Quentin Tarantino delves into bittersweet revisionist history in this fractured fable, revisiting six months in 1969.
Once a top TV Western star, Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) is watching his once-promising career decline to the point where he’s now ‘guest-starring’ as the villain whom the hero beats up.
Dalton’s best friend is his stunt double/driver, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who – according to rumor – killed his wife and has been blackballed in the industry.
Dalton owns a house on Cielo Drive in posh Benedict Canyon, next to director Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha) and his pregnant wife Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), while Booth lives with his Rottweiler in a beat-up trailer behind the Van Nuys Drive-In.
In Hollywood’s Golden Era, one’s status in the ecosystem was obvious.
With cinematographer Robert Richardson shooting in 35mm and Barbara Ling’s impeccable production design, Tarantino not only recreates the grimy, gritty physicality of old movies but also its culture, satirically interweaving the relationship of these fictional characters with real ones, like Bruce Lee (Mike Moh), Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) and hair stylist Jay Sebring (Emile Hirsch).
So how do Charles Manson and his feral followers fit it? Their murder plan originally targeted record producer Terry Melcher (Doris Day’s son), whom Manson blamed for his singer/songwriter failure. It’s Terry’s house that Polanski and Tate are renting. So Tarantino cleverly twists, turns and manipulates history to serve this story.
In a powerhouse performance, Leonardo DiCaprio nails alcoholic, insecure Dalton, while Brad Pitt is charismatic as bronzed, laconic Booth. Incandescent Margot Robbie is mini-skirted sweet. Kurt Russell narrates and Bruce Dern does a cameo originally intended for Burt Reynolds. Plus there’s Al Pacino, Dakota Fanning, Lena Dunham and Margaret Qualley.
FYI: The Dalton/Booth relationship was probably inspired by Burt Reynolds’ friendship with stuntman-turned-writer/director Hal Needham.
Personal note: a poignant scene between Dalton and a precocious child actress (Julia Butters) evokes memories of my dad’s (director S. Sylvan Simon) movie Bad Bascomb (1946), pairing Wallace Berry with Margaret O’Brien.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” is an evocative 8, elegantly eviscerating the soft, sleazy underbelly of Tinseltown.