Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood (2019)
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Kurt Russell, Emile Hirsch, Margaret Qualley, Timothy Olyphant, Julia Butters, Dakota Fanning, Bruce Dern, Mike Moh, Luke Perry, Clu Gulager, Rebecca Gayheart, Zoë Bell, Michael Madsen and Brenda Vaccaro. Directed by Quentin Tarantino. From Columbia Pictures.
It’s February, 1969. Actor Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) is in the twilight of his career. His long-time stunt double and best friend, Cliff Booth (Pitt) doesn’t seem to notice. The two head to Musso & Franks so Rick can meet with agent Marvin Schwarz (Pacino) to discuss Rick’s future. Schwarz says that Rick is demeaning himself by continually guest starring on someone else’s television show and this is severely hurting his reputation in Hollywood. Schwarz says that he and his wife, Mary Alice (Vaccaro, though you never see her face!), have recently screened two of Rick’s old films, The 14 Fists of McCluskey and Tanner, and watching Rick in these movies has inspired Schwarz to suggest that he could broker a deal for Rick to go to Italy to make Spaghetti Westerns. This seems like a real step down to Rick and he is depressed.
Leaving the restaurant, Dalton breaks down and tells Cliff that his career is over. But when Cliff hears of Schwarz’s offer, he talks it up to Rick. Cliff says that while he, himself, is just Rick’s flunky, Rick is still an actor with much to offer an audience. Cliff encourages Rick to make the move. When Rick and Cliff arrive back at Rick’s home on Cielo Drive, Rick notices his neighbours also arriving home. Rick explains to Cliff that hot director, Roman Polanski and his actress wife, Sharon Tate (Robbie), live next door. If he could only wrangle an invite to a BBQ, Rick says, he could be in the next Polanski film and regain some stock as an actor.
Cliff bombs home to his shabby trailer that’s parked out behind the drive-in. He’s met by his dog, Brandy. Cliff fixes supper for the two of them and Brandy displays her patience and excellent training. The two settle down to eat and watch Mannix. Meanwhile, on the hip and happening end of the spectrum, Roman and Sharon zoom to the Playboy Mansion to dance the night away. Also in attendance is Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis), who explains to Connie Stevens (Dreama Walker) – and to the viewer – that the Polanskis are part of something of a lovers triangle, the third member being their good friend, hairdresser Jay Sebring (Hirsch).
The next day, Cliff drops Rick off at work; Rick is guesting on an episode of the television western Lancer. The director tells Dalton he wants him to look like a hippie and Rick is wary; he can’t stand hippies. Rick goes along with him, though, and navigates his way through the day’s shoot. He is extremely lacking in confidence, though, and he makes a hash of his scene with James Stacy (Olyphant). He reveals some of his insecurities during a conversation with child actress, Trudi Fraser (Butters) and then he rallies enough to nail a subsequent scene he has with Wayne Maunder (Perry).
Meanwhile, Cliff has gone to Rick’s home to fix Rick’s TV antenna. While there, he observes a long-haired, bearded man approaching the Polanskis front door. Sharon is home with Jay who goes to the door. It’s Charles Manson calling, looking for former tenant, Terry Melcher. Jay tells him Terry has moved away. Charlie looks at Sharon standing in the front door and leaves. As he watches Manson go, Cliff thinks back to a time he was working with Rick on The Green Hornet. Hanging out on the lot, Cliff got into an exhibition of sorts with Bruce Lee (Moh) resulting in Bruce getting mussed up and a car being damaged. Stunt co-ordinator Randy (Russell), had to kick Booth off the show. It was the final straw; Randy was hesitant to employ Cliff anyways as it is assumed around town that Cliff had long ago killed his wife (Gayheart). Tate is out running errands and marvels at the sight of her name on a theatre marquee. Telling the girl at the ticket window that she’s actually in the film, The Wrecking Crew, she goes in to watch herself and is thrilled to hear the audience laughing at her comedic acting.
Later, out driving Rick’s Cadillac, Cliff picks up hippie hitchhiker, Pussycat (Qualley), who wants a ride out to Spahn Ranch, where she and her friends have been living. Cliff says he knows George Spahn (Dern) from his days making movies at the ranch and he will be happy to take her. When they arrive at the ranch, things seem amiss to Cliff and he starts to worry that this gang of dirty hippies have taken over the ranch and George has come to some harm. Through much tension, Booth finally gets into George’s house and down the hall to his room. George says he is fine and so Cliff reluctantly leaves. He finds one of the hippies has flattened his tire. Cliff punches him out and keeps the other hippies at bay while he gets the culprit to change his tire. Cliff leaves Spahn Ranch unscathed, having missed Manson, leader of this ragtag gang.
It is now August 8, 1969 and we learn through a narrator (also Russell) that Rick indeed went to Europe and found success appearing in Spaghetti Westerns and EuroSpy films. He has revitalized his career and even found himself a wife, Italian actress Francesca Capucci. These life-changing events, though, mean that Rick is no longer able to employ Cliff and the two plan one more big drinking night before they must part company. At the same time, a very-pregnant Sharon and her friends enjoy a night out as well before returning to Cielo Drive to relax. Drunken Rick and Cliff also return home and Rick prepares some margaritas while Cliff smokes an acid-dipped cigarette and takes Brandy for a walk while jet-lagged Francesca sleeps in the bedroom. A menacing quartet of Manson’s followers roam the streets intending to carry out mayhem on Charlie’s orders.
** SPOILERS AHEAD **
The Family members arrive in a car outside of Rick’s house. Rick hears the belching and coughing of the heap and goes out to yell at the “hippies” to get off this private road. As the gang pulls away, one of the girls realizes that was Rick Dalton from Bounty Law that was just yelling at driver Tex Watson to get his wreck off the street. A new plan is hatched; Charlie told the four to do something “witchy” so how about they kill Rick Dalton? After all, it was violent TV shows like Rick’s that programmed young people to kill. The four head back to Dalton’s.
While waiting for Cliff to return from walking Brandy, Rick has gotten into the pool to float, drink his margaritas and listen to the radio on his headphones. Cliff returns and begins to prepare a meal for Brandy who is excited but – as we’ve seen before – Booth has his dog highly trained and Brandy waits, somewhat impatiently. Cliff is feeling the effects of his acid-dipped cigarette so he is not exactly startled when Tex bursts in the door and points a gun at him. Tex and the two girls – one of the girls has fled – get Francesca out of bed and declare their sinister intentions. Cliff and Brandy savagely murder Tex and one of the girls. The second girl runs out the back door, startling Rick in his pool. Rick goes to his shed, gets out his flame-thrower and kills the girl.
Cliff has been injured in the melee and the police and an ambulance arrive on the scene. Cliff tells the police nonchalantly that some dirty hippies broke into the house but he killed them. Simple. As Cliff is loaded into the ambulance, Rick tells him he is a good friend and he will see him soon. Jay Sebring calls to Rick from behind the Polanskis gate and asks what the heck happened. Again, down-playing the menace posed by the Mansonites, Rick simply says they had some home-invaders but they were killed. Sharon then speaks through the intercom and Jay tells her he is talking to neighbour Rick and everything is OK. Sharon asks Rick if he is alright and he says everything is fine. Sharon invites Rick up to meet her and her friends.
Let me start by saying that I hesitated to present my review of OUATIH here at SoulRide for a couple of reasons. One is that it is a popular, contemporary film and there is already much to read about the movie on the internet. Here at Your Home for Vintage Leisure I like to discuss films that maybe don’t get discussed too much elsewhere. My thoughts on this film will no doubt be lost in the plethora of reviews out there.
The second reason is that this film has effected me like no recent film I can think of. Probably not since I saw Swingers in 1996 has a movie penetrated my being like this one has. Subsequently, I have much to talk about. There’s not only much to relate in terms of what I have gotten from this film but Quentin Tarantino has put so much into this film that there is tons to unpack. I’m always guarding against being too long-winded and I like to avoid two- and three-part articles but – and this is the main reason I’m diving in to this one – Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood contains much that will appeal to fans of vintage film and culture. Indeed, the nuances of the story can easily be lost on younger consumers of current Hollywood films. Meaning, vintage types – whether they are into Tarantino or not – will easily understand what Quentin is putting down here.
I anticipated the release of this film like few others I can remember. Not only because Tarantino is my favourite filmmaker but also because the subject matter of OUATIH is right up my alley. The same summer I was waiting for Quentin’s ninth film to be released I was marking the 50th anniversary of the Tate-LaBianca murders by reading Vincent Bugliosi’s landmark book Helter Skelter. I finished reading this fascinating book on July 17, 2019 and first saw Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood ten days later. Reading the book ahead of time helped ratchet up the excitement – but it still didn’t quite prepare me for all QT had in store.
Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood is Quentin Tarantino’s homage to the Hollywood of his youth; the late ’60’s in general and 1969 in particular. Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth are loosely based on actor Burt Reynolds and his stunt double and friend Hal Needham, who would eventually direct Burt in several films including the legendary Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and Hooper (1978), a film in which Burt plays a stunt man. Rick himself is emblematic of various American actors who starred on television for a time before seeing their careers hit a decline, precipitating their moves to Europe to star in foreign films. Ty Hardin may have been the first to make the move though Ty did not find fame in Spaghetti Westerns. Clint Eastwood is of course the most notable; he went from starring on TV’s Rawhide to redefining the western with Sergio Leone in Spain.
Tarantino is paying particular homage to these actors that left Hollywood and to the films they made abroad that few people in North America got to see. The prevailing thought has always been that these films are somehow substandard but Tarantino feels – and many of us agree – that several of these films have much to offer and many are – dare I say – fine cinema with distinct charms.
Tarantino spends much screen time depicting Rick’s guest starring turn on the TV western Lancer. This show I had never heard of but, sure enough, it was on television for two seasons between 1968 and 1970. Rick is depicted as appearing in the pilot directed by Sam Wanamaker. A YouTube search for this episode reveals Joe Don Baker guesting on the pilot in an outfit and with a look that Tarantino’s costume designer and make-up person has duplicated for Dalton. Wanamaker is portrayed in OUATIH by Nicholas Hammond. Lancer featured Andrew Duggan as father to sons played by Jim Stacy and Canadian Wayne Maunder. Poor Jim Stacy had a tragic end to his life while Luke Perry sadly suffered a stroke and died before this film came out. When you watch Perry playing his only short scene – I think I counted 11 total lines – you don’t see him in the same shot with DiCaprio’s Dalton. Or anyone else, really. It takes the shine off Perry’s having appeared in a Quentin Tarantino film when I think that he wasn’t as much a part of the cast as he could have been. Interesting – for me, anyways – that Perry appears in this film with Rebecca Gayheart. During Season 6 of one of my favourite TV shows, Beverly Hills, 90210, Perry’s character, Dylan McKay, was briefly married – like, for hours – to Toni Marchette, played by Gayheart.
While Tarantino has Sharon Tate watch herself in the actual film The Wrecking Crew, and uses actual footage from that movie that starred Dean Martin along with Tate, he recreates the bulk of an episode of The F.B.I. and inserts Dalton as a character originally played by Burt Reynolds. In a charming scene, Rick and Cliff get together at Rick’s to share a pizza and watch Rick on TV. The plan was to have Reynolds appear in the film in the role of George Spahn. An inspired move, it would have been supremely felicitous casting but Burt sadly died before he could shoot his scenes. Dern – who appeared in Tarantino’s 2015 film The Hateful Eight – is an appropriate substitute. Mike Moh has nailed Bruce Lee; he acts, talks and looks just like him, at least until he removes his glasses. Tarantino took some heat for depicting Bruce as an arrogant blowhard but he stands by his depiction, stating sources that are in a position to know what Bruce was like. Damian Lewis also appears as Steve McQueen and – particularly with the way he is lit – he is the spitting image of McQueen.
Tarantino also makes good use of legendary Los Angeles radio station KHJ and the soundtrack features iconic DJs “Humble” Harv Miller and “The Real” Don Steele. Also included are period-specific advertisements and various announcements. The music – as you would expect from Tarantino – is excellent. The movie is loaded with classic songs from the era, some well-known and some not. The rare Los Bravos tune “Bring a Little Lovin'” is a revelation and was used well in promotion of the film. Two tunes that are specifically used to comment on the action on-screen are José Feliciano’s spell-binding take on “California Dreamin'” and “You Keep Me Hangin’ On” by Vanilla Fudge. For the latter, QT got permission to edit the song to better fit the action. Add to all this the stunning visuals and production design for which Barbara Ling and Nancy Haigh received Academy Awards and you have the perfect time capsule. Tarantino paid much attention to detail and the streets of Hollywood feature storefronts, billboards and theatre marquees that take you right back to 1969.
Aficionados of Classic Hollywood and pop culture of the 1960’s have much to feast on in Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood. In fact, many younger fans of Tarantino’s films may have left the theatre scratching their heads. To go into the film not understanding the careers of actors like Steve Reeves or Stuart Whitman will make it a challenge to connect with Rick Dalton’s plight. Whereas lovers of classic film – while they may not be drawn to Tarantino’s work – will know exactly what it is they are seeing. And what of Quentin’s trademark violence? It is largely missing from the film. But any movie that deals with the Manson Family is bound to get gruesome. And Tarantino will, indeed, deliver some carnage. As we’ll see in Part Two.