Once Upon a Time in Hollywood


US | 2019 | Directed by Quentin Tarantino

Logline: Three days in the lives of an actor struggling to stay relevant and his stunt double buddy as they deal with life’s little ironies. 


Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) has had a pretty good run in front of the camera. The studios have served him well, and they’ll be plenty of re-runs. It’s 1969. The Golden Age of Hollywood is fast becoming a memory, soon it will be part of popular culture, as will a notorious and shocking mass murder up in the Beverly Hills, but we’ll come to that part later. For now, let’s focus on Rick, and his laid back buddy, stunt double Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) …

Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino), a fat cat producer and fan of Rick’s earlier career suggests he star in a bunch of Italian productions; the usual fare, spaghetti Westerns, spy thrillers. Rick’s none-too-happy about the prospect, but the reality is, his days are numbered as a draw card. He’s been playing villains for awhile now, and he’s struggling to remember his lines due to his heavy drinking. Cliff thinks Italy is a good idea too. Cliff’s been Dalton’s driver and gopher for awhile, and he’s resigned to it. He even climbs onto the roof and fixes Dalton’s wonky television antenna, showing off his abs (not bad for 55). Next door, at 10050 Cielo Drive, is where the movie star Sharon Tate is house-sitting, along with her husband, Roman Polanski. 


Whilst anxious Rick struggles to get through his new television gig, playing another cowboy heavy for director Sam Wanamaker, Cliff is running errands, and picks up plucky hitchhiker Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), who convinces Cliff to drop her at Spahn Movie Ranch, where Cliff happens to know the ageing owner, George (Bruce Dern). When they get there, Cliff insists on paying his respects to the old codger, but a bunch of dirty hippies, apparently sponging off the ranch owner, try to deter him, especially Squeaky (Dakata Fanning). This is the Manson Family.

It’s obvious, for his ninth feature - QT counts both Kill Bill flicks as one - Tarantino has painted a love letter to Tinseltow, but also to many of the screen delights he grew up. This is the Los Angeles he grew up in. He would’ve been six-years-old when the film is set. He’s described the movie as his “magnus opus”. Apparently he intends only to make ten movies as a film director. Famous last words.  


Shooting on 35mm and having his production design team painstakingly recreate the look of 1969 Hollywood without having to use CGI (only once is it obvious he’s used digital compositing, and that’s with Leonardo inserted into real footage from The Great Escape), this is the second movie Tarantino has made using historical figures, but it’s the first that depicts real events. Tarantino then skilfully weaves his fictional characters through the factual narrative and environments, thus creating a revisionist history. This comes to a head in the movie’s denouement, when several members of the Manson Family arrive at the infamous cul-de-sac intent on murdering the occupants at 10050 Cielo Drive, only to have a drunk and furious Rick Dalton, clutching a full blender of margarita, abuse them for being on a private driveway. They retreat, only to return with their revised agenda to now do the devil’s work on Rick, who they see as a prime example of the Hollywood that taught them how to kill. 

But the dirty hippies weren’t prepared for Cliff and his pit-bull Brandy. 


Having heard much hullabaloo about the ending of Hollywood, I entertained the idea that Tarantino was going to go all meta and have his movie end with the camera pulling back to reveal Tarantino himself and his real crew filming Leonardo and Brad and whoever else, playing their roles. A kind of nod to Blazing Saddles. But the ending I got was a surprise, and a pleasant one. It’s over-the-top, yes, and it pushes the more subtle comedic tone into a farcical one, but I’m okay with that. What I like is the whiff of melancholy that permeates the very ending, as Rick sees Cliff into the back of an ambulance, and then chats to Sharon’s BFF Jay Sebring, who has come down the driveway to investigate the commotion. Sharon chimes in on the intercom, and invites Rick up for a drink. The title of the movie comes up on screen, and you find yourself nodding and smiling. It’s a kind of “fairytale” ending, twisted, yes, but it tugs on the heart strings. 


Hollywood is Tarantino’s most relaxed movie since Jackie Brown, and in many ways, it’s his most endearing, most personable, probably his funniest. Pitt and DiCaprio give terrific performances, a natural chemistry, with DiCaprio’s improvised meltdown in his studio trailer an hilarious highlight. The other splendid stand out in a movie with many great scenes is the sequence at Spahn Ranch, which begins with Cliff picking up Pussycat. This has a suspenseful vibe that made me think Tarantino needs to make his tenth movie a 70s-vibed horror movie in the vein of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. But I digress … 

It’s a languid, incidental ride through vintage Hollywood, seen through rose-coloured glasses, with all the trimmings and trappings. It’s filled to the brim with Tarantino-isms - vibrant “cool” cast and a soundtrack rammed with pop songs of the era - yet curiously I didn’t find the two-hour-forty-minute movie contrived or self-indulgent as many of his earlier movies*. It ebbs and flows like Pulp Fiction, and it’s the first of his movies since then that I’ve had the immediate desire to watch again. 


If Tarantino does decide to throw in the movie towel, I think Hollywood will age the most gracefully. It’s one to be cherished, especially for X-Gens and cinephiles. 

*Okay, there was one scene that irritated me. The scene with Bruce Lee. I was fine with it until Zoe Bell entered and mouthed off. She cannot act her way out of a paper bag. Ghastly. Her performance and accent scuttled that scene, but thankfully, not the movie!