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••• The International Writers Magazine - Our 20th Year: Film Review

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Dakota Fanning …
• Sam North review

Nostalgic and affectionate focus on the lives of actors in 1969

Once Upon a time

It’s 1969. It has been all year what with the Moon Landing and Woodstock and Nixon in office.  There’s been a lot of fifty-year-old memories.  I didn’t get to Hollywood until 1971 so obviously I remember nothing.  But I do remember the smog and by chance I lived at my cousin’s place in Laurel Canyon. Tarantino did a pretty good recreation of ’69 with the washed out colour, the cars that look new and general look and feel of the place, reanimating lost venues and celebrity haunts.  Back then there were no empty stores and everything was pretty inexpensive and things weren't so exclusive.   I used to walk everywhere as I didn’t own a car and the cops would always pull you over to check you weren’t a vagrant.  Believe me no one walked anywhere except the hookers on the corners.

Rick Dalton Rick Dalton played by Leonardo is a semi-washed up actor, once a TV lead in the ‘50’s in the show 'Bounty Hunter' but now playing the baddies on other people’s TV shows. Clearly he’s meant to be Clint Eastwood and his buddy, his stuntman Cliff, sympathetically played by Brad Pitt is his paid lackey (since he lost his licence for a DUI) but also his only friend.
To be honest there’s not much of a story, it's more of a portrait that reveals the concerns and mores of that period.  Perhaps it’s Tarantino’s first novel, rather than his 9th film.  (PS: It's 2.45 hours long so if you have a weak bladder – sit by the exit with nearest the toilets).
(Image: Rick Dalton in FBI guest role)

It’s a film rich in atmosphere.  We follow Rick’s declining career, but also the rising career of the girl next door to Rick, who happens to be Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), married to Roman Polanski.  They all live on Cielo Drive, Benedict Canyon, Los Angeles. An address infamous forever thanks to Charles Manson. Rick is pretty impressed that the director of Rosemary's Baby is living next door to him. We have a glimpse of Polanski's glamorous life with a visit to a party at Hef’s Playboy mansion and even spot Steve McQueen there regretting he never got to first base with Sharon Tate.  Tate is played as a bit of fluff really, pleased with her luck at getting into the movies and there's a liesurely moment of watching herself in a Dean Martin movie and enjoying the reaction to her scenes.  I only ever saw her in Polanski’s ‘Fearless Vampire Killers’ (which was quite a hilarious). 

I think Brad Pitt as Cliff Booth gets the honours with this movie however.  His caring attitude towards Rick and even the underage girl from Charlie Manson’s Family who offers to blow him, reveals much about him.  As does his treatment of his wonderful dog, that gets to play a really meaty role in the end. Tarantino plays up a hidden violent past from Ciff's life - getting away with murdering his wife, but you always retain sympathy for him. Brad Pitt at 55 has matured into a wonderful actor with confidence.

Leonardo DiCaprio has fun playing an actor desperately trying to hang on to his career and being slowly seduced by a hammy Al Pacino as a producer looking for someone to play the cowboy in spaghetti westerns in Europe.  Hell even Kurt Russell makes an appearance and I believe narrates the movie.  There’s also Bruce Lee playing the braggart who doesn’t come off well here in a fight with Cliff (Brad) - which has upset many people. DiCaprio's best scene is possibly with a wonderful child actor who can see he is an emotional time bomb but after a heavy scene tells him "That was the best acting I've ever seen in my life". She's only eight but it means a lot to a drowning man.

Tarantino plays with alternate timelines.  We know that from Inglorious Basterds and other movies.  So I won’t comment on how he deals with Charlie Manson and the Family in history, except to mention we glimpse Bruce Dern briefly, a nice slice of ‘69 history.  But as a director he certainly knows how to lead you up the garden path. 
And pay attention to the music. The moment Rick returns from Europe with a new Italian wife and Cliff in tow is underscored by Chris Farlow's 'Out of Time' and fits perfectly.

Gore aside, and it’s pretty good gore, this is an affectionate study of Hollywood in 1969 filled with regret and nostalgia, some funny moments and quite a lot of insight into film making and actors insecurities.

© Sam North August 15th 2019
author of 'Another Place to Die: Endtime'

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