Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood

Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth talk over drinks in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

“It’s official, old buddy. I’m a has-been.”

Every filmmaker was inspired by something. Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds) has stated that his favorite film is the 60s spaghetti Western The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, by iconic director Sergio Leone, and Leone’s influence can be seen in many of Tarantino’s films. In the 60s, Leone’s new style of Italian Westerns were a departure from the classic American Westerns Tarantino had grown up with, and in many ways signaled a change in filmmaking overall, away from the wholesome images of the 50s and the first part of the 60s, getting ready for the gritty realism of the 70s. Tarantino’s newest film, Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood touches on that while also being a love letter to the Hollywood from Tarantino’s formative years. Tarantino has said that this is his most personal film, and you can see the care who poured into this project. I personally loved the film and think it’s a great addition to his repertoire of work.

The plot follows Rick Dalton, an old Western star struggling to remain relevant in the changing 60s, and his stunt double and close friend Cliff Booth, a man with some skeletons in his closet, as well as a wealth of confidence and a need for money. Rick employs Cliff as his personal assistant, so Cliff’s career is dependent on Rick’s. The real-life Hollywood of 1969 is the backdrop here, including both setting and some characters. And Charles Manson’s famous murder-cult also makes an appearance. Really, there’s a lot going on with this film, so it’s hard to sum up the plot as succinctly as many of the other films that I review. That’s one of the things I loved about it.

Well… the fuckin’ hippies aren’t. That’s for goddamn sure.

Real-life stars and other celebrities are characters in this film, with Steve McQueen making a brief appearance and Charles Manson being a driving force as well, even if he’s not really in the film himself. In fact, Rick Dalton lives right next to the famous director Roman Polanski and his new wife, Sharon Tate. I’m somewhat ashamed to admit this, but I actually didn’t know who Sharon Tate was until my wife explained it to me after the movie. Sharon Tate was a rising star with a few films to her name, but what she’s most remembered for is being the most famous of Charles Manson’s murders. The real-life murder of Sharon Tate took place in 1969—the same year this film takes place. And you can bet that Rick Dalton living right next to her makes that significant in this film. I won’t give away the ending, but knowing that bit of history beforehand adds a lot of depth to this film.

It’s impressive how far Tarantino went in recreating this world of the 60s. In a very rare move, a portion of a freeway in Los Angeles was completely shut down and filled with 60s-era cars for a few shots. Scenes from The Great Escape were recreated with Rick Dalton as the star. And Rick Dalton, former Western star, is extremely skeptical of the new Italian spaghetti Westerns, initially thinking of starring in them as a death sentence—doubly funny because of Tarantino’s own affinity for Italian Westerns, with this film’s name being an obvious nod to Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. Tarantino really put the effort in not just to recreate the 60s, but to recreate his childhood, and that loving touch shows in the small details that pop up.

Sharon Tate poses in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Though not as big a character as the leads, Margot Robbie did an amazing job bringing actress Sharon Tate to life.

This is a Tarantino film, but for most of the movie, I forgot that. Don’t get me wrong—I love Tarantino—but the name certainly has a connotation of sharp dialogue, stylized violence, and dangerous characters. To be fair, those things do show up at the end of this film; but most of it is more moving drama than stylized action made for a niche audience. There are scenes that are utterly hilarious, such as a very memorable scene with Bruce Lee, but there are also heart-wrenching scenes of an aging actor dealing with his own loss of relevance in a changing world, and Tarantino does both exceedingly well, showing his range as a filmmaker is far greater than many would give him credit for. The scenes showing the friendship between Booth and Dalton are as heartwarming as many of the heavy-hitting drama films out there, and yet the film still makes excellent use of a flamethrower. How many other films can claim that?

Overall, I loved this film, and I think it’s probably the most accessible of Tarantino’s impressive body of work. Tarantino definitely borrowed from his hero Sergio Leone’s slow-moving, tense without words style, and that can cause a few of the scenes to take a long time to play out, but that just adds to the beauty of the film. As someone who loves the classic films of the 50s and 60s, I also enjoyed seeing Tarantino’s love letter to 60s-era Hollywood. Tarantino poured a lot of himself into this film—more so than any of his other films—and the passion makes this film something truly extraordinary.

View my complete list of classic, essential, or just plain good movies!

Runtime: 2:41

Director: Quentin Tarantino

Year: 2019

Genres: comedy, drama

Rating: R

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