I’ve had the same pulp fiction poster on my faded walls for years now, an ode to one of my favourite directors- Quentin Tarantino. Despite him being one of my favourite directors of all time, I can’t agree that all of his films are impressive, ‘the hateful eight’ for example, was one I just couldn’t get along with. Earlier this year, I saw a trailer for ‘Once upon a time in Hollywood’ and I immediately wanted to see it. Today, finally, I sat in Odeon Cinema’s with my notebook and I have a lot to say on the motion picture.
The first thing to mention is that this is an intertextual relationship where fact and fiction is merged completely to form the plot. There are invented characters and ones who have lived and are still around, there are made up films and existing TV shows, all forming the story that unfolds. The main selling point of this film for a lot of people, were the fact it includes the fictional adaptation of the Manson family. If you view the trailer, it would seem that the plot would lead in the direction of the Manson killings, but because this film is so rose-tinted and polished, it plays out in a different turn to what happened in reality- giving Sharon Tate (as played by Margot Robbie) a Hollywood happy ending. There are many bad reviews that all mention that the Manson killings should have played out the way they did in reality, but in truth, that would be for a different film.
The story follows Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an actor who is chasing his old self realizing his Hollywood identity is fading from the relevant. He has to take supporting roles against his competition, those who he believes should be behind him. And his sidekick, his stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) who is finding his career diminishing, but relies on the need of Dalton, who he drives around each and every day despite having no benefit from it himself. He also once killed his wife, but got away with it, which has given him a reputation that makes Dalton and his dog, Brandy, the only ones he can cling to. These two humbling characters live next door to Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski, fueling Dalton with hope that by befriending the pair, he might replenish his career by mingling with the newer Hollywood generation.
The film is almost driven by the hypnotic dialogue. It’s so easy to follow, you feel like you know every single person they talk about. When they discuss the past, you believe you have been there. It makes the audience feel like you’ve already been in this era of Hollywood before, you are just another flying visitor getting a taster of their journey. But also, the dialogue fuels most of the narrative other than the ambiguous narrator. In the scene where Tate visits the Playboy mansion for a party, her backstory surrounding marriage is told through gossip from the other party goers. It makes it all too realistic, but also smooths out the way the plot is navigated.
The setting of a late sixties Hollywood tells the tale of one that no longer exists, but stays in the early memories of Tarantino himself. When interviewed about the film, he states he wanted to show a side of Hollywood that isn’t there anymore. And it certainly shows- the mise-en-scene is picturesque and clean-cut, the wave of sixties fashion represents what was, and what could have been. Something I personally got from the location, is that it feels like a much more carefree city than the one we often see represented in film. Every character is focused on their own goals, situations are private and each one of their stories builds the city. Despite living in a Hollywood hills home, Dalton doesn’t have many friends or contacts other than Booth, the idea that Tate and Polanski live next door is his fire, but he still doesn’t approach them. It’s like each home is a different station, you can’t always unlock. This could be another reason why when Booth visits the Manson ranch, everybody is on standby. Although there is no real threat and he just wants to speak to George, the whole cult is on edge to let him in, despite him being invited by the free willed Pussycat.
What is unremarkably clever, is the way parts of reality are intertwined with fiction. It makes for desired watching, you wonder whether the plot will thicken into something in the audience’s history, or whether Tarantino will choose the character’s destiny. In this case, Tarantino has portrayed the characters we know from news stories and true crime cases into weaker versions to benefit the protagonists happy ending. It’s the story that should have happened, which makes the whole film awfully bittersweet.
Overall, the acting is incredible. The all-star cast is not a selling point, but a benefit of the story. That being said, I can’t imagine a pairing like Dalton and Booth being played by any other actors. The directing from Tarantino is spot on, and I will gladly say that this is his best work since the 90’s. If anything sixties is your vibe or scene, then definitely give ‘Once upon a time in Hollywood’ a go.