Review: Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood (2019)

Once Upon A Time ... In Hollywood Once Upon A Time ... In Hollywood

Twenty years on, Brad Pitt could still play Tyler Durden.

As a powerful, successful, white, middle-aged, male director, Quentin Tarantino hardly needs defending. That said, it strikes this viewer that criticisms which focus on the female characters in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood as being “either shrews or witches” must also overlook two things:

  • that most male characters in Once Upon A Time… are, in turn, either mouth-breathers or caricatures
  • Tarantino’s treatment of female characters in his other films – especially The Bride in Kill Bill, and particularly Shosana in Inglorious Basterds

And likewise: the take that Tarantino underutilized Margot Robbie both also suggests a lack of agency in the actress, an A-list star who chose to take the part, and equates a lack of dialogue with a lack of character or cinematic presence.

What Tarantino and Robbie create with their Sharon Tate is as deceptively difficult as it is underratedly miraculous.

If Once Upon a Time… is Tarantino’s love letter to the Hollywood of his childhood, Margot Robbie’s luminous Sharon Tate could be read as the stand-in for his own love of movies – both watching and making them. The sheer joy on Robbie’s face, as she watches the real-life Tate onscreen, is as elegantly gleeful as any of Tarantino’s (many, many) tributes to cinema.

As the writer-director matures, his films (certainly from Inglorious Basterds onward) seem to locate their most riveting moments in their quietest moments. Once Upon a Time… spends most of its run time simply luxuriating in late-’60s Hollywood, and letting its menace simmer rather than boil. Set as it is against the backdrop of the Manson Family murders, a lot of the work to create the tension in Once Upon a Time… is done by the laidback fiction within the film rubbing up against the tragic, historic reality outside of it.

As enjoyable and cringey as Leonardo DiCaprio‘s performance is, an older (or at least, older-looking) actor might have infused Rick Dalton with a more pungent, more particular scent of desperation and a crisis over his mounting generational irrelevance.

The set and costume design are, of course, wonderful – and I don’t know this for sure, but I’m convinced all the audio grabs from radio and TV which soundtrack the scenes of stunt man Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) driving around Hollywood come from Tarantino’s own personal archives.

And the who’s-who of famous Hollywood actors who pass through the film, many for only a scene or two, is too dizzying to keep up with, and testament both to Tarantino’s draw as a director, and his economy of character and story as a writer.

Further Listening

Leading into the release of Once Upon A Time…, Quentin Tarantino curated a month of films at The New Beverly Cinema (poster below, via /Film), as a way for audiences to “get into the interior of the Hollywood that this movie is discussing”. For those of us who may not have gotten to The New Beverly to see all the films, Pure Cinema Podcast‘s three-hour conversation with QT about them is the next-best thing:

Further Viewing

The Take posits that, in addition to being “in conversation” with classic Hollywood, Once Upon A Time… is also Tarantino’s latest attempt, in the tradition of Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained, to “right historical wrongs“:

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood - The New Beverly Cinema calendar July 2019July-2019
Once Upon A Time In… Hollywood – The New Beverly Cinema calendar – July 2019