By Lucy Nemerov
A Hollywood stunt man and a Manson girl sit next to each other in a 1960 Karmann Ghia roadster driving down the bustling streets of Los Angeles. As the girl lies her head in his lap and presses her slightly dirty feet on the window, the pair — although slightly ridiculous — encapsulate the strange connections found within the film.
Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” serves as the director’s love letter to his hometown. With romantic images of neon billboards and the winding roads of Hollywood Hills, Tarantino grasps the wonder and freeness of late ’60s LA.
The film follows the story of struggling actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he enters a new stage of his career. His friendship with Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), his trusted stunt man, drives the heart of the film, providing stability for the tangled and elaborate storyline. Whether watching Dalton’s reruns over many drinks or walking around the set of one of their films, the two share a camaraderie that ultimately structures the film. These relationships are vital -— as this story is not driven by a shared mission but by the complex characters who weave in and out of each other’s stories.
Another Hollywood clichè, Dalton is at a roadblock in his career. Having starred in many repetitive TV cowboy shows, he begins to feel as if he is being pushed out of the industry by younger and more charismatic actors. In one instance, Dalton imagines the opportunities he could have had if he had starred in the classic film “The Great Escape” instead of fellow actor Steve McQueen. He cries to an 8-year-old sitting next to him on set, pitying his own decline in success and doubting his own talent. Both Dalton and Booth exemplify the status of lower-tier stars of the time, still present in the industry but not achieving the same level of stardom as many others.
Another shining lead, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), an infamous name for her victimhood in the Manson murders, serves as an example as a rising star in the industry. In one scene, Tate walks to the theater, thrilled to watch her performance in a comedy film. Unrecognized by others in the theater as one of the stars in the film, she grins watching others enjoy the performance. This scene further encapsulates her innocence as a young woman making her way in the industry. She walks through the streets of Los Angeles with a wonder in her eye that makes the viewer feel as if they are rooting for her success, even though most know of her terrible fate.
The inclusion of many classic celebrities makes the overwhelming world of the entertainment industry feel more innocent and close to home. Watching Sharon Tate dance with stars such as Steve McQueen and Michelle Phillips from the Mamas and the Papas at the Playboy mansion is a wonderful ode to that era of Hollywood and something one could only find in a Tarantino movie. The ridiculousness of these celebrity cameos adds to the dreamlike nature of the film. In one instance, Cliff Booth challenges Bruce Lee to a fight on set, ultimately denting a car with his forceful throw. The scene has been criticized for Lee’s portrayal as a braggart and for Booth’s ability to somehow stand a chance against the martial arts phenom in hand-to-hand combat.
If you are looking for the action-packed and plot-driven mania of a Tarantino classic such as Inglorious Basterds or Pulp Fiction, this film is slightly different. Instead of the ongoing violence found in many films, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood features isolated violence — all I’ll say is that there is a flame thrower involved. For anyone who has background knowledge of the craziness in LA at the time, such as the Manson murders, up and coming music scene with artists such as The Beach Boys and changing movie industry, every scene will reference some quirk from that era. For me, those references and the brilliant acting, especially from DiCaprio, carried the film.
Contact Lucy Nemerov at lucynemerov ‘at’ gmail.com.