Once Upon a Time in Hollywood review: Tarantino's ode to pre-Manson LA is pure movie-world intoxication

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Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood
Brad Pitt in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Dir: Quentin Tarantino; Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Brad Pitt, Margot Robbie, Al Pacino, Margaret Qualley, Dakota Fanning, Austin Butler, Mike Moh, Emile Hirsch, Bruce Dern. 18 cert, 161 mins

Halfway through Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Sharon Tate goes to the cinema to see…well, herself. The scene is a perfect little nested doll of looking and playing: sitting in a half-dark auditorium, we watch Margot Robbie in the role of Tate, as she sits and watches the real Tate in the role of Freya Carlson, the gawky-sexy sidekick in the Dean Martin spy spoof The Wrecking Crew.

That film is mainly remembered today as the last of Tate’s to be released before her death aged 26, on the night of August 8, 1969, at the hands of the Manson Family cult. But in this Los Angeles movie house, on a February afternoon exactly six months before the fateful date, she’s alive twice over – both down in the stalls and the projector’s light. As the audience chuckles and applauds, she smiles in flattered delight. They don’t know she’s there to hear it, but she is.

Tarantino’s sensational ninth film is a eulogy for Tate – but more than that, it’s a requiem for the Hollywood that vanished at the moment she reached it, like a mirage in the Californian desert. After two viewings, I think it could be his late-career masterpiece: uproariously funny, surging with cinematic adrenaline and strewn with delectable period detail, but with a slow swell of melancholia that breaks like a fever as its sickeningly violent climax approaches. 

Of course Tate is a pivotal presence – but in terms of blunt screen time, she is overshadowed by Rick Dalton and Cliff Booth, a (fictional) fading actor and his long-time stuntman-stroke-dogsbody, played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. Rick has recently quit a successful western TV series to take a fruitless shot at movie stardom, and has since fallen into a spiral of playing guest villains on other people’s shows. 

“Who’s the audience going to see beat you up next week?” asks his agent Marvin Schwarz (Al Pacino) about this ignoble career turn. “The Man from UNCLE? The Girl from UNCLE?” He recommends a fresh start making spaghetti westerns in Italy, and Rick is horrified at the prospect.

In the unheroic flesh, Rick has a stammer, a paunch, a booze problem and fledgling crinkles of crow’s feet. But DiCaprio invests him with the dented magnetism and pathos of one of Jack Nicholson’s great bittersweet chancers – Easy Rider’s George Hanson, or The Last Detail’s Billy Buddusky. Pitt’s Cliff, meanwhile, is at a perpetual loose end, running errands and hustling for stuntman gigs that he promptly loses through his own cheerful irresponsibility. (In flashback, we see him thrown off a set for starting a fight with no less a talent than Bruce Lee, drolly played by Mike Moh.)

DiCaprio may be this story’s lead, and Robbie’s note-perfect Tate is unquestionably its heart, but Pitt is its scarred and sun-beaten soul. It’s enthralling to watch him just drive around town in his employer’s vanilla-coloured Cadillac, or cook instant macaroni cheese in his caravan, or fix the television aerial on Rick’s roof.

Margot Robbie as Sharon Tate in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Like Hal Ashby’s Shampoo, which mixed with aimless Los Angeles socialites on the eve of Richard Nixon’s election, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is what Tarantino himself once termed a "hangout movie" – but one in which the hanging-out takes on an uneasy urgency as our awareness grows that history is preparing to pounce.

Tarantino regularly places his camera in the back seat of a character’s car, reinforcing the sense that we’re not in control here, but being driven to a destination of someone else’s choosing. All we can do is watch the scenery whip past and enjoy the ride.

Because at the end of this journey waits the Manson clan – and the blood-soaked night on which, as Joan Didion wrote in her essay-memoir The White Album, many felt the 1960s came to an end. In Tarantino’s eyes, the murderous cult are pop-culture squatters: their base of operations is (as it was in real life) a defunct western film set, and in a thrillingly suspenseful sequence he cuts between Rick’s latest stint as a television outlaw and Cliff’s own High Noon-like encounter with the group, after he gives a ride home to an over-friendly but strung-out and vulnerable member (an eye-catching turn from Margaret Qualley). 

For Rick and Cliff, these (spit the word) “hippies” are just a subset of the generation who are abandoning them and Hollywood at large. DiCaprio shares a hilariously woebegone scene with a precocious child actress (Julia Butters) in which he reflects on his growing obsolescence with maximal self-pity – and there is a bone-rattling gust of grumpy-old-man-ism in Tarantino’s decision to have three Mansonites piously riff on the evils of screen violence, even as they plot their attack at the foot of Cielo Drive. 

The attack itself, when it comes, is extraordinarily hard to watch: it is perhaps Tarantino’s most punishingly violent scene yet, in a career hardly short on them. But what shocked me about it on a first encounter moved me to tears on a second – and not just because it throws what was lost that night into razor-sharp relief. Like many tales that begin Once Upon a Time, from Snow White to Sleeping Beauty, Tarantino’s film is fundamentally about grief – and the wish that gnaws at us that those we lose could be secretly present in the theatre one last time, to hear the applause they earned.

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Didion wrote, describing her struggle to make sense of the events of that night. That’s precisely why Tarantino has told this one, too.

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