WARNING: THERE MAY BE SOME SPOILERS.
Sharon Tate and Roman Polanski get the happy ending they always deserved in Quentin Tarantino’s 9th movie, “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.” This isn’t much of a spoiler. You had to know Tarantino was not going to go all Helter Skelter on us and deliver a gory re-enactment of what took place in Los Angeles in August 1969. There’s no point to that.
So instead, Tarantino has gloriously reimagined Hollywood in 1969, as a certain kind of filmmaking left over the from the 1950s is coming to an end. This is right before Coppola and Lucas, Spielberg, Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Woody Allen, Peter Fonda overtook the business. It’s really a minute before movie making and Hollywood were turned upside down.
I think the threat of Charles Manson-like mayhem got people’s attention because Tarantino is known for violence, and the Tate-LaBianca murders would be imagined by his fans as the ultimate gore fest. But this is not that movie. Tarantino was six when all this went down in nearby Hollywood (he was in the suburbs). What he’s recalling here is not Charles Manson carving crosses into Squeaky Fromme’s forehead, but the beauty of Los Angeles as western frontier. There’s one sequence of all the neon in Hollywood coming to life at twilight that is the most romantic thing Tarantino has ever filmed.
So Leonardo DiCaprio is kind of a washed up star, maybe a little inspired by Chuck Connors, called Rick Dalton. He’s sort of a cult star from the 50s who’s drifted between TV and movie roles with minor success. (DiCaprio less mannered than usual, going deep, great to watch.) Brad Pitt (best work maybe ever, watch out Oscars) is his loyal stunt double, Cliff Booth, who’s got maybe a bad history. (It’s rumored that he killed his wife, no one can say for sure.) Rick and Cliff are Hollywood buds, thick as thieves, devoted to each other.
Rick has done well enough in his career that he owns a decent home in the Hollywood Hills, where Cliff hangs out as his major domo. Who moves in next door but Polanski and Tate, into the house where Terry Melcher lived. So you know Tarantino has put Rick and Cliff in proximity of what we know happened in real life. But we know it’s not going to happen in this story. Tarantino telegraphs that early on. He’s certainly not going to end the movie with a blood bath (even though he does, in another way).
Margot Robbie is the third piece of the puzzle here as Sharon Tate, who was a beautiful girl not destined to win Oscars. She was a starlet, albeit one maybe with a good sense of humor. Robbie seems like she’s peripherally in the movie, but she’s more important than that. I think hers is the toughest role, and pulls it off with aplomb. She’s a little like a Robert Altman character who you don’t pay attention to at first, but suddenly ties everything together. Tarantino gives her a little Easter egg when she buys Polanski a first edition of “Tess of the Durbanvilles” as gift. Nice touch.
There are lots of people in this movie, from Lena Dunham to 50s and 60s star Clu Gulager (born in 1928, he must see Rick as based on his own career). Some of the young people jump right off the screen including Maya Hawke, Austin Butler, most especially Margaret Qualley. Dakota Fanning, now only 25, reminded of why we loved her as a teen. Rumer Willis has a cool turn as actress Joanna Pettet. Bruce Dern is spot on as George Spahn, who let the Manson family run wild over his ranch. Damian Lewis (whom we love in “Billions”) is an uncanny Steve McQueen.
“Once Upon a Time” is long (two hours forty five minutes), often rambling, in need of more tightening. But it also has a dynamite soundtrack, of course, and Robert Richardson has made it look Los Angeles is melting in the summer sun. This is a movie made on film! Reels have to be changed, and you can see the marks in the upper right hand corner. No one wears a cape or has a super power and there will be no sequel. But it’s a movie that will last a long, long time in audience’s memories. It’s cinema, like we used to know it.
PS Sit through the credits. There’s a clever bit after the movie ends, an then an audio piece from the ’60s that will make some 60 year old boys and girls smile nostalgically.
Go see this movie this weekend. It’s the best summer gift we’ve had in a long time!
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