When news broke that Quentin Tarantino’s ninth film would be set in 1969 Los Angeles and include Sharon Tate as one of its key characters, many drew a sharp intake of breath. The American auteur has previously tackled huge topics including the Holocaust and slavery in controversial fashion. What would the erstwhile enfant terrible of Hollywood make of a harrowing true crime that – alongside the murder of Meredith Hunter at Altamont – signaled the end of the ’60s dream in America? As it happens, a brilliant, borderline masterpiece and the American auteur’s best film since Jackie Brown.
Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood actually centres on fading fictional TV star Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his best – and only – pal, Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Booth has been Dalton’s stunt double for years, though work has dried up since rumours persist Booth has committed a horrible crime. Dalton relies on Booth as confidant, driver and odd-job man, as he tries to navigate his career following the cancellation of popular western TV series Bounty Law. Successful, beautiful actor Tate (Margot Robbie) lives next door to Dalton and is married to then-hotshot director Roman Polanski (Rafał Zawierucha). The disturbing events of Polanski’s life in Hollywood after 1969 are not mentioned.
In a film stuffed with memorable performances and characters (some based on and named after real people, some entirely fictional), DiCaprio’s emblematic portrayal of Dalton as a broken man chewed up by fame and booze stands out. Like the tumultuous end of the ’60s itself, Dalton had great promise but has become spoilt and torn. The film’s second act, where Dalton stars as a villain in a TV western series called Lancer, offers him redemption and, for viewers, some of the greatest scenes of DiCaprio’s career. Anguish, anger, hope and relief are evoked in searing detail.
Concurrently, Booth picks up hitchhiker Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) and drives her out to the Spahn Movie Ranch in the north of the San Fernando Valley. The Spahn Ranch was the real-life residence of the Manson ‘family’ who murdered Tate, and it is here the film is at its creepiest. Booth senses something is amiss with the strange young women now populating the ranch and insists on checking elderly landowner George Spahn. Tarantino’s masterly staging and perfectly judged pacing during this sequence is as suspenseful and nerve-shredding as the very best horror cinema of the year.
While Dalton and Booth tackle professional and personal challenges, Tate just enjoys her life. Robbie suffers a paucity of dialogue but is a dazzling screen presence as she drives around LA and stops at a cinema in Westwood to watch her film The Wrecking Crew (1968). She laughs and has fun in her seat in charming scenes, where little appears to happen but we become reassured by her easy temperament and quotidian happiness.
Aside from Robbie, Pitt is a revelation. He plays the pragmatic stuntman with wistful charm but is also the funniest he’s been in his career, with jagged movement and twisted line delivery even superseding his comedic work in 12 Monkeys, Fight Club and Inglourious Basterds. There’s even a scene that recalls his stoner turn in the Tarantino-scripted True Romance.
Eventually, Dalton heads to Italy to make spaghetti westerns – a sub-genre the former had previously balked at appearing in – accompanied by Booth. When the pair return to California with Dalton’s new Italian wife Francesca Cappucci (Lorenza Izzo), the men’s friendship seems under threat, until Tarantino’s deft plotting and the film’s spectacular last reel reveals the part each will play in this story’s vicious conclusion.
Tarantino’s films have always been obsessed with cinema and TV. The director’s debut Reservoir Dogs memorably took its plot from Ringo Lam’s City On Fire, its character naming convention from The Taking of Pelham 123 and its structure from The Killing. His Palme d’Or-winning follow-up, Pulp Fiction, had overt references to Jean Luc Godard’s Bande a Part among other Nouvelle Vague classics. All of Tarantino’s films set in the 20th and 21st-century feature radio stations playing popular music, characters watching TV and lengthy discussions about films, the people who make them and their stars. With his latest lovingly crafted epic of dirt and glamour, Tarantino has taken all his cumulative thinking about pop culture and honed it to perfection.
Here is an insider’s look at Hollywood but one that is somehow bereft of cynicism. Yes, it features scenes of horrible violence and includes a nonsense scene in which Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) ridiculously comes off worse in a fight against Booth. This unlikely plot point has justifiably angered Lee’s real-life daughter Shannon. But ultimately this is a warped fairytale, much as its elliptical title suggests.
Regardless of the film’s adherence to real-life events, the film looks and feels like a dream. Robert Richardson’s cinematography is never less than outstanding and Barbara Ling’s remarkable production design pops throughout. Whether depicting the filthy shacks of the Spahn Ranch or the pristine restaurants of wealthy Hollywood, Ling and her production team go to fastidious lengths to recreate 1969.
While the three core actors will win plaudits, a handful of minor roles gleam. The best of these include Al Pacino’s Marvin Schwarz, who’s surely the liveliest on-screen movie mogul since Tom Cruise tore up the screen as Les Grossman in Tropic Thunder; young Julia Butters, who stars as a precocious child actor who consoles a tearful Dalton and is surely a future star; and Zoe Bell, furiously hilarious in a brief cameo as a woman with understandable enmity towards Booth.
Tarantino’s usual desire to wrong-foot viewers is well-known but if there is a shock, it’s in the film’s sweetness. Robbie is a beaming delight but it’s the Dalton/Booth friendship that’s key. DiCaprio and Pitt are warm and genuine, transmitting a bonhomie baked in the California sun. The director defines the hangout movie as a film where you “hang out with the characters so much that they actually become your friends”. Tarantino has created a storming hangout movie for the ages: changing times captured remarkably by a film in love with cinema itself.