When you get to the bottom: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (****)

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 3, 2019)

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 Helter skelter in a summer swelter
The birds flew off with a fallout shelter
Eight miles high and falling fast

– “American Pie”, by Don McLean

CHAPTER ONE: Well it’s 1969, OK

Once upon a time (well…a month ago) I wrote a piece about two related films; Andrew Slater’s documentary Echo in the Canyon, and Jacques Demy’s 1969 drama Model Shop, which Slater name-checks as an inspiration for his look back at the influential music scene that thrived in L.A.’s Laurel Canyon neighborhood from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s.

I’d never seen (or heard of) Model Shop until its recent TCM premiere. From my review:

Like many films of its era, “Model Shop” is a leisurely, episodic character study. […] Interestingly, it is both very much of its time, and ahead of its time; a precursor to films exploring modern love in the City of Angels like Hal Ashby’s “Shampoo” and (especially) Alan Rudolph’s “Welcome to L.A”. Like those films, this is a gauzy, sun-bleached vision of a city that attracts those yearning to connect with someone, something, or anything that assures a non-corporeal form of immortality; a city that teases endless possibilities, yet so often pays out with little more than broken dreams.

It appears Model Shop is a gift that keeps on giving-it is also cited by Quentin Tarantino as an inspiration driving his latest postmodernist opus, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.

Then again, there are any number of “inspirations” fueling any Tarantino film you’d care to name. He is contemporary cinema’s doyen of pop-cultural re-appropriation (some cry “plagiarism”, but rare is the filmmaker who doesn’t wear their influences on their sleeve).

As a film geek who never meta-reference I didn’t like, I enjoy the parlor game aspect of his films. The title: “once upon a time in Hollywood” pulls double duty. It is a nod to a 1969 Leone western (Tarantino’s film is set in 1969). “Once upon a time” suggests a fairy tale; you can expect a subversion of reality, despite the fact it is set “in Hollywood”, a real place you can visit. A real place, of course, where they crank out fantasies-on reels.

CHAPTER TWO: The Actual Fucking Review

It’s too late
To fall in love with Sharon Tate
But it’s too soon
To ask me for the words I want carved on my tomb

– “It’s Too Late”, by The Jim Carroll Band

Marilyn Monroe once famously said “Hollywood is a place where they’ll pay you a thousand dollars for a kiss and fifty cents for your soul. I know, because I turned down the first offer often enough and held out for the fifty cents.” Of course, she was specifically referring to the craft of acting, and the difficulty of maintaining integrity while toiling in the skin-deep recesses of the Dream Factory. Indeed, there are myriad stories of those who got off the bus in Tinseltown with stars in their eyes, determined to “make it” at any cost-only to get chewed up and spit out; dreams shattered, souls crushed.

Hollywood is also a “place” where you can divide your show biz types into two categories: Those who are on their way up, and those who are on their way down. Then, there’s the ephemeral confluence where (to quote my favorite line from Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous) “You’ll meet them all again on the long journey to the middle.”

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is a screen capture of one such confluence. On her way up: Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie)…a young, beautiful star fresh off positive reviews for her role in the latest “Matt Helm” spy caper, The Wrecking Crew. On his way down: her neighbor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio)…a middle-aged, alcoholic ex-TV actor with a middling film career.

Right out of the gate, Tarantino is signaling his intent to mix fact with fantasy by placing fictional characters (like Rick Dalton) alongside real-life characters (like the late Sharon Tate) in his tale; so, abandon hope now of standard biopic clichés…all ye who enter here.

Dalton’s partner-in-crime is veteran stuntman Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt). Booth was Dalton’s long-standing stunt double in a hit TV western series that made Dalton a multi-platform star du jour in the mid-60s (suggested by a cleverly simulated “archival” clip of Dalton lip-syncing a song on the music variety show Hullabaloo-which triggered my PTSD regarding Bill Shatner’s nightmare-fueling but mercifully brief stint as a pop idol).

Due to Dalton’s driver’s license suspension (a result of one-too-many DUIs) Booth has also become the fading actor’s de facto chauffeur; in fact, he has ostensibly become his live-in P.A., groundskeeper and handyman – for which he receives a stipend. Despite that, their friendship is not necessarily transactional, like Elvis and his “Memphis Mafia”.

The two buds share a world view; demonstrated by a reactionary mindset regarding members of the counterculture (whom they refer to as “dirty fuckin’ hippies”) and a casual racism.

In a telling flashback, we learn how Booth got himself fired from a stuntman gig on The Green Hornet TV series-he goads Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) into a back lot scrap by mocking his fight philosophy and derisively addressing him as “Kato” (this has in turn goaded relatives and fans of the late martial arts superstar into hurling accusations at Tarantino of Asian stereotyping and defamation of Lee’s character and legacy; I would argue 1.) the writer’s intention was merely to add exposition to Booth’s back story, and 2.) “once upon a time” offers up a major clue: THIS IS A FAIRY TALE).

About those dirty fuckin’ hippies. If you know Sharon Tate’s heartbreaking life story, then you’re aware her journey is inexorably enmeshed with a particularly odious group of dirty fuckin’ hippies. Namely, Charles Manson and his followers, aka The Family. Yes, they all have a part to play in this postmodern Grimm’s fairy tale; more on that shortly.

But first, back to Rick Dalton’s flagging career. Pushed by a fast talking Hollywood agent (played by a scenery-chewing Al Pacino) to overcome his “TV actor” stigma by taking an out-of-character role as a heavy in an arty western directed by Sam Wanamaker (Nicholas Hammond) Dalton reluctantly signs on (the real Sam Wanamaker did direct a 1971 western called Catlow, which had Leonard Nimoy playing a heavy…coincidence?).

I should warn Tarantino fans anticipating non-stop action with shit blowing up and/or a freakishly high body count: Dalton’s struggle to recover his acting mojo takes up a sizeable chunk of the film’s 159-minute run time. This is not Kill Bill Tarantino; this is Jackie Brown Tarantino. In other words, the Model Shop influence is strong in this one, as in (to reiterate from my review) a “leisurely, episodic character study” (well…mostly).

I know, what about that whole Manson Family thing? Brad Pitt gets his star turn when his character gives one of Charlie’s girls a ride back to the ranch (as in Spahn). Short of the climax, it’s the most “Tarantino-esque” set piece in the film. The sequence is drenched in dread and foreboding, yet perfectly tempered by darkly comic underpinnings and the idiosyncratic pentameter of Tarantino dialog. Bruce Dern has a great cameo as George Spahn, and Dakota Fanning is almost too convincing as psycho daisy Squeaky Fromme.

Which brings us to the climax. You knew where this was headed, didn’t you? You know this takes place in the Summer of 1969. You know what happened on that awful night in August. And, you know that this wouldn’t be a “Tarantino film” without a shot of adrenaline jabbed straight into the heart of the narrative; provoking sudden, shocking and surreal Grand Guignol.  “Surely (you’re thinking), a film involving the Manson Family and directed by Quentin Tarantino simply must feature a cathartic orgy of blood and viscera…amirite?”

Sir or madam, all I can tell you is that I am unaware of any such activity or operation… nor would I be disposed to discuss such an operation if it did in fact exist, sir or madam.

What I am prepared to share (as I suspect anyone who’s read this far would really, really appreciate it if I could just wrap up this goddam tome sometime this Century) is this: DiCaprio and Pitt have rarely been better, Robbie is radiant and angelic as Sharon Tate, and 9 year-old moppet Julia Butters nearly steals the film. Los Angeles gives a fabulous and convincing performance as 1969 Los Angeles. Oh, and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is now my favorite “grown-up” Quentin Tarantino film (after Jackie Brown).

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