"Many people I know in Los Angeles believed the ‘60s ended abruptly on Aug. 9, 1969." Joan Didion wrote these words following the infamous slaying of Hollywood actress Sharon Tate who, in the twilight of the swinging ‘60s, was brutally murdered with three others by members of the Charles Manson family. It was a gruesome killing that seemed by all accounts to signal the end of the countercultural ideal of the ‘60s and gave way to a darker, more unpredictable time.
Once Upon A Time … in Hollywood, written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, is a slice-of-L.A.-life, served up Altman-style, following Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), a former leading man of the fictional TV western Bounty Law, who finds himself on the waning end of his career. Rick’s stunt-man and chauffeur Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt) takes life as it comes and is more at peace with his own downward trajectory in Hollywood.
The two-plus hour film may catch die-hard fans of Tarantino’s more pulpy, visceral stylings off-guard. You won’t find the vulgar shock of The Hateful Eight or the pop-comedy violence of Kill Bill. Rather, you’ll be treated to Tarantino’s romantic love letter to the heyday of Hollywood, just before the golden age of cheap Westerns and studio musicals became casualties of a rapidly-changing culture.
In Once Upon a Time, Tarantino yearns for a time when leading men still had swagger and gravitas, not to mention heaping piles of crippling self-doubt and loathing—when young ingenues, stars in their eyes, stole the scenes from booze-soaked celebrities like Dean Martin and the movie industry still resembled the industrial fantasy complex that filled so many with hopes and dreams of fame and stardom.
Tarantino has always gotten accolades for his keen eye for casting. But with Once Upon a Time, he’s dealing with a bona-fide A-List cast. Leonardo DiCaprio, probably at the peak of his talent, delivers one of his most nuanced and vulnerable performances since Catch Me If You Can. Pitt plays Booth with a little Aldo Raines and a heaping spoonful of True Romance’s Floyd, Pitt’s first-ever go at an iconic Tarantino character. And in her role as Sharon Tate, Margot Robbie gives us a glimpse of a Tate, so earnest and modest, that we were perhaps robbed of ever getting to witness after that sweltering, fateful night in August.
With what will be, by his own admission, his penultimate film before retiring, obsolescence seems front and center of Tarantino’s mind. A student of Hollywood, both fringe and mainstream, Tarantino weaves a nostalgic tale that, unlike his previous films, seems far less concerned with wrapping his cinephiliac pop obsession in the guise of one of his deep-cut genre retreads. Instead it’s the magical, kaleidoscopic backdrop of a mythological Hollywood of the ‘60s itself that Tarantino treats as his playground to explore the notion of relevance, self-worth and fate—a character study of a time and place on the verge of upheaval, and the people who propel themselves blindly towards an unknown future, oblivious to their fates.