers and giving them hugs when the ride is over. Spending time with both her husband and her ex-finance. Some folks might complain that there isn't enough Sharon Tate in the movie, that Margot Robbie doesn't have enough of a part to dig into. I've gotta disagree. Margot Robbie's Sharon Tate is the heart of the movie, it's where it lives and dies. Watching this movie and counting down the days to August, we have to fall in love with Sharon. Too much, we become too comfortable with her as a fictional construct. Too little, she makes no impact. 

Once Upon a Time may be a decisive film, splitting between those who know the names Squeaky Fromme and Tex Watson and Susan Atkins and Sharon Tate and Jay Sebring and Abigail Folger and those who don't. For those of a certain age, Once Upon a Time may feel meandering, plotless, and pointless. For those a bit older, Once Upon a Time will feel meandering, but with purpose, and with doom on the horizon. Tarantino never takes a moment to explain who these people are in a historical context, just in a narrative context. In some ways Once Upon a Time might be his most mature work since Jackie Brown.

It's not flawless. Some of the movie-within-the-movie scenes go on a bit too long, some moments could have been tightened. But then there are moments that could only have been made by a master. Rick Dalton on the set of TV western, the camera moving as it has throughout the film, the director and script supervisor and crew disembodied voices until a scene is nailed with perfection. It's not until then that we see the crew, see the construct of the set. Cliff Boothe finding himself at Spahn Ranch, the tension ratcheting up and up and up but with no real visual cues as to what is wrong. Once Upon a Time is full of moments like these. 

Damn, I love this movie.